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Lions Roar : January 2005
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2005 19 IMAGINE YOU ARE WALKING inthe woods at dusk at the end of a summer’s day. Suddenly you see a shape on the ground just ahead of you—it’s a snake! You’re scared, but as you stand there stock-still, you begin to notice that the snake is not moving. Tentatively, you bend closer. It’s not a snake after all. It’s just an old piece of striped rope. After a chuckle at your mistake, and with a sense of relief, you move on. On one hand, this is just a little story. But on the other, it’s a metaphor for one of Buddhism’s most profound insights into the human condition. This story of the snake and the rope is a classic Buddhist illustration of what our belief in a solid, unchanging self, or ego, is like. Just as we fail to see the true nature of the “snake,” we fail to see the true nature of the “self.” Believing it to be real, we cling to the self and are con- stantly wracked by hope, fear and anxi- ety. When we realize the “snake” is just a rope, we relax. In the same way, as soon as we recognize the self doesn’t really exist, we stop clinging to it. Our fear and anxiety evaporate. Here’s another illustration that may be closer to our everyday life. Think about going to the movies. If the movie is good, we get totally engrossed. We completely lose track of the fact that we are sitting in a movie theater watching light projected on a screen—we think we are looking at real people and places. If the story gets scary, we feel fear. Unless we remind ourselves, “This is only a movie,” the fear can get out of hand. But reminding ourselves that we are watching a movie only works for a few minutes, and then we’re sucked back in again. It’s only when the credits roll and the lights come up that the illusion ends. It’s the same as the rope and the snake: when we don’t know the true nature of our experience, we are frightened; when we recog- nize the way things really are, the fear dissolves. What if our movie is a comedy? In that case, the illusion can make us happy for a little while, but the happiness too dissolves when the illusion ends. Because we take “I” and “mine” as real—as permanent, ongoing entities with their own core or essence—we ride an emotional rollercoaster, con- stantly tossed about by hope and fear; passion, aggression and ignorance, jeal- ousy, hatred and all the other emotions. This is the understanding the Buddha arrived at when he sat so patiently under the Bodhi Tree: he saw the diffi- culty and suffering caused by believing in a solid self, and how freedom comes from seeing through the illusion. Of course, a few analogies will not suf- fice to convince us that this seemingly solid self is an illusion and the source of all our difficulties. We need to look into the situation carefully and arrive at our own conclusions. We need to investigate whether we exist in the way we think we do, or not. We need to look into this “self ” and examine it carefully, as if we were students in a biology lab looking at a specimen under the microscope. Before we can begin to see what the self actually is, we need to take a closer look at the way the self appears. Consider the fact that sometimes we say, “I am sick,” and at other times we say, “I have a headache.” In the first case, it seems that the self itself is ill. In the second, the self and the head seem to be two different things, with the self possessing the head. Sometimes we even say, “I was not myself the other day,” as if I and the self were two different things. So this is the first thing to note: while it seems obvious that there is such a thing as the self, when we try to pin it down, the whole thing becomes elusive and vague. Sometimes it seems to be one thing, sometimes another. Look carefully and see if you can find one unchanging thing that is your “self.” What else can we say about “I”? This word must refer to some- thing, but to what? The Buddhist tradition says there are four characteristics of what we call the self: it appears to be one thing, it appears to be independent, it appears to be lasting, and it appears to be important. The first characteristic is often called singularity, meaning that we feel the self is a single thing, not multiple things. Except per- A N D Y K A R R has studied the Buddhist view with Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche and is writing a book entitled Contemplating Reality: A Practitioner’s Guide to Teachings on Egolessness. Selflessness 101 The heart of Buddhist philosophy is its famed doctrine of emptiness—that all beings and phenomena are empty of inherent self or essence. It’s not an easy view to accept—it contradicts everything we normally perceive and believe—so it is taught through carefully constructed reasonings, analogies and meditations. A N DY KA R R offers some of the key arguments. PAINTINGBYTONYMATTHEWS