September 30, 2014

The Comedy of the Ego

Among the great questions.... Who are we? Why are we here? and What purpose do we serve? Perhaps we should also ask, Why do we suffer? and, What can we do?

Why do we Suffer?

Listening to late night radio back in my twenties, I heard an English Buddhist monk tell a story of how he travelled all over the world conducting dharma talks and teaching meditation. He had a small enclave to assist him and seemed satisfied with his lifestyle.

There are too many intellectuals in the world
Who've studied far and wide and know a lot of things
But they don't know their own original nature
And thus are wandering far from the way
Even if they explain reality in great detail
Of what avail are those empty formulae?
If in one minute you remember your essential nature
The Buddha's insight opens up to you.


-- Han Shan, Poems from Cold Mountain


screamingface3inAmong the great questions.... Who are we? Why are we here? and What purpose do we serve? Perhaps we should also ask, Why do we suffer? and, What can we do?

Why do we Suffer?

Listening to late night radio back in my twenties, I heard an English Buddhist monk tell a story of how he travelled all over the world conducting dharma talks and teaching meditation. He had a small enclave to assist him and seemed satisfied with his lifestyle. As time went by he developed a craving for English style chips (fries). He had grown up with this favourite food and eventually developed a longing for it. Eventually after experiencing what only could be described as "deprivation from his beloved chips," his travels took him back to his homeland where he knew exactly where to find these favourite samplings. More and more teaching engagements moved him further away from his conquest, until one day he had to admit liability and descended into despair.

Just then, one of his enclave (acting with compassion) said "I know a place not eighteen miles from here where the chips are quite lovely". The crew somehow obtained a car and together they headed straight for the chip embellished village. Along the way, the monk began to worry that he would be late for his next dharma talk, and noticed that he hadn't left enough time to complete this round trip folly. The craving for chips became stronger and stronger until he pursued his beloved chips into the gates of insanity and despair. They arrived at the café, ordered their manifested desire and stayed almost completely present as they gastronomically field-tested these wonderful gourmet delicacies.

"These chips are soggy and horrible!" said the monk. "Who brought us here?" his voice now with a hint of infuriation as his whole chip adventure had proved less than satisfactory. "Lets quickly head back to the dharma hall and conduct the talks!" So the monk and his disillusioned enclave, headed back the eighteen miles only to arrive back at the sangha twenty minutes late. The monk sat down in his designated position, faced the audience and said: "welcome everyone, today I would like to talk about suffering."


Suffering arises in many forms and is largely entrenched in the realm of victim-hood. The story of suffering would take volumes to do the topic justice. Yet to take on this hurclean task would do nothing to not serve the greater good -- to help release people from suffering. The Buddha said that we suffer because our lives are often painful and unsatisfactory. Birth, death and sickness all come with some element of suffering. We suffer because of things we don't like and we also suffer because of the absence of things that we do like. All this can be quite a dilemma. In this world we live with two tragedies. The exact outcome of getting what we want can also eventually lead to something that we don't want. Australian country singer Melinda Schnieder comically entertains this prospect in her immortal lyrics about marriage: "Engagement ring, wedding ring, then comes the suffer ring."

If we were to make some attempt to simplify the recognition of our day to day suffering, then perhaps we could divide the root causes into two main categories: conflict within one's self, and conflict with others. The two are really interchangeable. Conflict with ones self, arises in a belief that we are separate or shut off from "the absolute" or we feel we are "not good enough" against some unrealistic measurement we have ourselves created. This holds true for the practice of grasping, or attachments or an imbalance of desire.

Generally most of us seem to be heavily involved with our ego, which is basically every conceptual thought and perception we have about mental structures and "conjured up" comparisons. To this end we are not human beings but human doings. We try to think our way into good living, rather than live our way into good thinking.

To momentarily imagine that the ego is a separate entity, one could conclude that the ego just loves to measure its forms and structures with the egos of others'. It is then free to feel either inferior or superior. Once this judgment has been made, there is plenty of room for celebration or commiseration. My musical piece is far more spiritual than that person's. Conversely, I wish I could write music like Lucy, then I would definitely be recognised. John, can you write spiritual music like Lucy? John's answer: No, compared to Lucy I'm a spiritual dud.

In this type of monolog and dialog, interior or exterior, we are judging our capabilities against some identity we have invented, and the effect is to create internal misery. In other words we have entered the realm of duality using the internal "subjective" and the external "objective" as extremes, just to master the art of internal havoc. Our finger is now resting on "the judgment button" of the polarised "objective" in our quest for downward spiraling.

When we are in conflict with others we may also enter a realm of resentment and self pity. To be able to achieve this feeling we needed to have run-the-gauntlet on either inferiority or superiority. In other words, our inner conflict is the result of something we perceive that the other person said or did. However if someone else mounts some sort of attack on us, it is because their ego has run amok. They are running with a comparison over what they perceive we have done, or what we stand for. In these cases, if the attacker is in any way "conscious" they may feel the duality of superiority and even immaturity. This is all just another comical form of self degradation.

From the perspective of the receiver, they may feel victimised and wish to blame the attacker; however, its highly likely that some "emotional baggage" must have been available within the receiver for this to be triggered.

A close friend of mine will often entertain me with his nuances of the ego and its ability to cause mayhem and upheaval. He once explained that he would like to "rip his own head off and slap it about saying shut up! shut up!" One of my personal favourites is, "Our heads are out to get us!"

So what can we do?

There is nothing to be taught, nothing to be transmitted. Its just a matter of seeing one's own nature.

-- Huineng, the Sixth Patriach of Chan

Its ironic that the same ego we used to get us into this inferior/superior mess, can also be used to get us out. The Buddha, had to realise for himself that to alleviate one's suffering, and the suffering of others', then radical steps were necessary. To overcome this suffering phenomena, we were blessed with the powerfully written original texts and cannon. But The Buddha also emphasized that any 'spiritual method' is only a "raft that may take us to the 'other shore' of enlightenment." Once we arrive, "we must leave the raft behind" to continue our journey.

When most of us approach a path of spiritual training, we do so generally because we wish to find answers to some of life's tough questions, just like the ones asked at the beginning of this essay. If we are willing to undergo some time and effort in a discipline as demanding as Ch'an, then we require as much effort as we can muster. It also warrants that we are willing to go beyond any intellectual answer. While the quest maybe to find a solution, a practice of meditation and innocent inquiry, will begin to dissolve the deepest of anxieties that are associated with the "big questions," and we can come to realise that the essence of Ch'an is not some sort of memory test.

At stake, is the chronic and temporary grasping and unrealistic desire within our hearts and minds, but this dissolves quickly, as we begin to experience the joy of breathing freely, and abandoning ourselves to life in all its delight and pain. From here we can finally make peace with the illusory nature of life and death.

For those of us in regular meditation or other elements of Ch'an practice, we are offered a view of the world in the realm of our true nature and stillness, our space of boundless awareness. In this wonderful spaciousness we realise that an identity with ego serves no purpose as it passes away into futility. Identities such as "father," "daughter," "brother," or even "landscape gardener" or "accountant," all appear empty as we tap into our home of the "unborn." To this end we also realise that we are not "our car," "our boat" or "our plazma television."

Our authentic self is our true nature and is beyond all labels! Master Linji said that trying to pin a label on any part of our true nature is like "trying to drive a nail into the empty sky."

Within our own nature we can allow the duality of the internal "subjective" and the external "objective" to dissolve into "the homogeneous" and "the unanimous". We may only remember the faintest of sound, as the noises of the world and our own true nature become one, and suffering becomes a remnant of a thought we once knew.