“To study Buddhism is to study the self; to study the self is to forget the self,” wrote Dogen-zenji, the 13th-century founder of the Soto Zen school. 

“Begin therefore with yourself and forget yourself!” said the 14th-century Meister Eckhart. 

It is very tempting to think that these two people must have been saying just the same thing, or that Dogen had influenced Eckhart.  But comparing religions is more than a matter of comparing texts.  And there is no possibility that Eckhart could have known what any Japanese Zen Buddhist had been thinking or saying. 

Still, though they were not related to each other, they are both related to us (or rather we to them) when we read them today.  We are standing, so to speak, at a street corner and we are able to command a view of both streets: not a good view, to be sure, but not complete blindness either.  Many Christians, while remaining fully Christian (and becoming more deeply so) have made the brave journey to Zen.  There are several Zen Masters or Roshis who are Catholic priests and Sisters and laypeople; you don't have to be a Buddhist to be a Zen practitioner.  Meister Eckhart is greatly liked in Zen circles: I even saw extracts from his writings in an anthology of Zen texts.  What is called ‘wider ecumenism’ is in slow but steady progress.

If I am nervous of Zen I can always concentrate on my Christian ego!  “Begin with yourself and forget yourself.”  Eckhart did not say: Begin by trying to be unselfish, forget about yourself and work for God and for others.  What kind of self do we bring to God and to others if we don't pay prior attention to it?  We bring the ego, the self-centred self.  All our efforts will be fundamentally self-seeking, despite appearances, if we do not give sustained attention to the knots and tricks and double-binds that the ego specialises in.  We will be very ‘unselfish’ but on our own terms; the hard separate ungiving self will act unselfishly in order to be able to think and talk about it (even if only to itself); all the while it will be building up merit in its own eyes, or just spinning some wheels of guilt or obligation from the past.  The ego is neediness itself, therefore it has no compassion to give.  If I become angry or depressed when someone refuses my help, I have to realise that I have been working out of my ego.  All my gifts are mean and calculating unless I give myself.  Or rather, as Tauler, a disciple of Eckhart, said: “If you have not given yourself you have given nothing.”

Begin with yourself and forget yourself.  Are they advising us to be selfish?  In a sense, yes.  If I have been reducing the Christian faith to acting unselfishly I need to come at it again in a different way.  It does not come down to being unselfish; it comes down to loving, as St John said, and to love is to give oneself rather than just to act unselfishly.  They are telling us what many people have told us in the course of our lives: to cop ourselves on. 

What I do is the way I do it.  It is very easy to see this in some instances: talking to my friends, for example, is nothing other than the way I talk to them.  But take another example: fixing a window.  It is not so easy to realise that fixing that window is the way I fix it.  There may be other ways of fixing it than the way I am going about it, but that is not what is happening.  Our awareness is so often elsewhere, concerned with descriptions, possibilities and alternatives, that we don't know what we are doing.  Language is able to lead us by the nose.  Because there is a noun we think there must be a thing.  Fixing the window is a ‘job’, and the word ‘job’ is a noun.  So I set to work, vaguely imagining the ‘job’ as a sort of ‘thing’ I have to deal with.  I fail to look closely and I stay with the impression of a ‘thing’.  But look again.  There was no sign of any noun.  What was happening was a verb.  It was a moment of my life taking place.  It will never come back, even though I may have to fix that same window again tomorrow. 


What I do is the way I do it.

I am never absent from what I do or experience.  To know this is to begin with oneself, as Eckhart recommended; it is to dissipate a false objectivity.  Only then can I truly forget myself.  Then the ‘I’ is in what I do, not standing behind, doing the ‘job’ but saving itself.  There is no ‘I’ to save, no hard separate ball; everything that is ‘I’ can be here in what I am doing.  That is how to forget oneself. 

Imagine a ‘helpful’ person.  He tries to help everybody.  He is therefore full of appointments, deadlines and mad dashes.  While you are with him he is glancing over your shoulder or checking his watch or only half listening.  He tries to help so many that he helps no one, he tries to be there for every person he meets, but in the end he is absent to all of them.  He brings nothing to others but an air of fuss and a feeling that one isn't a Christian at all for not running around as he does. 

Dogen-zenji, being a great teacher, taught us that everything can teach us – even the simplest things and actions.  Being a great helper, he helped us to see that everything can help us.  Our life is a huge space in which to forget ourselves – in order to live.  If Dogen’s idiom sounds a little strange, turn to another that is more familiar – but just as strange when we pay careful attention to it - : “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24).

Donagh O'Shea


These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.