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No Trace

September 15, 2012

by Stephen Damon

In front of me, attached to my computer, so I can read it first thing in the morning and last thing at night, is this wonderful quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Finish each day and be done with it.  You have done what you could.  Some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can.  Tomorrow is a new day.  You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.

These words speak eloquently for themselves, but I thought it might be interesting to compare them to Suzuki Roshi’s chapter, “No Trace”  in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, which our sangha discussed last week. He says: When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.

If we look closely at ourselves we see that our thoughts, memories, emotions—everything that we experience— leave a trace in us.  We may understand that each moment is a distinct instant, wholly separate from the moment before and the moment after, but if we pay attention, we see that it leaves a trace and informs how we experience the following moment.  And so, we do not live in the present, but in the past.  In a sense our life is an unfolding memory.  How interesting!

To leave a trace is not the same thing as to remember something.  Of course we need to remember what we have done.  The point is that we have to not be attached to anything that has gone before this present moment anymore than we should be attached to the present itself.  We need to find a new way to live our lives where our thoughts and activities do not leave a trace.  We need to disengage from them and watch as they disappear in the bonfires of our practice.  

We need to let go of our life stories, of ourselves. Or as Dogen put it in the Genjo Koan: we need… to forget the self.  To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things.  When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away.  No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.  Not only must we let go of our thoughts, emotions, and memories, we also need to let go of our realization too.  We need to let go of everything that distinguishes us from everything else.

Our unwillingness to do this is the ego’s way of fighting the inevitability of impermanence.   By not letting go, we think we have found a way to get around the fact that everything disappears, if only for a few extra moments. The ego is always trying to find a way to protect itself.  But of course, the only thing we are doing is adding delusions that separate us from what is really going on in ourselves and the world around us. 

So, when we do anything we need to do it as completely as we can with nothing left over.  We need to find a way of living where we burn ourselves completely. If we do not burn ourselves completely, a trace of ourselves will be left in what we do. Zen activity is activity which is completely burned out, with nothing remaining but ashes…


In addition to thinking about these things, it may be helpful to try a little experiment. Take a seat and try to settle down.  After a few moments, try to follow your breathing, without changing it in any way. Pay attention to the sensation of your breathing, right now.  Follow how your chest and abdomen expand and contract.  Notice how during each in-breath something appears and during each out-breath it disappears, without a trace. Notice how the out-breath is a letting go of things, the letting go of yourself, as it were.  If you follow your outgoing breath all the way into nothingness, you experience “leaving no trace.”  You begin to sense that your usual boundaries of self and others disappear. When you run out of breath it is indistinguishable from the air around you.  Then you can begin to sense the boundlessness of self.  You can sense that there is nothing separating you from the universe. You are the universe!  Dogen would say that we occupy the whole of space.  You have disappeared, without a trace!

But then you “reappear” in the next breath, the next moment.  Dogen says that this is the movement of our life.  We live at the pivot of nothingness.  In the present moment our lives appear out of nothingness and then return.  Each moment is life and death.  Something appears, and if we don’t hold on to it, it will disappear without a trace. To experience our life in this way is to be unencumbered by anything from moment to moment. So we need to follow what Emerson said, not only in the morning and evening, but during each breath of our lives.



From → Zen Buddhism

One Comment
  1. Again, a beautiful and thoughtful reading of the great master, Suzuki.

    Thank you.


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