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Egoism and dharma

KeromeKerome Lovingness is the wayThe Continent Veteran
edited December 2020 in Buddhism Basics

I am having a online discussion with a beginning Buddhist about egoism... most buddhists aren’t very egoistically inclined but he was one of the few who had decided before getting into Buddhism to choose for himself, and had found that that got a lot of things done for himself. He experienced it as a positive, and was wondering what Buddhism had to say about egoism.

Now if you want to talk advaita, there is a lot to say about the problem of the ego. I recall from my reading of Papaji that he talked a fair amount to people who came to his satsangs about it, but I was a little bit hard-pressed to find a lot of references in the dharma to egoism, so the chat wandered a bit.

In the end what I arrived at was that ego as such is largely an illusion, there isn’t such a thing as a little man in your head pulling the strings telling you to be selfish. Instead there are certain primal desires, such as ‘I am hungry and I want food’, which can get connected to the ‘I want more’ instinct, and that greediness creates what we call egoism. So at its root it comes back to desire, one of the Three Poisons which generate samsara.

But perhaps someone here has something sensible to add to our little chat. Would love to hear your take, which I will shamelessly pass on to the poor chap as wisdom from the elders.



  • "One is simply one's experience. One's ego is the abstraction from these experiences. One's ego should be viewed as a convenient analytic device "

    Thus have "I" heard...

  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator
    edited December 2020

    I'd say this predominately relates to the Buddha's teachings on not-self and the process of I-making and my-making. And it reminds me of something I posted in relation to another thread about identity from Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

    In the areas where you need a healthy sense of self to act skillfully, it's wise to maintain that sense of self. But eventually, as skillful behavior becomes second nature and you develop more sensitivity, you see that self-identification, even of the most refined sort, is harmful and stressful. You have to let it go. (Questions of Skill).

    The ego has its place, but egoism isn't skillful from the Buddhist POV. For a more detailed look at this, see Thanissaro Bhikkhu's Selves & Not-self.

  • Your body is composed of the five aggregates, and your mind of the various kinds of consciousness. Your name, or the idea 'I,' is the label affixed to the momentary association of these two.

    Examine first the concept, 'body.' If you single out the skin, the flesh and the bones of your body one by one, and then ask yourself if the body is dwelling in the skin, if flesh could be the body, or if you can call the bones the body, what will you find? The further you take your investigation, all the way down to the atomic particles, the less you can point to the 'body'-or to any other material object, for that matter-as a discrete entity. 'Body' is merely a name given to a conglomeration of different things to which, once they are separated, that label no longer applies.

    The same is true of the mind. What you call 'my mind' is something you believe to have a certain continuity. But, as we have just seen, past, present and future thoughts and feelings can have no veritable point of mutual contact. It is not possible to conceive of an entity that is an amalgam of thoughts of which some have already ceased, some have not yet happened, and some exist in the present.

    As for your name, you hold on to your identity as if it had some autonomous existence - as if it truly belonged to you. But if you examine it carefully, you will find that it has no intrinsic reality - as is the case with the name of anything. Take the word 'lion' for instance. It is made up of the letters L, I, O, and N. Take those four letters apart, and there is nothing left; the name has vanished.

    Once you recognize these three concepts of body, mind, and name as being empty, there is no longer anything left of the so-called 'I.' The 'I' is purely an invention, an imposture conjured up by delusion. Someone with eye disease might see all kinds of objects apparently floating in the sky - lights, lines, and spots - when in truth there is nothing there.

    Similarly, because we have the disease of believing in an 'I,' we see that 'I' as an inherently existing entity.

    In essence, the mind is what is aware of everything - it is a clarity that perceives all external objects and events. But try to find it, and it turns out to be as impossible to grasp and as elusive as a rainbow - the more you run after it, the further it appears to recede; the more you look at it, the less you can find. This is the empty aspect of the mind.
    Clarity and emptiness are inseparably united in the true nature of mind, which is beyond all concepts of existence and non-existence.

    As the Great Master of Oddiyana said:
    "Like a precious jewel buried under a poor man's house, Primordially pure awareness has always been present in the dharmakaya.
    It is because it is not recognized that the delusion of samsara takes place.
    By being introduced directly to that awareness and recognizing it, One realizes the wisdom of primordial space - and this is known as buddhahood."

    Once you have been able to recognize the empty nature of mind, attachment and desire will not arise when your mind sees something beautiful, and hatred and repulsion will not develop whenever it comes across anything horrible or unpleasant. Since these negative emotions no longer arise, the mind is no longer deceived or deluded, karma is not accumulated, and the stream of suffering is cut.

    If you throw a stone at the nose of a pig, it will immediately turn round and run away. Likewise, whenever a thought develops, recognize it as being empty. That thought will immediately lose its compelling power and will not generate attachment and hatred-and once attachment and hatred are gone, realization of the perfectly pure Dharma will unfold naturally from within.

    Indeed, try as you might, there is no way you will ever be rid of your attachment and hatred as long as you keep believing that they arise because of the external objects or circumstances to which they are connected.

    The more you attempt to reject external phenomena, the more they will spring back at you. Hence, therefore, the importance of recognizing the empty nature of your thoughts and simply allowing them to dissolve. When you know that it is mind that both creates and perceives samsara and nirvana, and also, at the same time, that the nature of mind is emptiness, then mind will be no longer be able to delude you and lead you around by the nose.

    ~ Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

  • howhow Veteran Veteran


    Three points that I think are important to consider when speaking of the ego are...

    Don't have as description of the ego leave someone thinking that because it is only an illusion, that it is somehow not also real. The effects of that illusion are as real as it can get.

    Is this teaching about a withdrawing of ones habituated support for our ego's maintenance and is it just trying to give an ego a more acceptable makeover.
    Is such talk addressing sufferings true cause or just a compounding of it.

    Where a teaching on the ego offers a suffering man an explanation for his sufferings, a meditation on the ego offers that suffering man the means of manifesting it's cessation.

  • KeromeKerome Lovingness is the way The Continent Veteran

    @how said:
    Is such talk addressing sufferings true cause or just a compounding of it.

    I think suffering is a key aspect here, because egoism is damaging for the people around the one manifesting his ego, and only in a subtle way for the person himself. If you really want to decrease suffering for everybody it is something that needs to be tackled. But that I think comes when you seriously want to devote time and energy to making the world better.

    I’ve passed on most of the points made above, and also mentioned that the Buddha often spoke positively on the topic of generosity, which is a counterpoint to egoism.

  • personperson Don't believe everything you think the liminal space Veteran
    edited December 2020

    He might find Jordan Hall's notion of sovereignty interesting.

    Sovereignty is the capacity to take responsibility. It is the ability to be present to the world and to respond to the world — rather than to be overwhelmed or merely reactive. Sovereignty is to be a conscious agent.

  • Let us say we are controlled by our bodies drives, our narcissistic sovereignty and opinions. Insanity, drugs, useless gurus or love for a pet chicken that can not cross a road without corn to peck. What our eyes devour, our stomach craves, our senses are overwhelmed by.

    etc etc etc

    All that continuous shit is not the real shit, it just continually happens and gives a sense of constantly being something.

    • Noise
    • Mind splutter
    • Emotional turmoil
    • Body drowning

    However underneath and in and with all those experiences there is a Free Being. And it does not move, come or go, change or remain static.

    The Buddha called it enlightened and so it is ...

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