The Dharma 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 above:
“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 it.
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 Shakyamuni's teaching.
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 lived.
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 seekers.
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 IMPERMANENT self.
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 suffering.
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 spontaneously.
But (and here is the point of everything I have been writing in this three-part message) - we also see something else.
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 symptoms.
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 Buddhahood.
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 deceit,
That we are filled with all forms of malice and cunning.
Extremely difficult is it to put an end to our evil nature;
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 scorpions,
We cannot accomplish good acts through self-power;
And unless we entrust ourselves to Amida's directing of virtue,
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 paths.
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” and “evil”
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 crap”!!!
He realizes that his goodness is a mile wide, and an inch deep.
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 be free.
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 teaching.
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, sometimes not.
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 our consciousness.
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 already.
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: