by Rev. Kinrei Bassis
When one studies Buddhism, one studies oneself; when one studies oneself, one forgets oneself; when one forgets oneself, one is enlightened by everything and this very enlightenment breaks the bonds of clinging to both body and mind, not only for oneself, but for all beings as well. Dogen-Genjokoan
When I started my Buddhist practice, I clearly saw that the real difficulty I was having with my life was being caused by me, the way I was approaching life. I was filled with a seemingly endless flow of needs and wants. In other words, from a Buddhist perspective, I was confronting and feeling bound by my defilements, my greed, my ill will and my delusion. Initially, my practice was really about trying to make a better me, in other words, self-improvement. Trying to be a spiritual person. And this seems to be a very reasonable and worthy goal. Whenever I had spiritual counseling with a senior monk, it was always about how I was doing and my progress or seeming lack of progress. So like the above quote from Dogen, I was studying oneself. I think for most people that is the normal entrance into Buddhism. We are trying to improve ourselves, stop the thoughts and behaviors that are causing us to suffer and become an improved version of me.
A teaching attributed to the Buddha is “Nothing whatsoever is to be clung to as ‘I’ or ‘mine.’ Whoever has heard this has heard all the teachings. Whoever practices this has practiced all the teachings. Whoever realizes this has realized all the teachings.” The Buddha emphasized becoming peaceful, which is not a quality that most people are seeking. They are seeking happiness by trying to get what they want and trying to be special in some way. As long as we are trying to be something, we are actually still seeking suffering. When we talk about letting go in Buddhism, the main thing we are letting go of is our obsession with ourselves. The meaning of our life is really the story we tell ourselves about who we are. Two people can go through the same difficult conditions and one tells themselves a story that is full of woe and injustice, and the other tells themselves a story that is, despite the hardships, full of gratitude. When we grasp some aspect of our life as this is what is really important, for example, getting this job, being with this person, accomplishing this, we are losing sight of the spiritual aspect of our life and are lost in a worldly view. This even applies to trying to be a spiritual person, not that it is wrong to focus on cultivating our spirituality. But trying to be spiritual person will get in the way of realizing real spirituality.
The normal human tendency is trying to be special, which also means we are evaluating our lives in relation to others. As long as we are clinging to our little self, we are doomed to the mind that is comparing ourselves to others and then judging ourselves as superior or inferior. We live our lives desperately clinging to our successes, but then we are ashamed of our weaknesses and often wishing to hide our failures. We can never find real peace as long as we live our lives clinging to how we are doing in relation to others.
So how do we study ourselves and still forget ourselves? That seems contradictory. The way we do that is by focusing on what we are doing and not on who we are. For instance, we are not trying to be a kind person. Instead we are trying to act with kindness. And if we cultivate the desire to be kind, then we can learn to accept our failings and use them to study where we need to look deeper, see why we made a mistake and try to do better the next time. Recently at a Dharma talk, I said to the gathering, “no one here is a good person”. It generated much laughter. But then I said, “no one here is a bad person”. It is deluded to define yourself as something. For example, if you say you are a kind person, what does it mean when you behave unkindly? And, actually, no one is always kind. And, if you judge someone as not being a kind person, they will at times behave with kindness. I know of someone who has great difficulty treating people well, but he treats his animals with considerable love and care. We all have tendencies with which we define ourselves, but they actually are not who we really are. Whatever kind of person we think we are is not our real self, but just a flow of changeable karmic tendencies. An important part of Buddhist teaching is that no karmic tendency is fundamental, and they all can be converted if we choose to work at converting them. One way of viewing Buddhist training is that we are converting the defilements, greed, ill will and delusion, into the enlightened states of compassion, love and wisdom.
Concentrating on what we are doing, rather than trying to be something, is very freeing. We can bring ourselves back to the present and try to see what is good to do here. Instead of always thinking about how we are doing, we bring ourselves back to what we are doing – doing good rather then trying to be good.
The wonderful teaching in Buddhism is that we all have the Bodhicitta, the heart of a Buddha. Seeking the Bodhicitta is often described in Mahayana Buddhism as the Buddhist path. And, since we all have the same Bodhicitta, this means none of us are special and no problem is fundamental. When we let go of clinging to all our karmic tendencies, all that is left is the Bodhicitta. No self, anatta, is a Buddhist teaching that is often misunderstood and thought of as something too deep to understand. Yet it is very simple. Nothing we identify as the self really belongs to me. I do not possess my body. My body follows its own karma, and naturally old age and death means it will fall apart. My memories are just karma again. This happened and that happened. And all memories are transient and will be forgotten. Feelings and thoughts just arise in us without us wanting them to arise or being able to stop them from flowing away. They are all just conditions that we actually do not own and possess. It is the teaching of the eight worldly conditions, fame and disgrace, gain and loss, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. For instance, we help free ourselves from selfishness and point ourselves to liberation when we recognize that we cannot possess these conditions or any conditions.
Buddhist training is learning that we do not need to cling to these worldly conditions. Buddhism is directing us to seek what is deeper than these worldly conditions. We open our hearts and minds to what is deeper than birth and death, and this points us to solving the problem of suffering. Buddhism is awakening that faith that none of our problems are the real problem. The real problem is why we are not seeking and finding Bodhicitta. Keeping an awareness of the deeper purpose of Buddhist practice is what frees us from that very human default position of obsessing and being fixated on our desires and fears. We need to keep working at lifting our mind to its deeper purpose. We need to do our best with all the difficult conditions of our daily life. Yet, whenever we get lost in worldly conditions, we need to remind ourselves that “nothing is me and nothing is mine,” and have faith that our true heart is the Bodhicitta.