Asserting Personhood–Our Very Own Action Figure (Rohatsu 2013)


Eko Jeff Kelley’s talk given at our combined Seattle-Bellingham sangha rohatsu sesshin. Below are Jeff’s notes, listen to the talk for the whole experience and hold your action figure high.

Asserting Personhood—The Action Figure of Our Self

Rohatsu Sesshin Talk – Dec. 7, 2013

Chiyono story told by Tim, but how in the moment, with our minds as they are, do we realize our true nature?

Sometimes we don’t talk enough about the details of what goes on during our meditation

We say:

  • Thoughts are not the enemy
  • Just open to what is
  • Allow the mind to settle and unfold
  • It’s none of your business what happens in your zazen

The mind must first be calmed, not completely but to a significant degree, before anything else can happen

It is then that things are allowed to revert to their true nature.

Calm and insight support each other.

Thoughts that arise become our teachers because there is enough calm to see them more

The teachings help us know what to look for

We can see the three marks of existence: impermanence, non-self, suffering and liberation

Each insight into these produces more calm

Greater calm allows additional insights

We can see thoughts as knots of energy

Some pulsing, huge and obscuring everything else

Opening the hand of thought

Liberating the energy of the mind

Going with the pattern

Entering the dance


Not self exactly, self is more the subject

Not identity exactly, identity is more a collection of ideas

Personhood is an assertion

We insist on it

“I am such a person.” “I am a person that . . .” “I may not be that, but at least I am this.”

It defines us in comparison with others, with certain standards we hold for ourselves

Personhood a major knot of energy

Observe our assertion of it

We can allow the knot to dissolve

What is the source of our assertion, what is the energy?

What energy are we opposing with our assertion? Fear?

Tyler pushing forward an action figure

If we stop asserting what happens to the energy we are opposing?

Here is where the stability we have cultivated becomes so important

Deshan carrying his commentaries in a bag on his back—THL p. 256

DESHAN XUANJIAN was a great scholar of the Diamond Sutra
but he was not a Chan practitioner. He was traveling south
in search of the Dharma, carrying his commentaries on the
Diamond Sutra with him. In the course of his travels he came across
an old woman on the roadside selling tea and rice cakes. He asked her.
“Who are you?”

She responded, “I am an old woman selling rice cakes.” When he
asked if he could buy some refreshments from her, she inquired, “Ven-
erable priest, what are you carrying in your bag?”

He said, “I am a scholar of the Diamond Sutra, and here I have all
my notes and commentaries.”

Hearing this, the old woman said, “I have heard that, according to
the Diamond Sutra, past mind is ungraspable, present mind is ungrasp-
able, and future mind is ungraspable. So where is the mind that you
wish to refresh with rice cakes, oh scholar? If you can answer this,
you may buy a rice cake from me. If not, you’ll have to go elsewhere
for refreshment.”

Deshan was unable to reply. The old woman then directed him to
a Chan master nearby.

Deshan burned all his notes and commentaries the next day.

Seeing the insubstantiality of personhood in the moment

Renunciation of asserting personhood in our lives

Not renunciation of personhood in the world

Skillful work with personhood

Compassion practices work with personhood

What happens when we bring metta to our personhood?

The personhood of a teacher

We no longer need to assert it. We can let go of the solidity

Personhood a shape

Letting go of personhood and returning to a more fluid occupation of it

“Be nobody” means don’t attach to being a particular person all the time

Using personhood and not being used by it

Being used by it is the heartbreak of samsara

Deshan story of walking with this bowls

On a more subtle level:

  • Anytime we rehearse, replay or imagine a conversation or interaction, we assert personhood
  • Anytime we feel observed, we assert personhood

Bodhisattvas assume personhood in order to liberate beings

Avalokiteshvara’s many manifestations are such

Lotus Sutra:

The Buddha said to Bodhisattva Inexhaustible Intent: “Good man, if there are living beings in the land who need someone in the body of a Buddha in order to be saved, (Avalokiteshvara) immediately manifests herself in a Buddha body and preaches the Dharma for them. . . If they need a great general of heaven to be saved, immediately she becomes a great general of heaven and preaches the Dharma for them. . . If they need a petty king to be saved, immediately she becomes a petty king and preaches the Dharma for them. If they need a rich man to be saved, immediately she becomes a rich man and preaches the Dharma for them. If they need a householder (in order) to be saved, immediately she becomes a householder and preaches the Dharma for them. If they need a chief minister to be saved, immediately she becomes a chief minister and preaches the Dharma for them. If they need a Brahman to be saved, immediately she becomes a Brahman and preaches the Dharma for them. If they need a monk, a nun, a layman believer, or a laywoman believer to be saved, immediately she becomes a monk, a nun, a layman believer, or a laywoman believer and preaches the Dharma for them. (If they need a rich woman, a householder woman, a woman chief minister, or a Brahman woman to be saved, immediately she becomes these) and preaches the Dharma for them. If they need a young boy or a young girl to be saved, immediately she becomes a young boy or a young girl and preaches the Dharma for them. If they need a heavenly being, a dragon . . . a human or a nonhuman being to be saved, immediately she becomes all of these and preaches the Dharma for them. If they need a vajra-bearing god to be saved, immediately she becomes a vajra-bearing god and preaches the Dharma for them.

Tea lady was Avalokiteshvara

We can do the same—fluidly be the right person for the circumstances

In the case of Buddha’s enlightenment, we can assume buddha’s shape without asserting buddhahood. We can occupy it without attachment.

Be the person who is

Dance with the circumstances


 What a wonderful koan! An old nameless woman on the road helps 

the smarty Deshan get free from his load of conceptual detritus. Sheis the Diamond Sutra itself, signless and aimless. She is nobody we 

know, and at the same time, she is an intimate manifestation of some
kind of wild and cranky freedom. Through her, there is no abiding,
no attachment.

Deshan was from northern China. As a youth, he studied the
classical precepts, and he also thoroughly penetrated the Diamond
Sutra. At the time, there was sectarian strife between the northern
and southern schools of Buddhism. Deshan, being from the northern
school, was vehemently critical of the southern school. To make his
point, he piled the
Qinglong Commentaries on his back and made his
way south to confront the so-called sudden enlightenment of the
southern school.

So here is Deshan hauling around his ideas about the sutra, among
other interesting burdens of opinion. He encounters the old woman,
who cuts him free from the conceptual mind with the diamond of
her mind. The first words in the Diamond Sutra are “Thus I have
heard.” Thus Deshan heard the old woman, for sure. His mind for a
rice cake. And he was a stale rice cake, as he could not reveal his own
mind when confronted with her fierce clarity.

This nameless old crone became Deshan’s catalyst to awakening,
challenging his ego-based confidence, introducing him to an ungrasp-
able moment, a moment of absolute freedom from glosses, commen-
taries, and secondary consciousness.

Who are these old women who now and again appear in koans?

They are who we really are, that wild old grandmother’s heart of wis-
dom that does not engage in idiot compassion but cuts to the quick of
the moment. She offers rice cakes and the refreshment of awakening
tea. This staff of life, rice: common food for all. Tea: common drink
for all. And Deshan got the special transmission outside the sutras,
the supreme meal!

“Zen is poetry,” said the scholar R. H. Blyth. What did he mean by
“poetry”? Certainly he did not use the word in the sense of what we
commonly call “verse.” Rather, he meant that the essence of Zen, like
the world of poetry, comes from the spontaneous energy of meeting
reality directly. It is the unfiltered immediacy manifested by an old
lady, nameless and by the roadside, selling rice cakes to any passerby
This quality of immediacy embodied by the old woman is in our
everyday practice and is also reflected in the so-called literary body
that we call koans.

The mystery of koans and their poetic veracity comes about because
they are nondiscursive, based in life, full of allusions, and nonlinear.
They are
not commentaries on the sutras. Rather they invite us not W
use the thinking mind but to allow the thinking mind to drop away
by being absorbed completely into the koan body so that a genuine
experience of intimacy can present itself

The old woman selling rice cakes is that intimacy itself She barks at
the heady scholar: “Where is the mind that you wish to refresh
rice cakes, oh scholar? If you can answer this, you may buy a rice cake
from me. If not, you’ll have to go elsewhere for refreshment.”

Practicing with a koan is like strengthening a muscle that gathers
us up and releases us into the present. Like the old woman, a koan
reduces us to who we really are. One strike, like a diamond hitting
glass, and we are free of secondary reflections.

The experience of absorption into this poem-like case is similar
and dissimilar to what we experience in meditation practice, of being
with the present moment as it is, being the sutras, not commenting
on the sutras.

Usually this “as-it-isness” is free of a medium, like a rice cake, like
walking meditation, like this present moment. However, in the case of
koan practice, the koan is dropped into the midst of this “as-it-isness”
and lets the truth of things as they are shine through the matrix of
its body. Using a jewel-like koan, a bright fragment of a past reality,
as an inspiration and a guide in the immediacy of our very practice
can enable us to be engulfed by truth; we become a kind of hook-
line-and-sinker that is swallowed by the whole fish of life. Deshan got
hooked and served up by one powerful, old, and nameless woman,
He was fortunate to have the hunger to require some refreshments!


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