“I, in not Being I, am I”

“The true self, for Ueda, is realized as the dynamic entirety of [the] circling movement between self-negation and self-affirmation” (Bret W. Davis).

In Zen, the pursuit of the middle way has been articulated in terms of a search for one’s “true self” in contrast to the illusory substantial self that, sooner or later, generates suffering in our lives. Dogen, the 13th century founder of the Soto Zen school in Japan, famously wrote: “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self (jiko o narau), yet to study the self is to forget the self (jiko o wasururu) and thus to be “verified” [i.e., enlightened] by the myriad things [of the world]. 

In a text about Ueda Shizuteru’s interpretation of the meaning of Buddhist doctrine of anatman, Davis asks: “Does anatman mean “no self” or “no ego” or “no soul”? That of course depends on what is meant by “self” and “ego” and “soul.” When we refer to our “self,” “we must be careful not to misunderstand the self that we are searching for … Ueda sharply distinguishes a genuine search for the true self from a modern individualistic endeavor to “find myself (jibun sagashi). ” True “self-awareness” (jikaku) … is something very different from, indeed something precluded by, the kind of “self-consciousness” (jiko-ishiki) that tend to lead in the opposite direction, namely, towards a narcissistic self-obsession. The “self” (jiko) that Ueda and Zen seek to disclose is something other than a modern sense of an independent and self-assertive “ego”… A genuine investigation into the self reveals that there is no such soul-substance to be found, and that, in fact, our craving to be such an immutable and independent entity not only lies at the root of our own suffering but also, insofar as this delusory craving alienates us from, and sets us in opposition to others, it gives rise to the greed and hatred we habitually manifest. The Zen investigation into the self aims to dissolve the bundle of delusion, greed, and hatred (which in Buddhism are called “the three poisons”) that generate and perpetuate the tumbleweed grasped as the ego.”

Davis continues: “To truly know oneself is to know that one is not a self-enclosed substance but rather a dynamic openness to one’s interrelatedness with others.” But he also acknowledges that the invitation to “forget” the self may be misinterpreted. He continues:  “To be sure, if mishandled, the instruction to “forget the self” can potentially be just as misleading as a self-obsessed endeavor to “find myself.” If one loses a sense of one’s situated agency and responsibility and merely passively follows the crowd or obeys the will of another, this loss of self is hardly a genuine solution to the converse problem of egoistic attachment and self-assertiveness. Ueda thus writes that genuine freedom is found by way of pursuing a middle way between “attachment to the self” and “oblivion of the self.”

Davis writes: “What is clear is that Buddhism rejects any ontology that posits an independent and substantial self, and that it calls for an ethical and religious abnegation of egoism. But precisely these negations of a false sense of ego can be understood to entail the affirmation of a true self that is awakened to, and compassionately participates in, its coexistence – or “interdependent origination” (pratityasamutpada) – with others. Indeed, Mahayana Buddhist traditions, and Zen in particular, have often affirmed such conception of a true self (shin no jiko) as the other side of the same coin of rejecting a deluded and pernicious sense of ego (ga).” Note that enlightenment, defined as the realisation of the “true self” is also referred to as “the self-realization of reality in one’s self-awareness” (jikaku). The true self as the realisation of “jikaku,” is what Dogen refers to as being “verified” [i.e., enlightened] by the myriad things [of the world].

Davis then concludes that the teaching about “anatman” is an invitation to let go of our sense of self because it is by nullifying this sense of self that we can access and realise our “true self.” “The experience of anatman should be understood rather as the second moment in the dialectical movement of the true self, that is to say, of the self who affirms itself only by way of negating itself. The self-identity of such a self can be expressed as “I, in not being I, am I.” In other words, the true self is neither a reified object nor a static subject; it is not a subjective substance but rather a dialectically nondual process, a movement of “I, negating myself, am myself.” Ueda understands the Buddhist teaching of anatman to be calling attention to the crucial moment of “in not being I” or “negating myself,” a moment in the process of the true self that breaks open the karmically driven closed circuit of “I am I” and enables the self to be itself by way of not being itself. The true self, for Ueda, is realized as the dynamic entirety of this circling movement between self-negation and self-affirmation.”


Bret W Davis – “The Contours of Ueda Shizuteru’s Philosophy of Zen” in Tetsugaku Companion to Ueda Shizuteru (2022)

Bamboo and Japanese maple combined at Tenryū-ji Garden in Kyoto