Zen and The Ego

zen circle 8

“For the ego exists in an abstract sense alone, being an abstraction from memory, somewhat like the illusory circle of fire made by a whirling torch.”

In this excerpt, Alan Watts describes more in detail two terms that are of basic importance to a clear understanding of the Buddhist view of existence: the precepts of “impermanence” (anitya) and “no-Self” (anatman), that some of you may be familiar with.

“The anitya doctrine is, again, not quite the simple assertion that the world is impermanent, but rather that the more one grasps at the world, the more it changes. Reality in itself is neither permanent nor impermanent; it cannot be categorized. But when one tries to hold on to it, change is everywhere apparent, since, like one’s own shadow, the faster one pursues it, the faster it flees.

In the same way, the anatman doctrine is not quite the bald assertion that there is no real Self (atman) at the basis of our consciousness. The point is rather that there is no Self, or basic reality, which may be grasped, either by direct experience or by concepts. Apparently the Buddha felt that the doctrine of the atman in the Upanishads lent itself too easily to a fatal misinterpretation.

It became an object of belief, a desideratum, a goal to be reached, something to which the mind could cling as its one final abode of safety in the flux of life. The Buddha’s view was that a Self so grasped was no longer the true Self, but only one more of the innumerable forms of maya. Thus anatman might be expressed in the form, “The true Self is non-Self,” since any attempt to conceive the Self, believe in the Self, or seek for the Self immediately thrusts it away.

T h e Upanishads distinguish between atman, the true, supra-individual Self, and the jivatman or individual soul, and the Buddha’s anatman doctrine agrees with them in denying the reality of the latter. It is fundamental to every school of Buddhism that there is no ego, no enduring entity which is the constant subject of our changing experiences.

For the ego exists in an abstract sense alone, being an abstraction from memory, somewhat like the illusory circle of fire made by a whirling torch. We can, for example, imagine the path of a bird through the sky as a distinct line which it has taken. But this line is as abstract as a line of latitude. In concrete reality, the bird left no line, and, similarly, the past from which our ego is abstracted has entirely disappeared. Thus any attempt to cling to the ego or to make it an effective source of action is doomed to frustration.

The Second Noble Truth relates to the cause of frustration, which is said to be trishna, clinging or grasping, based on avidya, which is ignorance or unconsciousness. Now avidya is the formal opposite of awakening. It is the state of the mind when hypnotized or spellbound by maya, so that it mistakes the abstract world of things and events for the concrete world of reality. At a still deeper level it is lack of self-knowledge, lack of the realization that all grasping turns out to be the futile effort to grasp oneself, or rather, to make life catch hold of itself. For to one who has self-knowledge, there is no duality between himself and the external world. Avidya is “ignoring” the fact that subject and object are relational, like the two sides of a coin, so that when one pursues, the other retreats.”

Alan Watts, The Way of Zen, p. 47,48

20 thoughts on “Zen and The Ego

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  8. Ah, the slipperiness of maya. I love the image of the ego being a ring of fire or the path of a bird. Such powerful images that are hard to grasp or realize. I struggle on. {{{hugs}}} Kozo

    • …as we slip along with maya – there is the deeper We which all the while sits, watches and smiles -waiting for us to finally settle in to Ourself and just enjoy! Happy Earth Day, Dear Kozo! ☼ tomas ♥
      …and I love that you have the enso as your logo 😉

      • Nice point Tomas, Osho also points the way to Nirvana as not trying to “attain” something, yet it is effortlessly simply attained! Relax one’s whole being, so the mind does not desire doing, and yet all is done (consciously) with full awareness. This way we stop creating Karma by our actions of unconscious doing and thinking. Even if we strive to do good, from a purpose stemming from our desire to do good, this is still within the realm of Maya and thus Karma. Being and non-being, doing and non-doing, all duality transcended to relax into enlightenment. Then everything we do is correct action for every awakened moment.
        I love how Mr. Watts expressed the 2nd Noble Truth, so revealing about our perceived self and the true abiding-self. Luv it! ♥

        • …I also am intrigued by his take on the 2nd Noble Truth (trishna = clinging or grasping due to avidya, the trance of falling for the illusion) where he says the ego “mistakes the abstract world of things and events for the concrete world of reality.” This makes it so clear that all we have taken to be our ‘world’, which we orient all our desires and ambitions toward, is actually a mind-made chimera and not Reality at all.

          I also love his take on karma: “The active principle of the Round is known as karma or ‘conditioned action,’ action, that is, arising from a motive and seeking a result – the type of action which always requires the necessity for further action. Man is involved in karma when he interferes with the world in such a way that he is compelled to go on interfering, when the solution of a problem creates still more problems to be solved, when the control of one thing creates the need to control several others. Karma is thus the fate of everyonewho “tries to be God.” He lays a trap for the world in which he himself gets caught.
          Many Buddhists understand the Round of birth-and-death quite literally as a process of reincarnation, wherein the karma which shapes the individual does so again and again in life after life until, through insight and awakening, it is laid to rest.
          But in Zen, and in other schools of the Mahayana, it is often taken in a more figurative way, as that the process of rebirth is from moment to moment, so that one is being reborn so long as one identifies himself with a continuing ego which reincarnates itself afresh at each moment of time. Thus the validity and interest of the doctrine does not require acceptance of a special theory of survival. Its importance is rather that it exemplifies the whole problem of action in vicious circles and its resolution,…

          • Agreed, Karma is a “vicious cycle” of our own doing, and further doing to “control” only leads to our own undoing, as nothing we do can undo our own Gordian knots. Karma is just like that, so to re-solve our mind constructed dilemmas, zen states that Karma is relative only from moment to moment, because anytime one can awaken and leave the dream. Karma is an aspect of Maya, relevant only in the context of our applied dreamworld (think Matrix construct) living out our everyday fantasy/ nightmare existence in never ending cycles. The ego mask drops when we realize who the observer of the observed really is, like uncovering the wizard of Oz behind the veiled curtain. Once we attain clear vision, clarity of a conscious mind is the same as the One Mind, great love & compassion arises; and our following thought and action become one… the Great Bodhisattva way. That’s why to the unaware, it’s easy to mistaken non-action with passivity or indifference. A Zen master understands the consequence of all thought and action, he only does (action) because he is not -(no-self)- so as not to interfere with the correct action. For example, passive resistance may be correct action against violence, because killing begets more death. However, killing may be correct action if it stops one mad man from blowing up the whole world with nukes. It depends on his empty, just-now mind, and keeping moment to moment awareness, acting upon his true self with ultimate clarity. When the time comes, no-thinking is involved, just do it. It’s simply done through great love and compassion. That’s the Great Bodhisattva way.
            So regarding the second Noble truth, desire or clinging applies to our illusory world, hence suffering is the result. In reality, we are NOT, then who is desiring, clinging or suffering? Only thinking makes it so, and we all get to experience this in our personal physical construct we label “reality”. Cool huh?

  9. Very interesting article indeed, gives quite a food to the thought..
    I especially got captured with the idea of impermanence of reality around, that the more we cling to it, the more it’s changing.
    I myself noticed that when i started to be more present in the now, i started to see the nature of manifested things more clear, and the reality started somehow changing for the better..
    Deep material, Tomas, thanks for sharing!

    • Yes, Sofia, exactly that idea caught my mind very strongly as well. All grasping of any kind, emotional, intellectual, physical, spiritual… is like chasing our own shadow. At one point, Alan speaks of Nirvana: “Nirvana is the way of life which ensues when clutching at life has come to an end.” … “It is impossible to desire nirvana, or to intend to reach it, for anything desirable or conceivable as an object of action is, by definition, not nirvana. Nirvana can only arise unintentionally, spontaneously, when the impossibility of self grasping has been thoroughly perceived.”
      I appreciate your response ~ tomas ♥

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