Overcoming Self-Centeredness and Developing Love: Buddhism

General Assertions

Buddhism does not assert creation or a creator. The mental continuums of all sentient beings have no beginning. “Sentient beings” are living beings that act with intention and experience happiness or unhappiness as a result. Like souls in Islam, however, the mental continuums of sentient beings have no end; but unlike Islam, they do not always remain associated with the same life form. In fact, they have no intrinsic identity as any specific life form. Each mental continuum undergoes repeated rebirth with the body and mind of a hell being, ghost, animal, human, quasi-divine being, or divine being, under the influence of its past compulsive (karmic) deeds.

In Buddhism, there is no judge or Day of Judgment, no end of time, and no eternal heavenly paradise or hell. It is not like in Islam that it is only in this one life as a human that one is able to overcome self-centeredness. Rather, the path to overcoming self-centeredness will span an enormous number of rebirths and these may be with any of the above-mentioned life-forms.

When one overcomes self-centeredness, one overcomes uncontrollably recurring rebirth (Skt. samsara) and gains liberation, which is not conceived as a rebirth in a heaven or paradise. Beyond liberation, one may progress even further to become an enlightened Buddha. A Buddha is not an omnipotent creator, but rather an all-loving, omniscient teacher with full knowledge of how to help all others attain liberation as well. There are many Buddhas, not just one.

Liberation and enlightenment in Buddhism, nevertheless, are eternal states, as are paradise and hell in Islam. As in paradise, one experiences eternal happiness as a liberated or enlightened being, although liberated beings may sometimes experience a neutral feeling when sunk in deep states of concentration.

Parallel to the Muslim assertion that all humans can attain paradise if they overcome self-centeredness, Buddhism asserts that all sentient beings, no matter their present life-form, can attain liberation and enlightenment, also by overcoming self-centeredness. But Buddhism does not assert eternal hell for those who fail in this task during their present human lifetime. Even if such beings gain rebirth in a hell realm as the result of their selfish, destructive deeds, that hellish rebirth will eventually come to an end. Through further continuing rebirths, they will be able to work on toward liberation and enlightenment.

According to Buddhism, one may repent one’s past destructive behavior at any time; and, as in Islam, repentance includes the promise not to repeat the negative action and to counter its effects with positive deeds. But unlike Islam, forgiveness, even by Buddha, is not involved in the purification process. This is because ethics are not based on obedience to a higher authority and Buddha is not a judge who rewards or punishes.

Unawareness as the Cause of Self-Centeredness

Buddhism does not assert a soul per se, but rather asserts that a self (as an individual person, referred to conventionally as “me”) is merely an imputation phenomenon (Tib. btags-pa) on an individual mental continuum of ever-changing moments of body and mind. An imputation phenomenon is neither a form of physical phenomenon, nor a way of being aware of something (Tib. ldan-min ‘du-byed) and is inseparable from its basis for imputation (Tib. gdags-gzhi). Another example of an imputation phenomenon on the basis of an individual continuum of body and mind within one lifetime is age. A self, however, is an imputation phenomenon on such a continuum even when the individual has become liberated or enlightened. As with the soul in Islam, however, a person or “self” is affected by many causes and conditions, has parts, and cannot exist independently of a body and mind.

Note that neither the soul in Islam nor the self in Buddhism is like the soul (Skt. atman) asserted by most non-Buddhist Indian traditions. The atman is static, unaffected by anything, is a partless monad and, when liberated from uncontrollably recurring rebirth, exists independently of a body and mind.

All negative emotions and destructive behavior derive from unawareness (Skt. avidya, Tib. ma-rig-pa, ignorance) about behavioral cause and effect and, more deeply and ultimately, from unawareness about how the self exists. Either one doesn’t know, or one knows incorrectly. In Islam, forgetfulness causes the heart to be veiled with dark stains regarding one’s innate disposition toward God; while in Buddhism, unawareness causes the mind to be veiled with obscuration regarding cause and effect and how the self of persons exists. Unawareness, however, is not like forgetfulness about them. It is not that at birth everyone’s mind is pure and they are aware of these facts, but because of disobedience they later forget about them. Sentient beings were never innately aware of the reality of cause and effect and of themselves, and that unawareness had no beginning.

In Buddhism, forgetfulness is mentioned primarily as one of the deterrents to concentration. Firstly, one needs to have ascertained the way in which cause and effect work and the way in which the self exists. Then, once one has begun meditation practice to focus, with concentration and understanding, on either of these two fundamental facts of reality, forgetfulness is an obstacle that causes one to lose the object of focus.

Forgetfulness is overcome by mindfulness (Skt. smrti, Tib. dran-pa), a term that also means “remembering,” but in this context refers to the mental factor that functions as a mental “glue,” keeping one’s attention on an object so that it is not lost.

The repetition of various syllables and phrases in the form of mantras is used as a method for maintaining mindfulness on a state of mind, such as love, that one is generating. The term “mantra” in Sanskrit means, literally, “protection of the mind.” Thus, the repetition of mantras in Buddhism, similar to the repetition of dhikr in Sufism, helps one not to forget about or lose one’s object of focus.

When one is unaware of how oneself and others exist, one imagines, for example, and believes that one exists in an impossible way. Impossible ways include, for instance, as someone who is always right, more important than everyone else, and who must always have his or her way, independently of any circumstances. Based on identifying oneself with this nonexistent, so-called “false self,” one becomes self-centered and selfish. Not only does this self-centeredness lead to negative emotions and destructive behavior, but a self-centered attitude can also infect positive emotions and constructive behavior as well. For instance, one may become self-righteous and inflexible in striving, in an egoistic, self-aggrandizing way, always to be “good,” to be “perfect.” As with total surrender to God in Islam, one needs to eradicate self-centeredness completely; otherwise, one is not leading a pure ethical life. One must remove the veils of unawareness completely.

Unawareness is not conceived in Buddhism as an innate lower soul or self that needs to be overcome, in the sense of suppressing its influence, in order to eliminate self-centeredness. Unawareness needs to be totally eradicated through correct understanding of reality. Concerning the reality of persons, the reality is that oneself and others do not exist in the impossible ways that one imagines. The total absence of this false self in reality – it doesn’t correspond to anything real – is known as “voidness” (Skt. shunyata, Tib. stong-pa-nyid, emptiness), a negation that roughly means “no such thing.” There is no such thing as this false self. The actual self does not exist in the manner of a false self.

Ethic Based on Correct Understanding

In order to gain correct understanding of the reality or voidness of the self, one needs to build up the positive force needed to break through the veil of unawareness. One builds up this positive force by leading an ethical life. To lead an ethical life, one needs to overcome unawareness of behavioral cause and effect. Thus, overcoming unawareness of cause and effect needs to precede overcoming unawareness of the reality of the self.

Buddha taught the principles of behavioral cause and effect with the teachings on karma. “Karma” refers to the compulsiveness that leads one to act under the influence of unawareness. One doesn’t know, or knows incorrectly, what the result of one’s behavior will be. And, on a deeper level, one doesn’t know, or knows incorrectly, how oneself and others exist. Because of this deeper level of unawareness then, out of insecurity, one acts, speaks and thinks in compulsive ways in a futile attempt to make a false self secure.

The teachings on karma are presented in the texts of abhidharma, which means special topics of knowledge. Buddha indicated which ways of acting, speaking and thinking are destructive and lead to unhappiness and suffering, and which ways are constructive and lead to happiness. Some ways of acting, speaking and thinking Buddha did not indicate as either constructive or destructive. Although ethically neutral, most do not obstruct liberation (such as eating and sleeping), while some do obstruct it (such as conceptual thought) and must eventually be overcome.

For the monastic community of monks and nuns, Buddha indicated the rules of discipline, codified in the vinaya texts. Based on the experience of celibate communal life, when problems arose either within the community or with the householder society around it, Buddha promulgated new rules to avoid their recurrence. For instance, a monk may not be alone in a room with a woman. Such rules, however, do not apply to society in general. Thus, some destructive actions are naturally destructive (such as killing or stealing), while others are proscribed for certain persons, such as monks and nuns, as being detrimental to their spiritual path or to the welfare of the monastic community. Even for householders, Buddha and later Buddhist masters recommended certain actions (such as modesty in food and sleep) and discouraged others (such as engaging in busywork) as detrimental to meditation practice for gaining single-pointed concentration.

Although monks and nuns vow not to transgress the vinaya rules of discipline, and both monastics and householders are encouraged to avoid the destructive behavior outlined in the abhidharma texts, neither the vinaya nor the abhidharma texts are considered “holy” in the same way as Muslims consider the Quran and Shari’ah. The Buddhist texts are guidelines to be studied and followed because of being convinced rationally that they are logical and make sense. One is never encouraged to follow their guidelines as an act of submission and obedience. Nevertheless, whether one follows the vinaya and abhidharma traditions or one obeys Shari’ah, so doing leads to a happy life and a harmonious society.

But Buddhism teaches that leading an ethical life may still be tainted with self-centeredness. Self-centered practice of ethics can bring higher rebirth either as a human or in a divine heavenly realm, but the happiness of such rebirths will only be temporary and limited. One cannot lead a pure ethical life, free of all self-centeredness, and attain the eternal, unlimited happiness of liberation or enlightenment until one overcomes, as well, unawareness of how the self exists.

Ethics in Buddhism, then, are based on the facts of reality, not on laws given by a creator, nor even by laws made up by the historical Buddha. Buddha understood true sufferings and their true causes, and taught the true understanding of reality that will bring about the attainment of their true stopping forever. These are known as the “Four Noble Truths.” If one understands what Buddha taught about reality, then one understands behavioral cause and effect and how the self doesn’t exist in the impossible ways that one imagines and projects.

Following ethics in Buddhism, then, has nothing to do with surrender and obedience to the will of one’s creator. It has to do with gaining correct understanding of reality. As in Islam, however, humans have the choice of following ethics or not. If they do not follow, Buddhism views it as occurring out of unawareness or confusion; Islam explains it as disobedience, stemming from the nature of the lower self.

In short, both Buddhism and Islam explain that following ethics is based on accepting cause and effect and reality. The ways of understanding and accepting them, however, are different. In Islam, reality is the Oneness of God, who, out of love, has given the Shari’ah code of ethics through God’s messenger, Muhammad. One surrenders one’s lower soul in an act of submission to God by bearing witness to reality through declaration of the formula of faith, “There is no God other than God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” Through this declaration, known as “bearing witness,” one submits to obediently following Shari’ah, the code of ethics God gave, and, in so doing, one overcomes self-centeredness. In Islam, then, the causal relation between submission to God and overcoming self-centeredness was created by God.

By contrast, in Buddhism, the laws of cause and effect have no creator; they are the natural order of reality. The reality is that, not only the self, but actually nothing exists in impossible ways; and because of that fact, behavioral cause and effect operate without any impedance. One overcomes self-centeredness, then, through understanding and accepting the natural laws of reality concerning how everything exists and happens in life.

Taking Refuge

In Buddhism, one takes refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, which means putting a safe direction in one’s life. The safe direction of Dharma refers to the true stopping of all levels of unawareness on a mental continuum and the true understandings that bring about their attainment. The Buddhas have attained this in full and taught others the way to attain it themselves; the Sangha is the community of highly realized beings, who have attained this in part. In taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, one does not surrender to them. Rather, putting the safe direction of refuge in one’s life entails accepting and following what Buddha taught about behavioral cause and effect and reality, through striving to understand them correctly and living one’s life in accordance with them.

First, one needs to overcome unawareness of behavioral cause and effect and the self-centeredness that this unawareness brings. One overcomes these by understanding that destructive behavior leads to suffering and so one refrains from all destructive acts. Doing so brings higher rebirth either as a human or in a divine heavenly realm. The happiness of any such rebirths, however, is only temporary. More deeply, one needs to overcome unawareness of the reality of how one exists and the more deeply rooted self-centeredness that this unawareness brings. One overcomes these by gaining correct understanding of the deepest reality of how one exists. This brings liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth and eternal true happiness.

Thus, understanding and accepting the conventional reality of cause and effect and the deepest reality of voidness are two steps in Buddhism. In Islam, understanding and accepting ethics and reality are conflated into one step. Understanding and accepting the deepest reality of the Oneness of God means accepting and following the laws of ethical cause and effect as revealed by God’s messenger Muhammad.

Taking refuge, then, is not an act of surrender or submission by the lower soul to God and to one’s higher soul. But it does entail renouncing and ridding oneself of unawareness. Both surrender and renunciation, however, are acts of giving up the causes of unhappiness and suffering. In Buddhism, one gives them up because of understanding and accepting deepest reality and behavioral cause and effect.

Buddha-Nature

The Tibetan tradition of Buddhism speaks of one’s Buddha-nature, which refers to the factors innate in all beings – not just during their human lifetimes – that enable them to attain Buddhahood. Among these factors are (1) the deep awareness (Skt. jnana, Tib. ye-shes) that is capable of understanding all of reality, and (2) the reality or voidness of the mind itself and the person. Everyone is capable of attaining enlightenment because, on the deepest level, all persons have the capacities of deep awareness, and they and their minds do not exist in impossible ways. These factors are hidden like a secret, veiled by unawareness. One is reminded of the description in Islam of the lower soul veiling the secret higher soul, which is both the higher intellect and reality, the breath of life given by God. The Buddha-nature factors, however, are not conceived of as a soul, but rather the beginningless, everlasting continuum of these factors is the basis on which a person or self is an imputation phenomenon.

Through quieting the grosser levels of the mind through various meditation methods (such as focusing on the conventional and deepest natures of the mind), one gains access to one’s deepest Buddha-nature factors and activates the deep awareness contained among them. One understands the reality of one’s deepest nature, which has always been the case, uncreated and hidden, with no beginning.

Love

Love in Buddhism is necessary for building up the positive force (Skt. punya, Tib. bsod-nams, “merit”) needed to understand reality. It is the wish for all beings to be happy and to have the causes for happiness, based on understanding the reality of the interconnectedness and equality of all beings. All beings are equal, not because they are all equally creations of God, as in Islam. All beings are equal because, over beginning lives, everyone has at some time been everything to each other. Sometimes they have helped us, sometimes harmed us and sometimes been total strangers. Therefore, there is no reason to be attracted to some, repelled from others, or indifferent to yet others. Because of beginningless rebirth and interconnectedness, everyone is equal.

On the basis of this emotional equanimity and openness toward everyone, Buddhism then teaches both an emotional and a rational way for developing love and compassion (the wish for all others to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering).

  • The emotional way is to realize that because of beginningless rebirth, everyone at some time has been one’s mother and shown one extraordinary kindness. Recalling and appreciating how one’s survival depended on their loving, affectionate, motherly care when one was a helpless infant, one develops sincere gratitude. One then naturally feels warm-hearted and concerned about their welfare when meeting them again in this lifetime. With love, one wishes for them to be happy and, with compassion, for them to be free of unhappiness and suffering.
  • The rational way to develop love and compassion is to realize that everyone equally wants to be happy and not to be unhappy. Further, everyone has the equal right to happiness and to be free of unhappiness. Since one’s body has come from substances produced by the bodies of others, namely one’s parents, everyone’s body has similarly derived from the bodies of two other people. Thus, just as one can take care of the needs of this body one considers one’s own, with the loving wish for oneself to be happy, one can equally develop love and take care of the needs of others. This is because nobody’s body belongs to a “me” that exists independently of others. Suffering and unhappiness need to be gotten rid of, not because they are “mine” or “yours.” As the great Buddhist master, Shantideva, has taught: suffering has no owner. Suffering is to be gotten rid of simply because it hurts.

Such love and compassion, whether developed emotionally, rationally or through a combination of both, are not contingent on the ethical behavior of others. Nevertheless, they do not discount taking forceful actions, when needed, to prevent others from causing harm. Love for all beings, then, does not follow from love for Buddha. Rather, when one understands the reality of how oneself and all others exist, one’s love for all beings becomes pure and unshakable.

Summary

In summary, both Islam and Buddhism teach effective methods for overcoming self-centeredness and developing love. The differences in the methods that each of these religions employ follow from their assertions about the soul or the self, ethics, behavioral cause and effect, reality and the higher intellect or deep awareness. When we understand that Islam and Buddhism treat the same issues and, through the methods they derive from their explanations of them, help people to achieve the same goals of overcoming self-centeredness and developing love, our mutual respect for each other grow. Understanding of similarities and respect for differences form the stable basis for religious harmony.

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