Who Are You Really?
Exercises in Mindfulness
The masks we wear on day to day basis, allow us to participate in the many social interactions we find ourselves in. There may come a point, where I feel that I am no longer wearing a mask and am being my true self. However, can we ever be sure that this is not just another mask?
In his commentary on case 12 of the koan collection by Master Mumon, Sōkō Morinaga Roshi discusses the ‘Master of Self’.
‘Zuigan called out to himself every day: “Master.”
Then he answered himself: “Yes, sir.”
And after that he added: “Do not be deceived.”
Again he answered: “Yes, sir.”
“And after that,” he again said, “do not be deceived.”
“Yes, sir; yes, sir,” he answered.’
(Based on The Gateless Gate by Mumon; translated by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps).
Sōkō asked: “Who is Zuigan talking to?” He goes on to describe how we all wear a number of masks each day: mother, daughter, friend, employee etc. We unconsciously morph from one mask to another. These social identities allow us to relate to the world around us, but they also do more than this, in that they give us our sense of who we are.
Many of us feel that some of these masks are not who ‘I’ really am, but are necessary conveniences to make our lives go more smoothly. We smile at people we don’t like, laugh at jokes that we don’t find funny, say we like things to which we are indifferent. We do this for the family, to earn a living, because it makes life easier.
Underneath we feel that there is a real ‘me’, who can sometimes struggle to come out. This ‘feeling’ gives rise to a belief that there is something to which I am truly destined, as well as the belief that it is important to realise this destiny in order to be fulfilled and happy. These masks are graded according to how ‘true’ to myself they appear. There may come a point, under certain conditions, where I feel that I no longer wear a mask but can be my true self. However, can we ever be sure that this is not just another mask?
Master Rinzai famously said: “Just be your ordinary selves, do not give yourself airs.” These ‘airs’ can be read as the masks, but who is this ordinary self? Sōkō Morinaga points at it when he asks to whom Master Zuigan speaks, and calls ‘Master’. He goes on to say that this one to whom Zuigan speaks is the ‘Master of Self’. This ‘Master’ has no identity; and being infinite, can assume any mask. In Buddhist parlance the ‘Master’ is not caught by any mask.
In the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha diagnosed our problems as having their source in the heart’s tendency to cling to identity. This identity can act like a centre of gravity to which it attracts beliefs, opinions and convictions. Over time, and if unchecked, it can become increasingly inflexible, humourless and shrill. The reason for this lies with fear and anxiety.
Identity seeks to stand against the winds of change by making itself ‘fixed’. Being habitual creatures and identifying with these habits means that they can quickly become ‘who I am’. In a world that is constantly changing ‘I’ am always fighting the fear of loss. It is interesting how Master Rinzai words his warning: “Do not give yourself airs.” It is not the airs or masks as such, but the ‘giving myself’, the taking possession of them that is the warning here.
When we visit a Buddhist temple or go on retreat, there is a softening-up process that begins to take place. ‘My’ likes and dislikes play second fiddle to the regime rules. If I work in the kitchen for example, the way things are done are not the way ‘I’ would do them; and yet the expectation is that I must conform to these rules. This going against the grain can stir up all sorts of defence mechanisms and feelings of ‘oppression’. Sooner or later this oppressed self has to be confronted. At first, I fall into my usual stance of taking a stand against something ‘out there’ – the rules etc. A competent senior teacher will spot this opposition and will turn up the heat. One by one, the avenues of escape will be blocked off. This is where the practice of restraint comes in.
As Sōkō Morinaga said: “When a student comes, I look to see if he has a problem. If he doesn’t, then as quickly as possible I give him one. My only task then is to make that problem worse and worse until the student has no option but to drop it. When this happens, it’s all over and he can go.”
What is dropped is the rigidity of clinging to ‘my way’. What erodes the attachment is the tolerance of the emotional onslaught that opposing the situation provokes. Hence the importance of a strong container. This process cannot be rushed and it is no solution to start with the most provocative problems ‘I’ have. Instead, it is more helpful to start with the ‘small’ everyday problems. The bus that is late, the phone that rings just when inconvenient, the instance when I hold open the door for someone and the person does not thank me for it. To open up and bear the little uprush of ‘fire’ is to gradually get used to or tolerate these problems. This builds up inner strength and forbearance. By not opposing, but instead containing, we can be informed by the truth of the situation. It is not that we ignore what is wrong with the world, but that we are not taken over and driven by our reaction to it. We can respond in a human way to ‘the slings and arrows’, with the warmth and clarity of a heart that is human and not driven by the fear of the loss of my identity.
Iconographically, the first gesture of the fully-fledged bodhisattva is the raised hand with palm facing outwards. This is the gesture of complete fearlessness. In a heart that clings to nothing, there can be nothing that is not genuine.
“Do not be deceived.”
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