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


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2. What You Possess

The second way to understand "no self" is to look at what you possess. Practically, for many people, what you possess seems to define who you are. Whether you are rich, whether you have a big house, a Mercedes or BMW; what clothes you wear, what you have achieved; what's your status, fame, wealth, power; is your girlfriend pretty? All of what you possess come to be part of you; they come to be part of what people think of you and what you think of yourself. Now, how real is that?

Take wealth. It is an illusion. You don't really possess it. Guess what? Five groups possess your money. Who are they? First, it's your government, the IRS; in ancient times, the king or the emperor—they could take anything they wanted from the people. So, your government has a hold on your money. Second, natural disasters: earthquakes, fire, floods; when they come, there's nothing you can do about it. We had a big earthquake four years ago in Taiwan, the biggest one in 50 years, and many were devastated. I was in the town of Puli, the epicenter; that's also where our monastery was. Entire villages were destroyed. So do you really possess the house? The money? You don't. It's an illusion that you actually possess it. And the third group is thieves, robbers. When they take things away, the chances of recovery are slim. The fourth is doctors. People get sick. No matter how much money you have, you're willing to give it to the doctor, just so that you can stay alive, wouldn't you? The fifth group is your children. Be careful, if you cheat someone of a million dollars and run away, when that person dies, he may be reborn as your child. Then you willingly give everything to him, right? At least Chinese parents would do that.

In America we have a sixth group that has hold of your money, the lawyers. Now, seriously, who really possesses your money? You don't possess it. You possess the temporary right to use it. So make good use of it. Don't bring it to your grave, for then it becomes useless. Money is only money when you spend it in the right way. Are rich people happy? Are the richest people the happiest people? No. Is the poorest person the unhappiest person? No. There was a poem written by a Chan Master. (In China we call it Chan, in Japan it is called Zen.) This Chan Master lived on top of a cliff where he built a little hut. It was not a very good hut and it leaked. One night there was a storm. The next morning he wrote the following poem to commemorate that event:

On top of this thousand-foot cliff sits a hut
Which this old monk shares with the clouds.

Literally he said, 'This old monk lives in half of it, the clouds live in half of it' (the hut). "This old monk" is himself. What a way to look at your house. You share it with the clouds, with nature. What's inside is outside….

Last night a storm chased away the clouds.
Ah, even clouds are not as free as this old monk.

Isn't that wonderful?

Now think about it, if you were on top of that cliff and there was a storm and your house leaked, how would you feel? You would be cold and wet and cursing. Perhaps thinking about suing somebody. You wouldn't write a poem like that. Why are the reactions so different? It's because the Chan Master has a different perspective, on wealth, on possessions, on what is important. Maybe inner peace is more important. Maybe contentment is the biggest wealth.

Many people want fame, but are the most famous people happy? Usually they are not. Usually they are the unhappiest. Fame can destroy you. That is not to say that fame is not good or wealth is not good. Buddha was very famous in his lifetime, but he had no problem with that. It's not having fame or wealth, it's not the lack of fame or lack of wealth either; it's how you deal with life's different situations. Do you have the wisdom to live with them when you have them, and let go when they are gone? Non-attachment. When your wealth or fame is gone, can you be just as happy?

Buddha was a prince. He had everything, and he gave up all of it. Then he became the Enlightened One; he had ten thousand disciples and kings and queens prostrating to him. He had everything again. He could live with it, and he could live without it. What's the difference? The difference lies within. It's your mind; it's your perspective. If your self identity, your meaning, and your self-worth depended on what you possess, you'll never be happy. So that's another way of understanding that there is no self. There is no person who owns anything. What do you have? You don't have anything. You came into this world with nothing, and you leave this world with nothing. Everything is just in passing. Don't fool yourself into thinking that you actually have something. So then there is no need to be miserable when you lose something. You have nothing. But you do have the good karma, the blessing, to use these things for a while. Take your car, for example—don't curse when it breaks down, because when you bought it, you knew it would break down someday. When you buy the car, you also buy the death of the car, isn't that right? So, when you understand this, you are freer. You are one step closer to liberation.

3. Being in Control


Third, we can look at "no self" from the perspective of control. Buddhism examines the concept of "self" and characterizes it to mean the following: being in control, being able to possess something, and having an intrinsic, unchanging, independent existence (which we will discuss next). We all believe that this body is ours. It's me; it's mine. But do you have complete control of it? No. If not, how can you call it your body? You grow old, you get sick, you die; there's not much you can do about that. Everybody loses the physical body—what we call death. And it could be tomorrow. I'm not trying to depress you or curse you; it's a fact, isn't it? Buddhists are not pessimists, just realists.

Buddha once asked his disciples, "How long do you think you will live?" The first disciple thought, "I'm young, I'm healthy, I probably will live for 50 years, but I'll be conservative, I'll just say five years." To this Buddha replied, "You don't know life." The second disciple said, "Five years we cannot be sure of, but surely I can make it through today." Buddha said, "You don't know life." The third disciple said, "Surely I'll live to finish this meal." Buddha said, "you don't know life." And the fourth disciple said, "I'm taking this breath, but I don't know if I can take the next breath." Buddha said, "You know life."

If you don't know about your own life how can you say you know yourself? Actually, it's not that depressing, trust me, to know that you don't have much control of your body beyond this current breath. Why? If you know that life can end at any time, you won't waste time on computer games, gossiping, or getting drunk. You can now live fully, moment to moment.

You are not in control—at least not currently, as a mortal being. You are not in control of your aging and death. Not being in control is not the real problem; to not accept this fact is what leads to suffering. The election is over, one half of the people are happy, and the other half are really upset. If you are upset, what can you do? Nothing, if you want to stay upset. You have to accept the results. Are we hopeless? No. To change things we need to understand causality—cause and consequence. This is one of the fundamental principles in Buddhism. There is a causal relationship among all things that happen. In fact, that's what science is based on—causality. If you do scientific experiments, each with the same setup and the same conditions, you'll get the same results. That's repeatability and verifiability. However, it works not only in physical phenomena, but also in mental, spiritual phenomena. What are the causal relationships involving happiness and suffering? Suffering and happiness are consequences. To be happy, we need to understand the cause of happiness. To avoid suffering, we need to understand the cause of suffering. If you want to live a long life, you need to understand what it takes to have a long life. For example, Buddha teaches that to avoid poor health or a shortened lifespan or accidental death, we should avoid killing. When you take life away from others, causality dictates that your life will be taken away. If you want to be rich, what do you do? Besides working hard and not being wasteful, you need to give, and create good karma with people. When you give, the blessing will come back to you. You can take your time to verify these yourself. The point is, we are responsible for our fate, and we can do much to change it, but we have to work from the cause, and not just complain about the results.

A few weeks ago in Colorado, within two weeks, two college students, a freshman and a sophomore, went to fraternity parties and got so drunk that they died from overdrinking. The freshman girl actually drank the equivalent of some 40 beers. And so, understandably, the Colorado school board is very concerned. Two student deaths in two weeks from drinking. What do you do about it? They are talking about forbidding alcohol in fraternity parties. We have many college students here, you should know, is that going to work? No. When I was in college, in every fridge in every dorm, there was plenty of beer. Same thing here, right? They are 18, 19 or 20 years old, freshmen, sophomores, juniors, they're underage; but it's a fact that you can get access to alcohol easily on just about every college campus. So these rules won't really work. We need to look at the cause. What is the cause? When I went to Caltech, I was surprised to find students who used drugs. They're top students in the nation; why do they do that? A few months later, I understood why. Pressure. You at Stanford should understand that well. There's so much pressure. School is hard, and week after week after week, you are given so much homework, and each homework assignment is so hard. I used spend all of Saturday and Sunday just to finish three or four math problems. So it's the pressure, but students don't know how to relieve the pressure. In our freshmen class at Caltech there was one very smart girl, who was hooked on computer games. How smart was she? The homework that would take me a whole week to finish, she could finish all in two evenings. All the other times, she was in the computing center. In those days, there were no fancy graphic games like what we have now, just ASCII characters on CRT screens, Rogue. Anyone remember that game, Rogue? It's way before your generation. So she played that computer game day and night. After two quarters she flunked out. A real shame. But it is cause and effect. How do you relieve the pressure? It's a serious problem in colleges, especially good colleges. I seriously think all the universities should have meditation classes. Learn how to be calm, learn that you can deal with anxiety and pressure if you discover the joy of inner peace. Alcohol or drugs—they are ways to drown you, to numb you. They don't solve the problem. If you learn how to be calm and clear-minded, to attain that inner peace, then you can deal with all kinds of pressure. These are our brightest students. We need to do something about these problems.

So, what can you control, what can you not control? You do have control to a certain degree. You can always affect your fate. Your fate depends on your own karma, your own actions, your own deeds. If you put in the right cause, you will be closer to the right results. You need to understand what cause leads to what consequence. Meditation is important to help you deal with stress, pressure, and fear by gaining control of your thought patterns. We get into this vicious thought cycle. The homework's hard! Life is hard! Stress! The more you stress the harder life gets. It's like when you try to speak in public and get nervous; the more nervous you get, the less well you speak, and the more nervous you get. It's a vicious cycle. By the time you've given a hundred speeches, then you can deal with it like a breeze. What's the difference? The difference is that you don't get trapped in that vicious thought cycle anymore. You can snap out of it. You can always do that. You can always snap out of that stress cycle. The thought pattern is a habit. How to reduce stress, how to overcome stress completely, that's another topic. We do not have complete control of our body or mind, so this "self" is illusive.

4. Illusion of Individuality

The fourth way, probably the most difficult way to understand "no self" is this illusion of individuality. I, me, myself—Of course I'm an individual, right? But in what sense? In what sense are you an individual? Is your body yours? What kind of question is that?

It's a serious question. Did you eat lunch today? Yes, that veggie sandwich you ate, or whatever you had on the lunch table, is it your body? Is it? (No.) But when you swallowed it, was it your body? Was it? So, is that sandwich your body or not your body? You continuously take the outside world into your body, and what is "inside" continuously goes out. Your body flows in and out. Well, which is your body? Is a tree your body? Are the leaves your body? No, but the leaves give off oxygen, and you breathe it in. The oxygen combines with your blood cells and goes to your brain, and that's why you can do your homework. That tree becomes part of you. It becomes part of your intelligence. But where does the tree come from? From the sunshine, so the sun is part of you; from the earth, so the earth is part of you. I breathe out carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is absorbed by the tree. So you are in the tree. Your atoms are probably the same atoms that were on the bodies of the Buddha, or Confucius, or Jesus.

Who is this "you"? Who is not "you"? What is not "you"? What is the boundary of your individuality? Your personality is shaped by how your parents raise you, what you read, what your professors teach you, and how people think of you. Which is your original thought? Is there an original thought? So, your body, your personality, your ideas, your mind—which one is individually yours? That's kind of scary isn't' it? No, it's not scary; that is just a fact. Having understood this, you haven't lost anything, you haven't gained anything, right? You still have the same body, it's just that it's not yours, that's all. In fact, the person sitting next to you—you're probably breathing into her, and she's breathing into you. So, you're in her and she's in you; that means you're brothers and sisters, like family. We are family, in a very real sense of the word. My body is in your body, your body is in my body; we just temporarily have this flesh. This flesh perishes and regenerates, this goes on continuously; it gets absorbed back into the environment and goes into other animals. Animals are your brothers and sisters. So, when you hurt other beings, you are hurting your own brother or sister.


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