Buddhism and the Self

Gautama Siddharta was born around two and a half millennia ago into one of the higher castes of the then stratified society of India. Upon reaching adulthood he appears to have become disillusioned with his cloistered life and decided to go on a journey to find spiritual enlightenment - perhaps even the ultimate liberation, Nirvana. 


Gautama would have studied the Vedas, and one of the key ideas in these scriptures was that beyond our awareness there is an ultimate reality - Brahman - which ties all things, all space and time, together. We are connected to Brahman with our atman - our undying soul if you like - and this atman undergoes an endless cycle of death and rebirth until eventually it becomes enlightened (Mokshi) and becomes one with Brahman (Nirvana). It was this enlightenment, this end to suffering, that motivated Gautama.

On his journey he studied Brahmins going about their priestly duties, meditated with hermits in the forest and fasted with a small band of ascetics - to the point of starvation. He even experimented with walking about town naked. Yet every attempt to liberate himself from material attachments, from desire and want, just seemed to bring him back to his all too human existence. 

Then, as the legend has it, he meditated for several weeks under a 'Bodhi' tree (hence the name Bodhi/Buddha - of interest to us students of the film Point Break) and became enlightened. The rest is history, plus more than a little myth-making: Gautama founded Buddhism and garnered a band of followers. They set down his ideas which then spread through much of Asia and the middle east.  

What was the nature of this 'enlightenment'? Some say Buddha experienced his thousands of previous lives and finally realised that he was at the end of his cycle of rebirth and death; that he was finally free of all earthly attachments. Interesting as these ideas are it is difficult to see the relevance of something like re-incarnation to ordinary day-to-day life and most of us have earthly attachments and responsibilities that we can't really give up. Is there maybe a less esoteric side to this enlightenment, something more practical, more relevant to mental well-being?

For me the answer is in what made Buddha different from previous sages and this was that he 'cut out the middle man'. (I can imagine him going down well in a corporate strategy meeting). Previous ways of liberation had talked a lot about overcoming the self through good works and charity, through fasting or asceticism, through prayer and ritual or by taking up a rootless, wandering life. Buddha tried most of these and yet each time he returned to his existence of wanting, of suffering, of self- or ego-driven existence. It was almost as if the harder one tried to overcome the self, the self just came back as strong as ever. This makes sense: after all if you make your 'self' something to be 'defeated', you are simply making the idea of yourself even stronger. 

Buddha's primary insight was that there is no self to overcome. No ego to be defeated. No undying soul or atman to undergo endless birth and rebirth. All of these - ego, self, atman - are simply ideas, illusions cooked up by our mental processes and reinforced by our biological needs and social environment. To know enlightenment it is necessary to first see my 'self' for the illusory construct it is. Hence the most common question asked in Buddhist practice is 'Who am I?' 

Following this insight was the equally important one that this 'self' is constantly changing. Buddha rejected the idea of a fixed, unchanging soul or atman. Everything changes. Yet we tend to hold on to fixed ideas, causing a great deal of suffering along the way.

Personally these are - to use that old corporate speak - the 'take home messages' of Buddhism. There are more: the Middle Way, the importance of compassion, the Eightfold Path and so on. Yet for me these follow naturally from these two original insights: That my self, my ego, is just a result of mental processes* and that the universe is constantly changing - myself included. 

*(I have my biological drives and survival instincts, but these are not necessarily 'mine' as they are more or less present in all human beings.) 

It is by working on these insights that the benefits begin to make themselves felt. A lot of mental anguish is the result of 'selfing', our tendency to put ourselves at the centre of things. This can manifest in the belief that bad things are deliberately happening to me or that I am the reason bad things are happening. Or perhaps my actions are being driven 'selfishly', by the need to make myself important, or by the need to defend my ego; I might believe I am the only person who can control things, that without this control things will fall apart; I may even be motivated by the need to 'overcome myself', to be someone else, someone 'better'. In each case, I am being driven by something unreliable, by what is essentially an illusion of who I am, or think I should be.

Who am I? Who should I be? The only reliable answer is 'I don't know.'

(I would add here that this 'I don't know' is not an admission of defeat. It is perfectly reasonable to say "I don't really know who I am, but I would like to be...". In fact by admitting I don't have a fixed identity it is then possible to 'work' on myself, to explore new potentials.)      

To know that everything is constantly changing is also liberating."Living in the moment' has become something of a cliche but the real problem is that the phrase suggests a 'moment' to live in, to grasp, whereas in reality every moment has already gone. A 'moment' can be anything: a memory, an expectation, a disappointment, a plan, a hurtful comment, anything really. However by 'letting go' of rather than 'living in' these moments we allow things to change. We accept change and as a result we can adapt and be creative. We can also see that - despite the adage to the contrary - history never repeats itself. There is always something different and realising this can release a lot of despair.  

Buddhism is more than a set of beliefs, or philosophy, or system for living. It is really what you need it to be at any one time. A question if you like, to take us out of ourselves, and this is also what makes it a way of liberation. For me what is important is that it is not an endpoint - some mystical enlightenment that will give me x-ray vision - but a process, neatly summed up in one of my favorite Zen phrases: 'Before enlightenment, chopping wood and washing the dishes; after enlightenment, chopping wood and washing the dishes.'