"Learning How To be Someone Not You"
Last month we explored some of the implications of the fundamental Buddhist teaching of "no-self" or anatman . The abandonment of the illusory and lower self, the relinquishing of a constructed or imputed identity that is by definition limited, imperfect, and suffering, is the precondition for the emergence of an Enlightened Being. We can't be ourselves and a being who is free of suffering at the same time. Before we can be someone else - a happy, compassionate, enlightened Buddha - we have to give up being ourselves.
"The attainment of enlightenment from ego's point of view," writes Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, "is extreme death, the death of self, the death of me and mine, the death of the watcher. It is the ultimate and final disappointment. Treading the spiritual path is painful. It is a constant unmasking, peeling off of layer after layer of masks. It involves insult after insult."
The idea that we must die to a lower self to be reborn as something higher and more perfect is by no means unique to Buddhism. One could argue that some version of this principle is shared by many, if not all, of the world's spiritual traditions. It certainly lies at the very heart of Christianity. As we saw last month, C.S. Lewis, in his Mere Christianity , says that the whole point is to replace a self-centered "natural" self with a "spiritual" self that is "better," "stronger," and "higher." We must be "born again" as someone different . We must learn how to be someone who is not the "you" you think you are now.
Where do we go for this new identity? Where can we find an alternative to the suffering, selfish, "natural" self? What will replace the old as we die to it?
In the Christian tradition, what replaces the lower self is, of course, God. The presence of God in one's life is, writes Lewis, an affront to the ego one has such pride in and attachment to:
"In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that - and therefore know yourself as nothing in comparison - you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you. . . . The real test of being in the presence of God is that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object."
And, he adds, lest this encounter with something greater than the self be an excuse to be self-centered in a different way, through depression and self-abasement, "It is better to forget about yourself altogether."
Most of us begin our spiritual path by thinking that the point is for the self to become "better": we need to stop being "bad" and start being "good" and "moral." But it is still the "me" that will be getting "better" through cultivating a more ethical life with this mind-set. "The Christian way," says Lewis, "is different: harder, and easier. Christ says, 'Give me All. I don't want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. . . . I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself. My own will shall become yours."
The true religious quest is radical and, from the ego's point of view, suicidal. "'No half measures are any good. I don't want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down.' . . . That is why He warned people to 'count the cost' before becoming Christians. 'Make no mistake,' He says. 'If you let me, I will make you perfect.'"
The goal of the religious life is nothing less than this - perfection. We can attain a state where we are perfectly happy, perfectly loving, perfectly omniscient, and perfectly capable of helping others in just the right way. But we can't achieve perfection either by ourselves or as ourselves .
So first we must surrender ourselves. We must give up the ignorant pride that says, "I am getting better; I am really making some progress now; I know what's best for me." Again, from Lewis: "Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good - above all, that we are better than someone else - I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil."
What C. S. Lewis says about surrendering oneself to God or Christ is exactly what is meant in the Eastern traditions by "guru yoga." Taking oneself to a guru or lama is the first step on the spiritual path - giving up thinking that you can fix you, and with some recognition that the whole problem is, in fact, "you." You devote yourself to Someone Else - the guru representing and embodying your own highest spiritual ideals - who is also your Ideal You.
This is not optional. You will never make any progress escaping from "you" unless you surrender to the Higher Principle, the Higher Self, personified in the guru. As Trungpa Rinpoche puts it:
"One of the problems of spiritual searching is that we tend to feel that we can help ourselves purely by reading a lot and practicing by ourselves, not associating ourselves with a particular lineage. Without a teacher to surrender to, without an object of devotion, we cannot free ourselves. . . . Devotion is a process of unlearning. If there is no devotion, no surrendering, we cannot unlearn."
The guru is the Perfect Being we wish to become, the Higher Self we strive to identify with. In those texts of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition known as the "Steps on the Path" ( lam rim ), the practice of guru yoga is divided into two sections: learning how to rely on the guru in thought and how to rely on the guru in practice. The first of these is simply put: recognize your guru as God, as a perfect, Enlightened Being come to help you stop being "you." This is obviously the key to how this practice will work. One must just assume that everything the guru says and does is the teaching of a Buddha. If you have taken yourself to the guru in order to learn how to become him or her, it's obvious that you will want to see the guru in the most perfect light. . .so you can become that!
Next, we learn to "rely on the guru in practice," meaning three things. First, we support the guru and his or her projects financially and materially, as what Alexander Berzin calls "a natural outgrowth and practical expression of appreciation, respect, confidence, and trust in the person and in his or her efforts." (see Berzin's Relating to a Spiritual Teacher. ) Second, we learn to respect and serve with body and speech, by offering help and showing courtesy and reverence for the guru in our actions and words. Finally, and most importantly, we rely on the guru in practice by trying to implement in our own lives what they are teaching us.
We learn through surrender and service to give up our self-will and become something higher. We try to identity fully with the teachings the guru has imparted and match our thoughts and actions to those of the perfected being who so kindly imparted those teachings. We learn to interiorize the guru, to become the guru, to lose ourselves and enter the very being of our paragon of perfection. "The spiritual friend becomes part of you, as well as being an individual, external person," observes Trungpa Rinpoche. "The guru can be a person who acts as a mirror, reflecting you, or else your own basic intelligence takes the form of the spiritual friend. When the internal guru begins to function, then you can never escape the demand to be open."
The practice of guru yoga has often been misunderstood in the modern West. It is crucial that we learn and practice it correctly. It is the express train out of our suffering selfhood. The guru - our mirror, our highest ideal, our salvation - is the being we want to be and can be.
We can be perfect, but we need a role model. We can achieve perfection only if we constitute, recognize, and meld with a perfect being, with God. We give ourselves over to him or her with faith and devotion. And, most of all, we surrender our suffering selves to our Higher Self with wisdom as to how and why such a practice could work.
With all good wishes,