Friday, October 30, 2009

Attavagga: Self

Self is one of those concepts in Buddhism that at times strikes me as a paradox. On the one hand, the Buddha taught that there is no real or true self, because we are constantly changing. So there is no static self you can point to and say, “That is me!”

Yet we all recognize, if perhaps unspoken, that we have something that can best be described as uniquely us, which we universally call “self.” There is an “I” identity, and for many of us and for a long time, it was a comfortable and automatic notion.

Then the Buddha shook my world. “I am not my body, I am not my mind, I am not my perceptions, I am not my consciousness, I am not my feelings: then what the hell am I?”

What really kills me is that other people have their own sense of who “I” am. And the Buddha recognized this, as many of his teachings are about how we are “defined” by our actions and by the company we keep. You see it in the Dhammapada as well, verses about how the wise behave and avoid association with fools, etc. And that’s partly what Chapter 12 is about.

With the Attavagga, the Buddha is treating the self as something real as well as something that needs protecting and nurturing. Because whatever the self is not, it does do things, and one of those things is create kamma. And creating kamma is what binds us to the endless cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth, etc.

“If you hold yourself dear
then guard, guard yourself well.
The wise person would stay awake
nursing himself
in any of the three watches of the night,
the three stages of life.”

We all hold ourselves dear, right? But it’s so easy just to cruise along and not pay attention. As a result, we are often careless and wind up doing things that are harmful to us. But regardless which of the “three watches of the night” we finally wake up – in youth, middle age, or old age – it’s not too late to properly nurse oneself and develop wisdom.

he’d settle himself
in what is correct,
only then
teach others.
He wouldn’t stain his name
: he is wise.

If you’d mold yourself
the way you teach others,
then, well-trained,
go ahead & tame —
for, as they say,
what’s hard to tame is you

The Theravada tradition often gets knocked because it is “selfish,” because of a perception that it is focused entirely on the self. To some extent, this is perhaps true, it is a selfish practice, but not in a negative sense. As the verses above describe, I am of no use in helping anyone else if I haven’t got my own shit together. I’m not going to be a bodhisattva and help all other sentient beings if I can’t even control my own squirrely mind. I mean, think about it, even in the Mahayana tradition, when practicing loving kindness, where do you start? With yourself!

Skipping a few verses:

“They’re easy to do —
things of no good
& no use to yourself.
What’s truly useful & good
is truly harder than hard to do.”

It is so hard for me to control my anger when I’m driving it’s pathetic. I know that anger is bad for me for so many reasons that I can’t count. But besides giving me headaches, making me tense, raising my blood pressure, leading me to use abusive language and to become distracted, when I become angry I am surrendering myself to the whims of the world, I am relinquishing control.

And most importantly, I am continuing to create kamma. And it’s kamma I don’t want.

“Evil is done by oneself

by oneself is one defiled.
Evil is left undone by oneself

by oneself is one cleansed.
Purity & impurity are one’s own doing.
No one purifies another.
No other purifies one.”

Next to the opening verses in the first chapter of the Dhammapada (which are posted at the top right of my blog), these verses are my next favorite. This is so important for me to remember. Only I can defile myself, no one does it to me. And only I can cleanse and purify myself. It’s not done by some deity or deva or saint or witch doctor or whatever. Only I can cleanse myself of the clutter I’ve accumulated through all my pasts, and I start by paying attention to what I am doing right now.

If I may use a baseball metaphor, in some ways I am like the home run hitter. I can bang that ball out of the park, do something spectacular that really elevates my practice, or say something that is really insightful. But like the home run hitter, I am very inconsistent. More often than not, when I step to the plate called life, I swing and miss. I need to stop being the home run hitter with the .210 batting average, and be the consistent base runner who hits .325.

“Don’t sacrifice your own welfare
for that of another,
no matter how great.
Realizing your own true welfare,
be intent on just that.”

I want to thank all my readers who I don’t know, and my followers who I do (sort of), as I plod my way through this project. I’m learning a lot about myself as I do this. Nothing remarkable or earth-shattering, but important nonetheless.


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