I feel like I’m a failure. I’ve been meditating for years, very diligently. I go to temple. I read spiritual books. As you have counseled, I have surrendered my ego and turned my will and my life over to my true Buddha nature. I have extended moments of peace and happiness. But my ego is always pulling me from the path. My thinking mind is always telling me to do this or that and if I don’t I’m a failure, yet I know that doing what my thinking mind tells me will lead to nothing but frustration. I am tried of feeling pulled. Shouldn’t I be able to be free of my ego’s influences at this point in my practice?
Why Am I Not Free?
Dear Why Am I Not Free,
No, you are not a failure. I know from the experience of many years that despite my having surrendered my ego and turned my life over to my true Buddha nature, my ego and thinking mind still remain a very active part of my being. Frequently each day, my thinking mind will pull me away from being present free of thought. And frequently, my ego will react to something said to me in an instantaneous knee-jerk manner.
So when I say that I surrender my ego to my true Buddha nature and turn my life and my will over to my true Buddha mind, what exactly does that mean since I know that my ego and thinking mind can neither be eliminated from my being nor can they be suppressed? What it means is that I am aware of the difference between what my ego-mind and my true Buddha nature tells me and that I am committed to following the guidance of my true Buddha nature, not my ego.
All I can do is practice being present free of the intervention of thought by focusing on my breathing as often as possible during the day, thus experiencing the fullness of the moment, at peace and happy free of the pull of my ego-mind. And by being present be aware when my ego-mind arises so I am able to acknowledge it with compassion but firmly say that its thought is from the past and that I am now looking to my true Buddha nature for guidance and have faith that if I live each moment well the future will take care of itself, all will be well.
And just what is that true Buddha nature or unborn Buddha mind? It is a mind free of the intervention of thought, that experiences all things directly without the intervention of thought. It is a mind which being free of thought is one with the way and rests undisturbed. It is a mind that nothing in the world offends. Being free of the intervention of thought, it is a mind free of the past, free of the known and thus free of all ego-centered strivings. It is a mind that is free of the tyranny of the past and the tyranny of the future. It is present free of thought, knowing that the present is the only reality, that all else is thought.
We know from the Pali canon’s story of the Buddha’s life that even he continued to have feelings, and that even he was regularly tempted by Mara, who I view as his ego-mind. But being fully enlightened, the Buddha was always present and aware when his ego arose and was able to just watch his feelings rise and allow them to subside. And he was able to tell Mara that he was free of the ego-centered thoughts she tried to entice him with and just watch her subside.
Not being fully enlightened, we have to be careful not to expect too much of ourselves when we practice, even with great diligence. The force of our ego-mind is very strong. All we can do is eke out an ever larger period of time as our practice deepens in which we are present free of the intervention of thought, in touch with our true Buddha nature.
To have our thinking mind pull us away from the path, to have our ego arise in knee-jerk fashion is not to fail in one’s practice. It is to be human. And when we become aware of what has transpired we feel compassion for ourselves and focus again on our breathing and are present in the moment free of thought. That is all we can do.