The Phantom Self
- By Chuan Zhi
- Mar 04
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Anyone who has spent much time reading about Zen has encountered the term "Self" many times over. Some may even conclude that Zen is all about Self. They would not be wrong. While some people think that Zen is about sitting in lotus position, contemplating the space between the end of a sentence and the period that follows, others think of Zen as a Way that leads to knowledge of Self; a Way that depends on no method whatsoever. Yes, we sit on a cushion for hours at a time, legs crossed, body erect yet relaxed ... but not to get into Zen, we do it to be within Self, to merge with Self. Minutes, hours, days ... time vanishes when we are unified with Being, which is the primordial essence. Here, there is no Zen, and there is no Self. There is only being. There is no observer or observed. Just observing.
Imagine going to a movie. You enter the theatre, it is a Friday night and many people flock in to see a movie, some with their date, some alone, some with families. The aromas of popcorn and hot dogs permeate and loud chatter completes the experience of "going to the movies" ... until, that is, the movie starts. Assuming it's a good movie and we can "get into it," after a short time we are so immersed in the action of the images and sounds of the characters and music that we forget where we are, what we're doing, and even why we're there. We are merged with the movie. When the movie is over, we look at our watch and see how much time has gone by - nearly two hours! We leave the theatre and it's dark outside, yet it was bright and sunny when we entered! We are temporarily startled. Not only does time seem to have changed on us somehow, but we feel like a short period of our lives simply vanished. But then we think back on the movie and re-think the adventure we lived while we watched it and everything seems normal again. A temporary fear of separation from Self is repaired.
Meditation is like going to a movie ... but not just any movie, a really, really, good one! It's not a heart-pounding, suspense-laden, movie, it's much more engaging than that. Imagine your being, your essence, separating from yourself. Imagine your being floating down a river, bouncing over rocks, around corners, over logs. Imagine your being turned inside out where everything that was hidden becomes exposed, and everything exposed becomes hidden. Imagine your being without a history. No mother, no father. No traumatic experience in second grade when your teacher embarrassed you in front of the class. In this movie, you are so separated from yourself that there is no longer anything to be separated from. This is meditation.
There are two selves in the life of a human being. One is the self we think we are. The other is the self we are. The only difference between the two is that one is conceived, the other is just there. The conceived self is there only when we think of it (obviously!). It is a phantom, invoked at our call, but absent otherwise. The other self is there all the time. We may see it, or we may ignore it, but it's there nonetheless. This is why, in Chan, we capitalize the first letter: Self. It exists whether we are aware of it or not. Like God.
Zen is about encountering the Self and residing there. Anything other than that is not Zen.
How will you know when you encounter Self and enter Zen? All the questions and uncertainties will vanish.