FROM "NO SELF" TO LIBERATION

THE PARADOXICAL WISDOM OF EMPTINESS

Edited from a lecture given by Venerable JianHu

in the "Buddhism In The Modern World" Lecture Series

at Stanford University, November 22, 2004


Page 2

The Meaning of Liberation

First of all, just like in science and philosophy, we need to define our terms. What do we mean by liberation? Liberation can mean many things to different people; but what does Buddha mean by liberation? Well, liberation can have meanings on many different levels. Being free from your pain, your miseries; being free from anxiety, stress, fear, and anger—that is liberation. Understanding "no self"—that is liberation. To put it differently, being able to understand why you're here, who you are, what you're doing. Being able to get rid of the confusion about our purpose, to awaken from the illusion that we're living in—that is also liberation.

What is birth? What is life? What is death? We don't know. We all face death and we don’t know death, that's why we are fearful. Does anything happen after death? If you don't understand death and what happens after death, then what is the point of all your accomplishments? So, understanding life and death, even being able to transcend life and death—that is liberation. Attaining nirvana, being able to achieve the ultimate bliss—that is liberation. So the Dharma (the Buddhist teachings) can help us understand that. And the key thing in all of this is the concept of “self.” Basically, the issue is being able to understand your own mind.

There are many different kinds of knowledge in the world. I was a science person. Scientists spend a lot of time, all of their time, studying the world that we live in. And we have come to some probable truths or we're getting really close to some underlying law of nature. Well, just like a scientist, Buddha also wanted to understand everything, but then he went in a totally different direction—the inward direction. He realized that the world that we perceive and the knowledge, the language, the concepts, and everything that we do to each other, all come from the mind, all come from our thoughts. So, if you don't understand your own mind and your own thoughts, you never get the whole picture. It's like studying a tree. You could study the leaves—there are tens of thousands of leaves—you need to study the branches, trunk, and the roots. But if you study the seed and you completely understand the seed, then you can understand the whole tree. Similarly, the mind is the seed of all knowledge, all truth, all things. Therefore Buddha probed inward. Trying to study your own mind with your own mind. That's really hard. That's why meditation methods are important; they are ways to teach your mind to be so focused, so concentrated, so clear, so refined that you can actually analyze and study yourself. So when Buddha studied himself, he said, "There is no self." When you understand this, when you're awakened to this, then you can get enlightened. So, let us talk about "no self."

The Meaning of "No Self"

Most of us have mistaken conceptions of who we really are. To show our delusions of the "self," Buddha talks about "no self." To understand "no self" or "selflessness" is to be liberated. Another way to say it is to "discover one's true nature."

Who are you? Does anyone of you know yourself completely? It is a fact that there's so much about ourselves that we don't know. If you know yourself, if you know your mind, why do you do the things you know you shouldn't do? Why do you overindulge in chocolate or coffee? Why do you get angry when you know you shouldn't? Obviously there is something at work behind your conscious mind, which you're not perfectly clear about. We have many ideas of who we are but we really know very little. Let us try to understand what is not the self.

1. What People Think of You

I will talk about the meaning of "no self" in four ways. First of all, how do people look at you and what do they think of you? How people view you comes to be a large part of your perception of yourself. Ever since you were little, your parents had certain ideas about you, and called you certain names. They said you were this and that and this way and that way. As you grow up, your friends, teachers, and associates all think of you in various differing ways. So how people view you is a big part of your self image. Some people are considered beautiful, some are considered ugly. Some are considered nice, some are considered rude. And we get angry and miserable when people call us ugly, or dumb. Should we?

I grew up in Taiwan. I was a very skinny kid, with dark skin; so, many kids teased me in school. "Did your mom feed you soy sauce instead of milk?" I wasn't happy about that. And then one day in class we learned that there are people of different colors—white people, black people, yellow, red, and brown people—and then they started calling me "Skinny Brownie." Ah, childhood trauma? And then when I was a teenager I moved to the United States and found out that things were different here. Guys would come up to me and say, "Hey dude, where did you get that cool tan?" What tan?! I was born with it! And girls would come up to me and say, "What's the secret of your diet? How did you ever get so slim?" What diet? I just couldn't put on any weight. And they actually envied me. A very different culture! So, if you're worried about not having a tan, being very pale, go to Taiwan, they'll worship you.

So, the idea of what is pretty, what is ugly, what is cool, what is nerdy … really has no standards. One way to understand "no self" is that other people's perceptions of you do not decide who you are. It's relative. You may know this already, yet it affects you everyday. What some people call you, what other people think of you, can make you upset or happy, ecstatic or very depressed. But it doesn't have to be that way, because the self is empty. The self that other people see in you is empty. That's what Buddha means when he says "no self"; he means that your understanding of yourself, your self image, this ego-personality, is a false self; it is not real; it is a composite of many different things, and things change. If you go to Taiwan, they think of you in one way; you go to America, they think of you another way; you go to Europe, they think of you in yet another way. Well, which one is the real you? Are you ugly, are you dumb, are you beautiful, are you smart? In high school, I won an award for being the best in math, so I got into Caltech in Pasadena, and the first math test I took, I flunked it. There you go. The number one math person in high school, and now flunking a math test. So what am I? Am I stupid or am I smart? Probably many Stanford students have had a similar experience. You were the best student at your high school; you came here, and everyone else was just as smart, if not smarter. It's a shock. Does your rating in class add anything to you or take away anything from you? It is not an integral part of you, is it? Because your performance, your appearance, and judgments about you, will change. They are impermanent (e.g. I got better in math). Yet what people think of you is a very large part of who you think you are. Now that's a "self," a self that is dependent on other people's opinions. Therefore this self is an illusion, but it can seem so real. And it can hurt. Well, if others’ opinions are useful to you, then use them; if they are not, throw them away. There is no fixed self and you're free to change that. That's the first way we can understand "no self."


1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5



  Contact Us | Home | Chung Tai Chan Monastery Oversea Centers


CopyrightChung Tai Zen Center of Sunnyvale All Rights Reserved