Who is this ‘I’?

All the harmful karma ever created by me since of old

On account of my beginningless greed, hatred and ignorance

Born of my body, speech and thought

I now acknowledge openly and fully


In the Purification gatha which opens our sutra service the “I” is salient and crucial. Let’s get it straight right away, in the first person, this matter of putting oneself on the line. Whether referring to the vast and unknowable causes and conditions I have co-participated in “since of old” or to the harmful, even terrible, consequences of my thoughts, words and actions in this particular life, I must own my part. Only when I have fully and openly acknowledged it, can I begin to take responsibility for the suffering I have created.


The profound truth of acknowledgment and responsibility was brought home to me yesterday when I visited a friend and Buddhist practitioner who is incarcerated in a California prison. His daily intention is to find ways to protect others from harm. One form this takes is in supporting young offenders who have entered the prison system, hoping to guide them away from three poisons. He offers the awful errors of his past as an example of the wrong path. Moreover, his daily awareness is directed to living, and loving, openly and fully. I recall Thich Nhat Hahn saying that only by attending to the “present moment” can one truly redeem the past.


This latter is the dimension of prajna, cutting through karmic consciousness. What’s that? Wumen’s verse in Case 12 of the Wu-Men Kuan points to a relative historical understanding of the self:

Students of the Way do not know truth;

they only know their consciousness up to now;

this is the source of endless birth and death;

the fool calls it the original self.


Is your past and how you understand it the sum total of who you are? It’s a limited story and self-reinforcing, a looping narrative that dead-ends. Hereby suffering is created and maintained. Hereby one fears failure and death. Our practice is so salutary! When you can catch yourself thinking “this is who I am,” catch yourself caught in the loop, you can step out and be free. Realise that you are already free! Realise that karmic consciousness is Buddha Nature too.


What are the dimensions of taking full responsibility for the welfare of all beings? Who is this “I”?

Who? In Danville, north of San Francisco, Great Horned Owls call in the night. Hoo. Hoo. Hoo.


This piece is published in the SZC Newsletter – October/November 2018


CC: Photograph by Dick Daniels, Great-horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) – Carolina Raptor Center at Huntersville, North Carolina