‘Who am I?’ is 1 of the 5 spiritual questions or Koans which Zenways work on during the ‘Breakthrough to Zen’ retreats. I wrote about my experiences on these retreats in my previous blog called ‘Weeding the Garden’.
On these Zenways retreats, a key component is the dyad work, where students sit facing a partner. One partner asks the question, ‘Tell me who you are?’ and then listens, as their partner goes through the process of responding. To do this, the responding partner tries to contemplate the question, intending to know the truth, then remains open to whatever arises and then they do their best to express whatever comes up to their partner. I’ve found this dyad work to be an incredibly powerful tool in advancing my meditation practice. The listening partner looks at the speaking or contemplating partner throughout and tries to be fully present for them. The speaking partner can look away whilst they contemplate their question (if they wish), but when they speak, they are instructed to make eye contact with the listening partner.
If you are not used to it, this amount of eye contact, often with complete strangers, asking and speaking about deeply personal matters, can be very unsettling – but why?
I found that there’s something about having to speak out my truth to a partner, whilst making eye contact that kept me honest. If the partner wasn’t there, and I was alone, I could perhaps convince myself of something that wasn’t true, but having to express out loud whatever comes up to another person, it immediately sorts out the untruths (which sound hollow or unconvincing) from the truth of what is arising. Perhaps this is why they say that this dyad method is such an incredibly efficient technique. Zenways teacher Daizan suggests you can cover in 3 days what some meditators might only get to in 3 years if working alone, and this is part of the formulae that means so many retreat attendees do get to make real breakthroughs.
The dyad technique was pioneered in the late 1960’s by Charles Berner, who seems to have come to it almost by accident – if you would like to know more about the history and theory of it, then please read ‘The enlightenment intensive’ book by Laurence Noyes, who was Charles Berner’s student. If you’d like to really know about it beyond just the theory, then I’d recommend jumping in at the deep end and attending a Zenways ‘Breakthrough to Zen’ retreat (www.zenways.org), where Daizan Roshi combines this Dyad work with influences from his time studying with Shinzan Roshi in Japan, as well as modern developments in neuroscience.
Although this is a relatively recent technique, the dyads hark back to a legendary encounter in Zen, between the sixth patriarch, Eno and Myo.
We are told that Eno was an uneducated woodcutter who had a sudden awakening upon hearing a monk chanting the diamond sutra as he happened to be passing by. Eno went to the monastery of the fifth ancestor of Zen in China, who could perceive Eno’s deep understanding. In the temple, Eno was somewhat looked down upon by the other monks due to his illiteracy and lack of formal training. Within the temple, there already existed a hierarchy and Eno as an untrained layman was seemingly right at the bottom of the pecking order, a total outsider to the other monks, many of whom had been in formal training for years.
Perceiving Eno’s true realization, but understanding the temple dynamics, the fifth ancestor trained Eno up in secret to become his successor. In the dead of night, he called Eno to his room and passed on the dharma and formal succession to Eno, by giving him his robes. However, knowing that this would stir up the other monks, he took Eno out of the temple, rowed him across the river, and sent Eno off into the mountains.
On the next day, when the temple awoke, and they found out what had happened, all of the monks thought the fifth ancestor had gone crazy and made a huge mistake. They were so shocked that he had entrusted this illiterate woodcutter with the future of the Zen school. They thought it had to be a terrible mistake, so they went off in pursuit of Eno, with the intention of getting their teacher’s robes back. They all went in search of Eno, who was fleeing further and further away into the mountains.
Finally, Myo, who was one of the strongest and fittest monks, got close to Eno. Eno realized he could not outrun this monk, so instead he put the fifth ancestor’s robes on a rock and retired some distance away. Myo went into the clearing to get the robe and return it to the temple, but strangely he found himself incapable of picking up the robe, as if the robe had suddenly become incredibly heavy or his strength had deserted him. He did not know what to do.
Right at this moment, Eno steps out from behind a tree and asks Myo: “Did you come here for these robes, which are just a bit of cloth, or did you come here for the truth?”
Myo now understands that the robes are meaningless without the dharma behind them, and he tells Eno, that he came in search of the truth. They are facing each other directly. Eno says, “Without thinking good, without thinking evil, what is your original face before your parents were born?”
In this famous encounter, face to face with Eno, Myo looks within, asking who he is, and suddenly finds what he has been training for all this time. He can’t quite believe it, and breaks out into a sweat, his old delusions about who he was, falling away. He now understands why the robes had been bestowed to Eno.
So often we look outside ourselves for the solution to our problems, but actually things become much more interesting when we look within. When we face our partner in the dyad work, looking for our truth and trying to express it, it’s uncomfortable at first, not because we’re facing our partner, but because we’re really facing ourselves, and most of us are not used to doing this.
Can you give yourself enough patience and time to look deeply into who you really are? Can you forgive yourself for the mistakes which you’ve made? Can you treat yourself with kindness and tenderness, even when you are sometimes disgusted by yourself? Can you stop thinking good, stop thinking bad? Can you look long enough to see who you really are?
It’s not easy, but you will find tremendous support to help you take this journey on the Zenways “Breakthrough to Zen” retreats. Whilst not easy to face yourself at first, that does change with time, and time spent doing this work is so incredibly worthwhile.
If you don’t feel ready for this yet, our yoga practice is another way to get more used to spending time with ourselves, starting to take the small steps towards becoming more comfortable with who we are and befriending ourselves.
In the game of Capoeira, we also work with a partner, facing each other in the roda. This encounter too is meaningful. In my next blog, we’ll look at some of the other similarities between Zen, Yoga and Capoeira.
Do please like, share or comment if you find this useful or interesting. You can read more about my work with Zen Yoga and Capoeira in Oxford at www.soulmovement.org.uk where you will also find links to the other blogs which have been published.