Buddha Butterfly

Selfing or Unselfing,”The Buddha” is in You

“The Buddha” is in you

Despite all the ways I think I’m different from others,  I also try to see how we’re the same. Here’s one way I think we’re the same.  Each of us is a mystery.  Whatever this life is, at rock bottom, we don’t know what it is, or who, or what we are.  While I’m at it, there’s another way we’re all the same.  No matter what, whether I meet an inmate at the corrections facility, a homeless person in Gloucester, or a member at Sweeping Heart Zen, that person, just like me, longs to feel whole, content, and happy. So, in my view, we’re each a mystery that longs for peace and joy, and the welfare of those we love.  To me, this is what Zen and some other schools of Buddhism mean when we talk about our shared Buddha Nature. And it’s what I mean when I say that “The Buddha” is in you.

I put quotation marks around “The Buddha” because, whatever the Buddha is, at bottom it’s a mystery.  Some people call this mystery Wisdom, some call it God. I can say the Buddha is in you. But it’s really beyond naming. Call it whatever you will. It’s in both you and me. And this mystery wants nothing more for you than your longterm welfare and happiness.

One More Way We’re The Same

Here’s another way we’re all the same.  We experience illness and injury. We’re brought low by loneliness and loss.  On the up side, we also all celebrate good times and delight in the people we love.  Indeed, we share this up-and-down cycle of sorrow and celebration in common.  This only makes sense since we have bodies; we’re in relationships with other people, and each of us makes the best we can of life in this rough and beautiful place we call home.  This up-and-down cycle, as painful and wonderful and confusing as it can be, just is.  It’s the price of admission we all pay in life.

We have much in common.  Yet despite our common inheritance, people have hugely different responses to life’s cycle of pain and pleasure.  On the one hand, the cycle can push people into a sense of paralyzing defeat. On the other some seem eternally at ease and joyful despite this sometimes crazy ride. Paradoxically, many times those who endure the greatest hardships are perennially and contagiously optimistic, while those with more than enough of the good things in life fall into a fog of despair.  What accounts for the enormous disparity in the way ordinary people experience life?

Most Of Us Never Even Begin To Unself

I think there are many reasons.  I’m sure you do, too.  One reason there’s an enormous difference in the way people respond to life’s ups and downs has to do with the self and what the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch called the task of “unselfing.” Of course, the world’s great wisdom traditions, including the Buddhist tradition, all talked about unselfing before her. They and she agree that this great task involves overcoming the self’s tendency to scrupulously avoid pain and to live in selfish, consoling fantasies rather than encounter the world as it is.  Together they also teach that this unselfing is a necessary step to a satisfying life.  Why?

“The independent existence of what is excellent… is a thing totally opposed to selfish obsession.” ~Iris Murdoch

For Murdoch and the historical Buddha, the self blinds us to the objective truth of the way things are.  Conversely, unselfing means meeting life within life’s limits.  That means meeting life without the self resorting to comforting fictions and theological fantasies of limitlessness.  We, the natural world, and other people need and deserve our unselfish attention.  Giving it brings joy.

Murdoch argued that the most accessible entry point to the path of unselfing, and to the moral life unselfing entails, is through the “self forgetful pleasure [human beings take] in the sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals, birds, stones, and trees.”  In other words and more fully, she believed that our tendency to self-involvement, fantasy, and  self-obsession is best overcome through seeing and experiencing the beauty of nature.  That was because for Murdoch nature’s beauty existed beyond human desire, and so set a limit to human activity. She also thought unselfing could occur through mastering a skilled craft or art for essentially the same reason.

Here, Murdoch saw that, just as with nature’s beauty, mastering an art requires opening to the world beyond the self’s escapist daydreams of limitlessness. That’s, because, for example, the brushes and paint and other materials of the painter often resist the self’s desires. That means acquiring mastery asks one to willingly open to real feedback, to what things outside the self actually require. It means putting the self to one side  and that’s a necessary part of learning to live fully, skillfully, and usefully within limits through life’s various ups and downs.

Self Without Limits Is The Road to Despair, Not an Unmitigated Evil

The historical Buddha recommended what he called the Eight Fold Path as a practical guide to unselfing.  The Eight Fold Path includes scores of detailed advice to help with this task.  I’ll mention only one.  The Five Remembrances.  However, first I think it’s important to note that for the Buddha and Murdoch the self is not an unmitigated evil. It is the product of natural causes and conditions, an unknowing strategy that we begin as children.  As we grow the self evolves to ease the uncertainty and pain that comes with the cyclic pleasure-unpleasure ride of ordinary life.

In fact, viewed in this way, we can see the self as an expression of our mysterious urge to wholeness, comfort and health.  Children learn to self as they learn language. Therefore, long before anyone knows about the practice of unselfing, the self begins to habitually look for ease and happiness by avoiding pain, resorting to fantasies of limitlessness, and selfishly pursuing pleasure.  Markedly though, with the current state of our world it is plain to see that the self’s obsessions and fantasies of limitlessness can be hugely destructive and a cause of great pain and despair.

This wisdom, this wish, and this endless change is our Buddha Nature

Just like Murdoch after him, the Buddha encouraged us to intently observe nature as a path to unselfing.  Unlike Murdoch though, the Buddha asked us to focus, not on things, not on the beauty of the “animals, birds, stones, and trees” of nature, but on the relentless processes that we ourselves as nature’s own beings are subject to.  These processes naturally set limits to what we can reasonably expect in life. For the Buddha, a good way to unself is to look squarely at what the self would rather not see, it’s own natural limits. The self is unavoidably subject to loss, sickness, old age, death, and to the consequences of all its actions.  These are all established natural limits and laws, if you will.  The limitless desires and avoidance fantasies of the self have no bearing on these five truths.  They are humbling and wise; they apply to everyone.

The Five Remembrances
  1. I am of the nature to grow old; there is no way to escape growing old.
  2. I am of the nature to have ill health; there is no way to escape having ill health.
  3. I am of the nature to die; there is no way to escape death.
  4. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
  5. My deeds are my closest companions. I am the beneficiary of my deeds. My deeds are the ground on which I stand.

If you recollect  and reflect on these truths often you might discover a growing sense of resilience and calm as the self’s limitless expectations for unvarying states of pleasure and happiness come down to the earthly limits of what’s actually possible. Remarkably, to begin to recollect and reflect on what’s real in this way invites a wisdom that’s already in us to wake up.  Practicing the Five Recollections helps to awaken our wisdom, our sense of what’s real, and our wish to be happy and healthy and at ease in this constantly changing life.  This wisdom, this wish, and this endless change is our Buddha Nature.  Those who have made progress in unselfing and those who have touched the mystery of their Buddha Nature more fully are bound to be more satisfied in life.

Thich Nhat Hahn puts it this way: “”The Buddha” is just a name for the most understanding and compassionate person it’s possible to be… We can breathe, smile, and walk in such a way that this person in us has a chance to manifest.”

Here is a link to the Five Recollections at Lion’s Roar: lionsroar.com/buddhism-by-the-numbers-the-five-recollections/

I hope you have a wonderful week.

Please join us on Boston’s North Shore in historic Gloucester.  Here’s a link to our calendar of events: sweepingheartzen.org/events/