Going Against the Identity Center and Going With: The Missing Motif

Going Against the Identity Center and Going With: The Missing Motif September 16, 2020

Dàhuì Zōnggǎo (1089–1163, 大慧宗杲)

In April, in the early pandemic days, I began posting a series here on the nine motifs offered to summarize the teaching of Zen Master Dàhuì Zōnggǎo, thanks to the recent translation of The Letters of Chan Master Dàhuì Pǔjué, by Jeffrey L. Broughton and Elise Yoko Watanabe, starting here:

The Most Revered and Most Reviled Zen Master Ever

Now that we’ve worked through the Letters on The Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training, and had a powerful summer practice session, it occurs to me that there is at least one more important motif: “Going Against the Identity Center and Going With.” After all, Dàhuì brings up this practice at least eight times in four different letters. (1)

But more importantly, it is enormously valuable as a practice tool.

“The identity center,” by the way, is a way of talking about “the self” or “I” or “ego,” but in a more descriptive way, borrowed from David Hinton’s upcoming book China Root: Taoism, Chan, and Original Zen, due out at the end of September (watch this space for a review).

If you have studied the great Sōtō master, Dōgen, you’ll remember that in his “Genjōkōan” he says, “To study the buddhadharma is to study the self.” That “self,” of course, is the identity center that I’m talking about here, but with this practice, the emphasis is to notice specifically how the self, the identity center, is illuminated or obscured when things don’t go our way and when they do.

Here’s one example of Dàhuì laying this out

Circumstances that go against you are easy to deal with; circumstances that go in your direction are difficult to deal with. For circumstances that go against the “I,” all that is needed is the single word “patience”—quiet your mind for a while, and the circumstance will have passed. As for sense objects that go in your way—truly there’s no way to evade them. You and those sense fields are like the meeting of a magnet and a piece of iron—the two of them, before you know it, fuse into one. If even inanimate things fuse like that, how much more so is it the case between the self and ignorance: the self is wholly inside the activated ignorance and is going about making its livelihood. Confronting circumstances that go in your way, as if you have no prajñā, without being aware and without knowing, you will get drawn by them into the net. Once inside, even if you want to look for an escape route, won’t it be impossible? Therefore, a former noble one said: ‘Entering worldly affairs is the other worldly with nothing extra.’ This is exactly the singular inner pattern of the Way!” (2)

Going Against the Identity Center: Easy!

Yup, when things go against us, that’s easy practice because it’s easy to see. “I don’t like that!” “I don’t want that!” “That isn’t me!” and all the many more subtle nuances of how things go against us. Both the coarse and subtle are examples of ego-dystonic phenomena or barriers.

Dàhuì recommends a simple self-talk strategy for dealing with this: “Patience, patience.” Other strategies for working with ego-dystonic barriers that Tetsugan Osho and I unpacked in a recent retreat include:

  • mindfulness of feeling tone

  • revealing and disclosing (Formless Atonement & Taking Refuge)
  • returning to vow and consciously choosing to do this work

  • leading with the body

And most significantly for awakening (aka, “forgetting the self” in Dōgen’s formula) is rather than to simply calm the heart, to pounce on the I – clearly see the identity center in action. Who is this going against?

Dàhuì puts it this way: “In the state of responding to conditions in daily activities, at all times watch-for-an-opening-to-pounce [on] this ‘I’….” (3)

The practice isn’t about pouncing on this “I,” this identity center, in order to obliterate it, but to see it, to be it, to forget it, to be the 10,000 things.

Going With the Identity Center: Difficult!

“Ego syntonic” refers to the events, behaviors, values, and feelings that are in harmony with or acceptable to the needs and goals of the identity center – when things are going our way. Conditions are consistent with our self-image. That does not necessarily mean they are pleasant conditions, because in some way most of us identify as a self with issues. For example, if we identify as a confused person, conditions that support confusion will be ego syntonic. Working with ego syntonic barriers is much more subtle work.

Here are some ways of working with the ego syntonic:

1. Make what’s ego-syntonic → ego dystonic through engaging in the teacher-student relationship, zazen, study, and the community. In the midst of the practice, in relationship, you might notice your identity center’s defense – “You’re not going to make my ego-syntonic issue/barrier dystonic, no way!” There it is – attachment, resistance, rationalization.

2. Study the Ten Prohibitory Precepts. Notice those aspects of the precepts that you justify as not an issue. Those are the ego-syntonic precept misses. For example, you might justify sarcasm as a little humor and not notice the impact hurtful words have on others. Who is it that makes this justification?

3. Transformation of view/realization (kenshō). This, of course, is the essential practice, realizing within the subtle obscuration of things going your way, who you truly are. Samadhi, an extremely ego-syntonic state, is one time to take this up. Again, watch for an opening to pounce this “identity center.” Who is it that is experiencing things as going your way?

As we get cooking in this work, we become, in Dàhuì’s words, “… like someone who is arresting a thief and already knows the location of their hideout—you simply haven’t caught them yet.” (4)


Whether something is dystonic or syntonic to the identity center is, from the perspective of this practice, just the opportunity to practice. You are not a bad Zen student if things are going your way! The point isn’t to make stuff either dystonic or syntonic, but to see what’s happening and to pounce on the “I” who seems to be experiencing it as something that is happening to “it” (either going its way or against its way) in order to awaken and practice compassion – and for no other reason.

(1) See The Letters of Chan Master Dàhuì Pǔjué, trns., Jeffrey L. Broughton and Elise Yoko Watanabe, letters 28.2, 51.2, 51.3, 51.5, 55.1, 55.2, 55.4, 59.1.

(2) Ibid., 51.3, the last two sentences are my translation.

(3) Ibid., 54.1.

(4) Ibid., 34.6.

Dōshō Port began practicing Zen in 1977 and now co-teaches with his wife, Tetsugan Zummach Ōshō, with the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training, an internet-based Zen community. Dōshō received dharma transmission from Dainin Katagiri Rōshi and inka shōmei from James Myōun Ford Rōshi in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. Dōshō’s translation and commentary on The Record of Empty Hall is due out in February, 2021 (Shambhala). He is also the author of Keep Me In Your Heart a While: The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri.

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