The Theosophical Society in America

Light of the Self

Printed in the  Summer 2018  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Katagiri, Dainin, "Light of the Self" Quest 106:3, pg 30-32

By Dainin Katagiri

Dainin KatagiriBuddha’s teaching constantly tells us how sublime human life is and how great our human capacity is. In Buddhism, this great capacity is called light. Each and every one of us has this light. When you look at your life and see how selfish and egoistic human beings are, you don’t believe you have a great sublime capacity. But you don’t discover your great capacity by evaluating and judging your human value. If you are thinking in that way, you have already shut yourself off from that light.

Don’t judge yourself as selfish or egoistic only. You are something more. So whatever you think about your life, first accept yourself as a person who has a great capacity. Then, in whatever situation you may be, calm your mind and take care of your life positively. If you get angry, try to calm your mind, even if you are just pretending. You may say that pretending to be calm is not realistic, but try to calm down anyway. That is not so easy for us, particularly under difficult circumstances. But still, whatever happens, you can stop, open yourself, and try to see the whole situation. Then you can learn a lot. 

The Whole World in the Ten Directions

You have a sublime capacity to understand your life. That capacity is called light, but it is completely beyond any intellectual understanding of what your human capacity is. Beyond your human speculation, you are already great because, whatever you may do, wherever you may be, light is working with you. This is called the light of the self.

In Shobogenzo Jippo (“The Ten Directions”) Dogen Zenji (1200–53), founder of the Soto school of Zen, mentions a saying by Chinese Zen master Chosa Keishin (Changsha Jingcen, 788–868). He says, “The whole world in the ten directions is the light of the self. The whole world in the ten directions is within the light of the self.” This saying seems to present two different ideas, but actually it is one picture seen from two angles.

The Buddhist term ten directions represents the entire universe—eight compass directions, above, and below—but it implies something more than the ordinary concept of the universe. The ordinary idea is that when you were born, the universe was already here. You are born into this world, and then you try to understand it.

But if you try to understand the meaning of “the whole world in the ten directions” in the ordinary way, you will never understand it, because you were not born into a world that was already here: you and the whole world were born together. You were born simultaneously with mountains, rivers, and the whole universe. That is the Buddhist teaching of interdependent coorigination.

A mountain appears to be very stable, but actually it is moving. Mountains are alive because mountains are constantly in the process of birth. If you understand a mountain in that way, you understand that your life is simultaneously there.

Day by day, from moment to moment, your life coexists exactly with mountains and rivers; you cannot be separated. This is your everyday life. We think we know pretty well what everyday life is. But in the deeper sense, “everyday life” is the great source of the flow of life energy, digesting everything and producing new life.

In Shobogenzo Shinjin-gakudo (“Body and Mind Study of the Way”) Dogen says:

Everyday mind is always every day, throughout this world and the other world. Yesterday left from that, today comes from that place. When you go, the whole world goes. When you come, the whole earth comes. The gate of this everydayness is opening and closing at the moment, the gates of myriad, myriad beings are opening and closing at the moment.

If you read this statement in Japanese, it’s very beautiful. When I translate it into English, maybe it’s not so beautiful. But, behind the words, please try to understand that everydayness is something existing with all sentient beings; it is present with the vast cosmic universe.

Dogen is difficult to understand because he uses words to express the oneness of the whole universe. Still, even if you don’t understand exactly, when you read this statement, something appears through the words, and you are really captured by Dogen’s beautiful statement.

Every day, from moment to moment, the whole world arises like images in bas-relief sculpture. If you calm the functioning of your consciousness, you can actually see images coming up from the background of space. It’s like watching a dance—something is constantly moving. In The Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra recognizes that activity as Shiva’s dance, the cosmic dance of creation and destruction. In Buddhism we say it is the continuous stream of life energy, and it is called continuous practice.

In the realm of continuous practice there is a great opportunity—you can see the universe coming up as one whole. It’s just like a television. Push the button, and the myriad beings existing in the vast expanse of the universe immediately come into one screen. That one screen is called the self.

What is this self? Is it your small, egoistic self? Can you say yes or no? The self is a picture of the whole world coming up, but it’s completely free. Sometimes it appears as your individual self. Sometimes it appears as trees, birds, or pebbles. Sometimes it appears as vast space. This is the true picture of the great self you already have.

Your true self is not something separated from others; it is interconnected and constantly working with others. Where? Not in your own small territory, it’s working in the huge universe! In Japanese, that working is called komyo—light. The functioning energy of the whole world is the light of the self. Because light is working from moment to moment, the whole world constantly manifests itself as the human world. At that time, the whole world is within the light of the self.

Light of the self is something you can know because that energy is always moving and acting in your own life. Usually you are not aware of it, but it’s true—you can taste this. You can actually realize the dynamic functioning of your own life. When you sit down on your cushion, the whole vast universe comes into you as your body, your mind, the contents of your life, and you can taste the depth of human life. Then you can stand up there and take care of everyday life as it really is. So please accept your life as the whole world, and take good care of your life.

Dogen’s Eyeball and Nose

Dogen says something very interesting about the light of the self. I don’t know if my translation is right or wrong, but in Shobogenzo Jippo he says, “It is a single sheet with the eye and its cornea.” That’s pretty interesting but not so easy to understand. In your eyeball, the cornea covers the lens. It’s transparent, so you don’t see it. When I say that the cornea covers the lens, I have already separated the cornea from the lens. But is there any space between the cornea and the lens? No, there is no gap. When your eyeball is functioning in the proper way, those two things are working together as one. If you have some space there, that’s trouble for you. Please see a doctor.

When Dogen Zenji says light of the self means no gap between eye and cornea, he means there is no gap between you as your subject, “I,” and your object, whatever it is. Words always create a gap between things, but subject and object are not actually separate: they are interconnected. Your life and the whole world are always working together as one dynamic functioning. So self and the whole world are not separated; they are the same. Whatever you do, you always do it with the whole world.

Dogen also says, “The whole world is one’s nostrils prior to the parents’ birth.” This is very strange, so what does it mean? The world prior to our parents’ birth is unknown for us, so this saying implies the whole world throughout the past, present, and future. We don’t know what that huge world is exactly, because it’s too vast, too eternal to know. But even though you don’t know, here are your nostrils! In other words, right now, right here, that huge world is your nose. This is the real existence of your nose.

When my nose appears, it is the whole universe. How? I don’t know. But if I accept that the whole universe is constantly in the process of birth, then my nose is also coming up from moment to moment. My nose appears as a particular being because the whole world is functioning as one being. So through my nose I can understand the universe that sometimes appears as time and sometimes as space. Through your nose you can learn a lot; you can know many beings, because each and every being is exactly the whole world. In Buddhism, we accept every aspect of human life like this.

Total Dynamic Activity

Why are you alive? What makes your life continue? Is it by your own effort? Well, of course you can say so, because you cannot ignore making an effort to live every day. But there is something more than that. You survive because something real is working every day. Your life is moving with the whole universe. That movement has no colors, no flavors, nothing, but it appears to you under certain circumstances. For example, when you dance wholeheartedly, you can feel that energy coming up.

When you see this energy in terms of your own life, it is called individual effort. Before that, it has no name; it is just dynamism. If we give a name to it, this movement of life is called great effort or universal effort. Universal effort is there first, and then it appears in various aspects of your life as your individual effort.

We use the terms universal effort and individual effort, but actually there is no gap between them. You take care of universal effort by your individual effort. It’s a little difficult to do this, because we are always critical about our own effort. We attach to getting a certain result from our effort. Then we judge it in terms of ideas and emotions connected with our heredity, education, consciousness, and memories coming from the past, so it’s very complicated. Universal effort is very simple. That’s why we try to understand our lives in terms of the universal perspective. How?

When you wash your face, accept washing as universal effort first, and then make your own individual effort. Deal with everything—your face, the water, your posture of standing in front of the basin—as universal activity. Through the actions of washing your face, you can go beyond your usual understanding and experience the pure nature of washing your face. This is the realm of total dynamic action. Right in the middle of taking good care of your individual effort as universal effort, the whole world comes into one screen. That one screen is the big picture of your life. When you see that living screen, you can learn who you really are.

What makes it possible for the whole world to come into one screen? It is by your own acting. When you act with sincerity and a warm heart, there is a great opportunity, a very subtle opportunity, to invite the whole world into your life. That is wonderful, but if you misunderstand acting, it is very dangerous.

The usual meaning of human action is dangerous, because when we act only on the basis of individual desires, customs, lifestyles, or heredity, we are always creating problems. That’s why people are afraid to act, why people want to withdraw from the world and be quiet. Still, wherever you may go, whatever you do, even when you are asleep, you never stop acting. Nothing stops your acting, so your activity must be refined.

In refined human activity, your whole body is in dynamism, but your mind is quiet and calm. At that time, no words are interposed between you and the universe, so your idea of a separate self disappears. If your idea of self disappears, is there no-self? Yes, that is true. You are walking in the vast expanse of the universe—with people, animals, mountains, the sky, the four seasons, space—and there is no gap anywhere. At that time you realize the big picture of your life and your great sublime capacity. 

Moving from Doubt to Wisdom and Compassion

In Buddhism, we try to be straightforward toward our great capacity, live wholeheartedly with sincerity, and display our light in everyday life as best as we can. But maybe you are skeptical of this capacity, so your mind doesn’t accept it. Maybe you understand it intellectually, but your body doesn’t accept it. That skepticism is called doubt.

For example, when I answer some question, you say, “Yes, Katagiri, I understand what you said,” then you say “but” and want to talk about it some more. Where does that “but” come from? It comes from a gap between you and your object. We are always talking about this gap and how to fill it up. That’s all right; talking is the nature of human beings. Discussion is interesting for us. But if you are always talking, you never know real reality. Finally you become exhausted.

Before you ask a question, you are already here; you are already alive. So how do you live right now? Buddhism teaches us how to straightforwardly accept how sublime human life is. That is the activity of Buddhist practice.

When you touch your real self, you experience deep communication between you and the object of your practice, whatever it is. Then you can accept something totally and deal with it straightforwardly without creating any gap. So keep your mouth shut, calm your mind, and just be present in the continuous stream of life energy.

The Buddhist understanding of the self or the whole world seems to be abstract, but it is not abstract. You can really see and touch the self. You can learn that the whole world in the ten directions is the light of the self. How? Action! Try to remember this. In the dynamic activity of your practice, something happens that you have never expected. You can learn something great. That is called wisdom.

Wisdom is a deep understanding of yourself and the whole world around you, not only what’s on the surface of life. With wisdom, you understand that your own life is simultaneously the whole world in the ten directions. Then compassion comes up, and you accept others with magnanimous openheartedness. Compassion makes you generous, and through this generosity you can live with people; you can take a breath with people.

True compassionate action is based on wisdom, so when you express compassion, it should be based on deep understanding. If you use the world just for your own life, it becomes stinky, and people don’t like you; they keep away from you. But if you act with the whole world, light appears in your everyday life. Then, very naturally, your compassion is transmitted to somebody else. People feel this. People understand. You cannot perceive it, but people immediately receive this warm communication. It’s just like lightning.


Dainin Katagiri Roshi (1928–90) was founder and abbot of the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center in Minneapolis. He is the author of several other books, including Return to Silence and Each Moment Is the Universe.

Reprinted from The Light That Shines through Infinity: Zen and the Energy of Life by Dainin Katagiri. Copyright © 2017 by Minnesota Zen Meditation Center. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications Inc., Boulder, Colorado: www.shambhala.com.