Living With Our Ordinary Selves

by Rev. Sarika Dharma
Dharma talk given on January 22, 1995

What is ordinary self? What is True Self? And what is self? I'd like to begin by describing the progress one makes in Zen practice by using the Zen circle analogy, which is the one Zen Master Seung Sahn uses.

If you picture a circle, starting at zero degrees up at the top, that is ordinary self. That is the place where we get up every day, we go to work, we drive our cars on the freeway, we deal with our families. Ordinary life. But all the time that we're doing this in our ordinary life, in our ordinary self, we also have lots of stuff in our heads. We make constant commentary on what is going on in our life. So we get on the freeway and it's backed up, and we say "I wish these people would get out of the way. Why does everybody have to be driving here? I've got to get to work, I'm going to be late, my boss is going to give me a hard time." Or while driving on the freeway we're thinking about what we're going to do that evening. We sometimes drive right past our exit because we're thinking so much. So many thoughts fill our head.

That's our ordinary lives, at zero degrees around the circle. Something happens then. We realize that we are not totally happy in our ordinary lives and maybe there is something else, some other way of being, some other way of dealing with the world. And perhaps we begin to read about meditation and Zen, and we get some ideas that life doesn't always have to be like this. That's 90 degrees around the circle, a quarter of the way. Intellectually, we become aware that we could change in some positive way and make our lives easier, make our lives happier.

180 degrees around the circle is once we start meditating. We actually take the action to sit down to practice what we've read about, and we find that we get very peaceful. Sometimes we even get attached to that peace and want to meditate all the time. "Don't want to live my life. Want to stay in the Zendo and be peaceful and calm and not worry about all these thoughts. Let them go, let go of all these annoying thoughts." My master used to say that our mind is like a drunken monkey jumping from branch to branch, never stopping with all these thoughts. But once we start meditating we do start to let go of the thoughts.

Then we go another quarter of the way around the circle, 270 degrees, and this is the place where we begin to realize that we can have power. This is the place where you see Indian fakirs sleeping on nails and walking on glass. You may begin to have powers of seeing what people are really thinking; not reading their minds so much as just being aware of these things. In Zen, this place is very dangerous. In Zen, we say go right through it, don't stop there or it will catch you. It can embroil you; it's a place where you could learn to be very manipulative of other people. So in Zen practice we want to go right through that place.

And when we do get beyond that place, we come out to 360 degrees around the circle. What is 360 degrees? It's the same place as zero degrees. We're now at the same place we started, except everything is different. Because now, when we eat, we just eat; when we sleep, we just sleep; when we drive on the freeway, we just drive.

So, the ordinary self that is at zero degrees and the True Self that is at 360 degrees is really the same in a way.

The attained masters that I've met seemed to me to be very extraordinarily ordinary. My teacher was that way. He was a very important man, very highly thought of, but if you were around him you could see that he was just ordinary. He would water the lawn and rake the leaves and he would participate in the events at the Center. If we were doing a retreat, he would do some of the cooking. He would laugh a lot and sometimes he would cry and sometimes he would be upset. But it all would pass right through him. When he got angry, he would be angry and let it go. And when he looked at you, he saw you. He was just right there, right with you. He could do this because his mind was not cluttered with thoughts. He was one of the most unpretentious people I have ever met. Extraordinarily ordinary.

When I was preparing this talk I consulted the dictionary to see what it said about the word "ordinary." This is what I found:

"The regular or customary condition or course of things. Of a kind to be expected in the normal order of events. Routine, usual. Of common quality, rank or ability. Deficient in quality, poor, inferior, common."

In light of this definition, none of us wants to be ordinary. We don't want to be deficient in quality, poor, inferior, or common. But we need to think of ordinary in a different way: in the sense of every day and every moment. Our lives happen moment by moment.

We may think that we need to live a very exciting and adventurous life to have any significance. This is not necessarily the case. We watch people who have fame and fortune and see how sometimes it is much more painful to them than our ordinary lives, yet we still have an idea that we are inadequate unless we can accomplish great things.

When I was in college, a long time ago, I wanted to become a fiction writer. My idea was that if I could write a short story that would be published in a college textbook, essentially I would live forever, and with some status. Somehow that would make my life meaningful. Well, I never did and I certainly don't care about that anymore, but I think it's very common for us to want something more than ordinary. What Zen says to us is be in your ordinary self, aware and conscious, and things change, and everything looks different.

Zen is not about anything special. When we sit in meditation we don't try to get into an altered state of consciousness. In Zen, we are simply aware. We hear the dogs barking, we hear the water running in the pool. When we sit, we don't try to go into a trance. We stay grounded. Zen is about being here now.

There's a Zen story of a student who asked her master, "How can I find the true meaning of life?" And the master asked, "Did you eat your meal?" The student replied that she had. The master said, "Wash your bowl."

It's very interesting to live in a monastic setting. While training and doing retreats, you find that you no longer have to make decisions, unless you're leading the group. Everything is just follow the leader. Everything is done together. No one is to stand out, everyone follows whoever's leading. And the person who is leading is not some special authoritarian figure. That person is just the leader, and that's the one you follow. By doing that you don't need to think about what should I do next. You don't need to think about is it time to do this. You simply go along and follow. That frees you up in many ways to see the world as it really is, to experience each moment, to be ordinary and yet still be connected.

Let's talk about the self, because in Buddhism there is no such thing as a permanent self. There is no such thing as a soul. The self is the same as everything else in the world, it's simply a process that's constantly, constantly changing. We can't grab on to it because it's always in motion.

In Buddhist psychology, the skandas are said to make up the self, our personality--who we are. The word skandas can be translated as "aggregates" or "heaps." There are five skandas, called nama-rupa. Rupa is form, the matter which makes up our bodies. The nama are the mental aggregates: sensation, perception, conception, and consciousness. Sensations are the messages we receive through our sense organs. Perception occurs when a sensation connects into our brain and we have an idea, perhaps assigning a name to the sensation. For example, we might see a flower and then we might think, "flower." Conception has to do with what meaning the flower has for us; we might think something like, "That flower is really beautiful." Finally, we have consciousness, our awareness of what's going on. What we call the self is essentially a process of all these things happening.

One of the characteristics of the skandas is that they are imperfect (dukkha), meaning that nothing works out the way we want it to exactly. The skandas are sometimes called aggregates of attachment, because they can lead to craving and desire. Another characteristic of the skandas, though, is that they are without essence (anatta). The skandas don't have an essence because they are impermanent (anicca). Thus, the skandas are empty. Emptiness is a very important concept in Zen, but it's difficult to understand initially because we think of empty meaning there's nothing there. In Zen, emptiness is a lot closer to the idea that there's nothing to grab on to because everything, including the self, is constantly changing.

Sometimes in our practice we get a kensho experience, a flash of what is our True Self. At first, it's just a flash, a momentary flash. As we go along in our practice, it might last a little longer each time until we get to the point where we can be with our True Nature a lot of the time. But even so, we have to remember that our ordinary self comes back. When we are in our ordinary self we can still make many misjudgments, and we need to be aware of that.

I think you know from your own lives how we deal with things when we're just our ordinary selves. Somebody says something that isn't very complimentary, something critical, and we think, "Hey! You can't say that to me. I'll get you for that!" We have an urge to strike out. Suppose we're in a relationship with someone and we aren't getting along. We think we're right and the other person is wrong and we want it our way. It all has to do with our ego. One of the differences between ordinary self and True Self is our ego involvement, our focus on the belief that we have a self that can be injured and therefore has to be protected.

As we begin to get closer and get glimpses of True Self, we have a better understanding that all life has to do with interaction. That in life, things arise together. In our relationships with other people, we begin to think maybe "That person's having a bad day. Maybe that person's under a lot of stress. That's why they said what they said to me. It didn't really have to do with me." We begin to understand that if we get into a traffic jam on the freeway it wasn't designed to make us late or cause us trouble, it's just a traffic jam.

In Zen, people talk about how you have to die on the pillow. You have to sit on your zafu until your ego is annihilated, and then you will find your True Nature. I believe it is more like you have to expand your ego to include everything. Because we are one with everything around us. We are one with everybody, whether we like it or not. That is who we really are. We are all connected.

Once you expand this feeling of ego, you don't have to defend yourself so much, you don't have to protect yourself so much, you don't have to worry about being attacked all the time. You can relax and you can be more open to other people and more flowing with whatever's happening.

The growth of the True Self comes through practice. It's necessary to study, it's necessary to hear discourses and discuss dharma with people and to read what the masters have written, but it's also very necessary to sit.

When you sit, you begin to break down the wall of ego. You get a little crack at first, a tiny little hole you can see through. But ultimately, total enlightenment must be the annihilation of the wall. Now this was the same wall that our ordinary self was trying to get through by butting our heads against it. We can get very bloody and battered on our heads, but it just won't work. We often don't know any better so we have to try that at first. But once we can sit down, once we can let go, the wall begins to dissolve and we get that much closer to our True Nature.

There is a koan in Zen, which is "What was your original face before you were born?" Sometimes it's "What was your original face before your parents were born?" How would you answer that?

Yes, it's driving at your True Nature. It's asking what is your True Nature. This is what is, what we are all part of, our True Natures. If you find who you are, if you find how your mind works, if you find your own True Nature, you know everyone's True Nature. Of course you still have to deal with their ordinary selves, as we all continue to deal with our own ordinary self.

I'll close with another Zen story. Three Zen students were talking about whose master was most attained. One student says, "My master is so powerful that she can stand on one side of the river and write through the air, making marks on a piece of paper held by her attendant on the other side of the river." The second student says, "Well, that's okay, but my master's so powerful that she can go across the river without a boat, without any help, without getting wet, because she simply walks on the water." And the third student says, "Well, that's all very fine, but my master is truly attained. Because when she eats, she just eats, and when she sleeps, she just sleeps."