I would like to share my perspectives regarding “無我”. “無我” is without self. In daily life, we are aware that we are different from others, different from the environment around us. We clearly know there are boundaries between ourselves and others. We strive to stay within our comfort zones and not to across the boundaries. Yet under certain circumstances, where we are fully immersed in our inner peace and mindfulness, the boundary between the self and otherness disappears. For example, when we serve a bowl of tea to others, we clean the tea bowl, whisk matcha with our warmest kokoro and enjoy the tranquility and mindfulness at that moment. Self is no longer there.
When I take a mental step back and look at the pattern without trying to pin down an exact translation, I feel like tonight’s scroll collection presented a deeply interconnected three-point and circular perspective of the universe. Starting with “no ego” in the small room, and ending with “essentially, not a ‘thing’ exists” on the back wall, I get a sense of the middle scroll being the connection point between an individual’s singular perspective and the vastness of the galaxy.
The impression I got of the middle scroll’s meaning from Gunji-sensei’s discussion was something like “When the soul is clarified, have no concern for flaws/imperfections/specks of dust.” But the translation on the card says “Once the mind is cleared, the spirit may be purified.” From looking through my kanji dictionary, I think Gunji-sensei’s discussion better fits the characters that are there (though I have no idea how to get that pronunciation out of them!).
When you put the three of them together, you start with a reminder to quiet the chattering of anxiety and busy-ness, to quiet the ‘noisy self’ in preparation and openness to the upcoming experience — to become ‘self-less,’ so to speak.
The second scroll becomes the connection between your cleared, calmed, self-less self and a kind of absolute acceptance of what is in the world: When your soul is clear, there is no such thing as an imperfection — or to turn it around, everything is the way it should be, and so by definition nothing is a flaw. An autumn leaf fallen into a pond isn’t a mistake; it’s meant to be there, it completes (perfects) the pond even though it wasn’t placed there deliberately.
If you worry over trying to remove the leaf, you aren’t clear yourself; your worry is distracting you from seeing that it’s perfect the way it is, and from participating quietly in that moment of perfection.
The third scroll, I think, touches on both quantum physics and astrophysics without needing to bother with a single mathematical equation. “Essentially, not a ‘thing’ exists” reminds me of something that I’ve read about the structure of atoms and the structure of the solar system being startlingly similar. When you compare the scale of the space between an atomic nucleus and its electrons and other atoms, the amount of empty space is vast — somewhere similar to the amount of space between the sun and the planets if it were scaled up. There’s barely any “matter” there to “exist” — but somehow electron charges and molecular integrity and gravitational forces hold us together, and hold the galaxy together, even though we’re all made of void and disintegrated star-stuff held together by intangible force.
When you start thinking about either quantum physics or astrophysics, the fact that things with so little actual matter in them won’t fall through other objects or disintegrate seems extraordinarily strange — but here we are, oddly enough, here and now, and almost infinitely small in comparison to even our moon-neighbor, let alone the galaxy — let alone all the galaxies there are.
And that thought circles back around to “no ego/no self” — when you’ve been looking at galactic scales, it’s hard to think of our busy frantic individual selves as any more important in the shape of the universe than the inhabitants of an anthill would be. There’s less difference between us and ants than there is between us and the continent, or the planet — or the universe.
If you change the axis of perception from space to time, I think “no ego” and “no ‘thing’ really exists” are concepts that I think both the Japanese and the British understand better than Americans. America is such a young country, but really spread out with a lot of land that’s never been built on before. Both Japan and Britain have thousands of years of recorded history compressed into a really small space, so that every place you stand is visibly soaked in time.
In Champaign-Urbana, there are entire subdivisions where where everything was built within the time I’ve been in town, vast tracts of new houses built on what had been farmland just a handful of years ago. You see that kind of new-ness and you see “tear it down and rebuild” taking over already-built areas, and it seems that the pace of time is measured in months, or in single years — and the IT-based timeline runs even faster than that, with software editions six months old being hopelessly out of date due to security flaws and the like.
But when I studied in Britain, every day I was walking around almost breathless at the sheer weight of the history — I studied in a college in western Wales, built before America was founded, walking past stone walls built millennia before America was discovered. Every day I walked on the same streets built by Roman soldiers in the 400s, crossed under a Norman castle gate built into a wall meant to blockade an invading army of Welsh in the 1300s, ate meals in a building built as a family inn in the 1600s, and then went into a computer lab put into a converted building whose foundations had been laid in 1903. It never stopped being amazing to me. I’d never felt history before.
It’s somehow easier to be self-less, to be aware of how small your self is in comparison to the march of time, when you step on a hollowed-out stone stair and realize that there have been over 700 years of people whose feet have worn that hollow in that exact stone before you, and another 700 years or more coming after — and even then “no ‘thing’ really exists,” because although that particular building had survived all those centuries, half a mile away the abbey built by the same king has crumbled to nothing but a handful of walls and archways.
At that point, when you’re mentally quoting Shelley’s Ozymandias and debating whether or not to have an existential crisis over the foot-hollows in the Carmarthen stone stairs, “no ego” and “clarity of self means no imperfections” are oddly comforting. The British students around me weren’t panicking over the weight of their own history; they were literally oblivious. They’d never not had that much time built into their world. It was simply the way the world was. It shaped them and their voices and their homes and their lives, and they moved through it like leaves floating on the pond, while I stood stick-still and stared as the time-tides flooded around me.
It’s been too long since I’ve been outside the US, and tonight’s scrolls have me itching to travel to a place where space and time isn’t measured on American scales, to take me out of my usual framework for the structure of the world and remind me of other ways of being.
Tea students in the Urasenke Urbana-Champaign association