November 3, 2021

People have noted how ironic it is that in a teaching that emphasizes not-self we have some of the earliest spiritual autobiographies of the world. The Buddha, when talking about his quest for awakening spoke very much in terms of: This is what I did, and looking at what I had done and seeing that it hadn’t given the results I wanted, I tried something else. That’s the pattern.

When you think of the issue in other terms, though, this way of speaking is not ironic at all because the Buddha’s main teaching was kamma: We suffer because of our actions, but we can find the end of suffering by understanding our actions—the actions that lead to suffering, and then the actions of the path to the end of suffering. That understanding is what opens the way. The Buddha’s autobiography shows the lessons he learned about action in the course of his awakening, and he tells his story to show how we can follow his example and learn from our actions, too.

Now, in doing an action and learning from it, you have to take responsibility for it. After all, the Buddha said, if you felt simply that things were happening on their own without any input from you, that would make a path impossible. Whether it came from a creator god or past actions or random fate, if you chalked all your experience of pleasure and pain up to something totally apart from what you’re doing right now, you would be left defenseless, and there would be no path to the end of suffering.

That goes against a teaching you hear every now and then, that if you come to the path with the attitude, “I’m going to do the path,” you’re coming from wrong view, and that wrong view will taint everything you’re trying to accomplish. You have to have the attitude that there’s nobody here doing anything; the path is just developing out of causes and conditions. There’s simply awareness, seeing things arising and passing away. That’s all there is there.

That’s the enlightened way to approach the path, we’re often told, but what happens with that sort of attitude is that any sense of self you might have goes underground. You start identifying with the awareness. You start identifying with what you think is an awakened awareness. In that way, you can let go of what may have been a neurotic self, but it turns into a vague and overblown self.

One of purposes of the practice is to see exactly where your sense of self as an action comes in—when it’s skillful, when it’s not—and how to train your unskillful self to be more skillful. Of course, the emphasis is not focused on the self, it’s on the action, but self is always there in the background.

Sometimes it’s explicit. Think of the Buddha’s instructions to Rahula, when he told him to reflect on his actions before, during, and after doing them. In each case, Rahula was to take responsibility for his actions.

“This action that I want to do”: That’s how you think beforehand. “This action that I’m doing”: That’s how you think when you look at the action as you’re doing it. “This action that I have done”: That’s your reflection afterward. The “I” is there in every case because you’re taking responsibility. And this way of thinking is not just a sop for a small child’s mind.

When the Buddha says that discernment begins with the question: “What having been done by me will lead to my long term harm and suffering? What having been done by me will lead to my long term welfare and happiness?” there’s still an agent there, there’s still a “me” and an “I.” The whole point of this line of questioning is to get this agent to take responsibility, to see how to improve his or her actions.

When people deny that there’s an agent there from the very beginning, you might call it “self-bypassing,” like “spiritual bypassing.” An important element is being missed, skipped over. The actual path is one of taking responsibility for your actions, reflecting on them, and taking responsibility for improving them. As you develop the skills needed to do that, you cultivate a more skillful sense of self. You don’t let go of your sense of self until it has no more use. But it has many uses on the path, and you don’t let go of it until it’s been trained to serve those uses.

If you try to let go of it first, before it has been trained, then this untrained self will still lurk around random places in your awareness, showing its ugly head here and there. It’s still neurotic and immature because it’s been abandoned—not in the sense of letting it go through discernment, but abandoned in the sense of a child abandoned by its parents. If you try to let go of it out of fear or loathing: “I don’t like my self. It’s selfish, shortsighted, conceited. I want to replace it with an enlightened self,” well, your enlightened self is basically created out of your preconceptions about what enlightenment might be. Those preconceptions are based on ignorance. You don’t get the genuine article until you’ve taken your unskillful self and developed it into something more skillful.

It’s like developing the body. Your body is weak. “I don’t like my weak body. I want to throw it away and find a strong body.” That attitude doesn’t work. You’re still going to have that weak body, no matter how much you may imagine yourself with a strong body. You have to take your weak body and exercise it, feed it properly, look after it, care for it. That’s how it gets strong.

Here, of course, the analogy breaks down, because there does come a point in meditation where you don’t need the self anymore. You let go of the self when it’s most developed—in other words, when it’s very precise, very meticulous, very mature in its ability to reflect on its own actions, so mature that it can see the activity of creating a self as an unskillful action. To get to that point requires patience, requires honesty, requires powers of observation, because your sense of self can hide.

When things are going the way you like, when everything is going smoothly, your sense of self doesn’t seem to appear at all. It’s when you meet up with conflict, meet up with challenges: That’s when the sense of self will have to come out. This is why a lot of people who say they have no sense of self as they practice, try to practice in a way that’s stress-free, confrontation-free. They don’t press themselves too hard. They say, “This is the middle path.” But remember the Buddha’s analogy for the path is victory: The practice is a battle, or the practice is a long course of mastering a skill.

It’s going to be challenging, and you’re going to have to rely on a sense of self that’s reliable to face and overcome those challenges. If it’s immature, it gives up and retreats, and then justifies having retreated. But if it has a strong sense that this is the one way for true happiness, it’ll be willing to fight whatever gets in the way, and stick with the path regardless. As the Buddha said, “Let go of whatever is not yours, and that will be for your long-term welfare and happiness.” Notice the word “your” there, in front of “welfare and happiness.” You can use that sense of self as part of your motivation for practicing.

Then, as the path matures, you mature. That’s when you can start letting go in a very radical way. At that point, you’re not really thinking about self or not-self, you’re simply thinking about the fact that there’s stress, and there’s something you’re doing that’s causing the stress.

You get to the point where there’s the path of staying or the path of going, and in space and time those are the only two alternatives. You look for another alternative, an alternative that doesn’t recognize space or time, an alternative that doesn’t involve your doing in any way. And because you’ve been very sensitive to what you’re doing, when you find the alternative, you know it for sure: This is something different, radically different.

That’s the experience that cuts away at the fetter of self-view. As the Buddha said, there’s still some conceit left—the idea that “I am” is still lingering around the aggregates. But the sense that “I am this” with regard to any of the aggregates—either, “I am one of the aggregates; or “I’m a combination of the aggregates”; “the aggregates belong to me”; “I am in the aggregates”; or “The aggregates are in me”: That’s cut through, because the experience outside of space and time has shown you that there is an awareness, there is a dimension that has no aggregates at all, and it can be directly experienced.

So you cut through self-view not by willing it away, or by trying to think in a new, cloned paradigm where there is no agent. You cut through self-view because the experience has forced it on you. It’s a realization of a truth in a way that allows for no denial.

Up until that point, make a skillful use of your self as you master the craft.

There’s a book called The Craftsman that talks about how people develop a certain maturity as they develop a craft. You want to take that same attitude toward your practice, so that your self becomes more mature—mature enough so that when the time comes to let go, it can let go, and there’s nothing left lurking around, hiding behind denial. You haven’t bypassed anything. You’ve followed the path consistently all the way to your first taste of awakening. You don’t get there by bypassing anything. You get there by staying on the path through all its challenges and coming out on the other side.