I SPEAK AND WRITE about the Buddhist concept of Selflessness or No-Self, someone
once asked me if I live according to it.
Before I can answer that, we must briefly discuss what this concept means. You see, at the time of the Buddha, just like today, many people believed that everyone had a separate, personal, immortal and unchanging spirit or soul; Indians called this Atma or Self. Upon Enlightenment, however, the Buddha saw nothing permanent, separate or immortal that can be grasped and claimed as 'I,' 'me' or 'mine,' nothing exists in and by itself, but depends upon many things for its existence. Life, He said, is a process; we are born, remain a while, then pass away, changing all the time. The Buddha was not the only one of His time to see this, however; the Greeks had realized it, too, and the statement of Heraclitus: "You cannot step twice into the same stream," is well-known. Sadly, the development of Western Science from such foundations was halted with the advent of Christianity, and remained dormant for over a thousand years until the time of the Renaissance in Italy, which got much of its inspiration from classical Greece and Rome, rather than from Judaeo-Christianity.
The concept of Anatma or No-Self, shocks and frightens many of us, seeming to take away every reason for living. "If there is no self, no soul, then who am I, and what is the point of living?" Because of this, Buddhism is often denounced as pessimistic and annihilationist, but really, it is not; it is a way to live, not merely believe; only by experiencing the Teachings of the Buddha shall we know for ourselves their truth and validity. Those who have experienced the truth of No-Self know it is nothing to worry about or fear, but, on the contrary, something to rejoice about, as it means liberation from the narrow prison of the 'I'-idea. And even if a person only glimpses it and falls back from his brief illumination, he ever-afterwards knows what it is all about, although he will not always be able to live according to what he has seen; he has faith-not belief, but faith, confidence based upon experience and knowledge-that what the Buddha said about there being no Self is true, and this cannot be shaken. Gone, forever, is the belief in a separate, personal, immortal soul. Yet, unless his enlightenment is very deep, he will still act in selfish ways; but this is due to the force of ingrained habit, not from belief in a separate soul. Moreover, since no-one can live another person's life for him, each person has to think for and take care of himself.
But we do not become enlightened merely by thinking or talking about it, wishing to be, or even by trying to find it, for it is not ours to control. Enlightenment arises when we have prepared ourselves and are ready for it-open, empty, sensitive-when we are not thinking of or expecting it, when the thought of self is not dominating the mind and crowding out everything else. The arising of enlightenment would cause even a blind man to shout joyfully: "Oh yes, I see!"
In order to allay fear of personal annihilation, we may think of the Buddha's immediate disciples: upon enlightenment they didn't lose their identities and become indistinguishable from each other like photo-copies, nor were they known thereafter as A, B, C, or 1, 2, 3. Their identities and individual characteristics remained-Ananda, the Buddha's favorite disciple and personal attendant, was famous for his very-retentive memory, Sariputra for his wisdom, Mogallana for his psychic-powers, and so on. Enlightenment doesn't mean loss of individuality but loss of egoism, selfishness; in fact, it means true individuality, that is: indivisibility, a completely-integrated mind that can no longer be shaken by worldly happenings.
Now, like the gradations on a thermometer, enlightenment comes in many degrees, and probably everyone has had some kind of enlightenment experience at one time or another-some-thing that surprised him by its simplicity and clarity-though probably of a mundane type and not spiritual or deeply concerned with the fundamental nature of life. Spiritual enlightenment changes one's life considerably, depending upon the degree or intensity of it; it can be said, with utmost surety, that after a genuine spiritual-enlightenment experience, one's life would not be the same anymore.
We all have ego-the sense of 'I,' 'me' and 'mine'-and it does not simply disappear by pretending it's not there; in fact, it is strengthened thereby. We cannot overcome ego completely; only Enlightenment can do that. However, even though we may still be far from Enlightenment, there is much that we can do to live in an enlightened way, without pretending, but by being realistic; knowing that ego is at the root of most of our problems with others, we can strive to replace it with Dharma at the center of our relationships with others, no longer thinking in terms of who is right and wrong, but endeavoring, always, to perceive what is right and wrong, and, as far as we possibly can, standing firm by what is right. What a lovely world it would be if people stopped thinking subjectively in terms of "I am right and you are wrong," and sincerely looked objectively for what is right and wrong instead, prepared to sit down and discuss intelligently, instead of being devious and resorting to violence and war to settle differences of opinions. The unwillingness and inability to put ego behind us or to one side in the pursuit of what is right and true is a sign of immaturity and insecurity. Because of this immaturity we find it very hard to admit our mistakes and apologize for them, preferring instead, to cover them up with excuses and further mistakes, and becoming swallowed up by the game of 'The Great Pretence,' from which it is so hard to extricate ourselves.
And this business about 'face': it is sometimes carried to ridiculous extremes, and causes endless trouble. Face? What face? If we really understood what the Buddha taught about 'self,' we would not be so concerned about 'face' and pride, and would put them in the trash-can where they belong!
Yes, I also have ego, just like you; how could it be that I should have no ego while this side of enlightenment? Why deny what is? However, I have learned that ego should often be put aside and am prepared to try to do this. Many people, I'm sure, would say I have a big ego and an abrasive personality. And I say: "So what? Why are you so concerned with things like that?" Even though I have a big ego and abrasive personality, I try to see beyond them, and anyone with just a grain of impartiality will quickly recognize that I call nobody to believe and follow me, but to listen-yes, I ask people to listen-and to think clearly and to decide for themselves whether what I say is true and useful to them or not. There are no saviors or supermen; the Buddha told, very clearly, that we must each save ourselves, that no-one can save another. I have no disciples, nor do I want any; I advise people not to follow anyone, but to find out what is right and true.
There are, I have heard, several self-styled 'Living-Buddhas' among the Vietnamese and Chinese-I've even met one of them myself-but I have grave doubts about them. Someone once told me about the particular 'Living-Buddha' that I met: "Master So-and-so is already successful; he can travel by mind wherever he wants to go!" To this I replied: "Oh really? Then why does he waste so much time and money going by plane and car?" He probably has some psychic-power-as did the Buddha's cousin, Devadatta-but that does not mean he is enlightened; we shouldn't be so gullible!
There are few really-enlightened people in the world today, it would seem-maybe it's always so-and if we go in search of an enlightened person to save us, we will probably be disappointed. Someone once wrote to me lamenting the fact that her ill-health prevented her from attending Dharma-talks by famous teachers. I tried to explain to her that she should not feel so bad about this, because what, after all, did she expect to hear from those teachers that she didn't already know after all her studies? There is nothing secret or esoteric about the Buddha's Teachings; everything is clear and out in the open. The Buddha said: "I have not the 'closed fist' of a teacher, teaching some things but keeping others back, hidden and secret." He also said: "In all these years, just this have I taught: Suffering, the Cause of Suffering, the Cessation of Suffering, and the Way to the Cessation of Suffering." Therefore, our Teacher-Suffering-is never far from us; once we have heard or read about the Buddha's Four Noble Truths about Suffering and have understood them-intellectually at least, if not intuitively-we are equipped to follow the Way. What need, therefore, to continue to go through the theory? Undoubtedly, while listening to a Dharma-talk, one might get a flash of insight or enlightenment, especially if one is 'tuned-in' to the Dharma, enjoys listening, and pays attention; but if one understands that the Dharma is all-inclusive and omnipresent, one will know that insight and enlightenment can arise anywhere, anytime, and not just during a Dharma-talk.