Saturday, August 28, 2010

True Self and No Self

Anyone familiar with the spiritual writings of India will notice two distinct lines of thought.  There is the Vedanta line, which says that there is a true, unchanging, permanent self.  Then there is the Buddhist camp, which says there is in fact no self.  I once asked Shinzen Young, a meditation teacher, and his answer was they had the same experience, but half the holy seers called it the true self and half called it the no self. 

The key to fully understanding this mystery lies in long practice, and a close look at the teachings of Buddhism and Vedanta.  Here is an excerpt from Huang Po, which is part of his brilliant summation of Buddha nature:

All the Buddhas and all sentient beings are nothing but the One Mind, beside which nothing exists. This Mind, which is without beginning, is unborn and indestructible. It is not green nor yellow, and has neither form nor appearance. It does not belong to the categories of things which exist or do not exist, nor can it be thought of in terms of new or old. It is neither long nor short, big nor small, for it transcends all limits, measures, names, traces and comparisons. It is that which you see before you - begin to reason about it and you at once fall into error. It is like the boundless void which cannot be fathomed or measured. The One Mind alone is the Buddha, and there is no distinction between the Buddha and sentient things, but that sentient beings are attached to forms and so seek externally for Buddhahood.  

Now compare this excerpt from a modern Vedanta teacher, Ananda Wood:

Each Advaita prakriya (method) goes through this reflective and dissolving process, including
the witness and the consciousness prakriyas that we have been discussing. The witness prakriya is like ‘using a thorn to get rid of a thorn’. The ‘witness’ concept is like a big thorn, used to remove the little thorn of petty ego. The big thorn must come out as well, to achieve its purpose. But the same applies to the concept of ‘consciousness’ and to any other idea. ‘Consciousness’is also a big thorn, even bigger than the ‘witness’. It is not just the witness concept that must get utterly dissolved, in order to reach truth. So must the idea of consciousness – appearing in any form, signified by any name, intuited through any quality. In truth itself, not the slightest trace of ideation can remain.

Vedanta teaches that there are two types of Brahman, or ultimate reality: saguna Brahman and nirguna Brahman.  Sa- means with and nir- means without.  The gunas are the fundamental threads of reality--- sattva, rajas, and tamas.  Saguna means with attributes, and nirguna means without attributes.  Nirguna Brahman is real Brahman, and in Vedanta, Atman, or the individual soul, is Brahman.  So the true self, or atman, is nirguna Brahman, or Brahman without attributes.  Compare this to Huang Po’s one mind which is without form.

Now this is a fine intellectual theory, how can it help our practice? 

All the wise seers of India agree that the end of suffering, or happiness, is not found in the world of names or forms, or material objects.  Discovering this is the first Noble Truth: there is suffering.  In the experience of spiritual seekers, this often comes as a great disappointment or dark night of the soul.  As Huang Po says, ordinary people seek externally (in the world of objects and things, including mental objects and things) for Buddha.  

Any object is impermanent, unsatisfying, and not self.  This means that anything we can see, hear, feel, taste, smell, think about or feel is an object and will not provide us with what we are looking for.  This includes any and all states of mind, no matter how profound: bliss, feelings of oneness, feelings of peace and contentment, these are all objects (thoughts/feelings) that cannot last or provide lasting happiness.  Knowing this, we can immediately avoid many traps that seekers fall in, the largest trap being the idea that we can achieve a certain experience or mind state that will solve all our problems. 

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