On Being Nobody

by Bill Walz

In Zen, there is a concept utterly foreign to the American mind.  This concept is an ideal; a goal of Zen practice; and it is, paradoxical for an ambition, to be “nobody.”  In Japanese, this concept is communicated with the word, ”mushin,” or, in Chinese, “Mu,” which translates as “no-mind.”  No-mind means to be without ego, to stand in the world as a phenomenon no more important than a bird or a flower, yet equally, no less important than the galaxies themselves.  It means, in the lexicon of Zen, “emptiness.”

The way of the no-mind person is the way of living as “nobody.”  Not a nobody, for this implies you ought to be somebody special, but are not.  To be nobody is a conscious and positive stance in the world, not a lack or failure of stance.  It is about living as a being of and within Nature, not outside it.  It is in understanding that to live from ego, as if the structures of ego are who you are, is the “fall from grace,” the “original sin,” the loss of your true harmonious self.  To be nobody is to live from the natural and spontaneous source of your own being, using your intelligence and faculties to be skillfully in rather than above or attempting to control life.

With no-mind, blossoms invite the butterfly;
With no-mind, the butterfly visits the blossoms.
When the flower blooms, the butterfly comes;
When the butterfly comes, the flower blooms.
I do not “know” others;
Others do not “know” me.
Not-knowing each other we naturally follow the Way.

18th Century Japanese poet, Ryokan

The “Way” that is being referred to is the ancient Chinese Taoist Way, the Way that Lao Tzu, described in the Tao Te Ching as the “origin of heaven-and-earth, it is nameless.”  It is the way beyond intellectualization, categorization and judgment.  It is the way of Nature, not of the egoic human mind.  The “not-knowing” that Ryokan is referring to, is not having preconceived ideas about others and about life, rather, allowing each encounter to be fresh, completely and naturally what it is.

Without a preconceived identity and without preconceived ideas about life, self and others, I am, in this sense, nobody experiencing with no-mind.  Anxiety, anger, depression, arrogance and selfishness are so clearly harmful and unnecessary to a person who is, in consciousness, “nobody.” The joy of living in Creation, harmonious within and without, is their natural abode.

“The adept in Zen is one who manages to be human with the same artless grace and absence of inner conflict with which a tree is a tree.” – Alan Watts

In the modern world, where we are over-burdened with the weight of our own insecure identity, with the obsessive and desperate need for significance, to be “somebody,” to contemplate the meaning of “nobody” can be a valuable reference point.  It reminds us that we have fallen into a terrible hubris, into an arrogance that places us quite outside and at opposition with Nature, and with what Buddhists would call our own original nature.  We have become quite caught in our egoic self-centeredness, our ambitions, opinions and judgments; afraid of being a nobody.  We take everything personally and are filled with inner conflict. This is a most uncomfortable and graceless place to live.

After all, what is it that we get so upset about?  Usually it is about not having things go the way we want them to, or feeling injured, slighted, insulted or discounted in some way.  Being upset is usually about the ego-self wanting more control and importance than it has.  This can be true over real injury, certainly, or, as is often the case, in just not getting our way the way we want it.  The modern spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle, describes our emotional distress as the result of being resistant to what is.  What a simple and clear teaching.  So too then, when we don’t find our identity in ego, we can face many threats and losses, real and imagined, even death, and remain calm and accepting.  We take nothing personally.  Few bits-of-advice can be given that contain greater wisdom.

It is important to realize – this is not about being passive.  Activity and creativity are in our nature and to be active and creative in the expression of life are appropriate and harmonious.  In the service of ego, however, action is seldom harmonious.  Certainly, there are times to resist cruelty and stupidity, but it does not have to be from a place of fear, anger, or violent emotion.  It is just the necessary thing to do.  In the parlance of Zen it is then ‘”non-doing”.   Certainly there are times to use effort for the benefit of our person, others and human society.  Our choice is whether the effort is ego-directed, or from the place of just doing what needs to be done.   Non-doing follows our deepest natural imperative, and “betterment” means to become more conscious, alive, and balanced with others, society and Nature within and around us.

As we assert ourselves, face a challenge, respond to injury or disappointment, whether it is slight or great, we can let go of our ego, be nobody, and in so doing, become more in harmony with life as it is, and with our own life as it is meant to be.  We can engage a moment that could have been one of struggle and suffering for others and ourselves, and instead, turn it into a moment of mastery.  We can be masterfully active and creative just because it is in our nature to be so, noting that to “nobody,” mastery is no big deal.  No big deal, but oh, how splendid.  Like the stars in the night sky or the butterfly visiting the blossom, like a tree being a tree, we can be naturally human, as is said in Zen, “Just so.”

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