Death Of The Ego:
A Buddhist View
By David Loy
The Fear of Death is not an instinct: it is a reaction of the animal who is conscious enough to become aware of himself and his inevitable fate; so it is something we have learned. But exactly what is it we have learned? Is the dilemma of life-confronting-death an objective fact we just see, or is this, too, something constructed and projected, more like an unconscious game that each of us is playing with himself? According to Buddhism, life-against-death is a delusive way of thinking it is dualistic: the denial of being dead is how the Ego affirms itself as being alive; so it is the act by which the Ego constitutes itself. To be self-conscious is to be conscious of oneself, to grasp oneself, as being alive. (Despite all their struggles to keep from dying, other animals do not dread death, because they are not aware of themselves as alive.) Then death terror is not something the Ego has, it is what the Ego IS. This fits well with the Buddhist claim that the Ego-self is not a thing, not what I really am, but a mental construction. Anxiety is generated by identifying with this fiction for the simple reason that I do not know and cannot know what this thing that I supposedly am is. This is why the "shadow" of the sense-of-self will inevitable be a sense-of-lack.
Now we see what the Ego is composed of: death terror. The irony here is that the death terror which is the Ego defends only itself. Everything outside is what the ego IS terrified of, but what is inside? Fear is the inside, and that makes everything else the outside. The tragicomedy is that the self-protection this generates is self-defeating, for the barriers we erect to defend the Ego also reinforce our suspicion that there is indeed something lacking in our innermost sanctum which needs protection. And if it turns out that what is innermost is so weak because it is...nothing, then no amount of protection will ever be felt to be enough and we shall end up trying to extend our control to the very bounds of the universe.
If, however, the Ego is constituted by such a dualistic way of thinking, it means that an Ego can die without physical death and without consciousness coming to an end.
What makes this more than idle speculation is that there is ample testimony to the possibility of such Ego death:
No one gets so much of God as the man who is completely dead. (St. Gregory)
The Kingdom of God is for none but the thoroughly dead. (Eckhart)
We are in a world of generation and death, and this world we must cast off. (William Blake)
Your glory lies where you cease to exist. (Ramana Maharshi):
All of a sudden, he was seized by a chill of Fear. He felt he was almost dying by an all encompassing Fear of Death. Trying to prevent this feeling from weakening him, he began to think of what he should do. He said to himself:
'Now death is approaching. I am dying. What is death? This body gets lost.'
Then he held his breath completely, closed his lips and eyes, lay down as one dead, and began to ponder:
'Now my body is dead. They will carry this body, motionless, to the cremation ground and burn it. But do I really die with this body? Am I merely this body? My body is now motionless. But still I know my name. I remember my parents, uncles, brothers, friends and all others. It means that I have a knowledge of my individuality. If so, the "I" in me is not merely my body; it is a deathless spirit.'
Thus, as in a flash, a new realization came to Venkataramana. His thoughts may seem boyish fancy. But one thing must be remembered. Usually a man wins God realization by performing tapas for years and years, without food and sleep; he subjects the body to great suffering. But Venkataramana won the highest knowledge without all these. The fear of death left him. Venkataramana became Ramana Maharshi.(source)
A moving example of death and resurrection is of course one of the sources of Western culture; but examples are found in many religious traditions. The problem is demythologizing these myths, extracting the core of psychological and spiritual truth from the accretions of dogma and superstition that all too often obscure their meaning, in order for that truth to spring to life again within our myth--the technical, objectifying language of modern science (in this instance, psychology). Blake's quotation (from The Vision of the Last Judgment) points the way because it implies that we are not seeing clearly but projecting when we perceive the world in terms of the dualistic categories of birth and death.
Precisely that claim is central to the Buddhist tradition. "Why was I born if it wasn't forever?" bemoaned Ionesco; the answer is in the anaatman "no self" doctrine, according to which we cannot die because we were never born. Anaatma is the "middle way" between the extremes of Eternalism (the self survives death) and Annihilationism (the self is destroyed at death). Buddhism resolves the problem of life-and-death by deconstructing it. The evaporation of this dualistic way of thinking reveals what is prior to it. There are many names for this "prior," but it is surely significant that one of the most common is "the unborn."
In the Pali Canon, what are perhaps the two most famous descriptions of Nirvana both refer to "the unborn," where "neither this world nor the other, nor coming, going, or standing, neither death nor birth, nor sense objects are to be found."
"There is, O monks, an unborn, an un-become, an unmade, an unconditioned; if, O monks, there were not here this unborn, un-become, unmade, unconditioned, there would not here be an escape from the born, the become, the made, the conditioned. But because there is an unborn,...therefore there is an escape from the born...."
UDAANA viii, 3
Similar claims are common in Mahayana scriptures and commentaries. The most important term in Mahayana is Sunyata, "Emptiness, " and the adjectives most used to explain Sunyata are "unborn, " "uncreated, " and "un-produced." The best-known Mahayana scripture, The Heart Sutra, explains that all things are Sunya because they are "not created, not annihilated, not impure, and not pure, not increasing and not decreasing." This is echoed by Nargarjuna in the preface to his MMK, Muula Madhyamaka Kaarikaas, which uses Eight Negations to describe the true nature of things: they do not die and are not born they do not cease to be and are not eternal, they are not the same and are not different, they do not come and do not go.
Moving from India to China, we read in the "Song of Enlightenment" of Yung-chia, a disciple of Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen, : "Since I abruptly realized the unborn, I have had no reason for joy or sorrow at any honor or disgrace." That "all things are perfectly resolved in the Unborn" was the great realization and later the central teaching of the seventeenth-century Japanese Zen master Bankei: "When you dwell in the Unborn itself, you're dwelling at the very wellhead of Buddhas and patriarchs." The Unborn is the Buddha-mind, and this Buddha-mind is beyond living and dying.
These passages (many more could be added) are important because, although it may not be clear what "the unborn" refers to, in each case it is an immediate experience that is being described (or at least claimed) , rather than a philosophical conjecture about the nature of reality. For a case which combines personal experience with philosophical acumen, we shall turn to Japan's foremost Zen master and philosopher, Dogen:
For Buddhism, the dualism between life and death is only one instance of a more general problem, dualistic thinking. Why is dualistic thinking a problem? We differentiate between good and evil, success and failure, life and death, and so forth because we want to keep the one and reject the other. But we cannot have one without the other because they are interdependent: affirming one half also maintains the other. Living a "pure" life thus requires a preoccupation with impurity, and our hope for success will be proportional to our fear of failure. We discriminate between life and death in order to affirm one and deny the other, and, as we have seen, our tragedy lies in the paradox that these two opposites are so interdependent: there is no life without death and--what we are more likely to overlook--there is no death without life. This means our problem is not death but life-and-death.
At issue are the boundaries of the Self as a symbolized entity. There is a clear sense of the relationship between awareness of death and a delineated Self. The second is impossible without the first. Even prior to the disturbing syllogism, "If death exists, then I will die," there is an earlier one: "Since 'I' was born and will die, 'I' must exist."
If we can realize that there is no delineated Ego-self which is alive now, the problem of life-and-death is solved. And such is the Buddhist goal: to experience that which cannot die because it was never born.
If our minds have created this dualism, they should be able to un-create or deconstruct it.
This is not a devious intellectual trick which claims to solve the problem logically, while leaving our anguish as deep as before. The examples above make it clear that we are referring to an experience, not some conceptual understanding. It can be no coincidence that the Prajñápáramitá scriptures of Mahayana also repeatedly emphasize that there are no sentient beings.
The following is being presented in sort of a verbal pissing contest regarding the Ego and any "death thereof."
From THE TEACHINGS OF MASTER AZIZ KRISTOF, a non-traditional Advaita-Zen Master:
Enlightenment does not annihilate the ego. Why would someone want to annihilate something so useful and extraordinary? It has not been by chance that we have mentioned many times how important the mind and ego are as the creative force of our intelligence. We need to dissolve this dangerous spiritual conditioning that has taken deep root in our habitual way of thinking. Irresponsible psychological language has caused a lot of harm to those on the Path. The ego concept needs to be defined in a way that relates to our everyday experience, and to all those complicated processes in meditation and on the spiritual Path.
In the case of people without insight into the nature of consciousness, the mental activity is in the center of consciousness. Every thought creates a new center, a new identification which is the ego -- there is nothing else there. We cannot talk about "one" ego but rather about a flow of conscious or semi-conscious events, being capable of operating in a relatively integrated way. This is the function of the ego.
When Enlightenment takes place, the Presence becomes the center, and there is the feeling that all the thoughts are only witnessed objects-events on the periphery of consciousness; they are guests coming and going, having nothing to do with the stillness of our being. For that reason, it is easy to conclude that there is only Witnessing, and the rest is irrelevant, impersonal and objective. But this popular conclusion is one-dimensional and is not able to grasp the dynamics of human consciousness. Thoughts are being witnessed and observed. The center is empty and uninvolved. Is that all? Not fully. Although the thoughts are witnessed, the intelligence which is using them represents also a parallel center of relative consciousness - it is also the "Me."
We can speak about two centers within us, as manifested beings: one is the Witnessing Consciousness -- a constant flow of presence, and the second is the moving self-conscious center of our personality. When we see this clearly, there is no doubt that the thoughts, which are being witnessed, are simultaneously an indivisible part of Me, and it is Me who is thinking them! In the case of an Enlightened being, although thoughts have a different quality, still they remain as a function of consciousness and as a functional self-relating center, which we interpret as "me." The absolute Me and the relative me are one. Being and self-conscious expression are one.
The ego concept refers not only to the gross level of thinking or to the gross will. We have already spoken about the fact that to divide our consciousness into thinking and not-thinking is far too simplistic. Consciousness is extraordinarily rich. There is intuitive knowing, feeling, gentle checking and being attentive to what is happening in our consciousness and surroundings. This movement of intelligence has a quality of self-referral which is also what we call -- the ego. The personality without Presence is ignorance of course, but Presence without the personality is like a tree without fruit, the sun without rays or a flower without fragrance. They are one organic whole. When we fully understand that ego is "good," the whole issue of eliminating it drops off by itself. But this is not yet the end. We are coming now to the next complicated problem: what kind of ego should we have?
From the book Here Lies the Heart in a written response to the book's author Mercedes Da Acosta, from the Enlightened sage Sri Ramana Maharshi:
Bhagavan was asked many times about his egoless state. He explained it and said, "The Gnani (the Enlightened) continually enjoys uninterrupted, transcendental experience, keeping his inner attention always on the Source, in spite of the apparent existence of the ego, which the ignorant imagine to be real. This apparent ego is harmless; it is like the skeleton of a burnt rope--though it has form, it is of no use to tie anything with."