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
Ah, even clouds are not as free as this
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,
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"
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
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,
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.