When I lived in Michigan and went to a rural Vietnamese Zen temple for 10 years, I received very powerful teaching from the monks there. They hammered home constantly the cause of suffering and ultimately what was necessary to relieve ourselves of that suffering … surrendering our ego to our true Buddha nature. When I wrote The Self in No Self and Scratching the Itch: Getting to the Root of Our Suffering, I related their teaching distilled into what I called the Fourfold Path to Freedom,.
The third Noble Truth related by the Buddha is realizing that by giving up our cravings, being free of them, we can end our suffering. And the fourth is the path that leads to the cessation of our cravings … the Noble Eightfold Path, which consists of Right View, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Diligence, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.
Many teachers operationalize this teaching by talking about mindfully ceasing to do the things that cause us suffering and doing positive things that bring us happiness. That’s fine as far as it goes but the process is too circumscribed.
The catch with the Eightfold Path is that in order to practice it one must first be free of ego … the ultimate cause of all our suffering. One cannot practice Right View or Right anything if ones ego, ones learned experience, is an active force in ones mind, because the ego will intervene by generating thoughts/obstructions which commandeer our mind and obscure our true Buddha nature, from which flows the various Right activities.
That said, I do not mean that following the Noble Eightfold Path is dependent on successfully freeing oneself from all intervention of your ego-mind. Rather as one slowly increases the moments of your life which are free of the intervention of your ego-mind, you will become more and more able to make progress on that path.
The Buddha said at one point, “To be rid of the conceit ‘I am’ – That is the greatest happiness of all.” Because only then is one truly free. But how to free ourselves from our ego?
Many Buddhist teachers do not address this matter directly. Those that face the power of our ego head on, such as Sogyal Rinpoche, teach that as our discriminating awareness strengthens through meditation, we begin to distinguish clearly between the guidance of our true Buddha nature and our ego. Eventually, the destructiveness of our ego will be clear and that will release us. Similarly, Krishnamurti calls for a “revolution of the psyche” and posits that understanding our conditioning/ego immediately without thought allows us to be free of that conditioning.
Yet many have reached such realization and still remain bound by their egos; it is that powerful and deeply-rooted. Recognizing the difficulty and the centrality of this action to leading a Right life and ending our suffering, the teaching that I received from two Vietnamese Zen monks, Ven. Huyen Te and Ven. Thai Tue, focused on a more defined path to free ourselves from our ego. I have called this the Fourfold Path to Freedom.
Somehow I have not related the Fourfold Path to Freedom in a post, just in my books. Realizing this recently, I am now filling this gap. This teaching had a huge influence on my practice and so I want to share it with you.
Understanding that all things are impermanent and
Understanding that all our perceptions have no inherent nature, they are just a product of our mind, and that they are the direct cause of our suffering.
Practicing the Six Paramitas.
Surrendering our ego to our true Buddha nature,
turning our will and our lives over to the care of
our true Buddha nature.
For 20 years since receiving that teaching, I worked to discern through my practice how to not just have the intent but to truly surrender my ego to my true Buddha nature, or as I rather put it, turn my will and my life over to the care of my true Buddha nature. The monk said once, speaking to the sangha, that we had come far but that we were still standing on the precipice because we had not surrendered our ego to our true Buddha nature. He told us that the choice was ours. Not so simple! That challenge and struggle is the core of all my posts and the books I have written.
The Fourfold Path mentions the Six Paramitas. To help get us to the point where we are able to surrender our ego, it is helpful to gradually free ourselves from our ego-centric mentality and behavior. One way we do that is by developing compassion for ourselves and others. The Five Precepts are an essential place to start. But to deepen our practice, it is very helpful to practice the Six Paramitas.
The Six Paramitas are … generosity, virtuous conduct, understanding, enthusiastic effort and diligence, meditation/concentration, and wisdom. (See Chapter 5 in my book, Scratching the Itch: Getting to the Root of our Suffering.) To practice these teachings is to water the seeds of our true Buddha nature. As we develop these qualities, bring them to the surface of our consciousness, we decrease our suffering and increase our awareness, freedom from our ego, and happiness.
If we can be free of the conceit of the ego, then we will be free of our cravings and reach nirvana. This challenging process is described in great detail in my new book, How to Find Inner Peace. But again, remember that all things on the path are incremental. Walking the path is not about achieving perfection. It is the intent which is essential. Better to be free of the control of your ego 60% of the time than not at all, because the 60% will bring you peace and joy.