Special Topics

The Self - Eastern vs. Western Philosophies

Eastern philosophies in general, and Buddhism in particular, teach that people suffer because of attachment to the self, but in the West the discovery and strengthening of one's "identity" or self is considered the path to success and happiness. How does Ch'an view this apparent contradiction?

In Buddhism we can think of self in three ways: small self, universal self, and no-self. Most people look upon their everyday selves as being their true selves, but they are clouded by delusion. If that were truly the case, then there would be no reason to practice. What we commonly think of as ourselves ─ what Buddhism calls the small self ─ is an illusion. It is nothing in itself at all, just a name we fabricate in response to the external environment. The small self is the constant process of evaluating whatever we perceive and making judgments: "This is my town, my friend, my spouse, my situation." We constantly evaluate, thought after thought, and this creates the small sense of self. Our idea of existence arises from our interaction with the environment ─ the people and things around us. From moment to moment, we string together evaluations of ourselves: "This morning I went to work, this afternoon I came home and did chores, this evening
I went to a party, and tomorrow I will have other plans." This gives us our sense of small self.
Successful and accomplished individuals have a strong sense of existence and power, and if their success continues they will continue to believe strongly in their own existence. But no matter how strong this sense of self may be, it is only the small self.

Even to have a strong sense of self is unusual. Most people do not always feel that they have a firm and focused existence and character. They still evaluate from moment to moment, but these evaluations are not collected in the way they perceive themselves. Meditation can help people build strength and determination to develop a stronger sense of small self.
"Discovering oneself" usually means cultivating a strong sense of small self. This is not exclusively a Western way of thinking. It is common to all of humanity. Without the will power that comes from a strong sense of self, one would accomplish little. Ch'an practice begins with methods to establish a strong sense of small self. It is small because there is nothing genuine or enduring which we can lay our hands on. The small self comes from our moment-to-moment judgments, but we are not always aware that our evaluations change from moment to moment.
The large or universal self seems to be unchanging and eternal. In Chinese religious philosophy it is called li which means a fundamental or unchanging principle. However, it is not eternal, and it does change.
One idea of the large self is from philosophy ─ an intellectual deduction which says we have a universal, genuine nature. Another comes from religious experience. In dhyana and samadhi, as well as in other spiritual practices, one can have a sense of experiencing an absolute and unchanging spiritual self. At such times it seems as though all of existence moves while one's true nature remains still, as if one's own essence is the basis for, indeed is, everything else.
The concept of no-self is harder to grasp. Buddhism does not say that small self and large self are bad or unworthy things. But in each case there is attachment to a kind of self; and as long as there are attachments, one cannot be truly liberated. With no-self, there are no attachments. It does not mean that everything ceases to exist once you attain liberation. After liberation, wisdom and merit continue to exist. This is the experience of no-self. After a no-self experience, things continue to exist, life goes on, there are still things to do. However, in order to get to no-self, one must start from the beginning, and that means developing a strong sense of small self.