I visited my first Zen teacher, Richard Baker Roshi last April, where he gave a seminar in Boulder. One thing he said that has stuck with me: “I won’t tell you there is no separate self.” I was at first taken a bit aback by his saying this. I was thinking that I do indeed say to people that there is no separate self. And Buddha said this to people over and over again throughout his 50 years of teaching.
However we need to remember that Buddha also told people over and over again that he doesn’t expect people to believe him when he says there is no separate self. He said we need to deeply question everything that any teacher tells us about the truth. The truth of any teaching can only be deeply realized by direct experience. Attaching to the belief that there is no separate self can be a way to unconsciously try to create a superior separate self that pretends not to believe in separation. And it can be a way to repress and disown our anxiety from our deep conditioning to believe we are a separate self when we are threatened with suffering.
So Baker Roshi saying ‘I won’t tell you there is no separate self’, doesn’t mean he’s saying there is a separate self. He is asking us to own up to, and be aware of our conditioning to believe in a separate self. Being aware of our belief in a separate self, frees us to deeply question if we can actually find any separation in the experience of thinking we’re separate. The willingness to not find anything, to not find separation is a key component of our spiritual inquiry into truth. Of course we will always find ideas about things being separate, ideas about things having ‘an own being’. But do ideas have any separate substance, are they anything other than just expressions of our awareness, like our fingers are just expressions of our hands?
I still find myself aware of the belief in my separateness all the time. But the more I allow myself to deeply question this belief, the more it’s obviously devoid of any substance whatsoever, and the less it has any effect. More and more there just isn’t anything here other than just the alive awareness of being present, absorbing and revealing the no-thingness of all thought.
So by just coming back to the sense of our being here and now, we learn to not cling to our beliefs in self or no self. The thought of being here and now dissolves, but the actual sense of being here and now remains. Attachments begin to fall away, and illusory boundaries begin to dissolve. Then life becomes what it was meant to be: pure radiance from an inexhaustible and boundless source.
I think it was Yogananda who said, “God is the electricity, human beings are the light bulbs.” As we begin to surrender to the radiance of our actual being, we realize we don’t have any more control over the life force illuminating us, than the light bulb has over electricity. We agree to surrender, to rest and be taken, and to be guided from the timeless spaceless radiance within.