Thursday, December 04, 2003

The Multiplicity of No-Self

I have been practicing Zen Buddhism for 16 years. Remember the Zen joke: What did the Zen monk say to the hot dog vendor? ..."Make me one with everything." It might seem odd then that I focus on multiplicity. Zen is also popularly known for its paradoxes, but on a deep level, there is no paradox.

Throughout the nearly ten years that we have kept this commitment, my Zen teacher has advised me "Be authentic." and "Don't be afraid to make a mistake." Here comes my attempt to be authentic, in a public way.

A fundamental concept in Zen is the notion of no-self. Ultimately, the self has no form it can call its own, permanently and undividedly. Often people may get involved in Buddhism thinking the only way to understand this would be to have an enlightenment experience, I certainly did. I have not had that experience, but I think I understand this. In order to introduce the subject, we in our sangha will say, "think of it as no-permanent-self". I am not the same self as the little girl seeking acceptance on the playground, nor the same self as the weight-conscious teenager, nor the same as the philosophizing college student. I am not the same self that began writing this blog.

On the other hand, I do contain that little girl, that teenager, that college student. Just to complicate things, those selves that make up me have been changed by time and memory and subsequent experiences. Sometimes their faces emerge and influence actions I may make today. All my experiences, all the conditions that have gone into the mix to make up me, they are pieces of me. They are my selves, distinct and changing. Is there something between the distinctive pieces? I have had glimpses of that emptiness, at least, I think that's what it is.

Looking at the no-self from another angle, we have certain selves that arise in certain conditions. Family gatherings invoke one self, nights out with friends another, spiritual gatherings yet another self. This multitude of selves may not exist continuously, separately, but arise and are born, or reborn, as the occasion demands. We Buddhists like to say this is possible thanks to that emptiness, possible only because there is no inherent self.

I have also learned and experienced that through the practice of awareness, my sense of self became less rigid. Any person who takes up a mindfulness practice will find there must be a period of time to work through karmic knots: those past conditions and experiences that influenced our current being raise their ugly and not-so-ugly heads and demand to be unentangled. More and more, those conditions have less influence and we can meet whatever is in front of us. A multiplicity of options open up. Notions of right or wrong begin to have less to do with societal constraints and those karmic conditions, and more to do with an internal sense of truth.

This multiplicity of selves exist in relationship to something or someone. Just as my notion of my self has become more fluid, so has my notion of relationships. The usual boxes dissolve, and a multiplicity of options in relationships open up. More on that later.

No comments: