Posted inHenry's Messages, Mu

Message from Henry: Allergy of Self II

February 18, 2015

…the relationship between self and world is revealed to have been part of the screen itself. That relationship falls away. There is no longer self and world as two – so naturally the friction between self and world is then gone, and with it the “allergy of self”.


Following on from last week’s message: if the self may be viewed as an allergic reaction to the world, that’s not the end of the story of self-creation. When this kind of reacting to conditions (both external and internal) is going on, we take it as more than it is. It’s not just reaction and response happening, we think. We add to the process, make a leap, and say that the reaction proves the existence of an entity separate from conditions, which is having the reaction. We self-create our self. And generally we’ve been doing it so long that it’s hard to unpick the weave of self in which we are cloaked. For example, even to want to be free of the all-pervading filter of self is actually just more of that self doing its thing – its “picking and choosing,” as Sosan called it.

This is why the Shinjinmei (attributed to Sosan) and the Buddha himself instructed us to examine desire – craving, wanting, resisting, liking and disliking. If we can settle down enough to bring the inner lens into focus, and train it on the core of desire, of choosing, of rejection and preference, in the middle of our being, then we have a shot at taking a stitch out of the weave. Once one thread is unpicked, perhaps it gets a little easier, with time, diligence and constancy in our practice, for much more of it to unravel.

But why would we even want that? Because of what is revealed, once the veil of “self and world” parts. It’s not just the same world with less of a screen between us and it.

This is the marvel of Zen, the “mani-jewel,” the “wish-fulfilling gem”– that practice can reveal not just a new view, but a new formulation, a new reality. It’s not merely about seeing this world with less filter. The nature of the seer of the world, and of the world seen, is radically changed. As Dogen put it, “The body and mind of self and other fall away.” In other words…

…the relationship between self and world is revealed to have been part of the screen itself. That relationship falls away. There is no longer self and world as two – so naturally the friction between self and world is then gone, and with it the “allergy of self”.

There’s a teaching in Zen that the practice has three fruits. The first is getting centered, focused, attentive, more aware of what is going on, both in and around us. This might approximate loosely to the terrain of what is these days known as “mindfulness.” Becoming more aware of our reactivity, learning to sit with difficult sensations and feelings, not seeking to distract ourselves from them, being more present to our lives, building up our “meditation muscle” – our patience, non-judgement, acceptance. This is invaluable and something we continue to work on throughout a life of meditation.

At the same time this first fruit is allowing us to develop a lens of concentrated attention. With this lens we can start to study more closely the process that we identify as “myself.” One traditional approach to this kind of examination within the Zen tradition has been to sit with the koan “Joshu’s Dog.” In the little story of the koan, the student asks Joshu: “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” Joshu answers: “Mu.”

Rather than trying to understand Joshu’s response, we simply sit with the syllable Muuuu. It becomes a kind of stand-in for all phenomena.

The student might be asking: “There’s me, there’s a dog: what do we have to do with one another?” In a sense, the answer is Buddha nature. But what is that?

Whatever it is, it can’t be communicated, understood or thought. It must be “discovered” and experienced directly. Joshu’s answer Mu is the means that can reveal it. It is intrinsically about the relationship of self to world — specifically, about overturning the deepest foundation of our sense of being a self in a world. Once that foundation is broken up, shown not to be the solid ground we have assumed, the very construction of things that could have permitted an “allergy of self” against world, is thrown away.

As Dogen put it: “To study Zen is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be awakened by the ten thousand things. To realize this is to cast off the body and mind of self and other ….”

In other words, both the separate self and “its world” are revealed for what they have been all along—nothing but processes, “without form and void.” Part, in fact, of the real marvel of reality.


If a lot of thoughts are coming up, pay attention to the body. See if there is some restlessness or discomfort in the torso. Are you wishing the sit could be over, was calmer, quieter, better? If so, check out the torso closely and carefully, looking for a place of unease – perhaps tightness, tingling, agitation, heaviness, whether in chest or diaphragm or belly. If you find something, pay attention to it and as Jon Kabat-Zinn says, put out the welcome mat for it. Let it be there. Feel it. Breathe into it. Let the breath stroke it. Above all, don’t try to make it go away.

This has two pluses. First, paying attention to the here and now, even when it’s an uncomfortable sensation, makes us happier, in and of itself. Neuroscience supports this: simply paying attention to what is arising now activates happier circuitry in the brain, and reduces the activity of the midline narrative networks.  Second, each time we let an uncomfortable sensation just be there, we are doing a little bit to wear thin our judging, rejecting, choosing mind. This is one way we weaken the tenacious demands of our self. It may seem a small thing, but we are letting something else win, and our self lose, and that can be a significant victory.

Image: Blue-pflanzenrest, by pido67, CC0 Public Domain photos, from

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