In the opening editorial of our September 2019 issue, Lion’s Roar‘s editor-in-chief Melvin McLeod shares why Buddhism is the ultimate self-help, despite one of its central principles — nonself.
Here is a heresy: Buddhism is not only self-help, it’s the ultimate self-help.
Many people would consider this a heresy because it appears to violate one of Buddhism’s central principles—nonself. If there’s no self, how can there be self-help?
But nonself doesn’t mean there’s no self. We exist, obviously. What nonself really means is non mistaken self. The “mistaken self”—sometimes called “ego”—is a single, separate, unchanging entity. It doesn’t exist. But because we believe it does, we generate anger, greed, and indifference to protect it, and cause ourselves and others endless suffering.
That’s why the truth of nonself is the best self-help of all. It stops the suffering we cause because of our belief in the mistaken self and helps us discover our true self, the ultimate cause of happiness and joy.
What is this true self? Some Buddhist traditions won’t even talk about it, because we might just solidify it into another form of ego. That’s also why many Buddhists criticize self-help: in trying to ease our suffering, it can solidify the very ego that causes the suffering.
Mahayana Buddhist traditions go so far as to give our true self a name, like buddhanature, and describe some of its characteristics, such as wisdom, compassion, and openness. But these are just signposts for our journey and shouldn’t be taken too concretely. All we can say with certainty is that true self is free of every attribute of mistaken self.
This is all summarized in the Buddha’s four noble truths: 1. We suffer. 2. Why? Because of our mistaken understanding of who we are and what we experience. 3. So we can find happiness by awakening to the true nature of things. 4. How? By following a path of meditation, wisdom, and ethical living.
This is the world’s first and greatest self-help formula. In our cover story for this issue, we see its profundity, as well as its effectiveness.
On the surface, we’re just addressing the suffering of negative thoughts and feelings about ourselves that so many of us are burdened by. But when we apply Buddhist analysis to it, we see that the cause of our self-negativity goes deep, and so the remedy must too. In fact, the three Buddhist meditations taught in this issue pretty much summarize the whole Buddhist path, with all its profound insights and powerful techniques.
The practice of mindfulness helps us see the transient and insubstantial nature of our thoughts and feelings, and to question who or what is really experiencing them. These realizations, which Buddhism calls the three marks of existence, are deeply healing. They are a big first step toward ending suffering.
Next, we give ourselves the love and caring we deserve. Compassion for all beings is the essence of the Mahayana path, and it starts with love for ourselves. Something we may think of as purely personal, even a bit selfish, in fact leads to a great awakening of the heart.
Finally, we can stop struggling altogether and just be who we really are. Which, to our amazement, is awake, loving, and wise. That’s called our buddhanature. It’s our true, unchangeable nature and we can experience it right now.
And all that negative stuff, both real and imagined? It’s just the by-product of our endless, pointless wandering in search of what we already have. It turns out the reason we’re imperfect is that we don’t realize we’re perfect.
So we start out looking for self-help, and to our surprise discover the path to enlightenment. Because it’s the best self-help of all. Maybe the only one that really works.