‘What is your self?’

~ Yunmen, fragment from Case 87, Blue Cliff Record

This fragment comes from a famous koan, one of my favorite: ‘Medicine and sickness heal each other; The whole world is medicine; What are you?’ Indeed, what and who are we? There probably is no more important question in our lives.


Recently I sat in a retreat with many long-time friends. It was rich and deep and the shared wisdom in the room was profound. A key theme that appeared among the participants was the magic of ‘embodiment’. What is that?

In koan practice we take on a koan, or story, and become that story such that there is no gap between the koan story, like ‘Find shelter for a homeless person’ or ‘A young women comes forth’ and our own story. ‘Homelessness’, of course, is not just about spending time in a hobo camp (which I have done); perhaps it is when we lack the resources to love and share. And maybe ‘a young woman’ is touching the freshness and beauty of a walk with a dear friend or a vision of a wall of blooming roses. By finding resonance between our own experience and the storied experience, we find that our self expands a bit.

For the last two nights and days of the retreat, I could not turn away from the question, ‘What am I?’ As the retreat came to a close, unbidden, tears came from where I knew not. What am I? Who am I? I did not know; I still don’t.