Introduction: Examining the Self and “Me”
Our topic for this series of talks is the healthy development of the self through the lam-rim graded stages. The “self” is very central to the Buddhist spiritual path. We can see this even when we set our motivation for listening to these talks. Perhaps we are moved by compassion to eventually attain a state in which we can help others overcome their problems as best as possible. However, who is moved by compassion to help others? We would have to say “me.” Who is it that is going to try to bring others to liberation and an enlightened state? Again, it’s “me.” What prevents me from really being able to do this? Here too we would have to say it’s “me,” whether we are referring to our laziness, lack of courage, or lack of feeling for others.
Regardless of the answers, it all comes down to issues concerning “me,” doesn’t it? “I don’t feel like doing it.” “I don’t want to do it.” “I’m afraid of trying to do it.” These types of thinking all revolve around “me,” don’t they? They are all based on who we think we are and what we think we are able to do.
According to the Buddhist teachings, when we look a little bit deeper, the actual problem or obstacle to achieving the goal of our motivation is our unawareness of how we truly exist. Either we just don’t know how we exist, or we have some inverted idea, an idea that is the opposite of what is really correct. Therefore, it’s very important to examine this whole issue of the self, of “me,” in order to gain a better understanding of what is the reality.
One way to begin is for each of us to spend a short period of time reflecting on what we’re referring to when we talk about ourselves or “me.” Try to identify what you mean by “me.” Even though it might be hard to find a way to express what it means to us, still we all think in terms of “me,” don’t we? We all have a sense of “me.” “What am I going to do?” “What do people think of me?” “I’m such a loser.” “I’m such a winner.” We have all sorts of ideas about ourselves.
For right now, try to think of “me,” not in terms of its qualities such as being young, old, a man, or a woman. Don’t identify it like this or ask the question, who am I? “Who am I” is actually a very difficult question, yet it often leads to the answer “I’m me.” Well, what does that really mean? Are we a name or a word?
We’re not really talking in terms of psychological theories of ego, for example, the super-ego and all these sorts of things. Rather, we are referring here to our ordinary sense of “me.” What are we talking about when we talk about “me” or when we think of ourselves? Let’s spend a few minutes contemplating this.
The Representation of “Me” in Conceptual Thought
When we try to investigate what actually is this “me,” it’s not very easy, is it? We’re always operating in our daily lives with this very prominent concept of “me,” but when we actually try to focus on “me,” it’s not so easy. If we want to become technical here, then the technical description of how to focus on “me” comes from the basic Buddhist teachings on cognition. When we think of “me,” what we are actually contemplating is a multi-layered object.
First of all, we need to understand that thinking always involves a category. In this case, it’s the category “me.” Each time we think about “me,” we’re thinking about an individual instance of “me” that we fit into the category “me.” They don’t fit into the category “you” or the category of anyone else, do they? The only things that fit in the category “me” are individual instances of “me.”
In technical jargon, the category “me” is a “mental label,” a concept that we mentally label on individual instances of “me.” It allows us to think “me” at any time and to be thinking always about the same person. Mentally labeling “me,” however, is optional. We don’t need to actively think “me” all the time for “me” to exist.
Now, it’s not possible to just think “me.” Both “me” and the category “me” are pretty abstract. To think “me” requires something that’s not abstract appearing in our thought, something that represents “me.” What appears is something from our five aggregates, the aggregate factors that make up each moment of our experience – our body, mind, feelings, emotions and so on.
When we’re thinking “me,” what could represent “me” from among our aggregates and appear in our thought could be a form of physical phenomenon, such as a mental image of what our face looks like. It could be some physical sensation that we are feeling in our stomach, as in “I’m hungry.” It could be the mental sounds of the voice that is seemingly going on in our heads or even just the mental sound of the word “me.” “Me” could also be based on our state of mind, like when we think, “I’m happy” or “I’m unhappy” or some emotion like “I’m upset.” All these various factors that can appear when we think “me” are parts of our five aggregates. Any of them can appear, representing “me,” when we think “me,” because “me” is an imputation on the basis of all of them.
The word” imputation” refers to something that cannot exist without a basis, and which cannot be known without its basis appearing and being known simultaneously with it. Such things are not “imputed phenomena,” because no one has to impute them for them to exist. For want of a better term, let’s call them “imputational phenomena.” They are objective things. The easiest example of something that is an imputation on a basis is a whole and its parts. A whole body is an imputation on its parts and cannot exist or be known independently of at least some of its parts, as its “basis for imputation,” also appearing and simultaneously being known with it. Another example is motion and an object that is in a consecutively different position over a period of time.
Likewise, a person, a self, a “me,” is an imputation on the aggregates that are its basis for imputation. No one has to impute it. That I am a person on the basis of a body, mind, feelings and emotions is an objective fact. When someone sees my body, they are seeing me.
Likewise, the category “me” is an imputation on individual instances of “me” that are its basis and which represent it, just as individual instances of “me” are imputations on individual moments of our body, thoughts or feelings that are its basis and which represent it. But a person, “me,” can be seen or thought of, whereas the category “me” can only be thought of. To highlight that difference, I call the relation between a category and an individual item that fits into it “mental labeling,” whereas I call the relation between the self and the aggregates simply “imputation.”
Take a moment to think about this. I know it is complicated, but does it make sense? I am not a fiction of my imagination. I objectively exist and can be known. In any thought I might have about “me,” however, there’s always something appearing that represents “me” at the moment. This individual instance of “me” fits into the category “me.” No matter what appears as the basis for the imputation “me,” I think of it through the category “me,” which is what I fit this instance of “me” in.
Correct and Incorrect Consideration of “Me”
Each time we think “me” in terms of an imputation on something from our five aggregates, we consider “me” in a certain way, don’t we? Actually, there are two levels of how we consider ourselves and each can be accurate or inaccurate, correct or incorrect. On a surface or superficial level, we can think of ourselves in terms of basic information – the “surface or superficial truth” about us, like our name or our weight. When we think of ourselves, “me,” in terms of our name, that’s usually correct. However, if we think of “me” in terms of our weight, that might easily be inaccurate.
On a deeper level, we can have correct or incorrect consideration of how that “me” exists – the so-called “deepest truth” about us. A very simple example would be to take as the basis for imputation of “me” someone who is the center of the universe, the most important person, the one that everybody should pay attention to because what we ate for breakfast or what we think is so crucial, and everybody in the world should know it through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. When we think of ourselves, “me,” in terms of such a basis and consider it to correspond to how we actually exist, this is a deeper level of incorrect consideration.
By contrast, we could take as the basis for imputation of “me” someone who is merely one of seven billion people. On that basis, we may consider ourselves no better or no worse than anybody else. We’re all equal, in that everybody wants to be happy and nobody wants to be unhappy, and we’re all interconnected. This is correct consideration, since it corresponds to how we actually do exist.
In Buddhism, we have the terms the “conventional ‘me’” and the “impossible ‘me’” or “false ‘me’” or the “‘me’ to be refuted.” The conventional “me” corresponds to reality, if we may use the word “reality” very loosely. The impossible “me” does not correspond to anything real. How we consider the superficial, surface truth about the conventional “me” – our name or our weight – may be correct or incorrect. How we consider the deepest truth about the accurately or inaccurately considered conventional “me” – how we exist as the center of the universe or as only one of seven billion people – may also be correct or incorrect.
A conventional “me” incorrectly considered to be of the wrong weight does not correspond to the superficial, surface truth about it. Nevertheless, the term “impossible ‘me’” is usually reserved for the conventional “me” considered in deepest truth to exist in an impossible way, regardless of whether its weight is considered correctly or not.
It is important to understand this distinction between the conventional “me” that does exist and the false “me” that does not correspond to anything real. Even if we take as the basis for imputation of that impossible “me” what is accurately our weight, age, feelings or opinion, that false “me” still does not correspond to anything real. To simplify our discussion, then, let’s use the term “conventional ‘me’” to refer to “me” considered correctly in deepest truth, whether considered accurately or inaccurately in superficial, surface truth.
Review of These Introductory Points
To review what we’ve covered, whenever we think of “me,” in all cases “me” is an imputation onto something that represents “me.” We’re thinking about it through the category of “me,” and we have either a correct or incorrect consideration of both the superficial, surface truth about ourselves and the deepest truth of how we exist.
- With correct consideration of our deepest truth, we’re thinking in terms of the conventional “me.”
- With incorrect consideration of our deepest truth, we’re thinking in terms of the false “me,” the “me” that doesn’t actually exist.
Nevertheless, whether it’s a conventional “me” or a false “me,” both are imputations on something from our aggregates that represents “me.”
A Healthy Sense of Self and an Inflated Sense of Self
In the West, we speak of a healthy sense of self and an inflated sense of self. With a healthy sense of self, we think of ourselves in terms of the conventionally existent “me.” With an unhealthy or inflated sense of self, we think of ourselves as being this false “me,” the one that doesn’t actually correspond to reality. In this series, we are going to discuss how lam-rim practice helps us to develop a healthy sense of “me” and rid ourselves of identification with an inflated “me.”
With a healthy sense of a conventional “me,” we consider ourselves to be nothing special. We understand that we’re one of seven billion people and that we all want to be happy. Just like everybody else, we don’t want to be unhappy, and so we need to take responsibility for our life and what we experience. This realization comes from a healthy sense of a “me.” However, if we think of ourselves with a false, inflated sense of “me,” then we feel we are the most important one and that we should always have our way, etc. We identify with that false “me” and consider ourselves to be that type of “me.” That’s the inflated sense of “me.”
Moreover, because this false, inflated self doesn’t correspond to reality, it can never be truly satisfied. It’s impossible that we’re always going to have our way or that everybody will consider us to be the most special one. That’s impossible, isn’t it? What does this kind of belief lead to? It causes frustration, suffering and unhappiness. On the other hand, if we think that we are only one of seven billion, and know that in order to lead a happy, realistic life, we need to get along with and be considerate of others, then such a belief leads to a happier life, doesn’t it? It’s more realistic. This kind of approach reflects the conventionally existent “me” that has a healthy sense of self.
Please reflect on this, because it’s important to understand this distinction between the conventionally existent “me,” the one that actually exists, and the false, inflated “me” that does not exist at all.
The Self as Eternal
As I mentioned, our topic for this seminar is the healthy development of the self through the lam-rim graded stages. Although there can be what I call “Dharma-Lite lam-rim,” which considers these graded stages in terms of this lifetime alone, the full training of lam-rim is what I call “Real Thing lam-rim.” The Real Thing assumes that each of us has had past lives beginninglessly and will continue to experience future lives without any end.
What does this belief imply? It suggests that the self, “me,” is eternal, with no beginning and no end. Even if we become a Buddha, we would still be “me.” Now, if any of this material is going to be relevant to us, we need to examine if we believe ourselves to be eternal? Do we? Think about it. It’s actually a very interesting question. In fact, it often becomes the case that we don’t even want to think about not being eternal.
If we’re believers in what’s known as an Abrahamic religion – Judaism, Christianity or Islam – we tend to believe that we have a beginningless origin because, before God created us, we were somehow a part of God and God is eternal. Our souls, or “me,” then go on eternally after we’re conceived and born. Depending on which brand of Abrahamic religion we follow, we believe in one way or another that after this life, and maybe an in-between purgatory existence, we go to an eternal afterlife either in heaven or hell. This is generally the understanding of an eternal self in these Middle Eastern religions.
However, what if we are non-believers? There is a tradition of that here in Latvia, I think. Maybe it hasn’t been a long tradition, but at least a well-established one since the last century. What do we believe, then, if we don’t accept creation by God, eternal salvation in heaven or eternal damnation in hell? What do we think? If you are a non-believer, examine this question. Where do you think you came from before you were conceived and where do you think you go after you die? Most non-believers come up with the answer: nothing. We came from nothing and we return to nothing. Isn’t that correct?
We might say, when we die, that we go into the grave and stay there eternally. Our body is in the grave, but are “we” in the grave? When we think, “I’m in the grave and I’m dead,” “I am dead” implies that there’s still “me,” doesn’t it? What is the phase that “me” is in? That phase is in the death phase. When we logically analyze the statement “I am dead,” it’s made using the present tense, isn’t it? That’s a really terrible fate. What does this mean? Is there this “me” still existing in the Big Nothing?
Also, are we dead for just a short time? No. We’re dead forever or eternally. It sounds funny, but logically we can draw the conclusion that even if we’re a non-believer, we still believe that there’s an eternal self. Think about that. Does that make any sense? As odd as it sounds, it’s the only logical conclusion.
It’s frightening that we’re going to turn into nothing, isn’t it? However, how could it be frightening if we’re really nothing, existing as nothing, as part of nothing? Of course, the fear could be because we’re not quite sure. Perhaps, everybody says it’s nothing; we were taught that it’s nothing, but we really don’t know. Even if, like that, we’re agnostic or uncertain, it still implies that there could be something afterwards, and that it’s going to last forever. Being dead is not just for a month and then it’s finished.
So, whether we want to admit it or not, we actually do believe in an eternal self. However, how we consider the various phases of our existence throughout eternity is going to differ of course; it all depends on our conceptual framework for death. If we really logically examine all the different possibilities, everyone in the end thinks in some terms of an eternal self.
Beginningless rebirth in the Buddhist sense is just one variant of the theme of an eternal self, for which this life is only one episode. Most of us don’t remember “me” from a previous life or any previous lives, and we also don’t know “me” in future lives, but this is not really surprising. When we’re in the womb as a fetus, was that “me?” Yes. But do we remember it? No. What about when we become very old, will that still be “me?” It hasn’t happened yet, but it will still be “me.” It’s not going to be somebody else. Just because we don’t remember previous lives and we don’t know “me” in future lives doesn’t disprove the existence of past and future lives.
The Precious Human Rebirth
I hope you see where all of this is leading. We are heading toward the discussion of the precious human rebirth, which is how the lam-rim begins. This topic is relevant to anybody regardless of whether we think in terms of the Buddhist assertion of rebirth, or in terms of an Abrahamic religion, or even if we’re non-believers. In terms of the eternal “me,” this is a special episode, this precious human life that we have right now.
Why is it important to be able to think of an eternal “me” in order to really appreciate the full benefit of the meditations on the precious human rebirth? If we think of this life alone and we don’t even seriously consider past or future lives, then, with Dharma-Lite, we would take advantage of this life because death is a reality. Life is not going to last forever, so we would have a perfectly beneficial Dharma-Lite version of meditation on the precious human life.
There is another valid and extremely helpful Dharma-Lite approach in which an alternative of eternity is to think of our descendants continuing into the future. Even if we don’t have children, we can think in terms of our legacy, something that will go on into the future and that we hope will endure. In this light, we could think in terms of wanting to use this precious human life well so that we don’t leave a mess behind us for our children, students, employees and the future generations who will inherit our environment. We could think in this way, that we will make good use of this precious human life now to ensure that we leave a good legacy.
However, if we think of this one life as one episode of a much larger eternal continuum, even if we don’t know what’s going to come next, then it becomes much more urgent that we make use of this lifetime because there is actually going to be something after it. For most of us, unless we are super spiritually developed, what we ourselves will experience in the future is far more urgent than what others will experience. Think about that. For example, compare if we leave a mess knowing that somebody else is going to have to clean it up, with how we would regard a mess that we ourselves would have to clean up. Which one creates more urgency not to make such a mess? It’s true – we feel it’s more urgent not to create a mess if we’re going to have to deal with it now, than if we can leave it to others in the future to deal with.
In a similar way, what we choose to do with this precious human life, when we consider having to experience the consequences of our actions, is far more powerful than when we think about others having to experience our legacy. That’s perfectly understandable. It’s a healthy sense of “me” to understand that we’re responsible for what we do and what we make of our life, because we are the ones who will have to experience the results of our actions. This is quite a healthy attitude to have. Still, a more mature, expanded approach is to know that, in addition to us, others will have to experience the consequences as well. So, in reality, both we and others will have to experience the consequences. It’s not quite appropriate psychologically to just think that we won’t have to experience anything at all and that only somebody else will.
In any case, when we appreciate the precious human life that we have now, we need to consider the importance of thinking of an eternal “me,” regardless of how we conceive of eternity.
Ways of Progressing through the Lam-Rim Stages
In addition to Dharma-Lite, there are two ways, two levels, of progressing through the stages of Real Thing lam-rim, the stage that asserts an eternal “me.” The two stages depend on whether or not we accept and believe as true the Buddhist explanation of rebirth. Not being a Buddhist believer, we could study and practice the lam-rim teachings as what His Holiness the Dalai Lama calls “Buddhist science” and “Buddhist philosophy.” Most of us Westerners don’t start lam-rim as a Buddhist believer, do we? We start as a general person, with whatever past beliefs that we have. However, even at this starting point, if we really examine and analyze, we find that we really do believe in an eternal self. I think that some sort of belief in an eternal self is the main criterion for doing Real Thing Dharma. As we progress, then, through the Real Thing lam-rim stages as a non-Buddhist, we come to see the value and accuracy of the Buddhist view of reality, and then eventually we accept the Buddhist path and practice it as a Buddhist believer.
As for the question of at what point we need to develop the Buddhist view of reality – the view of voidness, or emptiness – in order to become a Buddhist believer, this could be at any of the graded stages. We might bring it in at the time of refuge, or what I call “safe direction.” For our safe direction to be stable, we need to really understand the Four Noble Truths in order to have any sort of confidence in what the Buddha attained and taught. And to truly comprehend the Four Noble Truths, we need to understand the meaning of voidness, reality, and the true path. Therefore, the correct view of reality could come in at this stage, or it could develop during the intermediate or advanced scopes. People will vary.
In the initial scope, when we practice Real Thing lam-rim starting as a non-Buddhist, we would just presume that the Four Noble Truths are correct. However, we’re not actually certain. We don’t really know based on logic and inference, let alone experience. We just presume that they are true. It’s only really in the intermediate and the advanced scopes that we actually get into the discussion of voidness. This is when a shift toward the correct view of reality traditionally develops and we gain confidence in the Four Noble Truths. Once we reach the advanced level, we then have a shift in our motivation. With a Mahayana motivation, we aim to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.
The second way of going through the Real Thing lam-rim is as a practicing Mahayana Buddhist. We have probably already gone through the lam-rim training as a non-believer or a skeptic and now, with both a correct, initial understanding of voidness and a Mahayana motivation, we go back to the very beginning and go through the stages once more, but now as a Mahayana Buddhist believer. This is very, very important. We go through the whole procedure of the graded stages a second time, now on the basis of being a Mahayana Buddhist believer and having a bodhichitta motivation: we’re aiming for enlightenment for the benefit of all and we’re confident that it is possible. In order to attain enlightenment, we have to make the best use of this precious human rebirth because we deeply understand that this life is not going to last very long, etc.
These are the two variants of the way that we can work with Real Thing lam-rim. It’s either initially as a non-Buddhist or a second time as a convinced Mahayana Buddhist. In both cases, what makes our study and practice Real Thing Dharma is that we are thinking in terms of an eternal self. In contrast, we have Dharma-Lite, in which we go through all the stages of the lam-rim within the framework and concerns of making improvements in this lifetime alone. As I said, this intention can be very beneficial, but there are some problems with it, particularly in the discussion of karma when we consider that we don’t really experience the results of most of our actions in this lifetime. This can cause our understanding of Buddhist ethics and karma to become a bit unstable.
To summarize all the mentioned phases, we have:
- Real Thing Dharma initially as a non-Buddhist, not really being convinced or even knowing of the Buddhist teachings on reality, voidness
- Real Thing Dharma on the basis of already having trained in the Buddhist path, becoming a Buddhist believer based on some understanding of voidness and the Four Noble Truths, and now, with a Mahayana motivation, going back and making it stronger.
Overall, this has just been an introduction. We will continue our discussion of the healthy development of the self through Real Thing lam-rim, starting from the initial stage of not yet really accepting the Buddhist point of view. However, we would start as a regular person who, after thoughtful investigation, understands that we do exist as an eternal self in some way or another, even if it’s in terms of this Big Nothing, as in “Now, I am dead.”
Before we open this up for questions or remarks, perhaps we can just reflect on how we’ve approached lam-rim in our previous studies. Did we do through the graded stages with some level of depth or just superficially? What benefit have we derived from it?
Experiencing Suffering with the Conventional or Inflated “Me”
You spoke of the conventional “me” and the inflated “me.” How do we understand the sickness of the body in terms of this division between the conventional “me” and the false or inflated “me?” Where does that fit in if we say that our suffering and problems come from thinking in terms of an inflated “me?”
First of all, who experiences the physical suffering of sickness? It’s the conventional “me,” not the false “me,” which doesn’t exist at all. Because of that, the false “me” can’t experience anything. However, we can experience sickness and the suffering of sickness while incorrectly considering ourselves to exist as a false “me,” as in “Poor me. I’m a victim and nobody has it as bad as I do. Why is this happening to me?” There is a great deal of mental agony that goes with our sickness when we think in this way.
This is actually quite a complex issue and, although some people are very skilled in giving very short answers, I’m not skilled at that, so I’ll give a more detailed analysis.
As I explained, the conventional “me” experiences the suffering of the sickness; the false “me” doesn’t. That’s clear. Next, we could say that the sickness is a result of karma. We have done something in a previous life, such as shortened the life of others and, as a result, our own life is shortened or we develop a sickness, and so on. We acted out of ignorance, out of unawareness of how we truly existed. Thinking in this way, we could easily be thinking of ourselves in terms of a false “me.” As a result, our explanation and understanding would be rather overly simplistic.
However, let’s examine more thoroughly. In Tsongkhapa’s presentation of the objects of focus for developing shamatha, a stilled and settled state of mind, he mentions that focusing on the breath is helpful for those who have a lot of verbal mental activity. But for those who have unawareness and naivety about reality, he recommends focusing on dependent arising in terms of the aggregates.
How to do this with our sickness? It’s not so easy, but what we’re focusing on with a physical sickness is a situation that we are experiencing. It has dependently arisen from causes and conditions. Specifically, our experiencing it has arisen as a result of a karmic tendency. That would be what’s known as the “obtaining cause,” what we have obtained the experiencing of the sickness from. Additionally, there are all the conditions for why the sickness ripened at this particular time. Without the right conditions, it wouldn’t have ripened now. It may have ripened because of the weather, an activity, our nutrition, our exercise routine, a current epidemic, or from people we came in contact with, etc. We can start listing all sorts of conditions that contributed to why we are experiencing this sickness now.
Also, there are all the various causal factors that are involved with our emotional response in terms of our whole psychological background – everything that has affected it such as family and upbringing, etc. All of these factors account for why there is a certain amount of self-pity and for all of the many emotions accompanying our experience of the sickness. Each of these aspects is arising from a different type of tendency, a different type of habit. The situation we’re experiencing doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
Further, there are also certain circumstances such as the kind of medical facilities available, or whether there are supportive friends and family to help take care of us or if we are completely alone. There are so many other factors contributing to the situation and our emotional response to it.
Regarding the karmic cause, the previous action or set of actions, that too was also committed under a whole cluster of conditions and circumstances. This too is a part of a huge network of dependently arisen factors. To attain shamatha with this dependent arising as our object, Tsongkhapa says we should focus on the situation single-pointedly with the understanding of it as a dependently arisen phenomenon, namely that it is something that has arisen from this huge complex of causes and conditions. The way we focus on these factors is also with the understanding that there is no such thing as a truly existent, false “me” who is:
- The guilty one whose actions are the sole cause that brought this about because of being bad in a past lifetime
- The poor victim who is experiencing this as a result
- The bad boy or bad girl who deserves this as a punishment.
We focus with the correct view that this situation has dependently arisen from an enormous network of causes and conditions. And we do this without going into all the details. That’s our object for shamatha. This is a brilliant, absolutely brilliant meditation.
Aside from the fact that this a fantastic meditation, I bring it up because when we study the Dharma, we say that the root of all our problems is the unawareness of how we exist, how the self exists, “me,” as well as how everybody else exists. In the twelve links of dependent arising, the first link, the root of all our problems is this unawareness. We don’t truly know, or we know incorrectly how we exist, and all of our problems come from this lack of knowledge.
Although this analysis is correct, we can misunderstand it as well. What is the misunderstanding? This is taught in reference to the four incorrect views of the second noble truth, in terms of the sixteen aspects of the Four Noble Truths. What is an incorrect understanding of the true cause of suffering? It is that all suffering comes from one cause. There can be a root cause, a most fundamental cause, but it is not the only causal factor. It is not only because of “me” and “my ignorance” that we are experiencing suffering.
Can you see what an ego trip thinking like that is and the danger of such thinking? It isn’t just because of “me,” or that I’m stupid and don’t understand, and that’s why I’m the poor victim. It isn’t that if we would just wake up and understand correctly, then all of our problems would go away. That’s much too simplistic. That’s thinking that results truly come from one cause alone. In fact, results arise from a huge network of causes and conditions.
Although we’re jumping ahead really in the sequence of the lam-rim, this is such an important essential point. Can you see the difference between the healthy “me” and the inflated “me” in terms of this particular point? What is our responsibility in terms of the suffering that we experience? An inflated “me” is this big “me” that thinks it’s “all my fault.” It is an inflation of the conventional “me” into a false “me” when we think everything that happens is our fault, because of our bad karma. We can start to become quite paranoid, thinking that we did this bad or stupid thing in our past lives and that’s why we’re suffering now.
With a healthy sense of “me,” we understand that conventionally we acted like this or that, and therefore there are the karmic seeds that lead us to experience this and that. However, there are the zillions of other causes and conditions that are involved. We don’t inflate the sense of “me,” thinking we are responsible for every disaster that happens in the world, especially every disaster that happens to us. Thinking, “It’s entirely my fault,” is too inflated.
What is so difficult, then, is to avoid the two extremes:
- “It’s entirely my fault,” is one extreme, the extreme of the inflated “me.”
- The other extreme is, “I’m not responsible at all. I’m experiencing this thing that’s happening just from outside causes. I didn’t do anything. I’m entirely innocent.”
These are the two extremes, and it’s really in the middle that we have a healthy sense of “me” and a healthy non-inflated sense of responsibility. These parameters of “innocent” or “guilty” are really not appropriate in the Buddhist context. It’s actually very interesting how we get our misconceptions by superimposing onto Buddhism certain things from our culture that come from our sense of law. Guilty or innocent, in this case, is simply irrelevant.
I apologize for taking up all the time with just one question. There will be time for more questions in our other sessions. But your question is a good one and it leads to very important points. Looking at issues like sickness from the point of view of responsibility for what we experience helps us to start to understand the differences between a healthy sense of “me” and an inflated sense of “me.”
Self-Cherishing and the Root of Problems versus Causes of Problems
If this false “me” is self-cherishing, can we also say that the conventionally existing self is self-cherishing?
The false “me” doesn’t truly exist. So, who is it that is self-cherishing? It can’t be the false “me,” because the false “me” doesn’t exist. It’s the conventional “me.” Our experiencing of the world has as part of it the mental factor of self-cherishing that’s accompanying various moments of our experience. In addition to what else is going on in our five aggregates, this composite of what makes up our experience also includes incorrect consideration of “me.” We think of the conventional “me” as existing as a false “me.” Examples are, “I’m the best. I’m the most fantastic thing. I should always have my way.” Consequently, we’re only thinking of “me” and of what I will get; we don’t think of others.
When we learn about these mental factors, we could think of them just as interesting pieces of knowledge. However, if we can actually start analyzing our experience in terms of these systems, they really indicate how to work on various problems. After all, everything that Buddha taught was to facilitate overcoming problems, overcoming suffering.
For example, someone gets the last ticket for a concert we wanted to go to, and we experience it with self-cherishing. What’s going on? The conventional “me” is experiencing the situation, but because we’re incorrectly considering the conventional “me” to be a false “me,” then with self-cherishing, thinking only of ourselves, we get angry and think “poor me.” We’re not thinking about how wonderful it is that the others got in.
If we could rid ourselves of our misconception about “me,” we wouldn’t have this self-cherishing. This misconception about “me” is what we really need to work on. On the other hand, if we just work on getting rid of the self-cherishing but don’t address the inflated sense of “me,” then we are still thinking in terms of this “me,” “me,” “me.” We are still thinking in terms of being the martyr who takes on all the suffering. There’s a big inflated “me” that’s there. In this case, we’re still thinking of ourselves as a false “me.” We haven’t gotten to the root of the problem.
The causes for the problem we have with someone getting the last ticket to the concert are actually really complex. They are made up of many parts, many factors. But overall, the misconception of the self is the root of the suffering we experience when such a thing happens.
Now, there’s a big difference between saying, “This is the root of the problem and, like with a plant, to get rid of it so it doesn’t grow back, we need to get rid of the root” and saying “The root is the only cause for the plant.” The plant has grown with many conditions and circumstances such as soil, rain, weather, and so on.
Likewise, there are many causes and conditions why we didn’t get that last ticket and why we suffered so much when that happened. We were delayed in coming to the venue for all sorts of various reasons: the weather, the traffic, a phone call, and so on. We wanted to go to that concert because we like that band so much, our friends got tickets, we were going to go out with them afterwards, etc. Our not getting that ticket and feeling so bad dependently arose from all those causal factors, not just from the root cause, our misconception about the self. It’s really a complex dependent arising.
Please digest for a moment the difference between the root cause of a problem and the misconception that it’s all from one cause, and therefore we are the guilty one. Basically, it comes down to the difference between getting rid of the root of the problem and thinking “It was entirely my fault.”
Can we experience results of the situation where we haven’t produced causes?
That’s the fourth law of karma, that we will not experience the results unless we’ve built up the causes. If it were so that we could experience the results of actions we didn’t commit, that would be the extreme of “I’m totally innocent. I didn’t do anything, so why is this happening to me?” That’s the nihilist extreme of being the victim.
Okay, let’s end here for this evening with the dedication. We think whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from our discussion, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause to contribute to everyone’s enlightenment, not just “me,” “me,” “me.” That’s why Shantideva’s tenth chapter, the dedication prayer chapter, is so wonderful because it’s always in terms of, “may everybody” be like this and may everybody be like that. It’s never “may I.”