Non-Self and Buddhist Practice – Part Two

Uposatha Day, Last Quarter Moon, March 27, 2011

We have been looking in previous weeks at the various ways we create, then extend, then strengthen the sense of being a substantial separate self, until we are thoroughly invested in a framework of mutually supporting views, interests and activities that not only make it hard to see that we are dealing with a mental fabrication in the first place, but are also the source of our self-centered scheming, of the anguish of life, and of our imprisonment in our wordly roles and identities. However, last week we started considering the Buddhist practices that, termite-like, eat away at these various manifestations until — Crash! — the whole framework, bridge-like, comes tumbling down. Last week we looked at simple religiosity and the first step, Right View, on the Noble Eightfold Path, the master checklist of Buddhist practice. This week we move further along the Path.

The Termite of Right Resolve.

The flickering fabrication of self is an almost constant companion. It is scheming, like a politician or a car salesman; it is demanding, either wanting things like a small child on a shopping trip, or disliking things, like a teenager in a poetry class. It insists on an unrealistic sense of coherence of identity, like Indiana Jones. On the positive side, if life or limb is at issue it does reliably respond, like a bold and noble firefighter. Many of us place total faith in the self, we follow its schemes, we respond to its demands, and we try to live out its identity. As we do all these, we just make the self more and more real; it flickers less.

Notice that we seem to have two anthropomorphisms here, two people doing things: the self, which is natural, since part of the fabrication is that of a self that does things, and “we”: What is this “we”? “We” is something that gives us a subject for the English verbs I employ. If the self falls away — and this at least momentary flickering out of existence is a very real experience in Buddhist practice — what remains is thought without a thinker, a walk without a walker, experience without an experiencer, decision without a decider, and verbs without subjects. So I use “we,” “I” and “you” as English grammar requires an an alternative to a long series of passive constructions.

For the Buddhist Right Resolve is to the intention to develop a character of highest Virtue, one that embodies Renunciation, Good Will and Harmlessness. These qualities flow in humans quite naturally whenever our little companion dozes off, flickers out, or otherwise lets down his stake in things. Otherwise Right Resolve sets us quite counter to our constant companion’s interests and objections, and puts him on notice that he will no longer sit in the driver’s seat. Right Resolve arises from the conviction and understanding that our companion self has been driving perilously fast, hogging the road, scaring pedestrians, squashing squirrels and armadillos, throwing beer bottles out the window, heading in the wrong direction and getting hopelessly lost.

It is important to notice that Right Resolve distinguishes between renunciation and deprivation, or the morbid asceticism of the kind that the Buddha practiced for six years before discovering the Middle Way. It seems that neglecting the fundamental needs of the body, for instance. by starving or subjecting oneself to extreme heat or cold, awakens the bold and noble firefighter in the companion self, that is, awakens the self to the most fundamental purpose of preserving the living organism. While this is a noble cause, it also serves to strengthen his flickering hand. The Middle Way is not to deprive body and mind of what is essential to their well-being, but to cease to be a stakeholder in all the extras of life. In other words, the Buddha discovered the Middle Way; what has been called the Upper Middle Way is a modern development, and not what the Buddha had in mind.

With the “Me First in All Things” out of the equation, Right Resolve is able to extend the wish for the benefit of all and the recognition of the enormous suffering of the world to govern our involvement in the world. This becomes our compass. However, we are still at the beginning of our practice, for implementing Right Resolve in all aspects our our activities of bodily, verbal and mental behavior and development in spite of the kicking, screaming and scheming of our very determined and clever constant companion, is an exacting task. The Termite of Right Resolve must feel like it is trying to chew a board of walnut, … or petrified wood, but it has helpers: other termites.

The Termite of Right Speech.

The Termites of Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood eat away at the behaviors the flickering companion of self would otherwise call for in the world. Self-centered activities in the world generally center around protecting our stakes, or in enhancing them by seeking personal advantage and affirming our attachments and obsessions, our personal identities from which in all their specialness everything flows, our appearance, our reputation as brilliant wits or stunning beauties, or even our frumpiness, our stuff in all its envy-inspiring abundance. All this is fabricated, its importance resting only in our minds, and therefore sources of our delusions, our suffering and our misguided efforts.

The search for personal advantage entails trying to get what the fortress self wants and to avert what it fears or finds distasteful. As long as behavior conforms with the fabrication of self and its associated fabrications it will be based in greed, hatred and delusion, and will serve to keep the fabrication of self happily in its dominating role. If, on the other hand, behavior conforms to some standard other than self view, and avoids intentionality based on greed, hatred and delusion, the function and significance of the fabrication of self will weaken. If the self is kept out of the driver’s seat, it tends to doze off more, or in any case after a while quits complaining so much. Buddhist practice is to do something in spite of the self. The prominent alternative to looking for personal advantage is the practice of virtue, to seek the benefit of all, and to harm no one.

Speech is a primary instrument for our companion selves to get their way, and to express and enhance themselves. To begin with, all of the views we have that give rise to our samsaric selves, the many stories about who we are, find expression in speech, and when they do others buy into the same stories, which strengthens our own commitment to stick with them. Idle chatter is a kind of paint brush we use to show the world what we mean by “Me.”

Worse yet, the self uses speech in its schemes to manipulate others. A primary means is to get others to share our aversions, in particular to dislike what are obstacles to its grand designs, enlisting them as co-conspirators in the removal of those obstacles. This inclines us to use harsh speech, to malign and slander others. Beyond this function we use harsh speech as a tool of vengeance, to threaten and attack those who stand in the way of the self’s schemes. Mutually shared aversions tend to be a way of cementing self-serving alliances and friendships, and in fact we tend to run wild with harsh speech that serves no further purpose, while, in our delusion, overlooking the consequences. Consider that racism, sexism, nationalism and eventually war and ethnic cleansing are all driven by many acts of harsh and often idle speech. Consider that the basis of harsh speech is hatred, which will both grow in the speaker and be inspired in the hearer, to the detriment of both.

Also among the self’s tools of manipulation is false speech, speech that intentionally distorts the view others have of reality so that they will behave in a manner appropriate to the self’s needs. Much speech is harsh and false at the same time, for instance, serving vengeance or to turn one person or group against another. Much is kindly and false, for instance, serving to induce people in a friendly manner to buy things that will ultimately fail to produce the anticipated results, such as wealth or a wild sex life. Much is idle and false, for instance, serving to gain respect for falsified qualities and accomplishments. Various kinds of speech are not strictly false, but like false speech serve to manipulate the views and behaviors of others, for instance, by exaggeration or evoking needs in other selves like pride and lust. False speech, aside from leaving others with faulty information, progressively undermines our trust in each other, a trust which underlies the efficacy of verbal communication in the first place, a trust which a society requires to function.

Right Speech is not to engage in idle, harsh or false speech, but rather to speak with a purpose, to speak kindly and to speak the truth. Because of the infectious nature of idle, harsh and false speech it is important to eschew people who do engage in them. This chews away at one of the self’s most immediate supports; in fact the self will likely object vehemently. But this is our Buddhist practice, it is our resolve.

Unfortunately idle, harsh and false speech are rampant in the Communication Age, in fact they have become a major industry. Blatant lies, character assassination, insult, frivolous gossip about celebrities are matters of daily consumption. When exposed to these influences, we not only learn self-serving behaviors by example, we are often manipulated to repeat further what has been communicated in the service of other selves. What is particularly alarming is that, with media consolidation significantly alternative viewpoints that may at least give an inkling of a discoverable truth behind the punditry are generally absent in a strikingly broad range of not only commercial media sources. Our Buddhist practice is to eschew (and the task of the Termite of Right Speech to chew …) such influences in favor of truth, kindness and value, where we can find these.

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