Saturday, March 21, 2009

No Self

In 2007 I was fortunate to attend several days of profound Dharma teachings given in New York by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. These thoughts are inspired by those teachings.

Whether we realize it or not, most humans tend to think that collecting wealth, companions and power will make us happy. While these things may provide temporary pleasure and comfort, they are not a genuine path to lasting happiness because no matter how much of them we acquire, our wealth, companions and power are always, themselves, temporary and unreliable, subject to loss and change. Even when we have these things in abundance, we worry about losing them. The fortunes of rich men can vanish overnight, or be stolen by other rich men like Bernie Madoff. Friends can turn into enemies, and lovers into exes. Power can become corrupted or be taken away (as the slogan artist Jenny Holzer slyly puts it, "Abuse of power comes as no surprise"). We create tremendous suffering for ourselves by clinging to these things, based on the mistaken idea that genuine, lasting happiness can be had in them.

As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, transformation of our emotions is one of the keys to genuine happiness. But our methods for transforming emotions must be realistic, based on an accurate understanding of the way things really are. If our approach to training the mind is based on a distorted understanding of how we exist in the world, then we are out of touch with reality and our efforts to attain happiness will also be unrealistic. If we practice in that way, we're just spinning our wheels. So it is essential to inquire into the true nature of what we call the "self."

Buddha taught that you are your own master, yet he also taught that the thought of "I am" (the sense of self) is like the mind of a demon, the wellspring of suffering upon suffering. On the basis of this thought of "I am," which we take for granted, we give rise to "I have," "I want," "I like," "I dislike," "I hate," and all the other self-centered thoughts that lead us to push away the things we think will make us unhappy and pull at the things we think will make us happy. This basic sense of self is based on the notion of some kind of master agency that sits at the center and controls the entire mind-body experience.

But if this "self" inherently exists in the way we habitually think it does, then it shouldn't be very difficult at all for us to pinpoint exactly what it is and where it exists. We have all sorts of largely unexamined ideas about what the self is and where it can be found, but when we examine these ideas more closely and search for this so-called "self" through analytical meditation, we find it is a very slippery fish that always seems to escape our grasp. In Buddhism this kind of analysis is called meditation on emptiness -- because we seem to find, upon further inspection, that our actual experience is "empty" of the self that we've always assumed was there at the core of it all.

In Buddhism, studying and meditating on emptiness is essential because without an understanding of the "emptiness of self" (or "selflessness"), there is no possiblity of genuine liberation from suffering. Until we penetrate that fundamental misperception of reality, we will always be operating on the basis of a deluded sense of self and clinging to the objects that we think will make the self happy. The purpose of studying emptiness is not to negate the existence of things or to deny the validity of our experience, but to expose and ultimately eradicate the clinging that arises in response to our experience.

As the great Tibetan master Tilopa said to his disciple Naropa, "You are not bound by appearances, you are bound by clinging. Cut through clinging, Naropa." In other words, objects such as wealth and companions and power do not, in and of themselves, bind us and make us suffer -- rather, we gum up the works with our habit of clinging to these things and our efforts to manipulate the world to get more of them. Ultimately, our clinging is rooted in a false idea of self, which is why rooting out this mistaken sense of self through emptiness meditation is necessary to find enlightenment and genuine, lasting happiness.

It is also important to cultivate a calm, stable and peaceful mind, and to generate lovingkindness and compassion for all sentient beings. These, too, are aspects of awakened mind and keys to genuine happiness. But lovingkindness and compassion do not, in themselves, directly oppose and uproot ignorance -- even heightened states of concentration cannot dispel the innate clinging to a mistaken sense of self. For this, only direct inquiry into the self and the realization of emptiness in one's own experience can unlock the door to lasting happiness.

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