Path of the Dharma: Dhammapada – Chapter 12: “Self”

Disclaimer: This book has 26 chapters, and I highly recommend you get a copy and read them all. I’ve had to pick and choose, and in so doing, much is passed over. I only hope to emphasize what is key for getting to the other side, but even in my choices, it would be too long to write out each whole chapter, so I have to pick selections from them as well.


Learn what is right; then teach others as the wise do. Before trying to guide others, be your own guide first. It is hard to learn to guide oneself.

Your own self is your master; who else could be? With yourself well controlled, you gain a master hard to find. (Chapter 12, Verses 158-160)

Stephen Ruppenthal introduces this chapter in my translation with an analysis of how the Buddha does not specify his position on what the self is; he cites the Buddhist scholar/philosopher par excellence, Nagarjuna. The Buddha, indeed, does not posit: “The self is X”. However, both here and in the opening lines of the first verse, (“All that we are is the result of what we have thought” see my previous post on the first chapter here), the Buddha makes clear that the self is something that can be trained. As such, it is something that can change; thus, it follows the Buddha’s emphasis on impermanence as does all else. The Buddha does not posit here that there is no atman (a soul), but he does say that the self is something that can be trained, mastered, and he indicates that the spiritual path is one in which you master yourself. The Buddha doesn’t posit anything about the self’s nature, as that would go entirely against the point (i.e. positing something that “atman is”.). Rather, he indicates selflessness, or as is often described as the Buddha’s position: no-self. As he says later in chapter 20: “All states are without self; those who realize this are freed from suffering.” He displays to us that what we label self is not fixed or permanent, rather a dynamic process: one that can be trained and mastered. A permanent, unchanging thing is not open to such dynamism. A biography I have recently read about the Buddha expressed the subtleties of this stance very well:

This was the last thing Gautama wished to communicate. He believed that in this life we inherit the karmic consequences of our actions in past lifetimes, and that when we die, our future existence will depend on our moral state in this one. Having been brought up to believe implicitly in rebirth, this didn’t raise for Gautama or his listeners the metaphysical problems it brings to many who hear these ideas today. He was trying to get away from metaphysical abstractions and point people towards the kind of experience they could detect and observe. Of course, Gautama was saying, every person, including a Buddha, thinks, feels and experiences; the point is that how we think and feel shapes the kind of people we become in the future. The self, therefore, is a process and the task is to shape it. The wanderers should stop asking of life, ‘What is it?‘ or ‘Where is the true self?‘ They should look, instead, at their actual experience and ask, ‘How does it work?‘ Sue Hamilton succinctly encapsulates Gautama’s approach: ‘That you are is neither the question or in question: you need to forget even the issue of self-hood and understand instead how you work in a dependently originated world of experience.’ (Blomfield, Gautama Buddha: The Life and Teachings of the Awakened One, p. 151)

whirlpool-waves

The self is a process that changes with time like the flow of a river (read Hesse’s famous “Siddhartha”) or the waves ebbing and flowing on an ocean. Note: the flux of some processes can take a very, very long time–such as the erosion of a mountain. That does not make the mountain a permanent, solid entity…

In the quoted passage from Chapter 12, as elsewhere in the Dhammapada, the Buddha tells us to guide ourselves to develop our own wisdom (especially if no wise people are around to guide us–he clearly states it is better to go alone than follow the spiritually immature) and master our own minds. No one else can master them for us. This is the most fundamental aspect of the path–the aspect that wholly depends on our own efforts and no one else’s.

The evil done by the selfish crushes them as a diamond breaks a hard gem. As a vine overpowers a tree, evil overpowers those who do evil, trapping them in a situation that only their enemies would wish them to be in. Evil deeds, which harm the doer, are easy to do; good deeds are not so easy. (Chapter 12, Verses 161-163)

This injunction to not do evil comes right after the call to master the self. How are they connected and what exactly are we supposed to avoid? The answer could readily be seen in the twin verses of the opening chapter already discussed in my previous post. Self-mastery, the proper way to guide yourself, is to tame your thoughts in such a manner that will bring you away from sorrow and closer to joy beyond death–nirvana. It’s a taming that cultivates selfless thought–thought in accordance with the Eightfold Path, rather than the selfish thoughts that our mind is constantly lost in as untamed monkey mind. Selfless thought shapes the mind in a way that brings joy and nirvana. Selfish thought molds the mind in a way that brings sorrow and samsara.


May this help you see your “self” in a light that allows you to cultivate joy for yourself and others. May you be inspired to read through this great spiritual work and find the path to liberation from suffering. May you have the generosity, energy, discipline, patience, meditative insight, and wisdom to walk it.

Gassho.

Heartbreak Wisdom Journal–Entry 7: Letting Go of the Person You Used to Be (Part 2)

Clarification: As I wrote at the beginning of the last post, I’ve broken this entry into two pieces. The first was about my personal healing experience. This piece is a long quote from Lama Surya Das’ Letting Go of the Person You Used to Be. It’s taken from the opening section of the final chapter: “Spiritual Renewal — Healing Our Wounded Hearts”. Reading this section felt very resonant with what I have been experiencing, and it was great to find that understanding and affirmation. I thought that others could benefit from his words as well.


To one degree or another, we all have wounded hearts etched with at least a few of life’s infinitely variant scars. But if that is the case, how can we find peace? How can we release our sorrow and move beyond negative memories and hurt? How can we alter and release our attachment to the past? How can we come unstuck? How can we let go of the person we used to be?
Men and women trying to recover from disappointment and loss tend to hear a wide variety of well-meaning advice. “You need healing,” their friends tell them. “You need closure.” “You need resolution.” “Move on.” Sometimes this facile, though well-intentioned advice, is the last thing that someone wants to hear. “Change your life.” “Okay, sure. Will do. Thank you!” It is easier said than done, isn’t it?
Almost twenty years ago, while I was in three-year meditations retreat, I received a letter from an old friend who told me that her talented and beloved son was gravely ill; he was only in his mid-twenties, and I remember being very saddened by this news. She asked if we would pray for him. Later I received word that he had died. I knew that my friend suffered grievously from the loss of her son. But I was still young and I probably didn’t fully understand what she was experiencing. About two years later I visited her in upstate New York and gave her some platitudinous advice.
“Maybe it’s time to let go and move on,” I said.
“Maybe it isn’t,” she replied. “Maybe I’m not done.”
The truth and authenticity of her statement were pretty startling in the face of my well-meaning, albeit useless, chiches. Maybe she wasn’t done with her mourning; maybe she would never feel done. My dear old friend is not unique in her response to major loss. Many have told me that they have never really “gotten over” some of their experiences.

Mourning is a necessary process as well as a deep and significant spiritual experience. It brings us closer to the ground of our being and our felt sense of authenticity. We need to intelligently process our most difficult experiences in order to regain balance, harmony, and inner peace. But there comes a time when it is helpful to seek and find ways to release the pain. Yes, certain losses remain with us; they are part of our history and our karma. But that doesn’t mean that it is appropriate for us to spend our lives grieving. We need to find ways to peacefully coexist with our sadness. We can embrace our pain and our losses and be greater and more authentically real for doing so.
I am not alone in saying that a broken heart is often the beginning of healing and renewal; many wiser men and women have spoken these words. Sometimes it is only desperation that can drive us out of a rut. When we are sad, we need comfort; we need to find new hope; we need spiritual renewal. These are attainable goals; these are all possible. Everything is possible to those who seek and persevere. In the New Testament, Jesus spoke the following beatitude, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

Spiritual transformation and renewal are forms of healing, of rectification, of rebalancing. Such renewal restores us to wholeness and to peace through new beginnings. Our hopes, dreams, and aspirations are revived, and we are able to make fresh starts. Sometimes all we need to do to make a fresh start is to begin seriously questioning ourselves–our assumptions and beliefs and what we are doing. This kind of self-examination helps us think “outside the box.” When we do this, it can help us view the world in such a different way that we are sometimes able to make dramatic changes. Seeing differently is believing differently and leads to different ways of living.
Buddhism teaches that the reason we are unhappy and experience difficulty is mainly due to ignorance and our false sense of incompleteness and separation. Out of this ignorance and feelings of separateness comes all kinds of unsatisfying unfulfilling behavior and effort. A pop example that comes to mind is the all too human tendency to look for love in all the wrong places. We do well to renew our outlook and our efforts toward more intelligent and fulfilling directions and modes of seeking what we really want and need. Remember that one definition of insanity is doing what we have always done and expecting different results.
Few of us carefully examine whether or not our current pattern of desires and habits are producing the results we want. Too often we just continue as we have always done–“same old, same old”–just as our friends, colleagues, and elders have always done, thought, reacted, hoped, and believed. We do this without thoroughly, conscientiously, and deeply scrutinizing for ourselves how well these strategies work for us.
Rebirth is one form of renewal and regeneration. This may happen in the afterlife or in heaven, or it may happen through reinventing oneself or one’s career and relationships in this life. Or it can happen moment by moment by taking a good deep breath and taking a fresh and renewed look at life in the immediacy of the present moment. This moment-to-moment rebirth is a practice of both love and freedom. It allows us to embrace reality right now, as it is; it allows us to be as we are without being burdened or conditioned by the past.

butterfly-22985_1280


May this resonate with you who need this as it has with me. May it help you let go of your past, the person you used to be, so that you may move forward in reinventing yourself for the good of yourself and all the world. May you find liberation in stepping from your sloughed off old skin.

Gassho!

A Mantra of Strength and Acceptance

I am worthy
Of love, happiness, and fulfillment.
I am powerful
Enough to endure any hardship.

Everything will work out
In its own manifestation of change.
Through positive thought and action,
I can achieve *anything*.

Worry and fear bring nothing,
While faith and intention grow wonders.

I am but one infinitesimal speck in the universe,
But I instill my existence with gratitude and meaning.

Come what may,
I am flawed yet beautiful,
And so is the divine, changing nature of All.
Paradox—
Perfect as I am
AND
Benefiting from the work of self-development

Gassho.