Something that interests us all is ourselves – because we are the subject and main focus of
our lives. No matter what you think of yourself, there is a natural interest because you have to
live with yourself for a lifetime. The self view is therefore something that can give us a lot of
misery if we see ourselves in the wrong way. Even under the best of circumstances, if we don’t
see ourselves in the right way we still end up creating suffering in our minds. The Buddha was
trying to point out that the way to solve the problem isn’t through trying to make everything right
and pleasant on the external dimension, but to develop the right understanding, the right attitude
towards ourselves, and to overall just do what we can.
Living in the US at this time, we expect comfort and all kinds of privileges and material
comforts. This makes life more pleasant in many ways, but when our every need is provided for
and life is too comfortable, something in us just doesn’t develop. Sometimes it is the struggle
through hardship that develops and matures us as human beings.
But when we give up or surrender to restriction and to restraint through wisdom, we find
liberation. Life is the experience of restriction and restraint, being born in our own skin and
having to live under the laws of nature. Mentally we can fly to the sky, but physically we are
bound to limitations that get more and more restrictive the older we get. This isn’t seen as
suffering by us because that’s just the way things are.
The sense of oneself is something that we are aware of when we are children; when
we’re born there is no sense of a self as being anything. As we grow up we learn what we are
supposed to be, if we are good or bad, if we are pretty or ugly, if we are smart or stupid. So we
develop a sense of ourselves. Even when we get older, sometimes we still have very adolescent
attitudes or childish emotional reactions to life that we have been unable to resolve except by
There is one way of talking about the self that makes it sound very doctrinal. It seemed to
me that Buddhists can sometimes say that there is no self, as if it was a proclamation that they
have to believe in; as if there were some higher being saying “THERE IS NO SELF BOYS AND
GIRLS!” It doesn’t seem true to just go announcing that there isn’t any self- because what is this
experience that we are feeling right now? Where I am now there seems to be very much a sense
of oneself. I’m feeling, I’m breathing, I see, I hear; I react to things – people can praise me or
criticize me and I feel happy or sad. “ ‘All states are without self’, when one sees this in
wisdom, then he becomes dispassionate towards the painful. This is the Path to Purity.” (134
So if this isn’t me then what is it? And am I supposed to go around as a Buddhist
believing that I don’t have a self? Or if I am going to believe, should it be in something like God
where I can believe that I have a self, because then I can say things like “my true self is perfect
and pure” even if it’s not? That at least gives me some kind of inspiration and reason to live my
life, rather than saying that there is no self and no soul, leaving a total of zero possibilities. These
are just examples of the use of language; we can say “there is no self” as a proclamation, or
“there is no self” as a reflection. The reflective way is to encourage us to contemplate the self.
The Buddha was pointing to the fact that when we really look at these changing conditions that
we tend to identify with, we can begin to see that these are not self. What we believe in is not
what we really are: it’s a position, it’s a condition, it’s something that changes according to time
and place. Each one of us is experiencing consciousness through the human body that we have.
There are moments in our lives when the self does stop functioning and we get in touch
with the pure state of conscious experience. That is what is known as bliss. But when we have
those blissful experiences, immediately the desire to have them again takes over, and no matter
how hard we try to have it again, as long as we’re attached to the view of wanting bliss again, we
will never get it. But in this state of attentive awareness, we begin to see what is actually taking
place, then we can let go of the causes of our suffering. We see how it actually is, and we have
that intuitive wisdom to let go. So in this life as a human being from birth to death every moment
is an opportunity for understanding in the right way.