In the many weeks past we have seen that the self is a fabrication that begins with a single faulty thought but which acquires a whole architecture as it extends its scope and influence and develops layers of protection. We begin by staking a greatest claim in Me, the Self. And this becomes, naturally, the source of our greatest delusions, our greatest suffering and our greatest misguided efforts. The claims then extends to those things that the Self identifies itself with: this body, this mind, this intellect, this sparkling personality, this style of attire. This grows to the things the Self thinks it possesses, that is, the external things the Self stakes a claim to: this spouse, this car, this bank account, these power tools, this power. We not only think of the self as a separate thing, we begin to separation to the entire world into two parts, into Good and Evil, based on the self’s concerns, based on Me, what is Mine and what I want and despise. And our behaviors become marked with self-interest, by manipulating the world for personal advantage, exploiting its resources and protecting from its danger. The whole emotional tenor of our lives shifts away from the simple joy of being alive toward greater levels of pain and suffering. Furthermore we find ourselves increasingly mired in a world of our own making but that seems to be swallowing us up. The Buddha has pointed to the source of the problem and given us a path for its undoing.
Having a self is like taking a new roommate into your apartment, who may initially present himself as a nice guy but who turns out to be a jerk. After a month you can list all of his faults in detail, which he is invariably totally clueless about. After two months you are ready to throw him out. The problem is that the more stuff he has, the more bills he has been paying, the more signatures he has placed on leases and contracts and accounts, the more people he has given the apartment phone number to, the harder it is to throw him out. You need to find an alternative for paying the bills, to sort through and haggle over the CDs, to let his friends know he cannot be reached here, and so on.
What is more, in the case of the self, the roommate is you! You just hadn’t noticed your faults before, even though you had already been living with you all your life. You will now understand why you have always been so miserable and why everyone else seems to think you are a jerk: You have been just living with a jerky roommate: You. So your task is to kick you out. And that is the heart of Buddhist practice: kicking you out of your apartment. The apartment will be fine on its own, for …
Mere suffering exists, no sufferer is found; The deeds are, but no doer of the deeds is there; Nibbāna is, but not the man that enters it; The path is, but no traveler on it is seen. (VisuddhiMagga XVI)
I have been making use of the metaphor of the self as having an architecture, in fact of the self as a wooden bridge that cannot be destroyed at any single structural point but must be weakened at various points at once until the entire thing comes crashing down. In this regard I have unleashed termites that stand for the various parts of the path of practice the Buddha has given us, the Noble Eightfold Path. In this concluding episode we get to watch the bridge collapse into the abyss below.
Through Virtue we transform our behavior in the world directly. In the self-centered life our speech, our actions and our livelihood are beams and rafters that support and reinforce the self. The Buddha’s practices of Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood are termites that eat away at those beams and rafters.
Through Cultivation of Mind we transform our emotive impulses. In the self-centered life our thoughts tend toward lust and anger, our intentions are impulsive and rooted in greed, hate and delusion, and our minds are feverish and endlessly disturbed. The Buddha’s practices of Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration are termites that eat away at those beams and rafters. Of course termites are social insects; they nourish each other back at the mound, and the energy, focus and clear awareness provided by the termites of cultivation makes a big difference in the work of all of the other termites.
Through Wisdom we transform our conceptualizations and perceptions. The self-centered life began with a faulty fabrication and proceeded to fabricate a complex and biased model of reality and our place in it. The Buddha’s practices of Right View and Right Resolve are termites that eat away at those beams and rafters. This is where the wood is hardest and is generally the last point at which the bridge breaks when the rest is already collapsing. In the Fabricated World that we take as reality things exist in and of themselves, and if not permanently, then at least with a lifespan. You, your Self, has a life span, you are born, you live and you die. When you see through that Empty world there is only continuous change everywhere, you are hard put to find something that behaves with a well-defined birth, lifespan and death. There is no Self that can be pointed to that abides so long, there is similarly no birth, only an evolution from whatever preceded and no death, only an evolution to whatever follows. The reality recognized when this last part of the collapsing bridge is carried away is therefore sometimes known as the Deathless.
The self gets a bad rap in Buddhist circles and I want to conclude with a few mixed words on its behalf. First, the fabrication of a self clearly has a function in our survivability as a species and in the evolutionary scheme of things, as I pointed out some weeks ago. It is not an accident of nature. Moreover, it must have a continuing function in the simple survival of the arahant. The arahant will not have the intentionality of common folks, her activities will be driven by mere functionality on behalf of kindness and compassion rather than on self-interest, yet if she is to be a teacher and an inspiration to others and a factor in perpetuating the sasana, she has to eat, she has to avoid getting run over by a truck, she has to continue to have some loosely working but not domineering concept of a self as circumstances require. After all, our whole ability to reason and deal with a complex and uncertain world is based in our capacity for fabrication.
Second, for most of us it is the self the brings us into Buddhist practice in the first place. The self suffers; contentment and happiness are elusive to the self. The self in its quest to manipulate the situation on its own behalf often begins to look outside the box of raw impulse and recognizes in Buddhist practice a resource to be used to get the happiness it seeks. As it enters into Buddhist practice it is encouraged to actually find a new sense of well-being. Practice then becomes a struggle between the self’s new path of Self-improvement and its more ingrained and impulsive patterns of thought and behavior. We can in fact travel a long way down the path with a firm idea of Self-improvement in mind. Ultimately, though, the self is playing a cruel hoax on itself. This is that when the path nears its end, the self will not have improved itself, nor acquired any special characteristics at all; it will simply be absent, its last remnants lost in the bridge’s resounding Kafwump! We start out thinking we are practicing for ourselves but that is O.K., because in the end we discover we have been practicing in spite or ourselves all along. And yet benefit has accrued.
Buddhism is about looking outside the box with the eye of wisdom. It is about seeing how our rich emotional lives, though providing good material for Italian opera, keep us constantly on edge, perpetually dissatisfied and trapped inwardly in a drama from which we cannot get free, all the while thrashing about outwardly in a world of our own fabrication in horribly harmful ways. It is about transforming this unbounded insanity that we all seem to be endowed with and to live in the midst of, and instead to live worthwhile, satisfying and harmless lives, by liberating our actions from our basest emotions, by developing skill in our actions, turning away from our untutored emotional reactiveness. This is growing up fully, to let go of the tyranny of the fabricated self, which is, after all, hardly more real than a donut hole, a shadow, a cloud or a lump of foam.