Thursday, June 26, 2008

One View of an Old Idea

Buddhism is well-known for having hundreds of different strategies for pursuing spiritual peace. It's said that the Buddha deliberately altered his teachings based on who the students happened to be, and their particular needs.

So powerful are some of these little lessons that entire schools of practice develop, dedicated to a single element. The sutra on meditation, for example, is only one small piece of buddhism, yet for some schools it is thought, perhaps rightly, to be an entirely self-sufficient avenue to awakening.

In another rather quiet lesson, Buddhism says this:

"Cling to nothing whatsoever as I, me, or mine."

This lesson is sometimes interpreted as an instruction to stamp out the ego at all costs, and there are some Buddhists who carry this to such extremes that they won't even use first-person pronouns in conversation. The theory is that ego itself is the cause of all suffering, and that if we vanquish the individual, awakening results. There is something vaguely depressing about this thought for me, and for a long while when I first thought of myself as Buddhist, I couldn't quite get my head around it.

In practical terms, when I looked about at the world, I saw that nature itself seems to champion the individual. Everywhere about us, nature creates new species of plants and animals all the time, causes the present ones to evolve, and within these species, each individual is unique and separate. Two acorns falling from the same tree will grow into separate oak trees of a distinctly unique nature. If individualism is a perfectly normal feature within nature, how can it be that we're supposed to stamp it out?

And then one day I glanced at the sutra in a relaxed, casual way, and I saw that Buddhism actually had said nothing at all about stamping out the ego. In fact, in more esoteric teachings, you can find the rather mysterious idea that 'the ego both doesn't exist, and doesn't NOT exist.'

What the main sutra says, actually, is just that we shouldn't CLING to any one definition of what constitutes "me."

In other words, it's rigidity that causes suffering, and suffering is reduced, possibly even eliminated, if we abandon rigidity and allow our selves to flow and change and recreate themselves freely.

In my practice, then, I have come to view my identity as a different "me" with every passing moment. And since none of those identities have permanent reality, I try take none of them with grim, deadly seriousness. Who I am is always dependent on the circumstances of the moment, and there is no reason to defend one particular idea of who I am, since in the very next moment all those circumstances will change.

Not taking your "self" too seriously might seem like a cavalier, superficial way to live, but this turns out to be far from true. What I find is that an enormous level of freedom opens up by living this way, since we then become utterly liberated to change who we are as the requirements of the moment dictate.

Suffering, I've come to see, is largely a function of how rigidly we defend a particular self image. Awakening, should it come for me in this or another life, will be an existence marked by a complete and utter surrender of defense.


Jerri said...

"utter surrender of defense."

Tall order, that. But still, I'm pretty sure that's the goal. Rigid clinging nearly always causes pain for the one clinging and for those around him or her.

I'd leave out the "nearly," but that would be a little rigid, don't you think?

I'm teasing, but not clinging to ideas or opinions is hard. Much harder than it seems it should be, anyway.

Glamourpuss said...

Yes, I'd agree with that - ego is neccessary; it helps us preserve ourselves and value ourselves and it motivates us to get up and do things, make things better. And I'm a firm believer that we are all divine perfection and thus the ego is part of that.


Gus said...

I'm for the concept of "ego," not to mention the wonderful "libido!" I am also very glad you are finding meaning in Buddaism... I don't want to be presumptious; but I think you might enjoy and find meaning in my latest blog post about the Bible not being "Divine." After getting two formal degrees in biblical study I have come to this conclusion. It also better fits my experience and I seem to fit in better in the agnostic crowd. Thanks for reading. Peace, Gus