The following is an excerpt from my new book THE OTHER SIDE OF NOTHING. This is Chapter 36, entitled “Who Walked My Dog?”. It’s my favorite chapter. This isn’t the whole chapter — you’ll have to get the book to read that! But it’s most of it. Enjoy!
Just a few of minutes ago, I took a break from writing to go out and walk Ziggy Pup, my dog. I decided to use the opportunity to try to figure out who this “me” was who was walking the dog.
To other people on the street, I’m sure we looked pretty ordinary. Just a guy out walking his dog. I don’t know if anyone Ziggy and I encountered on that walk made up any stories about me based on my Godzilla T-shirt and my hat with a picture of one of the Sleestaks from the old kids’ TV show Land of the Lost. Maybe they did. But, if so, none of those stories would be very accurate.
In any case, that’s just what I am externally. Internally, though, what am I when I walk the dog?
As I walk, I have thoughts, memories, daydreams. Am I my thoughts? I used to identify with them very strongly. I thought of thoughts that passed through my head as belonging to me, I believed they were produced by me.
But do I actually choose to think certain things and then summon those images up? I guess I can do that to a certain extent, sometimes. But most of the time it feels like what I think is not really in my conscious control. I often think about things that I would prefer not to think about. Whose fault is that?
A lot of us are under the impression that our thoughts are our own creation. But that doesn’t really seem to be the case. If you slow things down by doing a practice like zazen, you can actually watch thoughts sort of bubble up from who knows where. They start off very vague and unformed, and then they sort of firm up and take a more definite form like Jell-o does when you put it in the fridge. Sometimes they turn into sets of words. Jell-o words!
I identify with some thoughts, the ones that feel like they come out of my personality. Other thoughts don’t seem related to my self-image and I barely acknowledge them. I didn’t even realize I did this until I’d done lots of zazen.
In any case, my thoughts are not “me.” Even when I think of them as having been created by “me,” it doesn’t seem like they are “me.” I mean, who is this “me” that I imagine creates “my” thoughts? Some invisible and silent thought-maker? Many times while doing zazen, I’ve tried to find the invisible and silent thought-maker, but I’ve never succeeded.
If I am not thought or even the thought-maker, I must be something else.
Let’s get back to my walk with Ziggy Pup. I was out there to do a job, to guide the dog around the neighborhood to pee and sniff the leftover pee of other dogs, and to get some exercise for both of us. As I rounded the corner near the end of the block where the fountain is I met little Gigi, a neighborhood dog that Ziggy loves to play with a lot, and Gigi’s person. While Ziggy and Gigi chased each other around I had a little chat with Gigi’s owner, who is my girlfriend’s mom’s friend.
When I meet other people walking their dogs, I sometimes ask them how old their dogs are, what their dog’s names are, and stuff like that. Our conversations are mostly pretty trivial and shallow. But shallow and trivial conversations aren’t necessarily a bad thing. I enjoy them a lot, in fact. It’s good to talk to other people in any capacity, I think.
Occasionally, I ask other dog-walkers about themselves and they ask me about me. We tell each other what we do for a living, where we came from, maybe some interesting places we’ve gone or things we’ve done. In short, we talk about our pasts.
Is that what I am? My past? Was it my past who was walking Ziggy? Was that “me?” Was “me” the guy that wrote a bunch of books about Zen? Was “me” a guy from Ohio who grew up partially in Africa and then lived in Japan for a long time? Was “me” the bass player in a band who, nowadays, only gets together about once a year because the rest of the guys live in Ohio and I live in California? Is the trajectory that this body and mind has taken “me?”
Let’s consider that for a bit. I suppose you could say that every experience I’ve ever had played some role in walking the dog. So in some sense, maybe my past walked the dog.
You could say, for example, that because I was born in a certain time and place, and made a specific set of decisions throughout my life, I ended up in just the right place to walk Ziggy Pup on a random Thursday afternoon. Because I chose to take a teaching job in Japan in the early 90s and quit that job, I ended up working for Tsuburaya Productions, the folks who make the superhero show Ultraman, and they sent me to work at their Los Angeles office, which subsequently closed, leaving me adrift in LA, and this eventually set off a chain of events that led me to meet my girlfriend, who decided to rescue a dog from a shelter, and — voila! — there I was walking that dog.
Things could have been different. Or so we are prone to believe. You could say that if I hadn’t taken that teaching job in Japan or had made any of a number of other such different decisions I wouldn’t have ended up walking that dog. Based on that idea you might say that I could have had some other, very different life. Most of us believe that sort of thing. We imagine that our lives could have been different from the way they are. I’m not so sure I believe that, though.
I used to believe that. I’d get very worked up about how things might have been. I used to find myself in places I didn’t want to be, cursing the fact that I wasn’t somewhere else. Then I noticed that, no matter where I was, that was where I was. The idea that I could be somewhere else simply was not true. I can’t be anywhere other than exactly where I am. Where I am and who I am seem to be inseparable.
Life got a lot better when I finally came to terms with that. It’s not that I never wish I was somewhere else. Those kinds of ideas still come up sometimes. But I know that where I am is just where I am. If I want to be somewhere else, I have to get off my ass and go there. The reason that I’m not somewhere else is always the same; I’m not there because I am here.
But why am I here? This is not so clear, actually. You could say I am here because of the trajectory my life took in the past and the decisions I made — ethical and unethical. It’s simple cause and effect. I accept that. But I can’t actually trace the entire trajectory of my life, even though it seems like it ought to be accessible in my memories.
But, in fact, all of my memories are pretty iffy. Sometimes I think I remember a situation clearly, and then I meet someone else who was there at the time and they tell me I’m completely wrong about significant details. In my first book, Hardcore Zen, I told the story of how Zero Defex the band I was in back in 1983 (and that I’m still in today) got attacked by a bunch of angry rednecks at a bar in Dover, Ohio where we were booked to play a show. About ten minutes into our set, all hell broke loose. Bottles were flying. Chairs were flying. I ran away and hid in the lady’s room.
When writing Hardcore Zen, I wrote the story of that night from memory. At the time I wasn’t in touch with anyone else who’d been there. Years later, I made a movie about the hardcore punk scene in Northeast Ohio in those days called Cleveland’s Screaming. As part of making the movie, I talked to many of the other people who were also there that night in Dover. They pointed out a whole lot of things I’d forgotten. I realized that lots of what I said in my book was totally wrong.
I’ve even seen videos of me doing stuff that I have no recollection at all of ever having done. While making that movie about the hardcore punk scene in Ohio and found some video tapes of some shows we did. Up until I saw those videos, I had not remembered anyone ever videotaping any of our shows. Yet there I was on the screen. Or at least there was someone on the screen who looked like what I remember seeing when I looked in the mirror in those days. It was eerie to see that stuff. In those old videos I even looked right at the camera a couple of times. So, at one time I did know I’d been videotaped, yet that memory had disappeared.
A few years ago I found a diary I’d kept during one of the first Zen retreats I went on with Nishijima Roshi at Tokei-in, the temple in Shizuoka, Japan where we did most of our retreats. In the diary I wrote about some locals taking a bunch of us foreign Zen students for a ride in the back of a pickup truck to go look at fireflies. I don’t remember that at all. But it’s there in that diary in my own handwriting. Weird.
Even when it comes to very recent events, it’s mostly a blur. I could tell you what I had for breakfast today — a banana and peanut butter smoothie — and I know I made a video for my YouTube channel a couple of hours ago, and worked on writing this book. But there are lots of details that are lost forever. More than I’ll ever know.
My memories, therefore, are not a particularly reliable guide to what actually happened in my life. I can recount my life story — I do it a lot these days in interviews and pieces of writing — but I know I’m probably getting it wrong, as in the case of my book Hardcore Zen. That stuff with the rednecks who attacked us in that bar was only part of it. I think we all do this. We fill gaps in our memories with purely made-up stuff and then we don’t really know which parts actually happened.
I’m not even sure I was ever actually born. I know that probably sounds kooky. But I have no memory of my own birth. My mom remembered it. But, then again, what she remembered was the moment she pushed me out of her body. That was on what they call my “birthday.” But was that the day I came into existence? Surely I was already alive before then. When did I start? There are loads of political debates about that question. But nobody really knows the answer.
Even if I could pinpoint the exact moment when something identifiable as my individual human life began, was that really the beginning? Was I alive as something else even before then? Even if you don’t believe in reincarnation, maybe you could say that before my conception I was alive as a sperm and an egg. If so, I was two individuals who merged into one!
So who was walking Ziggy Pup?
Was it my future? Was it all the things that I worry might happen to me? Was it all the things I look forward to? Those are just thoughts. They come and they go. And, as I said, my thoughts do not seem to be “me.” I worry about my future sometimes, just like anyone else. But worrying about my future has only limited value. If I were to look at my bank balance and see that there wasn’t enough for next month’s rent, then worry might be appropriate. But in most cases, worries about the future are far more abstract and far less practical.
There are literally infinite ways a person might die, for example. And some of them are really scary. But what’s the sense in imagining what speculative scenarios of my death might be like? Or imagining what it would be like if nobody ever bought my books and I went broke? Or imagining any of an infinite variety of other things that might happen? Yet lots of us waste far too much mental energy on such imaginary scenarios. Thankfully, I seem to have finally learned not to follow those sorts of thoughts very far when they come up. It took a lot of hard Zen practice to get there, though!
When you do zazen for long periods, it seems like the brain starts churning up all kinds of rando memories and fears and stuff like that. At first it can be extremely distracting. But after a while you just get sick of it. My friend Greg, who was the spiritual director of Tassajara Zen monastery, said that it’s kind of like a piece of gum you keep chewing even after all the flavor is gone. Eventually you realize that you need to just spit it out.
OK. So if that isn’t “me,” then was the “me” that walked the dog my experience of walking the dog? Like my experience of the sunshine on my face, the earth and concrete beneath my feet, the feeling of the leash in my hand, the sight of Ziggy’s furry butt waddling about four feet in front of me. I’ve learned to keep a sharp eye on him since he escaped from his harness a couple of times. As I walked Ziggy, there seemed to be a human-shaped something with eyes and other sense organs who experienced the walk as a physical being participating in a physical event.
Was that “me?” I’m sure other people would define it that way. Brad Warner, physical being, took his dog, Ziggy Pup, for a walk. Simple! But what was the “me” who subjectively experienced that?
I honestly do not know. There’s a story about Bodhidharma, the Indian Buddhist master who brought the Zen form of Buddhism to China. The story goes that the emperor wanted to meet him. So Bodhidharma went to the palace. The emperor told him about all the Buddhist temples he’d built and asked Bodhidharma what merit he had acquired by doing so. Bodhidharma said, “No merit.” Then the emperor asked him about the highest truth. Bodhidharma said, “There is only vast emptiness.” So the emperor asked Bodhidharma who he — Bodhidharma — was. Bodhidharma said, “I don’t know.”
If the emperor of China had invited me to his palace and asked me who walked Ziggy Pup, I’m not sure I’d have the guts to answer like Bodhidharma did, but the most honest answer is the one he gave, “I don’t know.”
I subjectively experienced a walk with a dog. I feel like the same person who walked the dog is typing this right now. The person who is typing this certainly has specific memories of that walk with Ziggy Pup that no one else has. Presumably, these memories could be verified by whatever surveillance cameras might have caught parts of the walk or by people who witnessed the walk, if anyone would recall such a mundane thing. If I had committed a crime during that walk — like if I’d failed to pick up Ziggy’s poop — then the person who is typing this now would be considered the guilty party.
But is it “me” who walked the dog? In conventional terms, that’s what I’d tell someone who asked and who didn’t want a long philosophical discussion about the nature of the self. But, honestly, I am not sure.
When I get worked up about “me,” what am I getting worked up about? As I said, I might get worked up about worries of things that might happen to “me” in the future. But I’m not sure if future me will experience any of the things I worry about. And I’m not sure if, even if future me did experience those things, it would be anything like what me right now imagines. Lots of things in the past that I anticipated would be horrible, turned out just fine, while lots of things that I looked forward to ended up being kind of crappy.
Whatever can be thought is just a thought. My most terrifying fears are just secretions of my brain. My most joyful anticipations are nothing more than energy bopping around in my head. My deepest regrets are just brain farts.
I might get worked up about my past, about things I did that I regret having done. But, again, who did those things? As I said, if I’d done something criminal, a court could determine me to be guilty. Which is one reason why I avoid doing anything illegal. But, even though I haven’t broken any major laws, I still have regrets. Everyone does. But once we do something, we can never go back and undo that thing. As my teacher said, once we do something it’s carved into the universe.
In some sense, all of those past things I did — the unethical ones I regret, the ethical ones I’m proud of, and the ones I’ve utterly forgotten — are sitting here now typing out this book. Maybe some of the things I regret the most made me a better person somehow. Maybe some of the things I take pride in having accomplished aren’t really all that great.
But are they “me?” Are they the something that watches my fingers type these words? Are they the something that watches thoughts form into words? Are they the something that abides even in deepest, dreamless sleep and who somehow reacquaints itself with the life trajectory of Brad Warner every morning after having not been anyone at all for most of the night? Or after having been someone else in a dream?
The fact is, I don’t know “me” at all.
When I look at it this way, “me” seems to be made up mostly of memory and imagination. When I describe “me” in conventional terms, all I’m really describing is my iffy memories of my personal past and my imaginary and usually mistaken ideas of my personal future.
Yet something was out there walking the dog. Something real. And something real is typing this right now. And it’s not just memory and imagination. Maybe what I’m writing is based on memory and imagination. But the “me” who is writing it seems to be something else.
When someone yells, “Brad!” I respond. When I respond to my name, there’s a certain feeling that comes with that. It’s a far more definite feeling of me-ness — if there is such a word — than when I simply think of myself as “me.”
There’s an old Zen story that relates to that. It goes something like this. A guy named Go-ei visited Sekito Kisen, who was a very famous Zen Master, and said to him, “If you can say something I agree with, I’ll stay here and study with you. If not, I’ll leave.”
Sekito didn’t respond.
Go-ei figured he’d bested Sekito and walked out of Sekito’s temple, swinging his sleeves widely with pride, as folks did back in those days. We’ve seen that move before!
When Go-ei was almost at the temple gate, Sekito yelled, “Hey! Go-ei!”
Go-ei turned his head.
Sekito said, “From birth to death it’s just like this!”
Go-ei immediately awakened to the truth and later became a renowned master.
Usually this story is explained by saying that Go-ei was trying to play an intellectual game with Sekito. Then Sekito made him suddenly aware of the real situation at that very moment and he was awakened to the truth. Which is fine if you like explanations like that. I’m not so sure that’s the best explanation.
This was one of the first koan stories I ever heard. I never forgot that last line, “from birth to death it’s just like this,” but I forgot the rest of the story. It took me ages to find it again. What strikes me about the story is the way Go-ei came to his awakening when he heard his own name followed by “from birth to death it’s just like this.”
The moment he turned his head, Go-ei was face-to-face with reality.
Nobody called out my name when I was walking Ziggy Pup this afternoon. There were no Zen masters standing at the bus stops I passed waiting to awaken me to the truth of the universe. Even if there had been, I wonder if I’d have gotten it. Moments of awakening seem to happen on their own terms. You can’t force them. And the specific trigger that works for one person at one time, probably won’t work for anyone else ever again.
Names are interesting. Ziggy responds to his name. So he must have some feeling of identification with his name. I even had a cat who responded to his name. There must be something very primal about that sort of identification. It is a shock to discover that the same thing you identified with your personal name is also the basis for the entire universe; that the entire universe is made exclusively out of the very thing you’ve always identified with your personal name.
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