People and things appear solid and self contained. We mostly experience ourselves as if we just appeared on earth the way Superman did – one day the wonder-baby showed up from outer space. Buddhism suggests that this conventional view is just a story, an idea, that doesn’t align very well with what we discover if we pay attention. In other words, Buddha told some different stories, that align more closely with experience, and with happier experience.
Like other great spiritual teachers, the Buddha knew he was telling stories (google on the Heart Sutra), and in particular, he warned his followers, that just because we suffer if we get attached to the story of a separate self, we will also suffer if we attach to the story of no-self – if we take it as a hard truth, a doctrine, a dogma.
Why does belief in a separate self cause suffering? Because it leads to a foxhole existence. Halt, who goes there, friend or foe? It also brings an awareness of physical mortality as loss – we aren’t going to last and neither is anyone we care about. My favorite analogy is one of the simplest: we experience ourselves as waves on the ocean, rushing to shore. It may be exhilarating when we’re young and death is something that happens to old people, but let a few decades whiz by, and the rocks and shore look a whole lot closer. And aside from that, how often does the sense of separation cause an uncomfortable sense of disconnection? A million variations on loneliness. And how much more suffering do we create for ourselves and others in an effort to scratch the itch, dull the pain?
Buddha tried to shift our understanding. Yes, we are waves for a while, but our true nature is ocean. Ocean changes but it doesn’t go anywhere. A wave that knows it is and will ever be ocean has a lot less to worry about.
Our true essence goes beyond birth and death. It can never get sick. It can never get old. It is beyond all conditions. It is like the sky. This is not a theory. This is the truth that can only be realized in the realm of enlightened consciousness. This consciousness is surprisingly accessible to each of us. – Anam Thubten
When that awakening happens there is no longer any desire to become something other than who we are. Every previous idea of who we are vanishes, along with the pain, guilt, and pride associated with our body. In Buddhism this is called no-self. This is the only true awakening. Everything else is a spiritual bypass.– Anam Thubten (emphasis added).
Try this. Pay attention to your breath in silence. Look at your mind. Immediately you see thoughts are popping up. Don’t react to them. Just keep watching your mind. Notice that there is a gap between each thought. Notice that there is a space between the place where the last thought came to an end and the next one hasn’t arrived. In this space there is no “I” or “me.” That’s it. – Anam Thubten (emphasis added).
The sense-of-self is an assumed reality. Only the idea of “me” separates us from the unconditioned truth of our being…It is possible to simply stop believing in the validity of the view of separation and free it from its isolated position by bringing the view of separation itself into awareness. This means we are cued to the subtle pain caused by separation, and simply release the thought of separation without picking it back up. – Rodney Smith
I like the rainbow analogy; I can grasp it because we’re not dealing with something that appears to be solid like a person or a rock.
Let’s say a rainbow decided to practice a meditation common to eastern traditions, by asking the question, “Who am I?” and watching what thoughts pop up. The rainbow starts out believing it is a thing, but what kind of thing? Strangely enough, if this rainbow is very determined, it will not find anything called “rainbow!” It sets out to discover its true rainbow self, and simply but it simply cannot be found.
What am I? – A rainbow.
What is a rainbow? – Umm…
What am I? – A person.
What is a person? – Umm…wanna check my ID?
If this rainbow has a lot of courage, it will discover it is made of water droplets. And sunlight, since there are no rainbows until the storm breaks up. And it is made of the time of day, since there are no rainbows at night. And it its existence depends on the perspective of people watching. Drive another five or ten miles down the highway and we may not see the rainbow anymore, though others behind us may.
As Thich Nhat Hahn would say, our rainbow discovers it is made entirely of non-rainbow elements. It exists, but it is “empty” of a true, essential, rainbow-self. The poor little guy may freak out at first, and yet…
Ultimately, it may be quite a relief. Rainbows don’t live very long. Not even as long as flies. Yet water and sunlight and clouds and daytime and people watching the sky are not going away…
To sneak in a Shakespeare quote:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
but doth suffer a sea-change,
into something rich and strange.
TO BE CONTINUED