of the True Self and the False Self
by Paul Roberts
Dharma Friends -
As you all have heard me say countless times, the
singular purpose of the Shin Sangha is to help those being
called by Amida in this body, and this life, to be able to
receive His inconceivable gift of SHINJIN.
SHINJIN is the singular doorway to
Buddhahood, in this age of MAPPO, or Age of Dharma Decline.
There is simply no other way to come to the end of
suffering, and the beginning of Buddhahood.
And of course, THAT is what Buddhism is really all about,
when you get down to the essence of it. As Shakyamuni
Himself says, “Everything I teach is about suffering...and the
END of suffering.”
The END of suffering equals the BEGINNING of Buddhahood.
My Dharma mentor, Eiken Kobai Sensei, describes the
Triple Gem of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha with this brilliant
phrase, which gave me such insight into what I have just said
“The purpose of the SANGHA is to teach the DHARMA that
leads beings to become BUDDHA (fully enlightened)”.
In order to come to settled SHINJIN, it is critical to
have RIGHT VIEW when it comes to self-awareness, or
understanding the self. If a person does not have right
view in this area, it can be a real obstacle - preventing them
from really UNDERSTANDING the Dharma truth, and responding to
So, in our Sangha, we are always trying to help people
replace false or shallow ideas in this area with the ideas that
are reflective of the Buddha's TRUTH.
And what is amazing to me is how many Buddhists, from
many schools, simply don't KNOW the truth, and don't have right
view about this subject of the self, and self-awareness.
For a long time, I didn't either. It only became
clear to me AFTER receiving Shinjin myself. At that point, Amida
Himself made it all clear to me, and I have been sharing Amida’s
clarity with others ever since then.
That’s the purpose of this piece, which was originally
posted as a three part series to our online Sangha.
There is a huge question - a philosophical argument,
actually - about whether or not we have a real self. If
you talk to a lot of Buddhists, or read Buddhist literature, you
will hear many of them say that the self is an illusion - a
false construct - something that doesn't exist. Often they
will quote from some Sutra where the Buddha Himself seems to say
such a thing to His disciples.
But this is not right view...not right understanding...of
What Shakyamuni was TRYING to teach his disciples was
that our conventional view of the self is false. That
thing which we identify with, and think of as ourselves - THAT
is a temporary construct and has no real and permanent
existence. It is something that arises as we enter each
new life, and takes shape as we go through the process of
developmental maturation. It FEELS like a real and
permanent thing, but then as we complete this cycle of life and
die, it simply vanishes and is no more.
When I was hoverinng between life and death in the
hospital a few short weeks ago, I experienced this phenomenon
first hand. I didn't know if I was going to go forward to
the Pure Land, or continue to inhabit this life and this body.
At some point, I began to see my whole life here as if it
was a dream, with no real substance. It was a remarkable
experience of what Shakyamuni describes, when He declares that
“All dharmas are like magical dreams”.
But - this was not my time to leave this life, and so I
am back here feeling very much myself - very much Paul, with
Paul's identity. But I know this is just one of countless
identities I have had, as I have been going through life after
life, drowning in the ocean of birth and death. All of them are
ultimately impermanent and insubstantial.
That's the NO SELF part of the teaching that Shakyamuni
was trying to impart to His disciples. It's not the
same thing as saying that we don't have a self.
And now I'll make clear the distinction, in order to
resolve the philosophical question about whether we have a true,
enduring self...or not.
Flash forward to the end of Shakyamuni Buddha's earthly
life. He had begun His work as the Buddha when He was 35,
and now He is 80. His body has aged, just like anyone else
who is fully embodied in flesh. In fact, His form as a Buddha is
called a NIRMANAKAYA BUDDHA - a Buddha who has chosen to
incarnate fully in a flesh body for the sake of all beings.
Such Buddhic incarnations are EXTREMELY rare. The
next one in our world will come over five billion years from
now, when the Bodhisattva named Maitreya takes on a fuly
enfleshed NIRMANAKAYA body.
Shakyamuni Buddha, like all of His monks, had only a robe
and a beggars bowl. They all ate once a day, whatever
anyone would put into their bowls. That was how they
One day, someone
put some pork in Shakyamuni’s bowl. But the pork was bad.
Shakyamuni got food poisoning from it, and now He was dying.
This is all recorded in the Pari-Nirvana Sutra - the
Sutra describing His death.
His disciples were besides themselves with grief,
naturally enough. One of them - trying to speak comforting
words to Shakyamuni - addressed Him saying that they would never
forget His teaching - and (listen to this part carefully) that
they would always remember that THERE IS NO SELF.
The Buddha responded to this sincere statement of
discipleship by correcting the disciple. He said that this
idea was WRONG. We should never say there is no self.
They had misunderstood Him for 45 years.
The TRUE teaching - the RIGHT Dharma - is that there is
an abiding self - and that self is our indestructible Buddha
nature. THAT is the part of us that survives as we move
from life to life to life, and ultimately finds its way to full
expression when at last we become Buddhas.
We see this in Shakyamuni’s own life.
After Gotama emerged as the Buddha, He knew who He
was...both as a Buddha and as a member of His own family, former
prince of the Sakya clan, with a wife and child he had left
behind. He knew who He was as a wandering monk for seven
years, along with those who had been His companions and fellow
And now, as the Buddha, He could see into His own past
lives, as well.
And so, the right Dharma here is that we have a TRUE self
- and a FALSE self. We have a PERMANENT self - and an
Here, wrapped in the delusion of daily life, we
experience existence from the vantage point of the FALSE self
most of the time. That is certainly true for Shin
Buddhists, who don't do various self-power practices to try to
cultivate an experience of the TRUE self, as others do in the
various self-power schools.
As Shin Buddhists, we make no attempt to cultivate a
moment to moment awareness of our Buddha nature. There is no “working”
for Shin Buddhists. As
Master Shinran puts it, “No working is true working”.
But we still know that the false self is ephemeral, and
not real - if we have received Amida's gift of SHINJIN and have
heard the right Dharma on this subject.
That's what we mean when we say that “only the Nembutsu
is real” (Master Shinran's own words). The Nembutsu, the
very life and light of Amida somehow wrapped up in Namu Amida
Butsu, is Buddha - the TRUE self. It is the only thing
that is true and real, in a world of experience that feels real,
but is actually false and insubstantial.
I experienced this myself when I hovered between life and
death. ”Paul” seemed to be fading away, like a magical
dream from which I was awakening. But my SHINJIN - the
faith-mind consciousness given to me by Amida Buddha Himself -
was diamondlike. It
was indestructible, solid, unmoving. I was grounded in the
consciousness of my TRUE self - even as the doctors wondered
whether the temporary body-mind phenomenon called “Paul” was
going to make it through this medical crisis...or not.
This is the basic foundational understanding we want to
share so people can listen deeply to the Dharma of True Shin
Buddhism, and really “get” what our Dharma masters have to say.
But it is really the introduction to what I want to
discuss in this post - which I consider VERY important
information. So I'm going to break here, and take up the
discussion in part 2 to follow - so people aren't overwhelmed
with too long a post to read through in one sitting.
In Part One on Shin Buddhism and Self-Awareness, I asked
this question: ”What does LISTENING DEEPLY mean, in the
context of Other Power practice, when it comes to dealing with,
and ultimately eradicating the FALSE SELF?
And here is the beginning of my answer:
What it means is that we become willing to look long and
hard at this false self, and see what it is and what it does in
our lives. It means, in a word, that we engage in a life
of INTROSPECTION as part and parcel of our LISTENING DEEPLY.
It means that we are willing to become self-aware - aware
of the existence of the false self, and it's many and various
effects on us, individually and corporately...just as Gotama
became aware of it, beneath the Bodhi Tree.
In fact, this false self was the very last thing Gotama
found as he pressed forwards towards full enlgi, and he called
it “the builder of this house of suffering”.
Now...somebody might reasonably object here - challenging
me with Master Shinran's primary idea for us that “no working is
true working”. Am I advocating WORKING - some
self-generated program of INTROSPECTION - in order to leverage
ourselves karmically, to gain some sort of spiritual advantage,
to bring ourselves to the state of SHINJIN?
No. I am not.
The ability for us to introspect fruitfully and
meaningfully does not begin with us. It begins with Amida
shining His infinite light into our minds and hearts, so we can
finally see and experience what has been there all along.
And what is it that has been there all along, that has
been unseen before in so many ways by us?
The two minds...the mind I am calling the TRUE self (our
Buddha nature) and the mind I am calling the FALSE self, which
Gotama identified as the root cause of our onging experience of
Some of us have never had even a bit of experience of the
TRUE mind...or our Buddha nature. Perhaps we didn't come
from a background of self-power Buddhism, so we never made it
even part way up the mountain of enlightenment to get a bit of
the self-power generated view.
Others of us (me included) did do various practices, and
did get up the mountain of enlightenment a ways, and get some
sort of view, before falling down again. Perhaps we never
had a spontaneous experience of the ego dropping away.
But most of us had
had some experience, however brief, of pure consciousness,
unfettered and unpolluted by egotism - however brief.
Either way, when Amida shines His light upon us, and we
are being responsive to it, our aspiration for Buddhahood
awakens. We experience, in some small measure, the TRUE
mind of Buddha in our authentic yearning.
But that TRUE MIND - the mind of Buddha - has mostly been
veiled from our sight. In addition, left to our own
devices, we are easily confused, easily deceived, easily carried
away by some else's ideas and agendas.
So...when the light of Amida shines that TRUE SELF is one
thing we begin to see. We see it in an awakening of
aspiration for Buddhahood (however we name it) or in moments of
numinous experience, whether brought on deliberately or arising
But (and here is the point of everything I have been
writing in this three-part message) - we also see something
We see - in a way we did not see before - the existence
and the action of the FALSE SELF - the EGO-SELF - what I
sometimes call THE MONKEY MIND.
We see that THING that was the very last thing Gotama
saw, as he sat beneath the Bodhi Tree, committed not to get up
until he was fully and finally FREE and ENLIGHTENED.
He saw that THING - and he identified it as the builder
of this house of suffering, and he looked DEEPLY into it.
He looked at the ROOTS of human suffering, and not just
the FRUITS - at the CAUSES of human suffering, and not just the
effects - at the true nature of the DISEASE, and not just the
Truly, in finding this ROOT of EGOTISM - the same egotism
that is common to you and to me and to everyone - Gotama was
identifying the great obstacle and impediment to liberation - to
What does that mean for us and our own singular practice
of LISTENING DEEPLY to the Dharma?
It means that we are willing to let Amida shine His light
into our dark places - our shadows - the parts of ourselves that
we hide from the world, and even hide from our own awareness.
It means that we allow it all to be revealed.
We can't FORCE this to happen. But as we simply
keep listening deeply, it WILL happen if we allow it to.
This is all wrapped up with the idea that our karmic
causes and conditions for attaining SHINJIN ripen over time, as
we continue to listen deeply.
So let me give you two very common scenarios that I see,
over and over again, that illustrate this happening - and also
the obstacles that are involved in people's lives.
Scenario #1: This
is someone who is being called by Amida and is a conventionally
good person - or even an UNUSUALLY good person. This
person fulfills all sorts of responsibilities for family,
friends, community. This person is a do-gooder. This
person is thoughtful and kind and loving. This person is
admired for his or her good character.
For such a person, it can be VERY challenging when Amida
shines His light and shows him that all his goodness is not so
good after all. His goodness may be a mile wide - but it’s
also an inch deep. Beneath the apparent altruism, there is
something else - something impure, something ravenous, something
that really does good for others because it is looking to make
itself look and feel better.
This is the FALSE SELF appearing as if it were something
not so false.
In his HYMNS OF THE DHARMA AGES, Master Shinran talks at
length about this difficult to hear Dharma truth:
Although I take refuge in the true Pure Land way,
It is hard to have a true and sincere mind.
This self is false and insincere;
I completely lack a pure mind.
Each of us, in outward bearing,
Makes a show of being wise, good, and dedicated;
But so great are our greed, anger, perversity, and
That we are filled with all forms of malice and cunning.
Extremely difficult is it to put an end to our evil
The mind is like a venomous snake or scorpion.
Our performance of good acts is also poisoned;
Hence, it is called false and empty practice.
Although I am without shame and self-reproach
And lack a mind of truth and sincerity,
Because the Name is directed by Amida,
Its virtues fill the ten quarters.
Lacking even small love and small compassion,
I cannot hope to benefit sentient beings.
Were it not for the ship of Amida's Vow,
How could I cross the ocean of painful existence?
With minds full of malice and cunning, like snakes and
We cannot accomplish good acts through self-power;
And unless we entrust ourselves to Amida's directing of
We will end without knowing shame or self-reproach.
As a mark of increase in the five defilements,
All monks and laypeople of this age
Behave outwardly like followers of the Buddhist teaching,
But in their inner thoughts, believe in nonbuddhist
And then, Master Shinran concludes the HYMNS OF THE
DHARMA AGES with these remarkable statements about himself:
While persons ignorant of even the characters for “good”
All possess a sincere mind,
I make a display of knowing the words “good” and “evil”;
This is an expression of complete falsity.
I am such that I do not know right and wrong
And cannot distinguish false and true;
I lack even small love and small compassion,
And yet, for fame and profit, enjoy teaching others.
Dharma friends, I remember when I first read this, it
just boggled my mind. Here is this amazing, amazing man -
and yet he's allowing Amida's light to shine so deeply into his
FALSE self that he can see the depth of his own falseness.
In no uncertain terms, he admits, “I'm just full of
He realizes that his goodness is a mile wide, and an inch
He allows Amida to turn over the rock, and show him all
the creepy-crawlies that live under there, in the dark.
This isn't just about effects of karma from past lives.
This is a man, talking about the depth of his problem, in
THIS body, in THIS life.
This is a man who has been STRIPPED of all his illusions
- all his delusions - about his human goodness. This is a
man who knows his FALSE SELF is just that - FALSE.
This is a man who knows that even the best things he does
- his amazing lifelong work as a preacher and teacher of the
True Teaching called by Amida Himself - is riddled with the
perversion of self-interest.
To use a metaphor: You can get diagnosed with
cancer, and have it be localized, and (if you're fortunate)
excise that tumor. But once that cancer metastatizes, and
spreads throughout your body, you are totally riddled with it,
and it becomes fatal.
Master Shinran is saying that he recognizes he is totally
riddled with egotism - with the false mind. Like Gotama
beneath the Bodhi Tree, he has found the ROOT of his suffering,
because of the light of Amida Buddha shining into his darkness.
And for us - the rest of us - to experience the same
SHINJIN, the same salvation - we must find the ROOT of our
suffering as well.
As we continue to listen deeply, Amida reveals to us the
two minds we carry in consciousness: the Buddha mind, and
the ego mind - the true mind, and the false mind.
And we must look at what He shows us, if we truly want to
We have to embrace the call to drop our pleasant
delusions about our goodness, our integrity, our honesty, our
do-goodism, or whatever - and recognized that we are simply a
HOT MESS - SPIRITUAL IDIOTS - BOMBUS.
This is why both Rick and I talk honestly and often about
our massive failures in life. Amida has shown us that left
to our own devices, our FALSE self minds will get us into
trouble over and over again, and that even on our best days we
are - to use Master Rennyo's word - WRETCHED.
This is ESSENTIAL self-awareness in the school of True
Shin Buddhism. For some, it comes right away. For
others, it takes time to sink in. But eventually, each and
every being realizes that even their brightest thoughts, words
and deeds are stained with darkness.
Left to ourselves - or even to the empowerments of
self-power Buddhism - or any other path to enlightenment - our
situation is truly HOPELESS.
We're not demanding anyone agree with this Dharma
message. We simply want to declare it and allow everyone
to evaluate it for himself or herself.
Now, let’s talk about Scenario #2, where someone is
already aware of the falseness of the false self.
Now...this last section I am writing here is VERY
important for a segment of folks who are listening deeply to the
Dharma, reading the words of Master Shinran and Master Rennyo,
or anyone else who functions as a true teacher of their
We have a number of members of our Sangha who suffer -
really suffer - from clinical depression. My own daughter
died from it. It's a very serious, clinically recognized
medical and psychological disease. People take strong
medicine to try to control it - sometimes successfully,
What I am concerned about here is that those people who
tend towards clinical depression would hear this Dharma message
of the wretchedness of our false self, and it would tend to use
this message to add hurt to the hurt they already have.
Clinical depressives would tend to hear this part of the
Dharma message - and misunderstand it - hear it delusionally
rather than with clarity. Rather than recognizing that we
are ALL wretched, spiritual idiots - they would tend to focus on
their own pre-existing thoughts and feelings that they are the
worst of the worst - the kind of distorted clinically depressive
thinking that led my daughter to end her life.
And in the midst of the blackness of a depressive
episode, they would (delusionally enough) be unable to see the
critical CONTEXT of this message of our false self. They
would miss (as so many Buddhists have missed) that we also have
a TRUE self - our Buddha self - which would ultimate triumph in
So...to anyone reading along who struggles with
depressive thoughts: Please, PLEASE hear this FULL Dharma
message - and not just the part that resonates with the
depressive thoughts you struggle with already. The last
thing we want to do is add burdens to the burdens people have
The burden of the false self is our common human burden. You are not worse
than, or less than, anyone else.
If you are clinically depressed, you may simply be
hyper-aware of your burden.
Please don’t harm or hurt yourself with this awareness -
and please balance this awareness with the other great truth of
this Dharma of the two selves:
You have a TRUE self, a Buddha nature, that will
ultimately survive the difficulties of this life experience. The very heart of
Amida’s Primal Vow, and His great work, is to lead you along
until that Buddha nature is fully released - and you too become
a Buddha in Amida’s Pure Land.
If anyone has ANY questions or comments about this, do
not hesitate to write me, publicly or privately.
In Chapter 12 of the great Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the last teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha, He expounds the True Self as compared with the false (i.e. "unholy") self, dispelling the misunderstanding among so many in the Sangha who in his day thought - and to this day who still think - that we're trying to get to a state of "no self" consciousness. He explains the skillfulness of first teaching "no-self" then revealing the "true Self" or Buddha-nature inherent in all beings.
The passage below also is a good example of the teaching method of Shakyamuni Buddha, who often taught in parables. It is a model for Listening Deeply, as He hears and answers questions and doubts raised by his follower Kasyapa.
Let's follow along as Shakyamuni expounds the doctrine of the True Self, the Buddha-Nature:
Kasyapa said to the Buddha:
O World-Honoured One! Is there Self in the 25 existences or not?
The Buddha said:
O good man! Self means Tathagatagarbha [Buddha-Womb, Buddha-Embryo, Buddha-Nature]. Every being has Buddha-Nature. This is the Self. Such Self has, from the very beginning, been under cover of innumerable defilements. That is why man cannot see it. The taste of the hidden store of the Tathagata is also like this. Overspread by all the growths of defilement, the beings clad in ignorance cannot hope to see it. We speak of the one taste. This applies, for instance, to the Buddha-Nature. On account of the presence of defilement, several tastes appear, such as the realms of hell, animals, hungry pretas, devas, human beings, men, women, non-men, non-women, Kshatriya, Brahmin, Vaishya and Sudra.
karma generated by the mind leads a person, though born a human,
into such lives as a cripple, lame, deaf, blind or dumb person,
and to the 25 existences, where such as greed, lust, anger and
ignorance reign over the mind, and the person is unable to know
of the presence of the Buddha-Nature. The wrestler says that the
gem has gone away, even though it is [actually] in his body. The
same with beings, too. Not having come into contact with a good
teacher of the Way, they do not know the Tathagata’s hidden
treasure and do not study selflessness.
For example, even when a person is told of the unholy self, he cannot know the true quality of the Self. The same is true of my disciples. As they do not befriend a good teacher of the Way, they practise non-Self and do not know where it [Self] is. They do not know the true nature of selflessness. How, then, could they know the true nature of the Self itself?
The Buddha-Nature is strong
and vigorous. It is hard to destroy. Therefore, there is nothing
that can kill it. If there were something that could indeed kill
it, Buddha-Nature would die. [But] nothing can ever destroy such
Buddha-Nature. Nothing of this nature can ever be cut. “The
nature of Self is nothing other than the hidden storehouse of
the Tathagata”. Such a storehouse can never be smashed, set on
fire, or done away with. Although it is not possible to destroy
or see it, one can know of it when one attains unsurpassed
Enlightenment. Hence, there is indeed nothing that can kill it.
For the full text of this section of the Sutra, please go to this link: