“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Monday, July 18, 2011

Buddhism versus Nihilism

One of my Buddhist teachers, Reggie Ray, has an interview today in Elephant. He makes the following very pertinent remark (listen up Buddhaphobes!): 

Waylon: In my opinion, the biggest misconception among westerners regarding Buddhism involves the teachings on selflessness. People often think that Buddhism suggests that they are not there. Like everything is negated or dismissed as an illusion. It is a very nihilistic idea. Jung, in his forward to D.T. Suzuki’s Introduction to Zen said, “It is a matter of mistaking the ego for the Self.” In your book, Touching Enlightenment, you describe it as the “impersonal and individual.” So I was wondering if you take a moment and shed some light on this issue?

Reggie Ray: I find it helpful to talk about the “small self” and the “large Self.” When Buddhism talks about the ego what is meant is the small self, which is that very limited, paranoid, fearful, defensive, idea about who we are. We all carry it around—we all have this idea or concept about ourselves that we are trying to maintain. However, I wouldn’t say it doesn’t exist; obviously it exists. But it is irrelevant to the much larger, much more interesting Self, which is the large Self, and this is actually the totality of our state of being. So, when we say we need to eliminate the ego, we’re talking about eliminating the strict, imprisoning concept of ourselves. 

As you mentioned, obviously the ego exists. We can see the consequences of it; all the tension and anxiety. Lama Yeshe once said, “The ego exists. It just exists as an illusion.” So would you agree that the ego enjoys only an illusory existence? Does ego exist as nothing more than a misunderstanding?

Reggie Ray: I think that sort of language is hard for westerners to understand. Now, the fact that we think the ego is solid and real that is an illusion. It isn’t solid and real. Many times in life we have these experiences where it is not operating. All of us do, but we ignore those experiences, and we act as if this concept is the actual reality of who we are. When we see the concept of ego everything is fine. We see the concept, and we know that our true Self is much bigger and a lot more interesting than that concept. But when we take that concept to be reality, and start rejecting the parts of ourselves that don’t fit that concept, we have a major problem. Then we have neurosis and psychological illness.

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