Ego, Fame and Merit are Nothing (The Buddha Way)
Sam Cheng
Zen Buddhism
Second Essay
TA: Tad Cook

"The Perfect Man has no self; the Holy Man has no merit; the Sage has no fame," says Chuang Tzu. These are three ways of saying the same thing (Chuang Tzu, 26). The point expressed by Chuang Tzu is one that embodies some of the rich philosophies of the Tao, and also mirrors the thinking of Buddhists in India and China. This is only one example of the synergy between Tao and Buddhism that produced Zen.
What does Chuang Tzu mean in this saying? His assertion is paradoxical: perfection brings hubris, holiness brings good karma, and wisdom brings the attention of the powerful. So how can someone have these virtues without the unfortunate vices that come with them? The answer lies in the Tao, as the enlightened "Perfect Man" understands. "Even life and death have no effect on him, much less the rules of profit and loss!" (Chuang Tzu, 42). Although the Way cannot be explained, the effects of seeing the Way are clear. By realizing that we are all part of the same, infinite, unchanging nature of the universe, Chuang Tzu's enlightened man eschews ego, merit, and fame as mere human constructs that have no truth. Thus the true Way of the Tao transcends the trite social distinctions of ego, merit, and fame.
These distinctions are not the Way. Chuang Tzu writes, "The Great Way is not named; Great Discriminations are not spoken; Great Benevolence is not benevolent; Great Modesty is not humble; Great Daring does not attack" (Chuang Tzu, 39). Since all mankind is part of nature, then it makes little sense to divide and categorize that nature. It is better to simplify and clarify. According to Chuang Tzu, "the Way makes them all into one" (Chuang Tzu, 36). Thus it makes little sense to have the concept of self, because this divides nature into self and other. And if there is no self, there is no ego to gather merit or fame!
Buddhist writings agree with this renunciation of the self as a central tenet to the Buddhist religion. According to the Diamond Sutra, the Bodhisattva must avoid the misconception of the existence of ego, and avoid beliefs in the self, being, a soul, or a person (Yampolsky, 136). Only by renouncing the self can one achieve enlightenment, according to the Buddhists. This is evidenced by the rise of asceticism in early Indian Buddhist tradition, because the ascetics gave up all worldly possessions and deprived the self of the basic needs of food and shelter. By "retiring from the world" these ascetics achieved enlightenment by eliminating the self. Similarly, the practice of Zen meditation is focused on eliminating the ego from consciousness. Zen Master Katsuki Sekida says, "In Zen training we also seek to extinguish the self-centered, individual ego" (Sekida, 29). Zen Buddhists agree that the concept of the 'self' is detrimental to the understanding of the true nature of things.
From this elimination of the ego follows the renunciation of merit and fame in Buddhist writings. The Diamond Sutra, in instructing the ways of the Bodhisattva, praised selflessness, holiness, and wisdom without relying on the lure of fame or fortune. For instance, the Diamond Sutra instructs Bodhisattvas not to worry about the karmic returns to good deeds done: "… those who have set out in the Bodhisattva -vehicle, should give gifts without being supported by the notion of a sign" (Conze, 27). This means that the Bodhisattva should be generous and holy without expecting any merit in return. According to Conze, the translator of the Diamond Sutra, "The Bodhisattva is here bidden to forget all about himself, and about the rewards which come to him from his meritorious deeds" (Conze, 27). Similarly, the Buddhists reject fame as a conditioned entity, constructed only by the members of society that needs the social construct. According to Mahayana Buddhism, "All conditioned things are worthless, unsubstantial, fraudulent, deceptive and unreliable, but only fools are deceived by them" (Conze, 29). Thus Chuang Tzu's assertion about the unimportance of ego, merit, and fame is mirrored in early Buddhist writings.
Zen Buddhism, then, reflects both the Indian Buddhist tradition as well as the Chinese Taoist tradition, as many of the understandings of Zen are present in both precursors. This amalgamation is best illustrated in the following story, written by a Zen master about an Indian Buddhist patriarch who speaks of the Tao:
"Emperor Wu said to Bodhidharma, 'I have erected temples and supported monks; what virtue will come out of it?' He expected Bodhidharma to reply, 'Great virtue!' Bodhidharma's answer, however, was 'No virtue.' " (Sekida 37)

It is remarkable that two cultures could independently come to such similar transcendent world-views. This in itself suggests that there is some truth in these teachings.
"The Perfect Man has no self; the Holy Man has no merit; the Sage has no fame" would describe the Buddha had Chuang Tzu known of him. Through meditation Buddha transcended the self and achieved perfection; he was both a holy man and a sage, but needed no merit or fame to enter nirvana. So it is no wonder that the two ideas or Taoism and Buddhism combined so readily into what we today call Zen Buddhism.

Zen is empty, there is nothing in it.
There is no room for any -ism, not Buddhism, not Taoism.
Who you are is all it is.