"Total exertion has 2 flavors: the interpermeation and interpenetration of all things and wholeheartedness of action without self/Self.", “Total exertion is not just interpenetration. Maha is an experience of great beyond measure. It is an experience of everything being consumed as it. Only in anatta this experience can be accessed without much issue.” ~ John Tan/Thusness, 2019

Someone wrote: what does the 'total exertion' term mean, where does it come from?

I replied,

It’s from dogen. Wrote this some months back:

“Total exertion is direct realization of each manifest activity as arising with all conditions in seamless interdependency, where one feels that the whole universe is giving its best to make this moment possible.

I started having glimpses and insights into this about one or two years after my initial realisation of anatta (the direct realisation and penetration of the false dichotomy of subject-action-object through contemplating the verse in Bahiya Sutta) back in 2010. Anatta demolishes the background subject so that there is only the entirety of manifestation, and then you may penetrate further -- this entirety of manifestation is a seamless activity with no self-nature anywhere. When I experienced this I called it the "dharma body". When walking not only are the legs walking, the whole universe is walking, the whole universe is your body. To put it in laymen's term, it's like the universe as your body (but the word universe doesn't really capture the dynamic, interdependent and empty nature of it well).

Let me give you an example. Recently, I was sitting in meditation with my sister. Then as usual I entered into a blissful state. In that state, I saw that it's not me sitting here, like there is no I, no sister, no baby, etc, but it's really all these factors that is "meditating" plus much more... all the way back to the time of the Buddha! The living presence of Buddha and its sangha and the whole lineage is right here, same time and in communion. This breath is the universe. Suddenly some passages by Dogen made perfect sense*

Also, I just visited a Zen temple earlier today to meditate. Something that the novice monk said after the meditation struck me - chanting as "together action". He didn't elaborate what he meant by that but I intuited its meaning and purpose. To me what this means is this - when we practice as a community, we are enacting "together action" so that it is not you that is chanting but the chanting as a whole arising seamlessly that is chanting. But "together action" is in fact every moment! This breath is together action with all the conditions, the whole community and lineage. Carrying your meditation cushion and waiting for your turn to place that cushion back to its original place -- together action, not 'you' action.

Walking on the street, you look at the traffic and maneuver your way to reach your destination, the traffic and people walking are as much an inseparable part of the activity which you call 'your walking', each moment of walking is doing together action with all conditions. The same for driving a car. If you lose the "zone", if you get distracted and are not practicing "together action", watch out! Lives can be lost.

When you are walking in the park, the legs moving arise in tandem with the whole universe moving. The tree in front is manifesting the way it is in accord with all other conditions like the wind, light, the way I am moving and looking, etc. The tree has no tree-ness in itself or apart from me and I have no me-ness apart from the interplay that is manifesting the tree. When I see and interact with others, it's not I interacting with others as I and others are empty and dissolved in the interplay. Truly it is like a node of Indra reflecting all other nodes, each node is not other than all others nodes, there is neither self nor others.

'Self' and 'others' are learnt and is a result of the ignorance of our true nature. The structures of language or convention posits that when we encounter something it is always 'I' am touching/encountering a 'thing' as if there is a real subject interacting with an object. I am I and interacting or talking with a real other as discrete entities.

Although in actual experience it's just all conditions in total exertion but when spoken in language it appears separate. The structure of language is dualistic.. which is not a problem in itself when taken conventionally or as dependent designation but instead we wrongly reified them into things with its own existence in and of themselves.


The Buddhas and Ancestors manifest before our very eyes whenever we respectfully serve the Buddhas and Ancestors by bringing Them up through our presenting of Their story. They are not limited simply to some past, present, or future time, for They have undoubtedly gone beyond even ‘going beyond Buddha’.

Shobogenzo, Busso, Hubert Nearman

The robe of the right transmission of the buddhas and patriarchs is not arbitrarily transmitted from buddha to buddha. It is the robe transmitted from the former buddha to the later buddha, and from the ancient buddha to the contemporaneous buddha. In order to transform the Way, to transform the buddha, and to transform the past, present, and future, there is a right transmission from past to present, from present to future, from present to past, from past to past, from present to present, from future to future, from future to present, and from future to past. It is the right transmission only between a buddha and a buddha.

- Dogen”

“Yes, it is a word used by Dogen, ippo-gujin.

David Loy:

"...These techniques are used to exemplify his notion of ippo-gujin, 'the total exertion of a single dharma.' This key term embodies his dynamic understanding of interpenetration, according to which each dharma in the universe is both cause and effect of all other dharmas. This interfusion means that the life of one dharma becomes the life of all dharmas, so that (as Zen masters like to say), *this* is the only thing in the whole universe!"”

Thusness replied: 

Wei Yu,

Well quoted, well written and well expressed! So much to my liking that I hv to say something 🤣.
Let’s visit our last discussion. As i said,

There is no self, only a sense of self.

No seer, only a sense of seer.

Therefore no conflict with ur direct insight of anatta.

The SENSE of self is designated as “seer” that dependently originates when forms vividly appears due to the karmic tendencies of ignorance. Ascribing the phenomena “seen” to a non-existing seer, is the action, the act of seeing.

Ignorance is not "inability to know". Instead it is a very deep form inherent and dualistic knowing that sees in the karmic pattern of seer-seeing-seen.

Now the question:

Is there a need to exhaust this karmic pattern of seer-seeing-seen by pacifying conceptualization?

If so then the practice of anatta to empty clarity:

1. In seeing, just the seen. No seer.
2. In seeing, always only the seen. Therefore no seeing.
3. In the seen, just the seen.
Where is the seen?
Where is this vivid lurid scenery?
No where to b found,
Spontaneous, empty and non-arisen.

So how does total exertion step in?

If there is no need to exhaust karmic patterning, then how should u practice?

I replied:  The solidifying of what’s sensed into something truly there is a total exertion of karmic tendency, the appearance can seem very real but actually nothing real.

The sense of standing on this side as a seer is likewise itself the total exertion of karmic tendency, an activity and not an actual entity behind anything.

Seer and seen, grasper and grasped, liberated not through pacifying conceptualization but seeing the absence and total exertion of all afflicted and non afflicted phenomena.


Well said.

The self designated upon the aggregates was never there but felt to b solidly there.

"Here" that is so undeniably "here" is nothing "here". Only sensations and thoughts forming the impression of being “solidly here".

As for this:

"Seer and seen, grasper and grasped, liberated not through pacifying conceptualization but seeing the absence and total exertion of all afflicted and non afflicted phenomena."

Imo, buddhism non-dual is not the union of subject-object or seer is the seen but freedom from extremes.

It liberates seer from seer and seen from seen by seeing dependent arising.


The afflictive chain is released by the pacification of mental proliferation but not through dry non-conceptuality. Like what u said can b by:

1. Direct insight of anatta into empty clarity.

2. Total exertion.
However in total exertion, doing away with self is not necessary. It is fully embraced and fully authenticated by 10 thousand things. Most of ur articles seem quite persistent in trying to get rid of “self” even when expressing total exertion. In total exertion, emptiness and endless dependencies of dharma (including self) are a given otherwise total exertion is not possible. Every dharma is purified by its own endless dependencies.

Your expression of timelessness of total exertion is precious. The moment Dogen writes and the moment u realise is one exertion. Transmission is indeed heart to heart, timeless and intimate!


3. Persistently seeing of whatever arises dependently is free from extremes will eventually free the mind. Consistently seeing neither self nor no-self, neither arise nor not-arise, breaks the chain of mental proliferation.

Self and the ten thousands things,
Neither one nor many.
Not one, therefore no self nature.
Not two, therefore seamless.
One line of reasoning,
freedom from 2 extremes.
Dependent arising is the king of reasoning.
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1 Response
  1. Dieter Vollmuth Says:

    That makes perfect sense.