[An extract from Okumura Roshi’s new e-book:
The Structure of the Self in Mahayana Buddhism.]
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In Opening the Hand of Thought, Uchiyama Rōshi wrote about a conversation he had with a Western businessman who was very successful in his life, but had deep feelings of loneliness and dissatisfaction. He had come to Japan to study Zen Buddhism, hoping to find a way to alleviate his feeling of inner emptiness. He asked Uchiyama Rōshi about this. Uchiyama Rōshi answered his question by saying:
“Did it ever occur to you that this feeling of dissatisfaction or emptiness might be caused by your searching for the value, the basis or recognition of your existence only in things outside yourself such as in your property or in work or in your reputation? This empty feeling of yours probably comes up because you haven’t yet found this basis within the reality of your own true self. In other words, you feel a hollowness in your life because you have always lived only in relation to other people and things, and haven’t been living out your true self.”
Uchiyama Rōshi told the man that he would never be able to resolve the uneasiness in his life by “drifting along seeking something outside yourself.” I think the empty feeling of this businessman is not a unique problem only for him. It has to do with the basic problem for all people living in the modern civilization. Uchiyama Rōshi understood that this person’s loneliness came from self-alienation that is common everywhere in these modern times. When I use this expression “self-alienation” in the context of Buddhism, it might be different from its meaning in Marxism, Existentialism, or Western psychology.
In the 1960s, when I was a teenager and began to read many books and think various things about human life, civilization, and social and political matters, this word “alienation” was widely used. But for many years I did not understand what it really meant in my own life. After I got a permanent visa to live in the United State, I found that my status in this country is that of a resident “alien.” It was then that I first discovered what “alienation” really means. I live in this country, work here, live here with my family and friends, pay taxes, and yet I don’t have “citizenship” in this country. I am not able to participate in the process of important decision making for anything happening in the USA. “Alienation” is a feeling that I am here, but I do not completely belong to this country.
A photographer once said that, as an artist, he knew what kind of photography he really wanted to make as an expression of his sense of beauty, love, justice, and above all as an expression of himself. But it was difficult to make money with that kind of work. He also knew how to make another kind of photography, which he could sell, and make money to support himself and his family. When he made sellable works, he felt that he was not really there in his work. Even though such photographs were in fact produced using his own talent, ideas, and skills, he felt those works were made by order of his clients to attract people’s attention. They were not his art as the expression of himself. He and his work became strangers to each other. When he became well known in the world because of the latter kind of work, he became very busy and did not have time to make what he truly wished. He felt that he was not there in his work, but that he was producing “commercial goods,” what the market asked of him. He sometimes felt that he did not live his own life.
I suppose the photographer’s feeling is the same kind of hollowness that the successful businessman felt. There is a separation between who he really is or who he wishes to be and his business in the society, even though he is successful. If he were not successful, his question would be much more serious. I have heard many people said that their jobs are not what they really want to do, but just a means to make money to support themselves and their families. Some people do what they really want to do in their spare time or as a hobby. Other people give up living as they would wish to, but just try to enjoy their lives when they don’t need to work. I think many people in modern times have this kind of hollowness in their lives. This is what I mean when I use this expression “self-alienation” in this article.
In order to be released from this sense of hollowness caused by separation between who we are in daily life and who we wish to be, or the separation between who we are in our relations with other people and who other people think we are, we need to understand what the “self” is.
In Sōtō Zen Buddhist tradition, to study the self is the essential matter. As Dōgen said in Genjōkōan, “To study Buddha Way is to study the self.” If we fail to fully understand what this self is, we may misunderstand the entirety of Buddhism, and our zazen practice can be simply escaping from a busy life and sitting quietly for a short while in the zendo (meditation hall). Uchiyama Rōshi writes, “Only after taking a fresh look at self and at the self/other relationship, will we be able to encounter the fundamental teaching of Mahāyāna Buddhism and the true attitude of zazen.”
In Buddhist teachings, I think, there are three perspectives of the self: the individual self as one opposed to other (1); the self (or no-self) as emptiness (0); and the self that is connected with all beings in the entire universe (∞). It is essential to understand the structure of the self not only to study Buddhist teachings, but also to fully live out our own life as true “self.”
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 Opening the Hand of Thought, p.21.
 Ibid., p.75.
 When using the English word “self” in this text, I use the symbols 1, 0, and ∞ to help differentiate these three perspectives. However, sometimes translators write individual self (1) with the capitalization as “self,” and universal or all-pervading self (∞) with the capitalization as “Self,” even though that is not permanent substance. When I quote such translations, they appear as the author wrote them.
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Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.
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For further study:
- See Okumura Roshi’s new e-book, The Structure of the Self in Mahayana Buddhism.
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