The 9th-century Zen master Linji Yixuan said, “There is a true person of no rank who is always coming and going from the portals of your face.” Who is this true person? Through Zen practice, I came to realize that this person is someone who can bring dhyana [meditation], prajna [wisdom], and sila [ethics] together so that they are informing one another. That’s the Buddhist ideal. 

But even if we realize this true person, we always need to take our practice and our realization, such as they are, and see how they are transformed through our conduct, speech, and thought in the real world and what impacts they have. We need to look at what’s involved in distilling our character, or, as one of my teachers Yamada Roshi said, “the perfection of character.” 

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Being able to recognize the actual impact we have on others is a skill that is not talked about enough in Buddhist practice. It requires a suspension of grandiosity. When we have small awakening experiences, we can sometimes feel like, “Well, I’ve got it, and I’ve let go of it. So there! I’ve got plenty of no-self to push around and maybe not so much to learn.” We think we’ve realized something and now know better than others. But even after satori, we may find that our actions have unexpected results. There are some wonderful teachers and adepts who in translating their realization and practice into daily life have done great harm, because they haven’t made allowances for the impact they have on others. 

Keizan, a follower of the great Japanese Zen teacher Dogen, wrote: “Though clear waters range to the vast blue autumn sky / yet how can they compare with the hazy moon on a spring night? Most people want to have pure clarity, / but sweep as you will, you cannot empty the mind.” The first step to realizing the true person is to realize that we’re not able to control the impacts we have. Our effects on others could be divergent from what we think they are. Realizing this is already a little bit of humbleness. 

I was sitting with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and a small group of Buddhist teachers about ten to fifteen years ago at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California. Almost predictably, a participant asked the Dalai Lama if he ever gets angry. (People often treat the Dalai Lama, or Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, as if they come from other planets, and are apt to check to see if they are subject to the same foibles as everyone else.) The Dalai Lama replied, with mild impatience, “Yes.” The next questioner, an esteemed and experienced Buddhist teacher, said that he was overwhelmed with some of the recent scandals around power and money in Buddhist centers, and he didn’t quite know what to do. It had shaken him up, and had shook up the contemporary Buddhist movement, he said, asking the Dalai Lama for some counsel. 

His Holiness rocked back and forth for about a minute, and then he shared some advice that, I think, could have come from a therapist. He said, “When I’m unsure, when I’m confused, I check my motivation. If my motivation is pure, I don’t care what anybody thinks about me.” 

I thought that was just fantastic because so many people think he’s a devil or he’s a god. He was showing he’s not wrapped up in what people think about him. The Dalai Lama then said, “But if I check my motivation and my motivation is afflictive”—that’s to say it uses emotional fuels that are not benevolent such as spite, vengeance, envy, hate, impatience, intolerance, or superiority—“then I know I have to work on myself.” 

I thought that was such a wonderful comment, true to the spirit of Buddhism: it’s not just what we do that will determine the benevolent or afflictive results, but it’s the intention behind them. 

The best way to work skillfully with our motivations is to use our practice to deepen the three key players I mentioned earlier: dhyana, the practice of deepening, discerning awareness; prajna, the sudden and gradual awakenings we have, and the understandings that we integrate into our daily living and our embodiment; and sila, the degree to which our conduct is awakened conduct, which means it is compassionate toward ourselves and all the many beings we are so intimately connected with. 

One of things that greases the wheels for this understanding is becoming aware that liberation happens on two tracks, with two different kinds of not-knowing. One suspends the certainty that comes from clinging to concepts and knowing.  The other involves not knowing what’s happening in the relational sphere between me and others. We are often the last ones to grasp the impacts of our actions. So we do well not to let our self-concepts (such as “I’m awakened”) get in the way of inviting and deeply considering feedback from others: sangha members and students (if you’re a teacher) and the many beings we come into contact with. This kind of attentiveness, or relational meditation praxis, recognizes the unconscious dimension of our motivations and their impacts through our actions, as it offers a way to track their traces. This is the track on which liberation as Zen teachers and students proceeds. 

Adapted from Joseph Bobrow Roshi’s Dharma Talk series, The True Person of No Rank: A Zen Story for Our Troubled World


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