There is No Part of You That Doesn't Want to Practise”

Kuden Paul Boyle

Forest City Zen Group



Josho: How can I practise with the parts of myself that don't want to practise?

Zentatsu: There is no part of you that doesn't want to practise.


This is a dialog that my teacher, Josho, had with her teacher, Zentatsu. When she first related this story it really struck me. The teacher's response captures, what in Buddhism is called, the Two Truths, that is, the ultimate and conventional truths.

While the two truths appear in the Pali Canon, the formulation which tends to get used in Zen was formulated by Zen Ancestor Nāgārguna


To get some understanding of the two truths as conveyed in this dialog, we will parse the exchange in two different ways. At the level of conventional truth, we might hear the response as, “There is no part of you that doesn't want to practise”. This can be interpreted as “all the myriad parts of us, even those parts we experience as resistant, really do want to practise”. This is a very encouraging interpretation. When we feel lethargic, resistant, or down, these parts, in their own way, are asking for practice. Another way to say it is no matter what kind of screwed up, dysfunctional stuff we have done, it was our best attempt at that time to say “yes” to life. An interpretation like this helps us to accept all the parts of ourselves, especially the parts we don't like. It can help us accept our past and overcome regrets. There is a kind of inclusiveness and, as my teacher put it, “a friendliness to the self”. This can be an antidote to having grown up in a negative or toxic family of origin, or if we have been bruised in difficult relationships. My teacher gave a couple of very good lectures on the “friendliness to the self” in which mentions this exchange she had with her teacher. You can find the talks on the Chapel Hill Zen Center website. I recommend them.


Of course, this conventional level of interpretation presupposes that there are distinct entities of some sort or another which reside within us. In Buddhism these entities are called “self” or “notions of self”. Talking about these different selves is convenient and useful in many ways. The problem is, however, is that there is a tendency to grasp at a self. In order to grasp something we must presuppose that it is graspable. That is, it is, in some way, “solid” and enduring, capable of existing independently of our volition. In Buddhism, this solidity and ability to exist independently is what is termed “own being” or “self-nature”. The Tibetans use the phrase, “exists inherently” or “inherent existence”. This grasping at entities we imagine to exist inherently is the cause of much of our suffering.


Another way to parse Zentatsu's response is that there is no “part of you”. This parsing is closer to the standpoint of an ultimate truth. That is, all the various self concepts which occupy our mind and body do not inherently exist. If the conception of a self which “doesn't want to practise” doesn't inherently exist, then we know that that reluctant self has no power to sustain itself and can't really resist or overcome our desire to practise by itself. It is not that these phenomena do not exist, rather, they do not exist in the way we perceive them (that is, as inherently existent). When we realize that the various parts of ourselves do not inherently exist, we loosen the choke hold we have allowed them to have over our lives. The difficult part is that realizing emptiness of self and phenomena isn't easy, it is a rare individual who can jump directly into an ultimate truth.


Very often, you will hear Zen people say, “there is no self!” or “everything is empty”. One problem is that Zen people rarely give a clear explanation of what they mean. I think this is a problem. If you are unacquainted with the two truths, it is easy and tempting to interpret these statements in a nihilistic way – that you don't exist or that events are completely devoid of effects or meaning. Lots of people have been making this mistake throughout Buddhist history.


So, I'll try doing this a little differently. We will start with some definitions1:


  • Conventional Truth: True with respect to ordinary people. Deceptive with regard to its mode of existence, but not deceptive regarding its function and conventional characteristics.

  • Ultimate Truth: Empty of inherent existence.

  • Non-existent: A phenomenon which is false with respect to minds of ordinary people. For example, a table which is seen by someone who is hallucinating is a non-existent. It cannot be relied upon to perform the functions they appear to possess.


We will star with the easy one first – a non-existent. A good example of a non-existent is the hallucination of a table. No one (ordinary people) can see the table which the hallucinating person does. In addition, the hallucinated table cannot function the way that an existent table can. If you try to put something on a hallucinated table, the object simply falls to the floor.


Now let's move on to the conventional. What does “deceptive with regard to its mode of existence, but not deceptive regarding its function and conventional characteristics” mean? Breaking it down, “mode of existence” refers to how a phenomenon exists. Before going further, let's insert a caveat here to make the issues clear and concrete, I will specify that when talking about “phenomena” or “objects”, we are talking about mental states. We are less concerned about the nature of bona fide external objects.


Now with that being said. The possibilities for “modes of existence” are two: either “inherent existence” or “lack of inherent existence”. Inherent existence means that an object exists independent of causes and conditions. Lack of inherent existence means that phenomena arise, exist, and cease based on causes and conditions. All phenomena are conventional truths because they appear to possess the nature of “inherent existence”, but in actuality they do not. “Not deceptive regarding function and characteristics” means that the conventionally true phenomenon acts in the way that I can reasonably expect it to act. If we perceive a conventionally true table, I can place objects on the table, and they don't crash to the floor.


Interpersonal relationships can also be perceived as conventionally existent. For example, suppose I see one of you on the street or on the bus. I recognize you, and I am able to identify you as a “person I know”. If I am friends with someone, I can expect that we will interact in a way that looks like friendship in this culture. We could say that our relationship is imbued with friendship. This is the conventional truth. I make an unconscious assumption that I am seeing the same person who I've previously met and have gotten to know. Similarly, our relationship seems to be imbued with “friendship-ness” (inherent existence) and it functions as we would expect a friendship to function – a sense of positive regard, goodwill, trust, and so on. Another way to put it is that I've made our “friendship” into “a thing” which seems to exist independently of the attention and energy I am giving it We do this with objects, mental states, and other beings in our life everyday.


Ultimate truth means that we have a direct experience of the lack of inherent existence. There is no superimposed continuity or identity, only a moment by moment experience. For example, Dogen gives description of this in Kai-in Zanmai- (Ocean Seal Samadhi) in the Shobogenzo,


The Buddha said, “It is just the dharmas that combine to form this body. When it arises, it is simply the dharmas arising; when it ceases, it is simply the dharmas ceasing. When these dharmas arise, [the bodhisattva] does not state 'I arise'; when these dharmas cease, he does not state, 'I cease'. In prior thought moments and subsequent thought moments, the moments do not relate to each other, in prior dharmas and subsequent dharmas, the dharmas do not oppose each other. This is called the ocean seal samadhi.”2


Dogen is talking about two aspects of experience of an ultimate truth. First, the notion of self or “the I” is absent as the reference point of experience. Second, he mentions “moments do not relate to each other”. One of the ways we create the illusion of inherent existence is to superimpose a sense of temporal continuity on our experience. We view both our selves and phenomena as having some sameness from one moment to the next. We then believe that what we are observing or experiencing somehow has a life of its own. When we have a regular zazen practice, we might see that this is not true, that it is really that one moment is just one moment and not connected to other moments. Thus, Dogen is talking about zazen when there is no superposition or conceptual overlay of identity or continuity. This is an ultimate truth.


There are two very important qualifiers we have to make when talking about ultimate truths. First, we must avoid thinking of “emptiness” as an absolute reality or independent reality. There is no “Great Emptiness” outside of our experience. Secondly, we must avoid thinking of “emptiness” as some underlying Absolute Reality from which an illusory world of multiplicity emerges. Emptiness is not a “core reality” at the heart of the universe. It is not a primordial source of all things. When we talk about emptiness, we are simply talking about the emptiness or lack of inherent existence of a particular phenomenon.


The teaching on the two truths was originally explicated by Zen Ancestor Nāgārguna in the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way) which is the foundational text of the the Madhyamika school of Mahayana Buddhism. The verses3 read,


The Buddha's teaching of the Dharma

Is based on two truths:

A truth of worldly convention,

And an ultimate truth.


Those who do not understand

The distinction between these two truths

Do not understand

The Buddha's profound teaching.


Without depending on the conventional truth,

The meaning of the ultimate cannot be taught.

Without understanding the meaning of the ultimate,

Nirvana is not achieved.


The first verse introduces the two truths. The second verse points out something very important. We must be able to recognize the distinctions between these two truths. In particular, it is important to avoid thinking that a conventional truth is an ultimate truth.


The last verse points out that entering an ultimate truth is done through a conventional truth. Nāgārguna is not disparaging the conventional and aggrandizing the ultimate. Quite to the contrary, he is saying that realizing the ultimate natures of phenomena is completely dependent on understanding their conventional natures. So, if we want to realize an ultimate truth, we do so through the conventional. It is pretty natural for people to want to take a short cut, and want to jump directly into a world of ultimate truths rather than dealing with the stinky conventional truths. However, the teachings indicate it is otherwise for a number of reasons. First, we have to learn about an ultimate truth using conventional truths. We must use words and concepts to learn about emptiness and impermanence. Secondly, we realize an ultimate truth through a thorough investigation of the conventional.


This is the meaning of the Heart Sutra, where it says,

Form is empty, emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form; form also is not other than emptiness.


A form and its emptiness are not two different things. The Heart Sutra is also saying that a there is no emptiness outside of the emptiness of a particular phenomena. This is true not only for form, but for all the skandhas (form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness) as well as all other dharmas. The ultimate truth of a phenomenon is approached through its conventional manifestation. It is this conventional truth which allows us to practise.


So, to return to the dialog at the beginning of this talk,


Josho: How can I practise with the parts of myself that don't want to practise?

Zentatsu: There is no part of you that doesn't want to practise.


We can use both the conventional and the ultimate in our practice. Taking up a friendliness of the self can help us get onto the cushion. We can include all the parts of ourselves, even the parts that seem to not want to practise, and include them in our practice. Acknowledging them, and including them leads to a better sense of personal integration. This is healthy. However, imbuing them with a sense of independence and extrinsic power is delusion.


In the ultimate, all these so called parts of ourselves are perceived as they are – conditioned phenomena which manifest and disappear as conditions permit. They have no power, no ability to sustain themselves. There is no sense of time and no sense of history. It is easiest to experience the ultimate truth of a phenomenon when sitting zazen. In the ultimate standpoint there is no “part of you”. In fact, there is no “you”. There is only the arising and passing away of conditioned phenomena without grasping of I, me, or mine. When we have an experience like this, it loosens our habitual grasping. There is not too much more I can say about this. The ultimate truth is always arising and falling away before our eyes. We just need to let go of our habituated “I” making. Thank-you.

1Heart of Wisdom, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Tharpa Publications, 1986, pp 60-64

2Soto Zen Text Project, Stanford University, translated by Bielefeldt and Radich, 2004,

3Chapter 24, verses 8-10 from Ocean of Reasoning: A Great Commentary on Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamikakārikā, Rje Tsong Khapa, translated by Geshe Ngawang Samten and Jay L. Garfield, Oxford UniversityPress, 2006, pp.479, 497, 498.


Copyright, 2016, Kuden Paul Boyle