(Essay, Midwest Buddhist Temple Newsletter, March 1995, Vol. 45 #3)
by John Hite
Self is a very popular subject with Americans. Go into a Barnes and Noble book store or any major chain and look at all the books concerning self help, self enhancement, self esteem, self motivation, self image and so on. Self is the focus of our attention. Who or what do we love more than ourselves? Who doesn’t want to improve themselves?
Many people become interested in Buddhism because they think that it is a form of self enhancement or self betterment. They feel that meditation and other Buddhist practices will make them a better person. It is like Buddhist practice is a form of self improvement. As a matter of fact I have had several people ask me to teach them various Buddhist practices, they wanted to reduce stress in their life etc., but they were not interested in Buddhism as such, just the practice.
I find this self improvement approach amusing. What is Buddhism? I think that the most adequate description is the three Dharma marks; suffering impermanence, no self. Of the three only the idea of no self is uniquely Buddhist. Buddhism’s unique contribution to the world is no self yet the majority of people seek it as a form of self improvement.
Who would be interested in a religion of no self? Isn’t it more fun to be made in the image of God? Isn’t it more fun to have a permanent aspect of self called soul which is immortal? We love ourselves so much who could consider no self? Of all attachments the strongest is attachment to oneself. With all the hype of building a strong ego who could actually consider crushing their own ego?
The biggest challenge a Buddhist practitioner faces is the understanding of no self. A famous line from Dogen “knowing Buddhism is knowing self, knowing self is forgetting self”. I can phrase this another way “know self = no self”. All Buddhist practices are designed to know self. We think that we know self but we actually misunderstand self. Buddhism is the slap in the face that wakes us up to our true self.
We view ourselves as being independent. What I do has nothing to do with what you do, we are independent of each other. We take a self centered approach, I-ness, ego centeredness, me. I come first and I do what benefits me regardless of whether it benefits others or the world in general. This is a misunderstanding from a Buddhist perspective.
Buddhism views self not as being independent but as being inter dependent. What I do does have an effect on you and what you do does have an effect on me, as we are interdependent. If I throw garbage on the street both you and I have to live with litter. We are interdependent with the entire universe. What we do affects the whole and the whole effects us. When we understand our true self as being interdependent then there is no self, just oneness.