Non-Self and Buddhist Practice – Part Three

Uposatha Day, New Moon, April 3, 2011

Sorry for this week’s tardiness. I am visiting my sister in Indianapolis, Dell laptop in hand, but without easy Internet access.

Moving right along, we make our fourth step down the Noble Eightfold Path with Right Action. Recall that we are considering how each of the eight fundamental practices helps undermine one of the supports for the recalcitrant sense of self that causes us so many problems, until — KAFWUMP! — the whole conceptual, affective and behavior structure tumbles down.

The Termite of Right Action.

Last week I observed that Buddhist practice is to do something in spite of the self, without the approval of that constant scheming and demanding companion that tends to take charge but then almost invariably gets us and those around us into a lot of trouble. The practice of Wisdom is to look from outside the box to recognize the problem of the self and then to resolve to overcome it. The practice of Virtue is to replace the guidance of the self with the aspirations of harmlessness and of benefiting all living things as we act in the world. Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood are practices of Virtue.

Virtue is its own reward, that is, great joy and peace of mind arise with the practice of Virtue. It is thereby relatively easy, at least temporarily, to fall out of the groove of self-centeredness with regard to behavior, and into the groove of Virtue; people do it spontaneously all the time. This is groovy because it helps free us from the tyranny of the self. The Buddha taught that without doing this the rest of practice will bear little fruit.

Virtue is not the only groove that takes us away from self-centered behavior. Much of religiosity provides other alternatives that are useful fill-ins when opportunities for benefit are few. For example, ritual also has the capacity to step outside of self-centered behaviors and attitudes, insofar as they are actions that are fixed and prescribed rather than driven by self-centered volition. Ritual generally differs from the virtue practices of Right Speech, Action and Livelihood in that it generally does not have benefiting others as its function, that is, it is not Virtue per se. But ritual does provide an alternative to self-centered activities that otherwise tend to dominate, and for this reason does have an important role in Buddhist practice.

Outside of the religious context, also hobbies tend to provide alternatives to self-centered behavior. Examples are model railroading, knitting or bird-watching. They generally shape behavior in the direction of visible achievement and development of proficiency that fall outside of the normal demands of the self for sensual pleasure, abundance and influence. Given the relentless demands of the tyrant self, and the constant stress and anxiety they entail, it is not surprising that hobbies are experienced a relief from the work-a-day world. Much of religiosity actually bears a strong similarity to hobbies, for instance maintaining a beautiful altar with fresh flowers, learning chants by heart or preparing sumptuous meals to feed the nuns and monks. As long as competition and the need for recognition are kept at bey these are wholesome practices that chew away at the grip of the self.

Be aware, however, that in all these “selfless” pursuits, the self, a very clever fellow indeed, almost always finds means of reasserting himself, for instance in the competitiveness of hobbies; in the need for recognition, as the **Best** knitter in Maplewood, or as someone who does really good bows, or is super-devout; or as a matter of publicizing one’s personal virtue to the world.

We have seen that the operating principles of the self are greed, hatred and delusion, the natural tendency to separate himself conceptually from the rest of the universe, which then becomes both a resource in service of the self’s needs and wants, and a source of dangers to the self’s survival or ability to exploit resources, but in any case largely fabricated to shed its natural complexity insofar as these are not relevant to personal interests. Behaviorally this entails a strong tendency to harm, by violence to what the self finds dangerous, by depriving others of what it desires, by manipulating others to its will, for instance, by misrepresentation. Additionally the self’s needs and desires are generally insatiable, leading naturally to addiction, a snow-balling effect. Propped up by a trellis of verbal and physical actions on its own behalf, the self often becomes monumental.

Right Action, alongside Right Speech breaks this development and begins eventually to chew away at the trellis by insisting on harmlessness, on respect for others’ rightful possessions, for uprightness and honesty, in all one’s actions, exactly the opposite of what the self tends to ask. One way in which Right Action is enforced is through the observation of precepts, rules of thumb to keep in mind in one’s daily activities. The most basic set of precepts is fivefold: (1) Don’t kill living beings, (2) Don’t take what is not freely offered, (3) Don’t misuse sexuality (usually a matter of commiting adultery), (4) Don’t tell falsehoods, and (5) Don’t intoxicate oneself. Virtue is further aided by developing a pure mind, one that does not tend toward greed, hate and delusion, and by recognizing the detriment of a life of non-Virtue. Fellow hungry termites of Meditation and Wisdom engage themselves here.

Yet if we uphold the Precepts rigorously (catch pests and place them carefully outside) we observe a remarkable change: Things like kindness, and tenderness, not only for all the little creatures but for people as well, take root and blossom. Then a joyful disposition sets in and a bright and splendid garden begins the thrive. The self, all the while seeking and failing to find satisfaction and happiness by other means, is hard put to argue with the advantages of Virtue. This results in a greater leaning toward Virtue.

In fact our behavior arises from a complex set of motivations and, whereas the drives of the self tend to predominate for most of us, we do at least occasionally flip into other modes, sometimes quite spontaneously, modes driven by a sense of duty, loyalty to family, country or people, compassion, kindness and foolhardiness. We sing the praise of heroes after they have, in some stupendous act of selflessness, thrown all concern for personal safety aside in favor of some greater cause, even while they presently, the self having reasserted himself, are trying to fathom what for the life of them they could possibly have been thinking at that moment of heraldry.

Buddhist practice is doing something in spite of yourself. The purest forms of Buddhist practice manifest as Virtue, that is Right Speech and Right Action. Putting aside the self over and over again in the practice of Right Action introduces and then fortifies new habits of behavior that eat away at one of the major supports for the sustained fabrication of a separate self.

The Termite of Right Livelihood.

Right Livelihood differs from Right Speech and Right Action in that it serves as a determinant of the former and that it ties in directly with our sense of identity. Our choice of livelihood commits us to a set of social contracts and relationships that determine our future behaviors. It also determines quite directly who we become, that is who we think our selves are, and thereby represent a potentially dangerous strengthening of the sense of self at the conceptual level.

Our livelihood commits us to patterns of behavior. If we choose to become a butcher killing becomes our commitment. If we choose to become a CEO of an oil company, environmental degradation becomes our commitment. If we choose to become a teacher, giving knowledge becomes our commitment. If we choose to become a paramedic, saving lives becomes our commit. With commitment comes habit patterns of speech and action. These are like the ruts worn in a path over which ox carts have passed for many years. At any point we could veer to the right or to the left, but we don’t. And when we don’t, the currently operative habit pattern becomes even deeper. These habit patters become etched into our character. If these are consistent with Right Speech and Right Action they will tend to eat away at the supports for the self, if they are not they will tend to strengthen the.

Our livelihoods also define how others view us, and therefore how we view our selves. We acquire reputation and pride from our livelihoods which can harden into growing self-concern. We can also acquire a very fixed sense of one’s own importance: “I am a banker, Without me the economy ceases to function.” “I am a plumber; without me communal human life ceases to function; plumbers are the real unsung heros.” Soon our livelihood determines not only or capabilities but what we are dignified to do or not do. This is the process of becoming (Pali, bhava), included by the Buddha as one of the twelve steps of dependent origination, arising after clinging, that is, from having a stake in things, and giving rise eventually to rebirth.

Becoming, or the sense of personal identity, arises with many kinds of social roles aside from livelihood, such as that of a benefactor of the arts, a parent, a devout Buddhist, a pillar of the community, an outcast, the town drunk. Roles are assigned various levels of respectability dependent on culture, which often have little to do with Virtue or benefit to others. But we buy into them and define ourself in terms of them regardless of their respectability. Selflessness would be not to identify with a particular role or to compare ourselves to others, even as low and unworthy. Monastics and in general clerics of various faiths are an interesting case because they inhabit socially defined roles, but ones that included an expectation of relative selflessness. There is a joke, which in Buddhist (I think it was originally Jewish) terms would read like this:

A monk was observed kneeling after a flash of insight before the altar, head bowed and hands in anjali, muttering, “I am nobody, I am nobody.” An anagaraka (devout lay practitioner) understanding the meaning joined him, also intoning, “I am nobody, I am nobody.” The janitor then joined them echoing, “I am nobody, I am nobody.” Upon hearing this third voice, the monk looked up, leaned toward the anagaraka and whispered, “Look who thinks he’s nobody.”

This kind of role has the helpful property that the more we identify with it the worse we fulfill it, and therefore the less there is to identify with.

Next, the remaining Termites of:

  • Right Action.
  • Right Mindfulness, and
  • Right Concentration.

Non-Self and Buddhist Practice – Part Four

Uposatha Day, First Quarter Moon, April 10, 2011

One Response to “Non-Self and Buddhist Practice – Part Three”

  1. Kevin Says:

    Do you have a date of departure yet ? I would love to see you before you go.
    The most basic set of precepts is fivefold: (1) Don’t kill living beings, (2) Don’t take what is not freely offered, (3) Don’t misuse sexuality (usually a matter of commiting adultery), (4) Don’t tell falsehoods, and (5) Don’t intoxicate oneself.
    5 for 5 on a regular basis. I know I can take these 5 to a new level and be willing to work harder on incorrect views. I hope your sister is well and I send out prayers for her .


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