By Bhikkhu Bodhi
It is perhaps symptomatic of the "fallen" nature of the ordinary human
condition that few of us pass the full extent of our lives comfortably reconciled
to our natural selves. Even in the midst of prosperity and success, grinding notes
of discontent trouble our days and disturbing dreams come to haunt our sleep.
As long as our eyes remain coated with dust we incline to locate the cause of
our discontent outside ourselves -- in spouse, neighbor or job, in implacable
fate or fluky chance. But when the dust drops off and our eyes open, we soon find
that the real cause lies within.
When we discover how deeply the cause of our unhappiness is lodged in the mind,
the realization dawns that cosmetic changes will not be anywhere near enough,
that a fundamental internal transformation is required. This desire for a transformed
personality, for the emergence of a new man from the ashes of the old, is one
of the perennial lures of the human heart. From ancient times it has been a potent
wellspring of the spiritual quest, and even in the secular, life-affirming culture
of our own cosmopolitan age this longing has not totally disappeared.
While such concepts as redemption, salvation and deliverance may no longer characterize
the transformation that is sought; the urge for a radical reshaping of the personality
persists as strong as ever, appearing in guises that are compatible with the secular
worldview. Where previously this urge sought fulfillment in the temple, ashram
and monastery, it now resorts to new venues: the office of the psychoanalyst,
the weekend workshop, the panoply of newly spawned therapies and cults. However,
despite the change of scene and conceptual framework, the basic pattern remains
the same. Disgruntled with the ruts of our ingrained habits, we long to exchange
all that is dense and constrictive in our personalities for a new, lighter, freer
mode of being.
Self-transformation is also a fundamental goal of the Buddha's teaching, an essential
part of his program for liberation from suffering. The Dhamma was never intended
for those who are already perfect saints. It is addressed to fallible human beings
beset with all the shortcomings typical of unpolished human nature: conduct that
is fickle and impulsive, minds that are tainted by greed, anger and selfishness,
views that are distorted and habits that lead to harm for oneself and others.
The purpose of the teaching is to transform such people -- ourselves -- into "accomplished
ones": into those whose every action is pure, whose minds are calm and composed,
whose wisdom has fathomed the deepest truths and whose conduct is always marked
by a compassionate concern for others and for the welfare of the world.
Between these two poles of the teaching -- the flawed and knotted personality
that we bring with us as raw material into the training, and the fully liberated
personality that emerges in the end -- there lies a gradual process of self-transformation
governed by highly specific guidelines. This transformation is effected by the
twin aspects of the path: abandoning (pahana), the removal from the mind of all
that is harmful and unwholesome, and development (bhávaná), the
cultivation of qualities that are wholesome, pure and purifying.
What distinguishes the Buddha's program for self-transformation from the multitude
of other systems proposing a similar end is the contribution made by another principle
with which it is invariably conjoined. This is the principle of self-transcendence,
the endeavor to relinquish all attempts to establish a sense of solid personal
identity. In the Buddhist training the aim of transforming the personality must
be complemented by a parallel effort to overcome all identification with the elements
that constitute our phenomenal being. The teaching of anattá or not self
is not so much a philosophical thesis calling for intellectual assent as a prescription
for self-transcendence. It maintains that our ongoing attempt to establish a sense
of identity by taking our personalities to be "I" and "mine"
is in actuality a project born out of clinging, a project that at the same time
lies at the root of our suffering. If, therefore, we seek to be free from suffering,
we cannot stop with the transformation of the personality into some sublime and
elevated mode as the final goal. What is needed, rather, is a transformation that
brings about the removal of clinging, and with it, the removal of all tendencies
It is important to stress this transcendent aspect of the Dhamma because, in our
own time when "immanent" secular values are ascendent, the temptation
is great to let this aspect drop out of sight. If we assume that the worth of
a practice consists solely in its ability to yield concrete this-worldly results,
we may incline to view the Dhamma simply as a means of refining and healing the
divided personality, leading in the end to a renewed affirmation of our mundane
selves and our situation in the world. Such an approach, however, would ignore
the Buddha's insistence that all the elements of our personal existence are impermanent,
unsatisfactory and not self, and his counsel that we should learn to distance
ourselves from such things and ultimately to discard them.
In the proper practice of the Dhamma both principles, that of self-transformation
and that of self-transcendence, are equally crucial. The principle of self-transformation
alone is blind, leading at best to an ennobled personality but not to a liberated
one. The principle of self-transcendence alone is barren, leading to a cold ascetic
withdrawal devoid of the potential for enlightenment. It is only when these two
complementary principles work in harmony, blended and balanced in the course of
training, that they can bridge the gap between the actual and ideal and bring
to a fruitful conclusion the quest for the end of suffering.
Of the two principles, that of self-transcendence claims primacy both at the beginning
of the path and at the end. For it is this principle that gives direction to the
process of self-transformation, revealing the goal towards which a transformation
of the personality should lead and the nature of the changes required to bring
the goal within our reach. However, the Buddhist path is not a perpendicular ascent
to be scaled with picks, ropes and studded boots, but a step-by-step training,
which unfolds in a natural progression. Thus the abrupt challenge of self-transcendence
-- the relinquishing of all points of attachment -- is met and mastered by the
gradual process of self-transformation. By moral discipline, mental purification
and the development of insight, we advance by stages from our original condition
of bondage to the domain of untrammeled freedom.