Enlightenment does not mean getting rid of an unelightened self and then finding a self that is a Buddha somewhere else.
– Seon Master Daehaeng Sunim
(‘No River to Cross’, p.59)
Before I write up the last of the great teachings I remember from October’s Seon Club, a short rant from me: The Buddha did not teach that the self does not exist! What he actually said is that there is no permanent, solid, unchanging self. What we usually think of as self is subject to change and is interconnected with everything else. Making the idea, sometimes voiced in Buddhist circles, that we must destroy the self, simple nihilistic nonsense.
In fact, the Buddha could be said to have even developed a kind of self-help programme: the Noble Eight-fold path. This is certainly the view of Thanissaro Bhikkhu, who, in an essay entitled ‘Hang On to Your Ego’, writes that “If you open your mind to the idea that the Buddha was actually advocating ego-development instead of egolessness, you see that there’s nothing lopsided or lacking in his understanding of healthy ego functioning.”
It’s also a view I’ve heard expressed by Phra Cittasamvaro Bhikkhu, the guiding light of the Littlebang Sangha here in Bangkok, not least in a talk he gave on the subject a couple of years ago during his annual teaching series: “You DO have a personality” he said, “which in English is what we could call ‘self’. It is not permanent, nor unchanging, and therefore not an Atman, but it is real. And Buddhism teaches you should develop and nurture this personality”.
I heard much the same from another Therevadan monk not so long ago too, Venerable U Vamsarakkhita speaking in Bangkok, said that the Buddha did not teach detachment. The Buddha did not tell people to cast aside their bodies and thoughts and feelings. Rather, he said, the Buddha taught people to examine them. And then, through this investigation, they will be better able to live in the moment, experiencing a richer more fulfilling life.
And of course our own root teacher, the inspiration for this blog, Seon Master Daehaeng Sunim, says much the same, “There is no substance to the I that people have thought of as themselves” she writes. “However, it is said that I has no substance, not because such a reality does not exist, but because what is called I always changes from moment to moment.” And thank goodness for that. It is this constant change that makes our self-development possible.
And in Buddhism this self-development is carried out through the Noble Eightfold Path. The Buddha talked about developing skillful states such as morality, generosity, and wisdom, and breaking free of greed and anger and delusion. Right Effort was an integral part of his 8-step programme; and he encouraged people to support each other in this programme.
But what about ultimate liberation? Does the self disappear then? Despite all that’s been said above, are we, finally, left in a state of non-existence? I must admit I find the idea of this both frightening and hard to understand. So, back to last month’s Seon Club discussion. “Enlightenment isn’t about annihilation”, Hyedaeng Sunim explained, “it’s about finding your true self, much bigger and more able than you ever thought imaginable”.