The Discovery of Egolessness

Written by David Nichtern

“The entire Buddhist path is based on the discovery of egolessness and the maturing of insight or knowledge that comes from egolessness.”

— Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Journey Without Goal

I have heard many times from students and spiritual practitioners of all kinds, shapes and sizes, that if they could only “get rid of their ego,” then they could have some peace and taste enlightenment. There are also many “self-help” teachings and gurus who are promoting techniques to “strengthen” the ego — to ripen and develop one’s sense of power, accomplishment and tangible assets — make you skinnier, more assertive, richer, happier, etc. etc. etc.

But the approaches of getting rid of OR strengthening the ego may both share a similar delusion: that it actually exists in some solid and fixed way in the first place.

According to the Buddhist teachings, the fundamental mistake we make (which causes all kinds of trouble and suffering) is the assumption that we exist as a permanent, unified, independent being. What causes our most fundamental suffering and anxiety is that we are ignorant of the true nature of our existence. Because of our assumption, we cannot fully understand or relate to impermanence (including our own) and the interdependence of all phenomena.

Just like the king of a sand castle, from ego’s limited point of view, we tend to freeze the world and categorize it’s inhabitants as friends (who support our campaign), enemies (who threaten our campaign) and neutral people (who do neither).

In contrast to our habitual role as Lord of the Sand Castle, the essence of Buddhist practice is to open our mind and perceptions to the dynamic, fluid and continuously morphing quality of our world and ourselves.

Egolessness is not a product of our effort — it is a discovery. We look and look and cannot find a solid self anywhere. We can look at our name, our body, our mind, our experience and nowhere in there can we find a single thing that is not subject to change. Try it and see what you come up with.

As Lord of the Sand Castle, there is tremendous energy and work that goes into creating that structure and inevitably a certain attachment to the forms and shapes it develops. But from the ocean’s point of view, it is a temporary structure, very relative in nature. In this analogy the ocean represents a larger, more encompassing reality — one wave from the ocean and the sand castle is dramatically altered, several big ones and it is gone completely.

As an intriguing contrast, we have the sand mandala of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Highly trained monks take several weeks to construct an exquisitely detailed arrangement using colored sand — a symbolic portrait of the entire universe. After certain rituals are performed, the mandala is dissembled with an equal amount of care and mindfulness.

Probably in Western traditions, the mandala would be lacquered and put in a museum. But the creation of a sand mandala, while vividly portraying the dynamic energy and elements of our world, is, at the same time, demonstrating impermanence and illuminating the space that always surrounds, penetrates and ultimately dissolves all forms.

It sometimes happens that the initial discovery of egolessness can lead to a nihilistic view of things — emptiness being seen as the absence of anything substantial — nowhere to hang our hat, nobody home, “nothing to get hung about” in the words of the Beatles. Why bother to build or create anything if it will be gone sooner than later?

But penetrating into the actual exerience of egolessness further, it seems that we can discover a world that is open, highly communicative, energetic and without beginning or end — our energy can shift from defending a sand castle to exploring a vast, profound and magical world. We can create our own vivid, fully present, ornate sand mandala without clinging to its form as if it will last forever.



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