We think that when we practice Zen, we start by entering a Zendo. First, we remove our shoes. Then we gassho and bow to the butsudan, enter and take our place at our cushion. At home, in these COVID times, we enter a quiet room and sit in our usual spot. That is what we think of when we think about Zen practice. When we think in this way, we create a separation between ourselves and the Zendo, between our feet and our shoes, between our buttocks and the cushion or chair. This separation is not real; it is a creation of our brains. Babies learn this separation through the interaction of senses, nerves, muscles and brain.

Of course, we do remove the shoes from our feet. It gives an appearance that shoes stay outside the door and feet enter. The ability to separate self from other, subject from object is very useful in day-to-day life. It is necessary to our survival.

I wonder actually if there is any living creature that did not start its evolution by separating itself from other. That is what cell walls do. That is what skin does. Our nerves try to define for us what is self and what is other. Hit your finger with a hammer by mistake and your nerves tell you so. Hit the nail and your nerves stay quiet. But when a bacterium engulfs a bit of sugar suddenly “other” becomes part of “self”. The same thing happens when you eat. Or breathe in. What was “self” becomes other when you breathe out. Or shit. Or die.

The Fallacy of Self and Other

Self and other are constantly becoming each other over very small timescales (when I breath in the perfume of a lilac flower) and over very large timescales (when stars create the particles that become a planet, an ocean, a living being, you). Self and other are never truly distinct. The distinctions grade one into the other, over very small spatial scales (the movements of electrons between atoms) and over very large spatial scales (rivers flowing down mountains to the sea; galaxies colliding). Distinguishing self and other is very useful for the short time needed to remove your shoes or to divide a cake among friends and family, but a famous statistician once said: All models are wrong, some are useful. The distinction between self and other is very useful. It is also wrong.

The Zendo Sitting

Taking off shoes, entering the Zendo. This is sitting in itself. The Zendo sitting in itself. The shoes are not other than the Zendo sitting.  Just as the left and the right foot are one life, so too the feet, the shoes, the Zendo, the keyboard…all one life.

If you take these words as a theory or model of reality, that too would be wrong.

But if you take them as a boat to cross the river and then leave behind, then perhaps they are useful.

Leaving behind the boat is another practice of letting go.