Deep mind contains the seeds of love for others and the desire to make them happy.
To encourage the growth and development of these potential forces, you have to pursue
positive encounters actively. . . . That is why we put others first and ourselves last.
I have been studying the Yogacara (Consciousness Only) tradition of Buddhism for more than forty years, but when I first started university, I was enrolled in a fisheries science course and carried out research on fish blood.
This research involved observing life as only an object, and before I knew it, I had come to feel that the study of it was pointless. I began to think that I would rather be studying the life in myself.
Around this time I developed a grave inferiority complex and sequestered myself at Engakuji in Kamakura, one of the more important Zen Buddhist temples in Japan, and plunged into a course of zazen. With my teacher's injunction to "become completely blank, seek nothingness" ringing in my ears, I attempted to search for spiritual liberation with all of my heart and soul.
As I continued with my practice, my ego began to gradually break down, and my spirit felt cleansed. Quite unexpectedly, this led me to turn a kinder eye toward others. One day as I was on my way home from the dojo (training hall), the landscape unfolding before my eyes appeared to be glowing with a beautiful light such as I had never seen before. At this moment I understood deeply that when I change, the world also changes.
With the help of experiences like these, I decided to dedicate myself to understanding the meaning of life, and at my university I changed my major to Indian philosophy. This brought me into contact with the Yogacara tradition, and to this day I continue to seek the meaning of life while serving others.
The Nonexistent "Me"
Sometimes we suddenly stop in our tracks and look back with a feeling of disgust at how everything we have thought or done throughout life has always been "all about I, me, my."
In contrast to this is the notion of eschewing the ego, one of the fundamental concepts of Buddhism. When we are without an ego, we can be cleansed of worldly passions and arrive at a peaceful, quiet state of mind. Despite appearances, humans originally do not, in fact, have egos. Let's see if you can realize this here and now.
Hold out your hand and look at it. Whose hand is it? Naturally you will say, "It's my hand." While you are looking at your hand, you can confirm its existence. Because "things" have names to identify them, what you are seeing is an object that can be expressed in words. Now, close your eyes and try to perceive the "me" that can be expressed in words.
Can you locate the "thing" that is meant by the word "me"? I don't think you can. What do you mean when you say "me" or "I"? This "me" is nothing more than the echo of a word and, in fact, does not essentially exist. This is why we say that humans are ultimately without ego.
Thus, because "I" essentially do not exist, if someone calls me an idiot, I can just laugh. What on earth is supposed to be the thing being called "an idiot"? Is it a function of my brain being idiotic? The problem there is that because "I" have no real existence, despite appearances there is no such thing as "my" brain.
In the Yogacara tradition, objects perceived by sight are considered to have been created by the mind, and the world perceived by sight is thought to be different for every person because every person senses it in a different way. This we call "one person, one universe."
When our spirits are clean and pure, we live in a quiet, peaceful world. But when strong feelings of attachment well up in us and our spirits become muddy and turbid, the world immediately becomes a place of suffering. In this sense as well, we need to make spiritual cleansing a part of everyday life.
If we can sit for just thirty minutes in zazen and become nothing but our breath, or if we can unthinkingly and in a disinterested way reach out a helping hand to someone in need and make an offering of kindness, an immeasurable amount of filth will fall away from our spirits.
Putting Others First and Ourselves Last
In the Yogacara tradition, the deep mind is termed the alaya, or storehouse, consciousness. This deep mind contains the seeds of love for others and the desire to make them happy. To encourage the growth and development of these potential forces, you have to pursue positive encounters actively.
One example is to recite, read, and listen to noble words. However, when you are in the midst of suffering, the best and most effective thing to do is be with people who make you feel warm and comfortable.
Since my youth I have been blessed with many teachers. I encountered my present teacher twenty years ago. Sometimes when I am meditating together with this roshi (elder master), he says amazing things.
"All right, it's all right. Breathe in, breathe out, and become that breath; become the here and now, and you can go as far as the places you wish to reach."
Where is this place it is possible to go? When he said this, I felt it must be nowhere other than the place as expressed in the Heart Sutra by the character pronounced ku, meaning "emptiness."
The self that is no more than the echo of a word is the product of a variety of external encounters and environments in the here and now. As a result of countless encounters that constitute an "external force," you and I are being given life here and now. That is why we put others first and ourselves last. That is, we give precedence to the other person and take care of our own interests afterward. A thorough understanding of this fact will bring your own warmth to life.
People naturally gravitate toward a person with warmth.
Koitsu Yokoyama is a professor emeritus in the College of Arts of Rikkyo University, Tokyo. His main area of research is the Yogacara (Consciousness Only) tradition of Mahayana Buddhism. He is the author of numerous books on Buddhism, including Yuishiki towa nanika (What is Yogacara?) and Jugyuzu nyumon: Atarashii jibun eno michi (An introduction to the Ten Ox-Herding Pictures: A path to a new self).
This article was originally published in the January-March 2012 issue of Dharma World.