How Do I Take Responsibility for My Life?

Zen practice emphasizes “no self” and often involves doing things that don’t make rational sense. How, then, can we also exercise appropriate self-responsibility?

Consider this koan, “Jeffrey: Dr. Doctor Rides the Bus,” from from The Book of Householder Koans by Eve Marko and Wendy Egyoku Nakao:

Dr. Doctor had a common cold, but he still rode the bus to work. He began to cough and sneeze into his handkerchief. Every time he coughed, all the people on the bus tried to cough. Every time he sneezed, all the people on the bus tried to sneeze. Finally the doctor exited at his destination. “Whew!” the driver signed. “What would we do without good medical advice?”

On the one hand, it’s a silly story. But on the other, the story raises a serious question about Zen practice.

How do I take responsibility for my life when Zen teaches that “my life” is not “my” life, because there is no essential self that “owns” my life. That is, Zen encourages an attitude of “no-self” or, as it is sometimes put, “selflessness.” And how do we take responsibility when Zen teachers encourage us to do things—such as sit inside on a beautiful day or practice with koans—that don’t seem to make rational sense?

Clarifying the Teaching of “No Essential Self”

I have come to suspect that full understanding of the teaching of no-self relies on an extraordinary experience of non-duality. 

“Extraordinary” because our ordinary view of the world is that it is composed of distinct pre-existing things. These things first exist in themselves, and then may engage in interaction. You, me, banana, table—all exist as separate, identifiable objects.  Then you and I become friends. Then I eat the banana. We tend to think that you, me, the table and the banana all have some underlying unchanging, although sometimes unseen, ongoing “essences.” “I” was once six years old, and now “I” am 65.

The Buddhist teaching of no-self (anatta) tells us that there are no pre-existing objects. What we commonly perceive as “things” actually arise from activities and relationships. We invent provisional labels an imagine ongoing essences simply  because they make it easier to manage our lives. They are convenient fictions. The Buddhist teaching of impermanence (anicca), however, tell us that in reality, everything is in flux.

In some ways, this is glaringly obvious. My six-year-old mind and body are long gone, even at a cellular level. What I think of as “my opinion” this week, perhaps I perhaps picked up from you in our conversation last week. What I called “a banana” this morning was separate from “me,” but after I eat it I am made up of banana and acting with banana energy. Some of the banana will end up as sewage. And this entire “me” will, at some point, also return to the dust from which it was formed.

Personal non-existence is scary

But we don’t like to think about that. The only alternative to being an ongoing object that we can ordinarily imagine is to be totally annihilated. In our ordinary thinking, we believe we must either exist or else we do not exist. Non-existence is scary. It’s imagined as a loss of everything. So we stick with our fiction, our “dream of self,” our perception of the world as divided into subjects and objects.

Personal existence is scary, too.

But while, especially in the U.S., we like to think of ourselves as rugged individuals, we also, perhaps secretly or subtlety, find taking responsibility for ourselves scary, too. Because we think of ourselves as enduring objects, separate from all else, we may find we feel lonely, solitary, and anxious. We may yearn for a deeper connection, for release from this burden of constantly making decisions and then second-guessing them.

The central model for this deeper connection and release is an infant and their mother. Sometimes, especially in times of great stress, we want to hide back in that womb. We want to feel very close, and have someone else completely take care of us.

In Zen, we talk about lineages and generations of teachers and students. So perhaps it’s not surprising that some of the emotional baggage we have around our birth families may get transferred on to our Zen practice. Teachers are authority figures, much like our parents were in our childhood. They have some knowledge or experience we probably don’t have. They have, or we imagine they have, some power that we don’t have. When we are feeling lonely and anxious—and no one enters a zendo for the first time because they have it all together!—it can be tempting to “climb back in the womb” of blindly following a teacher. We might, perhaps at some level we aren’t consciously aware of, want to find a “Dr. Doctor” who we can obey and imitate.

This is not as something weird or pathological, that is only the failing of some individuals. I believe it is baked into anyone who has experienced ever childhood, and the difficulties of “adulting” day after day. I found out, at the beginning of our sangha’s recent crises, that I had been a lot more prone to avoiding responsibility than I realized.

Complementary temptations arise for teachers. One is to hide from teacher responsibilities by refusing to recognize the power that one is given when in this role of authority. Another is to overstretch that authority: If one is respected and looked up to, it’s easy to start to “believe one’s own PR;” to come confuse reverence for the Dharma with reverence for oneself, personally; to think of teacher-hood as some special category of existence; and in the end to become controlling.

Our Zen Practice

Significant moments of enlightenment or awakening, that is, the moments of extraordinary experience that let us know non-duality in our bones, are sometimes described as “the bottom falling out of the bucket.” Or, in another analogy, they may be described as jumping out of a plane and discovering that one has no parachute.

I don’t think the universe is playing games with us. We may think is intentionally withholding from us some great Zen experience that we’ve been dreaming about and trying to work towards. Actually, the universe is jumping up and down in front of our eyes every moment, waving its arms and trying to be noticed! The problem is us: We usually furiously try to keep the bucket together, or grasp the strap at the airplane door in a panic. The ego fears “losing its grip.” We tend to hang on to the familiar (no matter how painful), fearing perhaps that Zen enlightenment will push us into non-existence or separate us from reality. Not at all: Our zazen practice instead thins out the barriers we have put up between ourselves and reality. While our practice does not “make” enlightenment happen, it does makes us a bit more skeptical about the stories we’ve been telling ourselves, and loosens our grip on our delusive belief in an enduring separate self.

When, at last, the bottom falls out of the bucket, we find that we are not nothing, but everything. The bucket was unnecessary, because water is everywhere. We’ve always been a wave in the ocean. This is not the culmination of practice, but rather our first taste of a new kind of practice that will be life-long.

When we find ourself in free-fall through the air, we realize that we are finally safe and at home at last. The plane and the parachute were unnecessary, because there is no ground to go “splat” on. There is only infinite, generative, lively space.

So do “I” exist? Or do”I” not exist? The Dharma transcends the dualism of that question. The only answer possible is (to quote the first koan we give to students) “Mu.”

Dogen’s Summary

Consider the first three lines of Dogen’s important essay, Genjokoan (in Shohaku Okumura’s translation):

As all things are Buddha Dharma, there is delusion and realization, practice, birth and death, and there are Buddhas and sentient beings.  

That is, there is differentiation: You, me, table, banana. We are many.

As the myriad things are without an abiding self, there is no delusion, no realization, no Buddhas, no sentient beings, no birth and death.

That is: there are no enduring “objects.”  We are one.

The Buddha Way leaps clear of the many and the one—thus there are birth and death, delusion and realization, sentient beings and Buddhas.

The world of form is the reality we live in, from the perspective of differentiation. The world of emptiness is this same world, from the perspective of no differentiation. They are the same world: “form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form.” What needs to be seen through is not differentiation, but the belief in enduring “objects.”

Therefore, flowers fall even though we love them; weeds grow even though we dislike them.

We live in a world of change, and things often won’t go our way. Can we handle that?


So “no-self” or “selflessness” doesn’t mean that I have melted into an undifferentiated, spineless puddle, or that I should merge myself into some much wiser Zen Master. It means we understand ourselves and our teachers arising in from causes and conditions in this moment as differentiated individuals, within a vast reality of emptiness, impermanence, and profound interdependence.

We need each other. Sometimes this means we have to take on the role of teacher, and sometimes the role of trusting student. Sometimes doctor, sometimes patient. Perhaps a bus driver. Always, though, we adult as best we can, and seek to mature in living the Dharma.

Author: Julie A. Nelson

Julie A. Nelson is a writer on gender, ethics, economics, ecology, and Zen; a Professor of Economics, Emeritus; a Dharma Holder and Teaching Coordinator at the Greater Boston Zen Center; and mother of two grown children.

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