BUDDHISM IN OUR DAILY LIFE
A series of lectures delivered at The China Institute in America
New York, New York
Lecture 3: THE TRUTH OF SELF (EMPTINESS)
Someone asked my why I used the word ‘emptiness?in parenthesis after the word ‘self?in the title of this talk. According to Buddhism, the answer is that “self is emptiness and emptiness is self.” This answer, however, is too simple to comprehend. So before I explain the subject matter of this title, let me make two remarks:
1) Emptiness or void, as used in Buddhism, does not mean nothingness, as in “the room was empty after all the people left.” It means, actually, that the basic nature of everything is emptiness. Even if the room is packed with people, it should still be envisioned as empty. However, human language often is not adequate to convey such precise expression. The word ‘emptiness?appeared to be closest in meaning to the Sanskrit ‘shunyata,?and so it was chosen by the English-speaking scholars who first came into contact with Buddhism. The word does create confusion, but there is no other suitable term in the English vocabulary.
2) Although the truth discovered by the Buddha upon his enlightenment was incomprehensible to ordinary human minds, he had to rely on the language understandable to people. Buddha’s teaching was therefore delivered at two different levels: the mundane level and the enlightened level. At the mundane level, the concept of self means there is an individual. At the enlightened level, however, ‘individual,?’non-individual,?’self,?’non-self,?’phenomenon,?’no phenomenon,?’name,?and ‘no name?are all merely sophisms. At the enlightened level, one envisions all people, including one-self, as those seen in a dream or appearing on a television screen. Such visions are empty. Even the term ‘emptiness?is unnecessary and carries no real meaning. ‘Emptiness?is just arbitrarily chosen for convenience of discussion among people at the mundane level.
The concept of self at the mundane level, nevertheless, is the biggest hindrance to ordinary people in achieving enlightenment. To put it another way, one cannot achieve enlightenment and identify with basic nature without first achieving the realization that the concept of self is not only an invalid concept, but also a dangerous concept. With the concept of self the concept of ‘that is mine?is also established, and thus the attachments of both self and ‘that is mine?become firmly planted in one’s mind. In this way one can never be in harmony with basic nature, one can never achieve enlightenment and be rid of samsara, the recurring cycle of birth and death, which is the source of suffering.
In today’s talk, I would like to explain first how the concept of self is formed and strengthened. Next, I shall try to explore, using several different approaches, how this concept of self is invalid. By destruction of the concept of self, the concept of emptiness will be formed. The concept of emptiness is also an attachment. Thus we should finally destroy the concept of emptiness, to enable our true basic nature to be revealed.
The concept of self has been deeply rooted in our minds for so long that it is unrealistic to expect that it can be eliminated by the time we walk out of this room. It is my hope that after listening to this lecture your concept of self will simply not be strengthened further, and that this lecture will provide you with some leads useful for your future development.
According to Buddhism, the concept of self has two major components: one is the desire for unending life or continuous existence, and the other is the attachment to one’s own view, usually expressed as ‘my view.?The desire for continuous existence is present even before birth. The attachment to one’s own view is gradually built up during one’s lifetime, although such views are largely influenced by one’s past karma.
The concept of self is first conceived through one’s sensory organs. Through them one establishes oneself, even at birth, as a physical body which is separate from the so-called outside world. This concept of self becomes stronger and more important as one grows up. As a result, one finds that one has established within one’s physical body a center of awareness, the self, with respect to the outside world.
Secondly, because everyone is establishing his or her own center of activity, the perception that the world is composed of different entities is further sharpened. Since each entity seeks its own satisfaction, conflicts of interest develop. The feeling of separation is further compounded when views differ and each entity asserts the importance or rightness of its own view.
Voluminous Buddhist commentaries have been written on the subject of the development of the concept of self. What I’ve just said here is comparable to a drop if water in the vast ocean. However, the ocean, as vast as it is, is basically just water. So, if we can study this drop of water thoroughly, a good foundation will be built for a more advanced study of the ocean later on.
The physical body of a person is the core upon which the concept of self is imposed. However, the concept of self is further strengthened by all sorts of identifications made in daily life which increase one’s separation and isolation from others in the outside world. Some of the most common phenomena by which one identifies oneself and which distinguish one person from another are:
These identifications are like the branches and leaves of a tree, with a physical human body as its root. If the root is dug out, then all the leaves and branches will automatically pass out of existence.
The above statement has, nevertheless, been challenged by a friend of mine who is a forester. He said to me, “Since you have not had the experience of taking down a big tree, you do not know that the branches should be cut off first, then the trunk cut down, and finally the root dug out or pulverized.” I certainly could not argue with him; however, I told him that in Buddhism there are three major paths which teach a variety of ways for human beings to dig out the root of the concept of self. These three paths are:
Path 1 ?Vigorous practice, with the goal of destroying all the habits one has accumulated during this life and also during past lives. Such habits even include knowledge, faith, love, and hatred, and all kinds of human activities. Ch’an (pronounced Zen in Japanese) and the teachings of the Tibetan enlightened one, Milarepa, belong to this path. It is analogous to the idea of concentrating one’s efforts on digging out the root without cutting off the branches first.
Path 2 ?Reliance upon the law of karma, whereby the concept of self can be gradually eliminated and basic nature revealed through the accumulation of merit gained by practicing the six perfections (paramitas). These are perfection of giving (dana paramita), perfection of moral discipline (shila paramita), perfection of patience (kshanti paramita), perfection of energetic perseverance (virya paramita), perfection of meditation (dhyana paramita), and perfection of wisdom (prajna paramita). This path is analogous to the standard forestry method of first cutting off the branches and trunk, and finally removing the root.
Paths 1 and 2 are methods of cultivation, but without a sound theoretical foundation, people can go astray on Path 1, or may lose enthusiasm after a period of time on Path 2. We therefore also need Path 3.
Path 3 ?Establishment of the theoretical foundation for Paths 1 and 2 through learning and penetrative reasoning.
In this lecture I regret that I am able to introduce to you only very little from each path. Today let us follow Path 3 to see how the concept of self can be theoretically destroyed so that our basic nature can be revealed. The next talk will be devoted to Paths 1 and 2, but also very briefly and with regard to selected topics only.
Now, let us first examine the seven means of identification that I mentioned above, to see how these branches of the “tree of self” can be removed.
1) A name is probably the most common way of identifying a person, but it is obvious that it is a poor means of doing so. Not only can a name be changed, but many people have the same name. Thus, that branch can easily be cut off. A name cannot really separate one person from the other.
2) Appearance, including the form of the body, complexion, color, etc., is also commonly used to identify a person. But not only does appearance change with age, it can also be changed by surgery. It may serve a temporary purpose, but it cannot really be used to establish the concept of self.
3) Scientific experiments demonstrate that each person has a different voice pattern. An instrument has even been devised by which a court may identify a person by his vocal pattern. But physical damage to the vocal apparatus can change that pattern, and certainly this means of identification is not applicable to mutes. Voice, therefore, also cannot permanently separate one person from another such that each person could justifiably be called a self.
4) Fingerprints are commonly used to identify a person but, like the voice, are not perfect. One does not lose one’s concept of self even if one cuts off both of one’s hands.
5) It is true that sensation, such as pain, delight, and the apprehension of danger, does not alert one to the existence of a self, but such alertness is usually temporary and simply affirms the concept of self which one has already.
6) Ideology is a powerful means of identification. It is, in fact, part of the premise of one’s so-called view, which is one of the two main components that form the self. Historians have recorded that many religious defenders and revolutionaries put their ideas, faith, or principles even above their lives. Although in those cases the concept of self as an individual is usually surrendered to the concept of self as a group, the concept of self is, nevertheless, strengthened. But ideology can be changed, and a change in one’s ideology does not mean a change in the individual. The concept of self remains. Thus it can be proven that ideology is still not the core of the concept of self.
7) Reputation is also a strong identification of self. Reputation represents one’s deeds, which distinguish one from other persons. Reputation can be planted very deeply in one’s mind. It is not surprising to learn that one of the presidents of the United States heard people call him “Mr. President” in his dreams. Ego is a term which represents a person’s strong attachment to his identification by reputation. Pride and arrogance are usually the by-products. Just like ideology, however, fame can change overnight. The destruction of one’s reputation does not, unfortunately, mean the destruction of the self. Thus this branch, one’s reputation, can also be removed without affecting the concept of self.
With all branches cut off we now face the root of the tree of self, that is, the reality of the human body.
More than 2,000 years ago a famous Chinese philosopher, Lao-Tzu, remarked, “My biggest problem is that I have a body.” Buddha also emphasized that the body is the source of all human suffering. So, we go to the core of the problem. Can the human body justifiably be called the self?
In a previous talk, “The Five Eyes,” I have studied this important and fundamental question, by employing three analytical methods taught by Buddha. Each of these methods leads to the conclusion that the physical human body is a manifestation of emptiness (shunyata) and that the term ‘self?is just a name arbitrarily chosen by human beings for the convenience of living in this world.
Since we can show that the physical human body is impermanent and is a momentarily changeable form seen by human eyes in a very narrow range of wave lengths, how is it justifiable to call it a self, an individual entity? Thus we can conclude that there is no self, only emptiness.
Once I introduced this doctrine of “no self, only emptiness” to some of my friends. One friend cried, “If I lose myself and become emptiness, how can I still be alive?” To this question I answered, “The Buddha reached the realization that there is no self, only emptiness, upon his enlightenment at the age of thirty-five, yet he lived a happy life until he was eighty years old.” The destruction of the concept of self, and the understanding of emptiness, do not mean the end of life; on the contrary, these realizations mark the beginning of a happy life. I will discuss this more fully in the next talk.