We all come into practice with ourselves, which is the very thing we’re trying to get away from; with our mind, which is difficult to see; and with our conditioning, which we take as the world. We experience the dharma through these filters, and so when we hear the teaching, some of it gets through, but some of it gets turned in our mind to fit the way we see the world—and more poignantly, the way we see ourselves. So if we are inclined towards a habit of self-denial, we may hear the instruction to cast off self and other, to forget the self, as yet another reinforcement of the idea that we are unworthy. Letting go of the self then, rather than being understood as an act of liberation, is heard as just another confirmation of our self doubt. And so students can end up entangling themselves further with Zen, using the medicine of the dharma to poison themselves. That’s why it’s so important to practice with the Three Treasures: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, and under the guidance of a teacher.
To cast off the self means to simply and profoundly stop grasping. It doesn’t mean to extinguish or destroy anything, because there’s nothing to extinguish. Although in Buddhism the teachings are often presented as negation—not this—this is actually a resounding affirmation. Because you are not who you think you are, you can realize and actualize your real nature which is so much larger. It is vast, without boundaries. But those who are entrenched in self-doubt cannot hear this. Instead they hear negation, denial, suppression, and rejection. That is so clearly not what the teachings are about. Buddhism doesn’t ultimately negate anything. To negate or reject is delusion itself. In reality, nothing is excluded.
There’s a well known story relating how years ago the Dalai Lama attended a conference organized by a number of dharma teachers and psychologists. At one point the conversation turned toward working with students who experience a lot of self-criticism and self-hatred. The Dalai Lama didn’t understand what they were talking about, so he finally asked, “What is this self-hatred?” They explained the term to him, and he said, “Is this some kind of nervous disorder, a kind of mental illness?” The teachers said, “No. It’s actually very common.” Still puzzled, the Dalai Lama exclaimed, “Why?! Why would people have such a thought? They have buddha nature.”
What is buddha? What is the Ten-Body Controller? The National Teacher replies, “Patron, walk on Vairochana’s head.” Vairochana is the personification of the real body of reality, the dharmakaya—which is ineffable, without characteristics, without inside or outside, beginning or end. It’s one of the three bodies of the Buddha. There’s also the sambogakaya, the body of bliss or reward body, and the nirmanakaya, the body of manifestation; for example, Shakyamuni Buddha. In saying, “Patron, walk on Vairochana’s head,” the National Teacher is not speaking about high or low, respecting or disrespecting, dominating or submitting. The masters of old said, “If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha.” What does that mean? To walk on Vairochana’s head is to cast off buddha and everything. From the beginning, there is nothing that holds us back. To cast off is to realize that there is no hindrance, there is nothing to let go of. To walk on Vairochana’s head is to not take a single step, to return to the timeless season before heaven and earth, gods and humans appeared in the world. The moment Vairochana appears, the moment the Buddha arrives, it’s already too late.