Question: Buddhist teachings talk about having no distinction between “self” and “other.” But they also talk about using meditation to discover one’s “true self.” If we’re trying to diminish the gap between self and other, how does discovering one’s self help in that process? When I meditate, I discover more about myself, but that seems to get in the way of dropping my sense of self. So this confuses me a lot!
Zenkei Blanche Hartman: Yes, the Buddha taught about no distinction between “self” and “other” and he also taught about liberation from the suffering of self-clinging. He taught by sharing his direct experience of liberation. And he taught that a “self” separate from all existence is a construct of the mind and cannot be found in reality. Thus, discovering the “true self” is having the direct experience of identity with all that is; it is “being one with everything.” It is not that we meditate to try to diminish the gap between self and other. Rather, we practice in order to see directly that there never is such a gap in reality. The separation is created by our thoughts and a lifetime of conditioning.
Narayan Helen Liebenson: Discovering our “true self” means recognizing our original goodness—the natural contentment and wholeness within. As human beings, we have the same nature as the Buddha. Buddhanature is empty of greed, hatred, and delusion and full of unconditional love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Recognizing our inherent buddhanature means realizing the true and boundless nature of the heart. Buddhanature has nothing to do with what we consider to be me, mine, or myself.
What we see when we practice is not who we are, but what we are not. We see patterns and habits that we have mistakenly perceived as self. These are habits and patterns that we have practiced without wisdom and that have caused trouble and suffering for ourselves and others. It is essential to know these patterns in our own unique experience of life because what we are unconscious of, we are enslaved by. As Sayadaw U Tejaniya says, “This is not you, and yet you are responsible for it.”
As we become aware of these patterns and habits, insight arises, enabling us to see the patterns as they are: impermanent, not self, and dukkha. Insight encourages nongrasping, and with the absence of grasping, the notions of self and other dissolve. We realize that we are all in this together and that our patterns and habits create an unnecessary sense of separation.
When you say that discovering more about yourself gets in the way of dropping the sense of self, is it because you identify with what is seen or discovered? Identification is separation. If you can see patterns as patterns and not turn these discoveries into new identities about who you are, the patterns will gently and gradually dissolve through awareness.
When you see that what you have claimed as self and other is always changing, you can let go of these fixed notions of self and other, and awaken into the wonder of it all.
Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: In the tradition of Dzogchen, meditation is the practice of becoming more familiar with the nature of mind, which is unbounded and clear. When one recognizes this nature—the nondual state of emptiness and clarity—this recognition is referred to as self-realization.
As I read your question, I wonder what you may mean by discovering more about yourself as you meditate. Perhaps you mean you are becoming more aware of your discomfort, your habitual thoughts and internal dialogue, your moving mind and the various stressful patterns of daily life? Often we are not fully aware of the ways in which we suffer or are confused; recognizing our suffering is a necessary step on one’s path.
As we bring attention inward, we discover that it is our mind that produces the appearances and experiences in our life. Dawa Gyaltsen, a famous eighth-century Dzogchen master in my lineage, said, “Vision is mind,” meaning that our mind produces all manner of experience.
But then we must ask the question, “What is this mind?” Here it is important to bring clear and open attention to the dissolution of one’s experience. So, rather than commenting on or categorizing our experience, saying, “Oh, this is jealousy; I am realizing I am a jealous person,” we experience this jealousy directly and nakedly. When experienced in this way, the jealousy cannot remain; it will release or dissolve because we are not participating in it or perpetuating the story by thinking about it or judging the behavior. As it exhausts, it is important to continue to look directly at the space that opens up as we seek the mind that produced the jealousy. When we look directly, we cannot find this creator of our experience. Thus we have a second line of advice from this same master: “Mind is empty.”
When we have realized these two concepts, vision is mind and mind is empty, we have experienced the dissolution of both the object (or “other”) and the subject (or “self”). One is in a very clear and open place! Still, we continue in our examination. When we continue to abide in the dissolution of our experience and of the one who is experiencing, we find emptiness, but that emptiness is not nothing; it is actually an experience of being vividly present and alive in the moment. And so we have the third line of this master’s advice: “Emptiness is clear light.” The teaching continues from here to describe how positive qualities naturally arise from this clear light, the union of openness and awareness.
So on the journey to discover one’s authentic self, it is important to examine our experiences of self and other using direct naked observation, without analysis or judgment of any kind. In this way we are led to discover that there is no other and also no self as we had previously thought. And when we continue to direct our attention to the space that was previously occupied by the thoughts or emotions or variety of experiences, we can discover a freedom and aliveness and warmth that leads to spontaneous actions of great benefit to others.
Zenkei Blanche Hartman is former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center.
Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche is a lineage holder of the Bön Dzogchen tradition of Tibet.
Narayan Helen Liebenson is a guiding teacher at Cambridge Insight Meditation Center.