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
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
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."