Shifting Focus

What got me out of this dilemma was examining my understanding of who I am. I started reading some contemporary Western Buddhists—some feminists, in particular.

The Idea We Call Self

Buddha taught that the ego, the self as we ordinarily think of it, is not real. Is, in fact, the main cause of suffering—and if we can learn to see through our attachment to the illusion of ego, we will be happier and better able to contribute to the wellbeing of others.

The traditional Buddhist term for expressing this is anatta, “not-self.” The self is said to be “empty of inherent existence.” It isn’t a thing that exists in itself, by itself. It is just an idea, a construct—and a constantly changing one at that. But we are in the habit of identifying with this idea: we think of it as fundamentally who we are.

In the understanding of mainstream Western psychology, ego works in the mind like the operating system in a computer. It is a construct for dealing with our relationships to the world, to each other, and to other parts of our selves. Buddhist psychology emphasizes how this concept, this construct ego, by organizing all our experience, dominates and distorts it in ways that are almost impossible to perceive.

Anne Carolyn Klein illustrates this situtation using a story from 15th-century Tibetan philosopher-monk Tsong-kha-pa:

“A magician tricks his audience into perceiving an illusory horse and elephant as real. The absence of an actual horse and elephant exists together with the illusory horse and elephant. Not recognizing this, the spectators admire and desire the “animals” that do not exist based on an illusion that does. Just as there is no real elephant on the magician’s stage, so there is no [real] self in… the the mind and body. But although an illusory elephant is not what it seems, [the illusion] does exist. Similarly, the self, which seems so concretely findable and in charge, is not what it seems. But it does exist, it does function, and people do base actions on thinking it is more real than it is.”[1]

People who have grasped this illusory nature of self, who have seen through it … testify to an experience of perfect joyous freedom. Reading their accounts makes me want it too. It sounds like it would do something to my Black Hole.

If the “I” which I am used to thinking of, is not my true nature, what is?


The traditional Buddhist answer is sunyata, “emptiness.”

Scholar of religions Rita Gross comments “the psychological experience of egolessness is …difficult to catch, even though Buddhists say that flashes of intuitions into egolessness are constantly occuring.” [2]
She quotes Chogyam Trungpa’s description of it:

Fundamentally there is just open space, the basic ground, what we really are. Our most fundamental state of mind, before the creation of ego, is such that there is basic openness, basic freedom, a spacious quality; and we have now and have always had that openness.

Anne Carolyn Klein describes this basic reality: “unrestricted space, knowable but unalterable, … the realm of what Buddhists call the unconditioned.” She says it is characterized by a “clarity of innate awareness that is not impeded by thoughts and feelings.”[5]


But the best help I got in understanding sunyata was one of those paradoxes with which Buddhism requires us to expand the mind. In this case, emptiness is only half the picture. The other half is tathata, a concept I have come to think of as “fullness.”

At first tathata didn’t have much to say, as far as I could see, about who I am. To begin with, translation is difficult. When Rita Gross lists the common attempts: “Things-As-They-Are, Suchness, Thusness” — she calls them “awkward.” [6]

Barbara O’Brien — a Zen student and journalist who covers religion — wrote this explanation that helped me:

Tathata, which means “suchness” or “thusness,” is a word sometimes used primarily in Mahayana Buddhism to mean “reality,” or the way things really are. It’s understood that the true nature of reality is ineffable, beyond description and conceptualization. “Suchness,” then, is deliberately vague to keep us from conceptualizing it.

It is sometimes understood that tathata underlies reality, and the appearance of things in the phenomenal world are manifestations of tathata. The word tathata is sometimes used interchangeably with sunyata, or emptiness. While all phenomena are empty (sunyata) of self-essence, they are also full (tathata). They are “full” of reality itself, of everything.[7]

And then Joanna Macy — scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology — told me how “fullness” relates to who I am, in World as Lover, World as Self:

The way we define and delimit the self is arbitary. We can place it between our ears and have it looking out from our eyes, or we can widen it to include the air we breathe, or, at other moments, we can cast its boundaries father to include the oxygen-giving trees and plankton, our external lungs, and beyond them the web of life in which they are sustained.

To experience the world as an extended self and its story as our own extended story involves no surrender or eclipse of our individuality. The liver, leg and lung that are “mine” are highly distinct from each other, thank goodness, and each has a distinctive role to play. The larger selfness we discover today is not an undifferentiated unity.[8]

Macy goes on to describe the experience of the relationship between indiviuality and a “larger selfness” in terms of the Buddhist concept of paticca samuppada, dependent co-arising. “Things do not produce each other or make each other happen, as in linear causality; they help each other happen by providing occasion or locus or context, and in so doing, they are in turn affected. There is a mutuality here, a reciprocal dynamic.”[9] As Klein remarks, “Dependent arising is in fact the reciprocal meaning of emptiness.”[10] In other words, the fullness of reality is all interconnected/interdependent — and thus we are too.


Some Buddhist traditions emphasize that everyone is essentially perfect just as they are. Our original nature is Buddha-nature.

We get into habits of thinking that shut us off from that reality, and then we compound the problem by lamenting how alienated we are from our essential nature, and by striving to change ourselves in order to get back to it.

But the alienation is an artifact of our way of thinking, and either grief or striving feeds the illusion that there is something wrong with us.

The way back to joy and authenticity is by seeing through the illusion. Keeping our focus on our true nature. This focus is called bodhicitta, often expressed as “the thought of enlightenment,” or “mind of enlightenment.”

Rita Gross says “this experience … is accompanied by feelings of joy and freedom because one feels that one has recovered one’s true nature, previously obscured by ego and attachment.”[11]

Buddhist psychotherapist Rob Preece quotes the description by 8th-century monk Shantideva:

the supreme ambrosia that overcomes death, the inexhaustible treasure, the supreme medicine, the tree that shelters all, the universal bridge, the dawning moon, and the great sun.[12]

…And compares Western culture’s version as Jung identified it:

All of these images have, at one time or another, appered as symbols of what Jung called the “treasure hard to attain” that recur in many myths and fairy tales. This treasure can be understood as the healing vitality that is released from the depth of the psyche when we are in touch with our sense of wholeness.[13]

Weak Ego

Often Western thinkers decide that traditional Eastern methods just don’t work for people with “weak egos.” For example Tyrone Cashman, reviewing Joanna Macy’s World as Lover, World as Self, says

In traditional Western psychology, the ego is understood to be a construct. Otherwise how could some people fail to develop a sound one. Probably, a healthy ego structure is not in conflict with Macy’s sense of the “self” as metaphor. My guess is that you need a healthy ego-construct before you take on the identity of “world as self.” You have got to keep something (someone) at home minding the store. So, I would not recommend this book to people with weak or damaged ego-formations.[14]

Well, I was working hard to reprogram my “weak or damaged ego-formation” — but my intuition was bugging me because that path just didn’t seem to have heart in it; it didn’t draw me the way that Buddhist promise of freedom did. The reprogramming didn’t seem to get deep enough to deal with the Black Hole.

At the same time I was skeptical of Buddhist notions about the self. Reading Buddhism After Patriarchy, by Rita Gross, I agreed with the reaction she described getting from feminists: “That sounds like a good religion—for men!”[15]

Gross explains that this reaction arises from misunderstanding the Buddhist concept anatta. Coming from a Western idea of “ego,” women often feel they “need more ego, a stronger self-concept, not less ego.”[16] Exactly, I thought.

~~~~Next: The Illusion Fades~~~~

[1] Klein, 1994, 128.
[2] Gross, 1993, 159.
[3] Trungpa, 1987, 122.
[4] Trungpa’s work includes much that is incisive, and at the same time much that’s problematic for me. I find it easier to use information from him when it’s filtered through thinking which is clearer to me, like Gross’s. Pema Chodron, a student of Trungpa’s. also speaks to me clearly.
[5] Klein, 1994, 194.
[6] Gross, 1993, 186.
[7] O’Brien, 2018
[8] Macy, 1991, 12 and 13.
[9] ibid., 54.
[10] Klein, 1994, 135.
[11] Gross, 1993, 180.
[12] Shantideva, trans. Batchelor, 1979, Chapter III, verses 29-32, quoted in Preece, 2006, 53.
[13] Preece, 2006, 53-54.
[14] Cashman, 1991.
[15] Gross, 1993, 161.
[16] ibid.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *