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Where is the true self to be found? Barry Magid October 29th 2017

This talk was given at the Village Zendo a few days before Halloween. The occasion of Halloween and masks opens up ideas of appearance and reality, true self and false self and no self. And all of these can be quite confusing, especially if we have powerful reasons to stay confused about them. A pervasive fantasy we carry around is that we've got a precious true self deep inside. Close to the end of his life, Thomas Merton wrote that he concluded there is no true self, other than the self you already are. How are we to understand this in the context of Buddhism? How do the costumes we wear and the roles we perform relate to our identity? Are there deep down true essences we're trying to bring out or is who we are truly who we are in this moment? What would it mean to you if your true self is the way you treated your partner this morning?

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Thomas Merton, from one of his last journals

The time has probably come to go back on all that I have said about one's true self. And show that there is, after all, no hidden mysterious real self, other than, or hiding behind, the self that one is. But what all the thinking does is to obscure what is there or objectify it and thus falsify it.

Thank you all for inviting me here today. Joshin was good enough to come and speak at Ordinary Mind Zendo a few months ago and I was glad to try to find the time to return the favor; and when we looked on the calendar and we settled on this date, and I realized it was going to be the era of Halloween, I thought that it would be a good opportunity to talk about the nature of masks, which open up ideas of appearance and reality, a true self and false self and no self. And all of these can be quite confusing, especially if we have powerful reasons to stay confused about them.

When I started thinking about the subject of masks for today, I immediately thought of the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard who died back in 1972; and in the last year or two of his life when he knew he was dying of cancer, he made a series of portrait photographs of his wife posed with all his family members and friends. And he called them the family album of Lucy Bell Crater and in every photograph, he put his wife and whoever she was posed with in a grotesque Halloween mask. These were not pretty or funny masks. They were really ugly, grotesque masks. And every picture had the same caption. They said: "Lucy Bell Crater and her friend, Lucy Bell Crater." So what does it mean that a dying man takes photographs of his loved ones, gives them all the same name, puts them all in masks?

I got to know the work of Meatyard because of his connection to Thomas Merton. Meatyard lived in Lexington, Kentucky; Merton spent his life as a monk in Gethsemane, Kentucky; and in the last years of his life, Merton was able to live in a hermitage, which paradoxically meant he could receive a lot of visitors. And one of his visitors was Meatyard, who gave him a camera and they took photographs together. And Meatyard took a lot of photographs of Merton there, and an early project of mine, some twenty-five years ago now, was I collected all of Meatyard's portraits of Merton into a book called Father Louie. And Merton, after he had been a monk for more than a couple of decades, was keeping voluminous journals, and I came across a quote from him I'd like to read about the true self. It was one of the things he wrote in one of his last journals: "The time has probably come to go back on all that I have said about one's true self and show that there is, after all, no hidden, mysterious, real self other than, or hiding behind, the self that one is. But all the thinking done is to obscure what is there, or objectify it, and thus falsify it."

So why, after all those years did Merton decide he should take back what he said about there being a true self? I first came to New York maybe 1974-75, and those first years I lived down here in the Village and one of my strongest early memories of those days was of seeing my first Village Halloween Parade that was put on by the folks of Westbeth. They had these magnificent floats, costumes; I'd never seen anything like that. And back in those days, probably with the assistance of a few substances, we thought it was the absolute height of humor to go up to the cops on horseback and compliment them: Great costume! Now of course in the parade there would also be lots of people dressed up as cops and wearing cop uniforms as their Halloween costume. How would you tell the difference between a real cop and someone in a costume? What makes somebody a real cop? Should what we do be to go up to the person and say, "Take off your costume -- I want to see what's underneath. I want to see if you're a real cop." I don't think that would be too prudent. And if I had done that, perhaps the cop might have responded by saying, "You're under arrest." And that phrase is something that only a real cop could do and follow up on. And it's the follow through, it's the functioning, it's the putting you under arrest, taking you down to the precinct, putting you in a cell, and having all the staff there recognize the person who brought you in as one of them and having the authority to do this. That's what would make him a real cop -- not what was under the costume.

The phrase "You're under arrest" is an example of what's called the performative. This was an idea about language introduced by the British philosopher, J. L. Austin, back in the day when everybody was trying to reduce philosophy to logic and science and thought that all sentences were propositions that were either true, false, or simply nonsense; and Austin wrote a book with the simple title, Doing Things With Words, where he said, sentences aren't just description that are true and false. They can also be actions in real life, like: "You're under arrest," or, "I now pronounce you man and wife." It makes something happen --- it's not just a description.

Austin wrote about this in the '50s, and a generation later it was picked up by Judith Butler who you may be familiar with and her use of the notion of the performative when it came to gender. And she was saying, gender is not something that you have, it's not an inner essence that has to be uncovered or brought out, but that it is something that is created in real time in combination with the sociocultural/historical options that you're given. You're both created by and the creator of your culture and your cultural roles. And this in turn built on Simone de Beauvoir who in 1949 in The Second Sex said, "Woman is made, not born." Now all of these --- if you're wondering what this has to do with Zen --- all of these are expressions of a fundamentally non-essentialist perspective. It says that who we are is this moment to moment creation, not just a personal creation but a creation in the midst of a culture and in the midst of life. That there are no deep down true essences, true selves, that we are trying to uncover and bring out, but rather we need to find ways to create, maintain and express a self, a gender, a role, in the world.

Now it turns out that this is very analogous to something that we hear in Dogen when he talks about the identity of practice and enlightenment. Dogen, I think, has a performative idea of zazen, a performative picture of enlightenment. We don't do zazen as a technique to become enlightened. Zazen itself is an expression of our nature, our Buddha nature, our enlightenment. By doing it, we create it and express it and maintain it in the moment.

So now that brings us to things like ideas like Buddha nature, which I think a lot of people misunderstand and want to misunderstand as a kind of inner potential for enlightenment. That deep down inside I've got this little seed of Buddha nature and If I carefully water it or fan it's flame or whatever metaphor you want to use, I can grow this little seed into some big Buddha. But Buddha nature is not a potential. Buddha nature is what I share with my zabuton and with the floor and with the ceiling fan. Buddha nature is the nature of all dharmas as impermanent and interconnected, and I like to translate or think of interconnection really in terms of vulnerable. Everything is both changing, impermanent and vulnerable to conditions --- outside influences.

Now when we see Buddha nature this way we see that all things possess these essential qualities of impermanence and vulnerability or interconnectedness. And so Buddha nature is not a quality of a hidden inner true self that I'm trying to bring out. It's a question of recognizing that reality in ourselves moment to moment, and everything in our life moment to moment, exhibits those same things. Joko devised a chant that we do at the end of our sittings that she called the Four Practice Principles: One of which was "Each moment life as it is, the only teacher." And her intent was to say that life will, moment after moment, just keep teaching you this lesson of impermanence, of vulnerability, and that any time you hold onto something as permanent, as something you can count on, well --- life will come by and teach you a lesson that it is subject to change like everything else.

Now I think what happens in our sitting practice, is that inevitably the first thing we do from day one as meditators is that we start dividing our experiences into the good moments and the bad moments, the good sittings and the bad sittings, and we want to settle into some kind of inner silence or peace or concentration, and when that happens for a little while, we say, oh, well, that's a good sitting, and then there are other times when our minds are just all over the place, or our knee hurts like hell, or we just can't focus and we say, "Well, that was just terrible. I hope I can get back to the good sitting the next time." And there's this great temptation to want to identify some kind of inner state like that with the good sitting inner state of, let's say, silence, or no thought. Well --- that's going to be my true self. That's my Buddha nature, that's my enlightened nature, and if I just stick at this long enough I'll get into that state and never come down. I think everybody can't help but have that fantasy no matter how much we're told that it's nonsense --- although we're not always told it's nonsense. I think there are traditions that deliberately hold that fantasy, what I call the curative fantasy, because it basically says that all the things that we come to meditation to get rid of, our anxiety or our anger, that will be washed away. I'll be able to push those aside and settle into this real me. That's going to be the real me. And we relegate all the stuff we don't like about ourselves to the mask and we say: all of that is not the real me, the real me is this one I'm going to settle into and cultivate.

Now I think that basically gets this whole practice exactly backwards. I think the real work of Zen practice over the long haul is not to develop a capacity to settle into some inner state of silence or quiet or calmness or anything like that. The real fruit and work of this practice is what we do with all the other stuff and all those bad sittings and how do we create a big enough container, as Joko would say, that holds all of those parts of ourselves that we came to practice to get rid of. Joko really always said if you want to look for the absolute, look for it in your anger, look for it in your anxiety, look for it in your pain. Just this. Just this. Get rid of nothing.

Now what this suggests to me --- and I'll try to tie some of this language about different selfs together --- is that we have always this language of surface and depth and we sometimes think that we want to deepen our practice, but in fact I think what we really want to do or need to do is make our practice much more superficial, because that means staying with that moment to moment self regardless of what that moment brings. And whatever the content of that moment, remember, it's going to demonstrate the central truths of your life, impermanence and vulnerability, whatever it is, every moment. That's really the trick of this practice: to see that there's no moment and no content that isn't trying to teach you that, over and over and over again.

We think so often of a kind of verticality, of a mask on the outside, a false self on the outside, a true self deep inside, but as Merton is saying here, it wants to go back against all this fantasy of oh, I've got this precious true self deep inside. True self is moment after moment after moment. Instead of cultivating the fantasy that your true self is identified with some special state we cultivate in zazen, maybe your true self is the way you treated your partner this morning. Maybe your true self is how you were to the person next to you on the subway. We don't really want that to be our true self. That's our basic dilemma and in a certain sense, it's why we create a lot of metaphysical and transcendental stuff to believe in. We want to create this curative fantasy of purity and perfection and we treat our practice as if it is a purification project but it's not that at all. If anything, it's the opposite: it's allowing us to really stay with all the things we came here to avoid. To want to find your true self, your original face, you don't have to go farther than the bathroom mirror.

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