We offer others joy and see other’s joy as our own because this helps end our suffering. Yes, it brings joy to others which is a good thing, but the central point is that it ends our suffering because it helps free us from our ego-centricity. The same goes for having compassion for all beings. The Five Precepts, again while they certainly benefit others and the environment, are necessary actions to end our suffering.
Key to enabling us to take the actions that end our suffering … to have the courage to change the way we relate to ourselves and others … is understanding the dependent origination of all things and their impermanence. Most particularly, knowing that all our emotions, judgments, cravings, and attachments are products of our ego-mind; they have no inherent existence. They certainly feel very real to us, but they are not a reflection of reality. Our knowledge of ourselves and all things is thus flawed.
These emotions and cravings - how we relate to our experience - not the experience itself are what cause us to suffer. We suffer because of how we process our life experiences. Two people can experience the same thing, and yet one reacts to it one way, let’s say with anger or fear, and suffers, while the other reacts to it with dispassion, free of labels, knowing it’s just the way it is, and so he does not suffer.
But two keys are needed to unlock our inner peace and happiness. The other key is our belief in our true Buddha nature. We are each born with the Buddha nature inside us. (This is the same teaching as the mystical tradition of the three Abrahamic faiths, although in their context it is called, “divine essence.”)
What happens after birth, and especially during our formative years when the ego develops, is that our Buddha nature, which I have found to be a passive force, gets buried under the weight of our very aggressive ego-mind’s reaction to our life experiences. And so we typically grow up insecure and having a very negative outlook on much of life.
In order to take our understanding of the lack of inherent existence, the emptiness, of our feelings and perceptions and end our suffering, we need to be able to say that our ego-mind is not our true self. And that therefore all our emotions and cravings are not our true self, and instead weaken us and cause us suffering. We need to be able to say, “Not me!” And to do that, we have to know and have faith in what our true self is … our true Buddha nature, our heart. Because if we are not our ego, than who are we? We must know the answer.
Most Buddhist writing just talks about the first key. Why do I place equal emphasis on the second? The answer can be found in the story I read in The New York Times years ago that caused me to write my first Buddhist book, The Self in No Self. A Zen master, an obviously advanced student of Buddhism, found after 35 years of study that the Buddhist concept of no-self and the corresponding unity of all things left him feeling like “an invisible man,” lacking perversely any feeling of unity with himself. And so he went to see a psychiatrist! (see “Enlightenment Therapy,” Chip Brown, The New York Times Magazine, April 23, 2009)
But as I explain in my posts, “The Misleading Teaching of No Self” and “Self Re-examined,” the Buddha never taught that there is no self. He did explain what is “not self” … namely whatever causes us suffering, all the emotions and cravings that flow from the ego-mind. I would argue that the very phrase “not self” implies that the Buddha believed that there was a true self, that is the point of reference, although he never spoke to that issue.
It is this faith that enables us to have the courage to disassociate ourselves from the conventional reality of our ego-mind and understand the true reality of our experiences and the universe.
This is the lesson taught to me by the Ven. Huyen Te and Ven. Thai Tue, two Vietnamese Zen monks whose view of the dharma I was fortunate to be exposed to while living in rural Michigan during the first decade of my practice. I summarized their teaching as “The Fourfold Path to Freedom,” related in The Self in No Self and Scratching the Itch, as well as my post, “The Fourfold Path to Freedom.”
The monk once said to us that the choice is ours. We have but to surrender our ego to our true Buddha nature. Hah! That makes it sound so simple and straight forward, but it is anything but that. The choice is indeed ours, but the challenge is great because of the deeply-rooted strength of our ego-mind in our psyche. But through a disciplined meditation practice and a disciplined approach to life we can slowly, incrementally, free ourselves from our ego-mind, end our suffering, and find the inner peace and happiness that is our birthright. (See my post, “The Choice Is Yours.”)