Getting our minds wrapped around the Buddhist concept of “no self” is quite a challenge. I want to explore an additional challenge our egos present, for those of us coming from a white, American culture. I’ll attempt to define what “no self” does and does not mean, why those of us who are white American Buddhists need to make a particular effort to understand it, and in what way we can apply “no self” to our present situation that may address the suffering of this nation.
First, “no self” is not a belief. Anyone who practices Zen meditation is not required to believe in this concept in the way one believes in God, Jesus, or the resurrection. After the Buddha died, his students gathered in councils, but not in order to discuss whether the Buddha was a human or a God, as did happen in the early Christian Church. They gathered to verify the codes of conduct of monks and nuns, and to remember what the Buddha taught.
One, furthermore, need not have faith in “no self.” In the Zen tradition, faith is reserved for the practitioner’s innate ability to become a fully realized Buddha. Having doubt in oneself, in the teacher, and in the Dharma is a normal part of the Buddhist path. Doubt is necessary to clarify for oneself the path to awakening.
“No self” is not the denial of a self. Nor is it the affirmation of a self. “No self” is the concept used to help a practitioner of meditation more deeply examine the misperceptions of one’s experiences. In other words, to go around thinking that we are a self, who is having a multitude of experiences is delusion. That the myriad things go forward and realize themselves is Enlightenment (paraphrasing from Zen Master Dogen’s, “Genjo Koan”).
Furthermore, “no self” aids a practitioner in seeing how they often misidentify the total of one’s physical, mental, and emotional components as self. The study of the self – one’s physical, mental, and emotional aspects – is the way to begin to recognize suffering. These aspects are themselves suffering – particularly if we identify ourselves as these aspects.
The study of “no self” brings a meditation practitioner to the place of dis-identifying with those elements commonly thought of as self – body, emotion, and thought. Liberation from suffering, in part, is the result of this dis-identification. This aspect of liberation can be applied universally to anytime and anyplace.
There is also a culturally bound dimension of liberation, that cannot be applied universally to all times and places. What liberation from suffering meant to the Buddha, as well as how that liberation was attained may not be what liberation from suffering means to someone from a current time or in a different culture. Buddhism migrated from India, to China, to Japan, and now to America. As it migrated it met different cultures and adapted to them. In India, liberation from suffering meant, in part, to not be reborn again. Indian culture takes for granted the idea of reincarnation. Many people raised in India see themselves as having been reborn countless times over millions of years. The purpose of rebirth is to develop yourself in each successive lifetime so that you can get closer to moksha, nirvana, or liberation from repeating the cycle of rebirth, and therefore endless suffering.
In China, Korea, and Japan, liberation from suffering shifted from release from the cycle of rebirth to aligning oneself with nature, entering fully into whatever activity one was doing, and honoring the ancestors. In these countries Buddhism met with the teachings of Daoism and Confucianism. Daoism emphasized harmony with nature as a means to social harmony. Confucianism emphasized benevolence in relationships beginning with self, then family, then community, then society, and finally the natural world, in a series of concentric circles. For Confucius, this is the way to social harmony. In order to adapt to Chinese culture, Buddhism changed to meet the specific needs of the Chinese, and their way of thinking.
The idea of a lineage that begins with the Buddha and goes up to the present moment with one’s own teacher is a product of Buddhism’s interaction with Confucianism. A lineage of Buddha Ancestors was not part of Buddhism in its Indian form, even though Indian masters are included in the lineage.
What one society views as suffering and the means to end it is not what all societies view as suffering. What is universal about the Buddha’s message is the need to, one, confront suffering in its most pressing form, and, two, find the roots of that suffering, three, to recognize that this suffering can come to an end, and, finally, to actually put it to an end. This is another way of stating the 4 Noble Truths.
Not every teaching the Buddha gave had universal application. Some of it was meant only for certain people, and in certain times. The Buddha was primarily concerned with helping others to wake up to the reality of suffering and in providing practitioners with the means to liberate themselves from suffering. All of the stories in the Pali Cannon were offered on specific occasions and at specific times and were in response to the needs of individuals or the community at that time.
Turning to the United States, we need to ask, who is studying Buddhism, in order to consider how specifically to address the suffering here, in this time and place. The Universal aspects of the Buddha’s teachings still apply to people in the United States. We can point to many forms of suffering which Buddha’s teachings have been applied to. The Mindfulness Movement is one such place. Numerous studies have been done to demonstrate how particular forms of meditation can be applied to treat certain physical and psychological conditions.
However, we have more than just a Western medical model and definition of suffering in our hands. The medical model of suffering is important; however, it does not get at the root of suffering in America from a sociological perspective. Going to the root, we need to look at how America was founded. India, China, Korea, and Japan have different histories than America. In those countries, Buddhism did not enter a recently formed culture like in the U.S. It met cultures that had been deeply established for thousands of years. In contrast, in the U.S., we can actually trace the origins of the formation of U.S. mainstream culture.
As with many forms of suffering, the form in which suffering manifests in America is difficult to recognize, especially by white people. Truth is not easy to uncover, and it is often shocking when it is seen clearly. This is why the Buddha named suffering a Noble Truth. Physical pain is the most obvious form of suffering. Pain based in trauma, however, is much more elusive. The reason it’s so difficult to recognize by white people in particular is because white people don’t have to recognize it in order to live a fairly decent individual life. The suffering I’m talking about is the turmoil the unresolved legacy of slavery has left us. I could include the genocide of native peoples, too, but in this article, I will focus on the example of slavery.
Recognizing slavery and white supremacy cannot be ignored by white Buddhist practitioners if we really want to apply the Buddha’s teachings. This recognition is by no means meant to make someone feel guilty or shameful about our past. It is precisely this shame that locks us in the past, and it needs to be let go of. What we need to do, then, is take an honest look at the way slavery and white supremacy have shaped present day United States in our public policies, institutions, privileges, and way of life. We need to have the courage as white people to witness how our whiteness benefits from economic, social, and political injustices to People of Color.
It’s not that if you are white you are bad. There are plenty of white people who do not self-identify as bigots. Part of the difficulty in recognizing our participation with white supremacy is not only the good/bad dualistic lens through which we see ourselves and others, but also that we see racism largely as something perpetrated by individuals or small groups of people. White liberals are rightly hesitant to identify themselves as racist. However, the way that I am writing about racism is as a system in which we live and move and have our being.
The foundation on which this nation was created was a system of slavery and white supremacy which, because it has never fully been addressed as a social form of suffering, continues to persist to this day in the form of institutional racism, and it affects us on both the collective and individual levels. Being white makes it difficult to recognize because we are the beneficiaries of the system, like it or not, whether our ancestors owned slaves or not, whether we consider ourselves as allies to People of Color or not, or whether we have Black friends or not. If we don’t see racism in its institutional form, how can we interrupt it? The Buddha’s first Noble Truth, the truth of suffering, is hard to comprehend. If it were more obvious, it would not be a Noble Truth. The institutional form in which racism has taken in modern U.S. culture is the particular form in which suffering resides. As white Buddhist practitioners, we need to find ways of waking up to and owning this suffering.
What I’ve written regarding institutional racism may be hard to swallow. For most, if not all white people, to seriously consider how we benefit from white supremacy leads to a place of serious physical and psychological discomfort. For a more in-depth study of this, I suggest reading Robin DiAngelo’s, “White Fragility.”
As Buddhists, we are in a unique place to contribute to the dialogue about racism and to disrupt it. Because white people are trained to think of the individual as real and primary, and the group as secondary, “no self” creates a particular challenge. Individualism gone amok is when people no longer see themselves as connected to anything but themselves. Not their parents, not their neighbors, not the earth on which they live, or the people of the country next door. The concept of being white, moreover, is shied away from by progressive white people because we have been educated to be color blind and to believe that it’s our individual actions and hard work that define us. However, if we take “no self” seriously we need to also accept the ways that we uphold a racist system that is beyond our individual actions or beliefs.
The Buddha prescribed ways for meditators to see clearly the reality of “no self.” They included going to places where bodies were in various stages of decomposition and noticing how the body changes. Seeing corpses like this had the effect of monks letting go of over-identification with their body/mind as self. They had to confront their assumption that their body was who and what they were, and to realize through contemplation that, “this body is not me.”
In U.S. culture, it is illegal to view a body after 3 days (in some States) if it has not been embalmed. We have to imagine the body, or perhaps see pictures of it. Regardless, a practitioner needs to first stabilize her/his mind. It’s not a practice for the faint-hearted.
Likewise, embracing the cultural concept of whiteness, not with pride, but with a sense of taking responsibility for the present manifestation of racism in the United States, like viewing a dead body, is not easy to do. It requires persistence and a relative stability of mind. Meditation can be used as a tool to balance the body/mind prior to this contemplation of whiteness.
If we are to take “no self” seriously then, in meditation, we need to be able to recognize all of our relationships as part of who we are, both the good and the bad. We need to recognize our whiteness and own what it has meant for us and our ancestors. We need to recognize how our privilege has come at an incredible loss. As white people we have little connection to the Black community, we are out of touch with their suffering, and can’t fully appreciate what they offer to each of us personally with regards to not only their ability to survive but to inspire new ways of imagining our social and economic structures.
Our privilege has almost guaranteed that we’ll be employable, have access to decent educational resources, and stay out of prison. “No self” means that we cannot rest in being content as an individual while so many people around us are suffering. “No self” needs to be practiced in a way that is awake to whiteness because it is in owning our whiteness that we can dissolve the illusion of an individual self. When our whiteness and collective racism is confessed on a wide level, the potential for social transformation is great. We can begin to see the healing that yet needs to be done, and this recognition can help us get clearer about our individual and collective contribution to the healing process.