"Learning How Not To Be You"
It is sometimes said that there are three fundamental teachings that unite and define Buddhism no matter what the lineage or denomination. The first is the truth of suffering or duhkha. The second is the impermanence of phenomena or anitya. And the third is the absence of essences to things or beings: "no-self" or anatman.
It is anatman that I wish to concentrate on here. For I think, despite its centrality as a core doctrine of Buddhism, many of us in the modern West choose to ignore it - either willfully, because we find it so uncomfortable, or because we don't really understand what it entails.
I think many of us may be irrationally holding onto a belief that we can both cling to our present sense of individual identity and somehow practice a spiritual path designed to completely destabilize and ultimately undermine our deepest ideas of who we think we are. Grounded in the Western reification and worship of the individual and his or her "needs" and "rights," we new Buddhists of the modern West may be tempted to think that somehow ultimate happiness will occur for us as individual persons. We might be hoping that when we become Buddhas we will be just super-sized and improved versions of who we are now.
That is impossible."You" (say your name to yourself) will not become enlightened. "You" have to be eliminated before an enlightened Buddha can appear. There's not room enough in you for both "you" and a Buddha. "You" and the Buddha you could become are mutually exclusive.
This is the real and radical implication of the doctrine of anatman. It is not just the fact that the "self" we believe in, cling to, and are often so proud of is a kind of chimera - just a label placed on constantly changing parts, and not an entity or thing at all. The doctrine is a full frontal assault on our identity. The denial of the real ramifications of the anatman doctrine is understandable. We naturally resist our own elimination.
As usual, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche sums up the situation nicely and forcefully:
Actually we cannot attain enlightenment until we give up the notion of 'me' personally attaining it. As long as the enlightenment drama has a central character, 'me,' who has certain attributes, there is no hope of attaining enlightenment because it is nobody's project; it is an extraordinarily strenuous project but nobody is pushing it. Nobody is supervising it or appreciating its unfolding. We cannot pour our being from our dirty old vessel into a new clean one.
One could argue that the whole of Buddhism targets the eradication of the self. Every part of the Buddha's Dharma can be seen to be directed toward this aim. The destruction of the ego begins with giving up on the idea we are self-sufficient "masters of our destiny" and the surrendering to a spiritual teacher. Taking oneself to a guru is the beginning of the end of the self. "The starting point of devotion," writes Trungpa Rinpoche, "is to dismantle your credentials. You need discoloring, depersonalizing of your individuality. The purpose of surrender is to make everyone grey - no white, no blue - pure grey."
It is precisely the guru's job to make it more and more difficult to be you. The guru knows well what you have come to suspect: that the problem here is the "you" you are identified with and want only to be coddled. To cite Trungpa Rinpoche once more: "The real function of a spiritual friend is to insult you."
Once one has taken oneself to the guru and volunteered for the radical ego-ectomy the spiritual life requires, every step on the path thereafter is meant to help things along. The process begins with renunciation - detaching from the old life of suffering which mostly involves the systematic kicking out the props that were holding up one's worldly self-image. As we develop true renunciation, we no longer identify ourselves with our jobs, our family or social relationships, our money, our degrees, or our hobbies. We give up thinking we are "somebody."
At the next level of our practice, we learn to lose ourselves in the service of others. The development of compassion helps us break down the artificial and tightly circumscribed boundaries between the "self" and "others." We learn not just to empathize with others but to fully identify with them. Having ceased to be somebody, we are now are ready to learn how to become everybody.
Real love and compassion is as corrosive to our sense of individuality as renunciation is - maybe even more so. As Bhagavan Shree Rajneesh once observed,
"When you love a person, you have to become a nothing. When you love a person, you have to become a no-self. That's why love is so difficult... When you love, you have to become nobody. If you remain a somebody then love never happens."
As we create more and more spiritual momentum through renunciation (giving up being somebody) and compassion (learning to be everybody), we gain more and more wisdom into the fact that we were nobody to begin with. True wisdom gives us insight into the identitylessness of ourselves and everything in our world. We are empty; we have always been empty. The self we have been grasping onto so tightly has never truly existed at all. "When you come to the Ultimate," writes Rajneesh, "when you come to your deepest core, you suddenly know that you are neither this nor that - you are no one. You are not an ego, you are just a vast emptiness... And when you are not, then who is there to suffer? Who is there to be in pain and anguish? Who is there to be depressed and sad?"
Someone once said: "Self-knowledge is often bad news." Self-knowledge is certainly bad news for the twisted, limited, pitiful self we suffering beings think we are. C.S. Lewis, in his classic work entitled Mere Christianity, draws a distinction between a "natural" and "spiritual" life that are diametrically opposed:
"The natural life in each of us is something self-centered, something that wants to be petted and admired, to take advantage of other lives, to exploit the whole universe. And especially it wants to be left to itself: to keep well away from anything better or stronger or higher than it, and anything that might make it feel small. It is afraid of the light and air of the spiritual world... And in a sense it is quite right. It knows that if the spiritual life gets hold of it, all its self-centeredness and self-will are going to be killed and it is ready to fight tooth and nail to avoid that."
The religious quest is not the freedom of the individual; it is the freedom from the individual. "You" will not be liberated by a spiritual path -- except from your present concept of "you."
Which is exactly what real freedom, true nirvana, is. Not being you.
Next month, we'll continue with a "Part Two": "Learning How to Be Someone Not You," i.e., a totally happy, completely compassionate, fully capable Enlightened Being.
With all good wishes,