How to Practice "Non-Self"
Written in Chinese by Dr. Yutang Lin
Translated by Stanley Lam
Edited by Dr. Lin and Ann Klein
The fundamental theme of Buddhist teachings is the demonstration of "Non-Self." Most people find this concept very hard to accept and may also feel very puzzled by it. In daily life everything operates from self-centeredness; such a way is almost universally accepted as the norm of worldly life. However, Buddhism talks about "Non-Self." What could that mean? Although expressions like "selfless" and "unselfish" are also used in worldly life, their meaning is simply to promote the ideal of sacrificing personal interests for others' interests; there is no denial of the existence of a "self." If the "Non-Self" as taught by the Dharma denies the existence of a "self," then such a concept is impractical to social life. If the concept of "Non-Self" which denies the existence of one's self is acceptable, how can it be applied in real life? If the ideal of "Non-Self" does not work in social life, is it not just empty talk or a metaphysical notion?
Worldly life centers around the self of individuals and groups. Although this results in various difficulties and suffering, as there are no other alternatives, everyone in the society has to comply with such a way of life. Although some political parties, be they in power or not, ostensibly promote the common welfare of all, they cannot do without factional politics and rewards of power and self gain when faced with real gains and losses. Why does the Dharma ignore all these realities of life and advocate "Non-Self" instead? The Dharma also teaches people not to become attached to worldly fame, gains, love and desires; what is the real aim of such teachings? Given that practicing "Non-Self" is contrary to normal worldly considerations, what are the benefits and importance of adopting it?
For some Buddhists even after accepting by faith or through understanding the real meaning of "Non-Self," they may still encounter the following questions: Since there is no self, who is practicing? Who will attain Enlightenment? Who will guide sentient beings to liberation? How to practice "Non-Self"? How to verify whether one's practice is correct or not? Is the intention to practice "Non-Self" a self-attachment in itself? If it is a self-attachment, would not practicing "Non-Self" reinforce self-attachment? How then could one attain "Non-Self"? If there is no self, why is there a need to practice? Would it not become a fool's self-entanglement and a redundant activity?
The Dharma teaches that one needs to practice observational meditation on Sunyata and enter into deep Samadhi, only then can one cut off the very subtle fundamental ignorance and self-attachment, and thereby thoroughly realize "Non-Self." Ordinary practitioners usually do not have the ability to enter into deep Samadhi, how then should they practice "Non-Self"? Does it mean there is no way to practice it? Since "Non-Self" is so difficult to understand and practice, is there any other teaching among the ocean of Buddhist teachings that can achieve the same result and yet much easier to practice in ordinary people's daily lives?
The series of questions were presented above to demonstrate the need and urgency to investigate the subject of How to Practice "Non-Self." For those who want to immerse deeply into the Dharma these questions are difficult to evade and not easy to answer. The present essay attempts to explain each of these difficult issues and provides insight based on my own experiences in practicing "Non-Self." I hope that this essay will be useful to practitioners who are attempting to practice "Non-Self," and that it will arouse in others the motive to practice "Non-Self."
1. The Real Meaning of "Non-Self"
The Dharma teaches "Non-Self" in order to save sentient beings from the tormenting sea of Samsara; however, "Non-Self" is not a conceptual tool or pedagogical instrument constructed for this purpose. "Non-Self" is a verifiable truth both in terms of philosophical analyses and of attainment of realization through practice. Therefore, the salvation through the Dharma does not involve blind faith, but points out the truth to help people become free from confinement and confusion.
"Non-Self" does not mean that entities as they are commonly perceived do not exist; it means that the concept of "self" has no referent which has absolutely independent existence. The contents of all our experiences are phenomena resulting from a combination of various conditions; these phenomena change following changes in their constituent conditions, hence they have neither absolutely independent existence nor autonomy. Any denotation or labeling is just a relative cognitive activity of artificial naming and delimitation in the inseparable entirety of our experiences. Although one can denote and distinguish the existence, disappearance, and activities of individual entities in social interactions, under careful inspection one must admit the absence of any object of absolute denotation; those denotations and distinctions are just temporary grasping of appearances, serving as means of convenience. Upon thorough examination, "self" is only a conceptual tool of denotation, but not necessarily related to actual experiences. Ordinary worldly activities and personal speech and actions are all dominated by the concept of "self," without understanding of the nature of this concept, and rarely can people reflect on this issue. People are therefore imprisoned by self-attachment; they not only are trapped in endless suffering, but also reinforce entanglements based on the self; the situation is analogous to a silkworm spinning a cocoon to enclose itself deeper and deeper. If a practitioner can cease the flow of thoughts or even loosen, in Samadhi, the subconscious constrictions of various concepts and dispositions, then he or she will be able to experience the original state which is free from the antagonism of subject and object, i.e., the absence of discriminative identification of "I," "you" and "others."
Since there is no self, who is practicing? My Guru, Yogi C. M. Chen, had written an essay in Chinese to specifically discuss this topic. In that essay he taught that the Right View is the self-nature of practice. For details, please refer to "An Inquiry as to the Self-Nature of Practice" in The Second set of Collected Essays from Qu Gong Zhai (the Bent Arm Study.) Nevertheless, for novice practitioners their Right View seems to be limited to conceptual notions and not associated with insight born of experiences. Judging from the paths of ordinary practitioners, they do not necessarily have a completely correct view as they embark on the path. Some were motivated by traumatic events; some started practice as a way out in the face of obstacles; some were adventurous out of curiosity; some were inspired by friends and relatives; there are all sorts of causes and conditions. Then, during those years on the path of practice, there are times of diligent practice and periods of indolence; if it is only the Right View that is directing the practice, why are there periods of indolence? Besides, one's understanding of the Dharma will gain depth only after accumulation of experiences in life; in other words, the establishment and maturation of the Right View is cultivated through a life of practice. Based upon the above reflection, we may argue that the fundamental driving force of practice is the innate enlightened awareness in every sentient being. This enlightened awareness is clouded by worldly habits, influences and entanglements, but it would sometimes surface because of a variety of causes and conditions, and then one would start to practice the Dharma. If the enlightened awareness is properly protected and sustained, one's practice will not become lax or even regress, but will eventually result in its complete development, i.e., full Enlightenment. Although the above proposal lacks clear reference when compared with indicating the Right View as the self-nature of practice, it is clearly rooted in intuitive experiences. Although the innate enlightened awareness cannot be objectively described, it can explain the various phenomena that occur on the path of practice, and it is in accordance with the Dharma teaching that "the enlightened nature is innate to all sentient beings," as well as with the Dharma teaching that it is possible for sentient beings to become enlightened through observing the conditional nature of all things, i.e., intuitively comprehend the truth without first being taught the Dharma. Therefore, this proposal does have merits to serve as a valid reference.
In physics there is a particle theory and a wave theory of light, they are different and yet not contradictory; both theories are needed in order to explain fully the various phenomena of light. In the analysis of the main cause of practice, we need to consider both the Right View and the innate enlightened awareness in order to explain fully the various phenomena of practice. If the Right View is accepted as the self-nature of practice, then there is of course no "self" in the Right View; if the innate enlightened awareness is taken as the driving force of practice, then, because such awareness transcends all learned concepts, it cannot be limited by the concept of a "self." In conclusion, it means that progress in practice occurs irrespective of the existence of a "self."
According to the theory that the innate enlightened awareness is the driving force of practice, practice does not entail a "self" as the subject, it is just the awakening process of such innate enlightened awareness; attainment of Enlightenment does not entail a self, it simply means the full development of the innate enlightened awareness; salvation of sentient beings does not entail a self, it is just the awakening of dormant enlightened awareness by the ostensive display of fully developed enlightened awareness. Practicing "Non-Self" simply means giving up self-attachment in order to regain the original clarity of the mind. Being able to maintain an open perspective, let go of things, be tolerant, not compete with others, and leave causes and conditions to their natural courses would be close to practicing "Non-Self." "Non-Self" is the truth; those who act accordingly will be liberated, and those who do not will remain trapped; there is nothing to compel, nor any need to argue. Practicing "Non-Self" is merely the awakening of the innate enlightened awareness to acting and living in accordance with the truth; there is no deliberation in achieving any result, and even the salvation of beings through the spreading of the Dharma is just an activity that is necessary in accordance with the truth, hence it is not a kind of self-attachment. "Non-Self" does not require practice to realize, and there is nothing to be practiced either; the so called practicing "Non-Self" simply means to give up all sorts of self-attachment and one's grasping of a substantial "self." If a sentient being becomes aware of the presence of some self-attachment, then it is necessary to employ various methods to release it in order to refresh the innate "Non-Self." Therefore, practicing "Non-Self" is not a fool's self-entanglement, but rather a wiseman's taking appropriate medication for a diagnosed disease.
2. Reflection on the Adoption of a "Self"
Although there is indeed no self in terms of philosophy and realization, nevertheless, real-life relationships based on interests and social functions of society are all built upon this concept of a "self." Why does the Dharma not conform to the worldly ways but insist on preaching an opposite approach to life? The reason is that if we reflect on all the suffering and causes in the world, we will discover that this concept of a "self" is the basic factor of much unnecessary but strictly man-caused suffering. Adhering to "self" will necessarily yield prejudices and biases, and thereby render one incapable of treating others equally and extending one's love to all sentient beings; consequently it becomes difficult for one to learn about various skillful service to others. Nevertheless, as it is commonly understood, it is obvious that there are distinct individuals with respective needs, speech, actions, rights and responsibilities; if "Non-Self" is to be implemented thoroughly, then how should society be structured and operate? How should the lives and sustenance of individuals be protected? Should we not restrict the discussion to the distinctions and choices between right and wrong at the moral level instead of investigating further and thereby shattering the foundational concept of our social structures?
In order to understand the basic compassionate intention from which the Dharma teaches "Non-Self," one needs to recognize first the scope of saving sentient beings from suffering to happiness that are envisioned by the Dharma. The goal of the Dharma is to set all sentient beings completely free from the suffering of life and death in Samsara for all eternity. If we do not make fundamental changes and live in accordance with the reality of Non-Self, then it will be impossible to achieve this goal of ultimate liberation. If Non-Self cannot be practiced thoroughly, then any charitable activity is only a show performed in a relative situation. In other words, when one holds onto a "self" and is under the pressure of the environment, self-preservation will replace charity, and worldly interests and power will definitely rule in life. During harvest years the old and the weak may still have a share of the left-overs, but in times of famine the poor will not be able to even sustain their lives. Worldly regulations can do very little to rectify such a situation. As to the safeguard of our environment and what we might encounter, how can we maintain an upper hand over the forces of nature? No matter how hard people endeavor, there is no absolute protection of social and individual well-being. Adoption of a "self" will necessarily result in competition, confrontation, suspicion, jealousy and discord; the rule of survival of the fittest is no less applicable in the human world than in the jungles.
Pitfalls of the adoption of a "self" have been described briefly above; nevertheless, how can the sustenance and stability of the society be ensured with "Non-Self"? Even though a small number of practitioners with clear and pure Dharma insight and lofty aspiration are practicing "Non-Self" in life, nevertheless most people do not follow their examples but stick with the practices of self-centered ways. How then can the society be improved and the customs changed? Salvation of all sentient beings from Samsara for all eternity is even further away. If the self-centered ways of the society cannot be changed, what good can a few people practicing "Non-Self" bring? Therefore, it is necessary to explain the importance of practicing "Non-Self."
3. The Importance of Practicing "Non-Self"
First, I need to explain that advocating "Non-Self" is not only not contrary to the sustenance and stability of the society, but even conducive to it. Usually it would seem that if we carry out the ideal of "Non-Self," then individual rights and responsibilities would become out of the question; consequently it would either become empty rhetoric or be used by the ruling class to hypnotize the public in order to reap tangible benefits. If ordinary people sincerely practice "Non-Self," would it yield a sequence of undesirable side effects? In order to understand the root of the problem, the first priority is to recognize that the stability and sustenance of a society basically relies on mutual trust and good nature of its constituent members. All rules and regulations are very limited in function; they are either so complicated that only professionals can understand them or dependent on the interpretation and implementation of the enforcer for their applications. If everyone sets their priority on reinforcing their self-attachment and taking care of their own interests, then all rules and regulations are merely cosmetics for the cruel scenes of survival of the fittest. If, however, there is a consensus in the society that it is important to practice "Non-Self," then an atmosphere of harmony, happiness, mutual help and understanding will naturally prevail. Only with the practice of "Non-Self" can people really understand and care for one another, as well as realize the common fate of being a sentient being subject to the suffering of birth, aging, sickness and death. Besides, whether or not one can enjoy real peace and happiness in life also relies on practicing Non-Self and benefiting others. This point is much more important and fundamental than calculating gains and losses in the material world.
The next point is to explain the necessity of practicing "Non-Self." If we give up practicing "Non-Self" because such practitioners are rare, while "practitioners" of self-centeredness are abundant, then not only would society become more profit-oriented and unstable but also each one of us would never enjoy a moment of spiritual peace and joy. However, if one can endure the difficulty of staying above the flood of self-attachment in this impure world and practice service of the great compassion of the common entity born of "Non-Self," then it would become possible for one not only to influence people's minds and customs through devoted and enduring service but also to develop fully one's potential for life; even attain the summit of supreme Enlightenment and transcend the ocean of suffering of samsaric life and death. Practicing "Non-Self" is not only related to an individual's awakening and value of life, but also closely related to the ultimate salvation of all sentient beings; hence, it is not only something that we should not speak lightly about giving it up, but also the great path that all those who want to save all beings from suffering should tread.The practice of "Non-Self" is very difficult to grasp and its effect cannot be seen right away, therefore most people give only their verbal approval without being able to practice it thoroughly. Nonetheless, in order to transcend the supreme suffering of samsaric life and death, and to provide service to all beings on the path to Enlightenment, one needs to proceed through this Dharma course. Although practicing tolerance and practicing "Non-Self" are referred to above as different approaches with the same result, upon closer examination one sees that they are indeed two sides of the same coin, and that they complement each other without a clear boundary. Practicing "Non-Self" not only enables one to become liberated from the self-imposed limitations of selfishness and to enjoy a broadminded and peaceful life, but also enables one to learn various skillful means to thoroughly help save others. This practice would yield results only after a long period of selfless dedication to Dharma service, but its effects could benefit a wide spectrum of sentient beings in the ten direction and three times (past, present and future). As there is no way out of the samsaric suffering for all eternity without properly adopting this practice, if we are to make a wise choice, then there is only one way which is to put "Non-Self" to practice.