Forgetting The “Self” As A Means For Spiritual Growth – Full Paper:

According to the Zen Buddhist doctrine, mental growth is only possible through renouncing the “self” and realising its transience. In this lecture, I will engage with this issue and argue that it is only by experiencing the impermanence of the “self” that mental growth is possible.

Our need for security makes us tend to cling to certain things and ignore their transience. This delusion of permanency also exists in respect to our “self”. The “self” is a “thing” that we assume to have a permanent substance; However, according to Zen Buddhism, all reality is transient and temporary, including the “self”.

Unlike psychological theories that seek to improve and establish the “self”, meditation practice teaches one to unravel the threads of what we believe to be the “self”. The Zen Master Dogen Zenji (1200- 1253) stated that “Studying yourself means to forget yourself”; Thus, Zen practice is not intended to achieve an improved, repaired and whole “self”, simply because the self is incapable of being such. The “self” by nature is a collection of particles and varying events, and realisation can come only by forgetting what we think the “self” is.

When practising meditation, the practitioner looks deeply into himself, but that “self” is no longer emotional or rational, successful or unsuccessful, good- hearted or evil. When the conscious analytical distinctions vanish, what remains is only a pure presence, which frequently changes.

In the new-age era, “letting go” has become a banal phrase and is one of the frequent promises made by many of the social or spiritual movements and workshops promising a better future. However, real “letting go” does not involve giving up addictions, depression, or fear; rather, according to Zen doctrine, “letting go” is first and foremost letting go of the “self”, since it is actually the endless human striving to become free that chains us most.

According to the Buddhist doctrine, mental growth is only possible through renouncing the “self” and realising its impermanence. In this talk, I engage with this concept and suggest that understanding the impermanence of the “self” enables liberation that results from a radical acceptance of who we really are.

The Illusion of Permanence:

Our need for security makes us cling to certain things and ignore their transient nature. This delusion of permanency also exists in respect to our “self”, which we perceive as a “thing” that we assume to possess a permanent substance. According to the Buddhist teaching, however, all reality is transient and temporary, including the “self”. We relate to the “self” as an unchangeable object due to our ignorance. The wisdom that can be acquired by the Buddhist practice lies in the insight into impermanence, called in the Pali language: anicca.

Meditation is a practice of alert observation of one’s physical and mental constituents. At the beginning one focuses one’s breath, and then examines one’s physical sensations, becoming aware of their alteration. Attention to the physical sensations enables the practitioner to dwell in the present moment. In that moment there is no defined “self”, but only a flux of sensations.

When looking deeply into oneself, that “self” is no longer emotional or rational, successful or unsuccessful, good-hearted or evil. When the conscious analytical distinctions vanish, what remains is pure presence, which is constantly changing. The “self” is now no longer defined but exists solely as a temporary presence.

The Buddhist doctrine relates to “self” as a chain of events, called in the Pali language: skandhas. Skandhas means aggregates, which are the physical, emotional and cognitional encounters of our mind with reality. The “self” comprises an aggregate of familiar thoughts, emotions and patterns of behaviour. The mind binds all these together, creating a “story” about a personal, individual entity that has continuity through time. Everything I experience is subsumed into this story of “self”, and becomes my experience.

We say: ‘This is my desire’ or ‘Something is wrong with me’. In doing so, however, we separate the “I” from the elements that create it at every moment. We use the term: “I have to control myself” as if there is a distinction between I and myself, whereas there is no “myself” that is separate from our experience. Terms like “self-control” and “self-consciousness” suggest this division of our being into two parts, knower and known, thinker and thoughts, but such a division does not really exist. There is no internal entity, no “I” who possesses our consciousness.

Those aggregates that together constitute the “self” are not accidental. There is continuity between my physical and mental characteristics; my face today looks much like my face ten years ago. My voice today sounds very similar to my voice last year, and certainly, I display today the same habits that I displayed a few months ago. The individual that is called “me” has accumulated experiences, thereby constructing characteristics, but the existence of a character does not mean that there is an “I” as a permanent substance.

“I” is a generalisation, but life is never general. According to the Zen teacher Charlotte J. Beck: ‘We say, for example, “I love people”, or “I love my husband”. The truth is that no one loves everyone all the time, and no one loves a spouse all the time. Such generalities obscure the specific, concrete, reality of our lives, what is happening for us at this moment. One may, of course, love one’s husband most of the time. Still, the flat generalisation leaves out the shifting, changing reality of an actual relationship. Sitting in meditation helps us to cut through the fog of generalisations about our lives. Instead of generalised concepts, we then see more clearly what is really going on.

What we call a “characteristic” is also one of the obstacles to our life since it is hard for us to change it, even when we find it ineffective. We don’t want to rid ourselves of our characteristics because we prefer the known to the unknown. We cling to our typical behaviour, because of our need for certainty. However, if we were not so strongly attached to our personality, it could be changed, and we could experience liberation from the bad habits of the one named “I”.

Forget Yourself:

In one of his fundamental essays, genjokoan (“The Presence of Things as They Are”), Zen Master Dogen states:

To model yourself after the way of Buddha is to model yourself after yourself. To model yourself after yourself is to forget yourself. To forget yourself is to be authenticated by all things.

Dogen refers to the Buddhist practice as a process of learning about “self”‘, but such learning is actually a process of unlearning. As a practitioner, one has to forget everything that one knows about oneself, and instead look at one’s internal reality as it occurs at every moment. According to Dogen, the “self” is not an object, but a dynamic activity, which is influenced by all the phenomena around it. The point is not to void the “self” or to conceal its unique qualities, but to understand its transience.

A significant story in the Buddhist tradition is that of “Indra’s net”, first appearing in The Avatamsaka Sutra (The Flower Adornment Sutra). It tells about a wonderful net hanging in the palace of the Vedic god Indra. It is a net that stretches out to infinity in all directions. Its creator has hung a single glittering jewel at the net’s every node, and since the net itself is infinite in dimensions, the jewels are infinite in number. If we arbitrarily select one of these jewels and look closely at it, we will discover that every jewel reflects the others and is also reflected by them, creating an infinite process of reflection.

This allegory serves Zen teachers to explain the idea of paticcasamuppada, meaning the mutual interdependence that exists among all things in the world. All the elements of reality fulfil each other and define each other, as a part of one infinite net of interrelationships.

The “self”, accordingly, is a jewel, part of a huge net of other selves. Each jewel is unique and essential to the net, but it is only one component of the whole body that is comprised of all the others. This interdependence means that every singular “me” causes the others to be as they are, and is also caused by them.

It is hard for us to internalise this notion; although we have relatives, genetic chains, friends and lifetime partners, we still prefer to think of ourselves as independent. But the “self” is not a single individual. Misery, for instance, can’t belong to one person only, for one’s misery reflects the distress of others and is also reflected by them. We feel not only our own pain but also the pain of those around us. Even though we may try to build the walls around us more thickly, or to avoid people in distress, that pain is nonetheless always present. The Buddhist practice enables a thorough examination of that single jewel and an understanding of its interrelationships with others.

This concept of interdependence is also called “emptiness” (sunyata). Sunyata means that all things are in themselves empty of any permanent essence, and their nature is created from their interrelation with all other things.

The Emptiness of “Self”

We tend to be afraid of emptiness. In western culture, the “empty” usually has a negative sense, because we think that if it is empty then something is missing. In the Buddhist doctrine, however, the “empty” is an essential part of things, and it is equivalent to the “full” in its philosophical and practical meanings.

The Buddhist practice enables an understanding of the emptiness of “self”. Observing one’s breathing, as practised in meditation, is a way to feel this. When we inhale, air enters automatically, and when we exhale it leaves us in the same way, without our thinking that we are giving away something we own. Breathing is an unmindful activity in which the taking and the giving are performed naturally, freely. Our mind (or what we call “the self”), however, finds it very hard to comply with the essential processes of acceptance and renunciation. We hesitate to accept and we are afraid of renouncing.

The Zen Master Shunrio Suzuki, in his seminal book Zen Mind Beginners Mind (1973) wrote: “What we call “I” is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale”. While practising Zen meditation, the mind tries to follow the breath. We may say “I inhale” or “I exhale”, but there no “I” who is taking that breath, but only inhalation and exhalation.

Observing one’s breathing enables the Zen disciple to realise that the “self” is but a terminal for oxygen, nurture, and also for opinions and views. “I” is but a receptacle, in which physical, emotional and cognitive events pass by, and then quit the receptacle for the next events to come. This might sound like a spiritual notion but it is not; it is an actual and physical notion. Breath and food enter and leave, as do the mental events: they pass by, and if we do not attach them to ourselves, they will disappear.

True Liberation:

Western philosophy and psychology have always tried to implement the common human desire: to be free. In the New-Age era, “letting go” has become a banal phrase, and is one of the frequent promises made by many of the social or spiritual movements, promising a better future. However, a true “letting go” does not involve giving up addictions, depression, or fear; rather, according to Zen doctrine, “letting go” is first and foremost letting go of the “self” who is craving to let go. The Buddhist practice enables this craving to cease, and instead simply to observe reality and accept it as it is.

The intent of contemporary self-analysis, for instance, is to bring about self-repair, so that one’s sense of self may be experienced as whole and cohesive. Zen practice, however, is not intended to achieve an improved, repaired and whole “self”, because the self is incapable of being such; the “self” is by nature a collection of particles and varying events.

According to the Buddhist approach; methods that promise liberation by means of positive thinking, for instance, are incorrect. This is because true liberation is not emancipation from bad habits or from a partner in life. Rather, liberation is a quality of mind that experiences the events of the “self” as they are, even though these may sometimes seem unbearable. Liberation, according to the Buddhist teaching, is first and foremost liberation from the craving for a better reality and for an improved “self”.

The psychotherapist and Zen teacher Tara Brach relates to the Buddhist practice as a process of self-acceptance. Brach notes that radical is derived from the Latin word radix, meaning “going to the root or origin.” According to Brach, Radical acceptance enables us to return to the roots of who we are, to the source of our being.

The Buddhist practice teaches a quality of mind that touches the innermost level of existence. This state of mind enables access to the genuine, deepest self, which is beyond the biographical self; although it is hard to accept that the “self” can be experienced as an actual presence, without its history. The self is thus experienced in its very core of being, and it is a presence, not a name or a character. The Buddhist practice is a process of discovering the self, but the practitioner cannot discover any defined self. Even when something is revealed about oneself, this changes.

The Buddhist practice develops awareness, meaning to recognise exactly what is happening in our moment-to-moment experience. This awareness can bring about a radical acceptance of the “self”, without the craving for improvement. Thinking about improving myself, I must split to two pieces. There must be a good “I” who is going to improve the bad “me”. That split between “me” and an ideal “I” is the origin of feelings like loneliness, separateness and unworthiness.

We are struggling to make sure of the permanence, continuity, and safety of this centre and soul of our being which we call “I”. For this we think to be the real man – a thinker of our thoughts, the feeler of our feelings, and the knower of our knowledge.

We use to cultivate our self-confidence, and we are attached to the one named “I” because of our desire for security, but there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature in momentariness and fluidity. That contradiction lies a little deeper than the mere conflict between desire for security and the fact of change; if I want to be secured, that is, protected from the flux of life, I want to be separate from life. Yet it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure. Alan Watts in The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951) says: “To be secure means to isolate the “I”, but it is just the feeling of being an isolated “I”, which make me feel lonely and afraid. The insight of impermanence and the understanding of the interdependence between the “self” and the others enable to reduce frightening and accept the “self” as it experienced in that very moment.

By Einav Rosenblit


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