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The Poison of ‘Self’

August 17, 2013

Q: I had a realization—or maybe I should say, I am having an ongoing realization of how poisonous the false ego is. Especially, it is embarrassing to recall all the foolish things I did out of egotism just to reinforce a false sense of identity.

The Arahant: Yes, this is how you know you are making progress in meditation. Surprised? Did you think that enlightenment was going to be all bliss and wonderment? No, sometimes it is bitter medicine indeed. But think about it. The very fact that you can make such an observation means that you are separating from concepts of ‘self’ and  false identity, an ‘ego’ propped up by inauthentic rationalizations. This is exactly what should happen when you realize the Buddha’s teaching on impermanence and emptiness:

“Ananda, I do not envision even a single form whose change & alteration would not give rise to sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair in one who is passionate for it and takes delight in it. But there is this [mental] dwelling discovered by the Tathagata where, not attending to any themes, he enters & remains in internal emptiness.” — Maha-suññata Sutta (MN 122)

From this platform of emptiness, standing on nothing, one can clearly perceive the falsity of ‘self’ and everything pertaining to a ‘self’. Thus one becomes embarrassed to see previous attempts to establish a ‘self’ and enjoy items related to that false ‘self’. This is not possible as long as you still believe in ‘self’ and try to maintain it.

Q: Thank you. But still, it is disquieting to realize that one’s whole life has been lived under such false pretenses. I can see that actually everything I tried to do to reinforce the ego or justified under that pretense turned out badly.

The Arahant: Of course, that is the very essence of dukkha! Everything we do under the false pretense of ‘self’ must turn out badly. That is because anything false or inauthentic is automatically anicca-dukkha-anattā: impermanent, not-self and a cause of suffering. The Buddha’s teaching of anicca-dukkha-anattā exposes our ignorant acceptance of the false ‘self’, which is the direct cause of conditioned existence and suffering, as the greatest poison. It also points us toward emptiness—something unconditioned, non-dukkha against which all conditioned things clearly stand out as dukkha.

And once this platform of non-dukkha or unconditioned Being is accepted, it becomes the norm or reference against which we can see for ourselves that all conditioned things are dukkha. And when we see this, we then experience non-dukkha as a background of perception, by which he may progress further toward nibbana.

The puthujjana becomes a sekha precisely at this point of realizing impermanence and emptiness or non-dukkha—no longer puthujjana, but not yet ArahantHe has a sort of double vision, part based on the Buddha’s teaching, and part still unregenerate. The sekha who has the perceptions of anicca-dukkha-anattā regarding ‘self’ has no further need to hear the teaching, for he has internalized it. To the degree that he understands the Buddha’s teaching, he has become the teaching. This is called the Eye of the Teaching, and it is something very precious, used in the Suttas in connection with the attainment of sotāppanna (stream-entry):

“To him there arose the eye of the teaching, clear and unconstrained: ‘Whatsoever has the nature of arising, all that has the nature of ceasing’.” — Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11)

Aniccatā or impermanence is seen with the sotāppana’s ‘eye of the teaching’ (dhammacakkhu). This clear vision of the nature of things is the point of view that sees the Buddha’s teaching for what it is. It is precisely because of the absence of this view that doubts about the validity of the teaching, particularly about the path to the cessation of dukkha, can exist.

And what, precisely, is that which has the nature of ceasing (impermanence)? It is matter (form), feeling, perceptions, determinations, consciousness, together with clinging: the five clinging-aggregates (pancupādānakkhanda). The same reasoning applies to seeing that all things are displeasurable (dukkha). When all things are seen to depend upon a displeasurable determination, they also will be seen as displeasurable.

“Whatever cause, whatever condition there be for the arising of matter (form)… feeling… perception… determinations… consciousness, that is displeasurable. How, monks, can consciousness that is originated from displeasurable things be pleasurable?” — Sahetudukkha Sutta (SN 22.19)

So it is natural and expected when you realize that the ‘self’ is actually not-self, impermanent and a cause of suffering, you will feel disappointed in yourself, embarrassed that you ever could have acted in that way. In fact, if someone simply repeats the Buddha’s teachings like a parrot but does not feel disappointed and embarrassed with himself, then his path has no heart. He is simply on the mental platform without any realization. So you are actually very fortunate.

From → Q&A

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