Zen Self Inquiry

Seeking the Root of Self, Revealing the Problem of Self Identity

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We take for granted who we are but we don’t really know who that is.  We can make proclamations of beliefs or political stances but they are just conditioned by our birthplace and environment.  You’re a devout Christian, Muslim or Jew because you were born into that family.  Most people follow the politics of their family and neighborhood and don’t really think critically of their choices. What we see as self evident truths are based on weak foundations that go unquestioned but who is the self that holds these positions?  Who do you think you are? Let’s start with body identification.

If I were to be sitting with you and I put my hand on your arm would you say I was touching you?  Chances are that you would.  If your arm had become amputated and now I was standing across the room from you touching it would you say I was touching you?  Most likely you would say I was touching your arm.  That which was a minute ago, you, is now apart from you and not you.  Are you less ‘you’ without your arm? So who is saying they are you?

Another example is this: you awaken on a hospital bed not realizing you’ve been in an accident. You feel no pain and can only see straight up.  A doctor stands over you and says “ are you wholly you”? (Perhaps he studied philosophy in college)  From your perspective nothing has changed so what do you reply?  Probably, yes, I am I, whole and intact.  The doctor then says “I am sorry to tell you but you lost your legs”, are you wholly you?  Not knowing your legs were lost you said yes but what of now?  If you say no, then what changed and if yes, then what is the ‘you’ that is diminished? Without knowing what physically happened you have no sense of being changed, it had to be perceived.  YOu had to think of yourself as an object, the body. Now the doctor says,” actually it’s worse than that, you are just a head.”  Are you wholly you?  If not, why not?  Moments ago before your perspective changed you said yes and now why not?  And now the terrible ending, you were burnt and have no face, are you wholly you?  If you are then, what is the you that has been untouched, that stands apart from the physical identification? If you are not wholly you what of you is less?  Why does your perspective determine who you are? Now suppose you’ve been in the hospital for days, suffering with the news and trying to deal with it and the doctor walks in with a big smile and says, “Sorry, none of what I told you was true, you’re fine”.  It was all an illusion.  Besides hating the doctor you are now suddenly whole again and so is everything alright now?.  In a sense yes but in another sense you, the true you which observed all this, was never diminished.  The you that is unconditional, not known by distinction, that is before birth and death, is untouched but the self you think you are, that which you misidentify as yourself, has been greatly effected by this ordeal.

It is a good practice to begin to break down your self identification with these false objections of your self.  In classical Buddhism these are called the aggregates; the final identity just being a mass of aggregates we call ‘self’.


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