Sunday, March 02, 2008

OM and EGO

I'm listening to one of my two new favorite bands right now, the mighty OM. They are a duo consisting of bass and drums who play droning sludge rock that sounds like a 33 rpm Black Sabbath record played at 16 rpm very, very loud. I already mentioned them in an earlier post, I think. It's the most amazing sound I've heard in like forever.

My other new fave band is Dengue Fever. I just did an interview with them a couple weeks ago that I hope to post to Suicide Girls soon.

I did my interview with Nina Hartley last week. That was very interesting. Who knew a porn star would have so many opinions on Zen? And all kinds of other interesting stuff. A very intelligent woman!

Just this morning I finished sitting a retreat at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center where I am right now as I write this. It was a great retreat, one of the best I've ever done. They've got an amazing group down here. I did three talks, one of which was recorded. I'll see about getting a pod cast of that up here once I get a copy.

I've been thinking a lot about ego lately. In early Buddhist writings in English you read a lot about ego. But it seems these days the subject isn't addressed much. I've deliberately avoided the word myself. I think this may be because a lot of mistakes were made by those early practitioners in the West. They thought that Buddhism was all about destroying the ego. Which is true. But this was taken to mean we should beat ourselves up, and destroy our personalities. It was seen as some kind of spiritual virtue to act like you had no personality, no opinions, to be passive, to be a doormat.

Of course that approach doesn't help anything. Ego is an illusion. That's true. Yet we all occupy a specific place in the universe and it's our duty to be what we are. That means it's fine to have a personality, to have opinions, to have (gasp!) preferences. It's natural, good and useful. The trap is when we think these things are "mine." My personality, my opinions, my preferences, my self.

For me this retreat was a lot about seeing how I do that. Sometimes there are things you need to say and to do in order to fulfill your role in the universe. But we have a tendency to latch onto our role in the universe and try to affix it to something that doesn't exist, to some kind of a permanent self that belongs to us. It's an absurd idea. Self belongs to self. I belong to me. Why are there two of me? But we all do it, senseless as it is. In doing this, we go beyond what's necessary as our role in the universe and begin, instead, to act in ways intended to preserve this fiction of self. Once we step over that line, we can't do anyone any good anymore. We just end up in a battle of egos like the War of the Gargantuas.

It's hard to find that line where we are asserting what needs to be asserted yet not stepping into the land of ego. It usually involves acting humble (though sometimes not) and that's hard to do. It's not a passive, milquetoast kind of humility that's called for. It's a kind of assertive humility that is, at the same time, completely unlike passive aggression. God knows I fail at this a whole lot.

ANYWAY, it's not that we seek to destroy the ego, so much as to realize it's just a useful fiction. Shunryu Suzuki said that we have a personal self that appears and disappears. It's not a fixed thing. It exists in order that the universe might express itself, not in order that I can express my self.


Justin said...

Very interesting stuff Brad. I have been trying to destroy my ego for a little while, and it hasn't been working! This is probably because trying to destroy your ego is really just another part of ego doing the destroying. I have been taking this Buddhism class, and I kept looking at anataman (my professor is a sanskrit junkie) like it was a goal rather than a mere fact of reality.

Its like there is something in between the five heaps, but its not you any more than one of the heaps.

Also, I struggle with the whole aversion as a part of desire thing a whole lot. Any insight there?


p.s. I read hardcore zen earlier this year and found it to be really interesting.

Anonymous said...

I really like what you say here about ego. Good stuff to think about.

Hope you'll tell us more about the Atlanta Zen Center at the next Saturday Sit.

Anonymous said...

All we need is to le' go our e' gos!

Anonymous said...

Once I learnt how not to shit in my pants I had no use for nappies.

DB said...

Brad, again, thanks for the opportunity to sit with you this weekend. I'm glad my first 3-day was at ASZC.

What surprised me most about the sesshin was the ridiculous range of emotions that played through me during the weekend. Candidly, at times I felt like running away (usually early in the day) but by afternoon/evening I had calmed down enough to be glad I stayed. I just kept telling myself "Well, it seemed like a good idea when you signed up for this, so dammit stick it out."

What helped was to attempt to step back and watch this emotional response, just watch without juding it and without letting it run amuck. That was very difficult, but doing that made the sitting times just fly by.

I honestly have no freaking idea where this interplay of emotional responses came from, or even what the emotions were in response to.

There's more, but it's probably a topic for dokusan with my own teacher, not this forum. I just wanted to let you know that I appreciated you (and everyone else) being there and to point out that despite my (hopefully) calm boring exterior, there was a lot going on this weekend, a lot of things that probably wouldn't have happened without sitting a retreat.

I think profound would be overstating it a bit, but let's say I found the sesshin experience extremely useful.

Anonymous said...

My teacher, Rients Ritskes, likes to talk about a "transparent ego". I also like the use of the term universe though, I think you can also apply it to humility. As 'Namaste' is sometimes translated as 'Greetings to the Universe within', I think you can see humility as directed to that universe. And I see taking up personal responsibility about which you talk so much, as a logical consequence of that relationship. Anyway I hope to meet you some time. Jan de Ruiter.

Anonymous said...

Daydreaming during zazen?

It's all about the back, Jack!
Straighten up, chin in, focus.
Strikes or gutters, The Dude abides...

Three bows.

Anonymous said...

"ANYWAY, it's not that we seek to destroy the ego, so much as to realize it's just a useful fiction." --brad

Thanks for the clarification. There's a big difference. Great article.

"I kept looking at anataman it was a goal rather than a mere fact of reality."==justin

Another fantastic comment. Zazen itself. Brad's blog entry and comments like this make this blog worth reading.


Blake said...

I have noticed, though, that people at times will absolve themselves of the responsibility for their own actions when they start saying, "I'm only playing the part the universe has intended for me." I can't tell you how many times I've seen/heard this. Of course, this is nothing more than the ego running away with the idea that we each have a part to play in the universe.

Wonderful posting, by the way.

Mysterion said...

Justin sed...
"I have been trying to destroy my ego..."

I don't think you MAKE ego go away but rather you let it go away - and return - like the ebb and flow of the tide. Over time, you attenuate the peaks of those ego tides and find a middle way. 2¢

bovverbhoy said...

I like the "assertive humility" concept... as opposed to "passive aggression".

esmerelda_verde said...

Yeah! back to a real Buddhism topic on this site! Thank you!

Colinski said...

Woah, where are the angry comments from "Anonymous"?

Cherry said...

Humble Gassho to you Brad for your teaching at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center and your kind words about us. I would like to invite anyone in the Atlanta area to come visit and learn more about Zen the "easy" way (read "hard", as in doing the work for yourself). Please check our website at for dates and times.

I had not read your books as I found myself a bit put-off by the titles (think 'new-age' mumbo-jumbo). I now plan to rectify that ASSumption and do so (OK, maybe a couple more fascicles of Shobogenzo first).

Mettai Cherry 滅諦

Gar said...

I like the sample songs that Om group has up on their page. It's a good reminder I should listen to other bands on the Southern Lord record label, as I've dug the others too--Boris and Sunn O))) have some fantastic explorations of drone. That particular facet of the universe expressing and perceiving itself really demands that the universe do so with a decent subwoofer involved.

About ego paradoxes, and music--decidedly non-drone metal band Meshuggah spend quite a lot of time exploring the theme of the kind of vicious feedback cycles of ego trying to destroy ego with ego; I hear a lot of that in the "I" EP and especially the "Catch 33" album. Explored in an angry, nihilistic, and self-destructive way mainly because, hey, that makes for better metal than the usual manner of someone just wasting time and looking silly while running their mind round in circles (or vice versa).

the universe said...

hi! bye!

rōren said...

Oddly, I was reading some SDASU this morning wondering how to fit no-self into the life of my daughter who we have been trying to help to be more assertive about her self in the troubling world of 8th grade peers.

What you've explained here sounds like a practical approach.

Are there any explanations in the Zen liturgy on how this delusion of self all began?

Presumably we manifestations of universal truth were not originally deluded (as I presume "lower" animals are not). What went wrong?
(puts the story of expulsion from the garden of eden in a new light...when the duality of good and evil appeared to 'us' we lost access to the garden)

BTW - I'm think of trying a two day sitting retreat. I've never done such a thing. What should I bring to wear while sitting?

Smoggyrob said...

Hi everyone:

"It [ego] exists in order that the universe might express itself, not in order that I can express my self."

It seems easy enough to say something about the last part of that sentence, but does anyone have something to say about the first part, before the comma?


HezB said...

How could we be expressing something other than the universe?

It seem to be more a question of what sort of universe we want.



Anonymous said...

On ego: there's a pretty good book by the philosopher Daniel Dennett called Consciousness Explained which says that the self is a 'magnificent fiction'.


courtesy flush said...

off topic: this morning it's being reported that Paris Hilton has found a Buddhist guru.

Brad, any chance you could muscle in as guru to Ms. Hilton?

A couple celebrity donations in the bank and you could hire Kiss to follow you around like Fishbone in "I'm Gonna Get You Sucka."

Duke said...

Paris Hilton's Buddhist guru is symptomatic of her descent into madness.

Rich said...

"It [ego] exists in order that the universe might express itself...

'Why are there two of me?'

When I first read that the first thing that came to me was 'Mind cannot be grasped' from Dogen. If I grasp onto the thoughts about my self, I am already lost. But my thoughts are real and I do grasp onto them. What zen is teaching me is to let go of them and accept doubt and don't know in the present moment. I cannot understand the mind but I can understand what I need to do in the present moment. It's the miracle of life.

dood said...

is the ego anything more than electricity bouncing around your brainsack?

Kill this, ignore that...i for one don't mind there's electricity in my head (it means i alive - at least long enough to click "publish")

take care,

soto what said...

give your meat

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

obama who?

Anonymous said...

vote for Ron Paul!

HezB said...

Why, Obama Ben Labban, ob courde!



Jinzang said...

What should I bring to wear while sitting?

Ask the people running the retreat.

is the ego anything more than electricity bouncing around your brainsack?

Actually, it's less. It's just a way of looking at yourself and the world. A mistaken way of looking at it.


My primary was last month, But I did vote for Obama.

Jinzang said...

Are there any explanations in the Zen liturgy on how this delusion of self all began?

That question doesn't have an answer. But delusion isn't something that happened 84 million years ago on the planet Xinu. It's what you're doing right now.

You should read Nine Hundred Grandmothers and get another perspective on your question.

David said...

I read a great book entitled _Zen and the Psychology of Transformation_ which stated that true humility is impossible until the gap to realization of self is crossed over. And once that occurs, one cannot help but be humble 100% of the time.

*shrugs* I like the way it sounds is all. Cool book.

earDRUM said...

I like the idea of "assertive humility".
It would be nice if most people were aware of the fact that the ego is often a "problem", rather than something to assert proudly. I think a lot of people's psychological problems are rooted in a false sense of self... an identification with an imaginary thing.

Oh yeah...
Happy Birthday Brad!

Mysterion said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Blake said...

By the way, thanks for pointing towards Om and Dengue Fever. I hesitate to compare them to any other bands but I will say it's like Gawd is whispering lovelies into my ear!

Rich said...

Mysterion said:
"I am of the opinion that we share an illusion which we have reached as the result of consensus in past life cycles."

This is part of your standup comedy zen show, right? -)

Jinzang said...

true humility is impossible until the gap to realization of self is crossed over. And once that occurs, one cannot help but be humble 100% of the time.

Even after realization you can still be a prick. Do I have to name names or recite the history of American Zen?

Michael Joyce said...

since you don't have an email listing...
I'd just like to say..
that I stopped by and tell I greatly enjoyed your blog. i will be back by time-and-time again.
if you get a free moment, i have a blog posting that you might enjoy reading.

peace and many blessings
Michael Joyce

dood said...

Myster Ion -

Is anything more than electricity bouncing around your brainsack?

i don't know - but my brainsack is at least 70% water...

now if you start saying how tiny watersacks are held together by electricity - then my friend - you win again...

always a _______

Mysterion said...

Rich sed...
"This is part of your standup comedy zen show, right? -)"

Not entirely. I am not asking anyone to believe anything.

"Researchers have studied more than 2500 such cases, and their careful investigations have produced an impressive body of work. JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, stated in a review ... 'in regard to reincarnation he has painstakingly and unemotionally collected a detailed series of cases . . . in which the evidence is difficult to explain on any other grounds.' "

Book 1

Book 2

s said...

I refer you all to the Fish, Barrel, Gun case of 1978.

Gun: 14

Fish: 0

The fish seemed unavailable for comment afterwards.

Like, "Om".



Rich said...

I understand how memories might be transmitted but for me it's not something important right now.
also transmitted memories are just transmitted memories and it doesn't mean I was another person before. And even if I was it's not important to my current job.

dood said...

a persons face can tell it all - especially the mouth part of the face...


Mysterion said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rich said...

Many years ago I studied artificial intelligence so I can appreciate the Buddhabot as entertainment which is what the creator refers to it as. But I wouldn't rule out the possibility it could become more. thanks for pointing that out.

Mysterion said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jinzang said...

I am skeptical - in spades

You should read The Naked Face. It's a fascinating article.

In my experience, one can tell quite a lot about other people by their facial expression.

Mysterion said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

mysterion, how many lives did it take you to become the foremost expert on everything in the world?

dood said...

the mouth can TELL all....

its a joke doods!

you're suffering from paralysis by analysis...

better luck nice time!

Mysterion said...

Reincarnation is also referred to as the transmigration of the soul or rebirth. SOURCE

If I held the white ashes of my many transmigrations, they would be a mountain high.

karma gaia said...

Benjamin Franklin: "I look upon death to be as necessary to the constitution as sleep. We shall rise refreshed in the morning." And, "Finding myself to exist in the world, I believe I shall, in some shape or other always exist."

Jack London, author, Call of the Wild: "I did not begin when I was born, nor when I was conceived. I have been growing, developing, through incalculable myriads of millenniums. All my previous selves have their voices, echoes, promptings in me. Oh, incalculable times again shall I be born."

Mark Twain: "I have been born more times than anybody except Krishna."

Leo Tolstoy: "As we live through thousands of dreams in our present life, so is our present life only one of many thousands of such lives which we enter from the other more real life and then return after death. Our life is but one of the dreams of that more real life, and so it is endlessly, until the very last one, the very real the life of God."

Henry Ford: "I adopted the theory of reincarnation when I was 26. Genius is experience. Some think to seem that it is a gift or talent, but it is the fruit of long experience in many lives".

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, (German poet, playwright and scientist): "As long as you are not aware of the continual law of Die and Be Again, you are merely a vague guest on a dark Earth."

Freidrich Nietzsch: "Live so that thou mayest desire to live again - that is thy duty - for in any case thou wilt live again!"

Mahatma Ghandi: "I cannot think of permanent enmity between man and man, and believing as I do in the theory of reincarnation, I live in the hope that if not in this birth, in some other birth I shall be able to hug all of humanity in friendly embrace."

Ralph Waldo Emerson: "The soul comes from without into the human body, as into a temporary abode, and it goes out of it anew it passes into other habitations, for the soul is immortal." "It is the secret of the world that all things subsist and do not die, but only retire a little from sight and afterwards return again. Nothing is dead; men feign themselves dead, and endure mock funerals… and there they stand looking out of the window, sound and well, in some strange new disguise."

General George S. Patton: "So as through a glass and darkly, the age long strife I see, Where I fought in many guises, many names, but always me."

Walt Whitman: "I know I am deathless. No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before. I laugh at what you call dissolution, and I know the amplitude of time."

William Wordsworth: "Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting; The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star, Hath had elsewhere its setting. And cometh from afar."

Jalalu Rumi (Islamic Poet of the 13th century): "I died as a mineral and became a plant, I died as a plant and rose to animal, I died as animal and I was man. Why should I fear ? When was I less by dying?"

Carl Jung: "My life often seemed to me like a story that has no beginning and no end. I had the feeling that I was an historical fragment, an excerpt for which the preceding and succeeding text was missing. I could well imagine that I might have lived in former centuries and there encountered questions I was not yet able to answer; that I had been born again because I had not fulfilled the task given to me."

Henry David Thoreau: "Why should we be startled by death? Life is a constant putting off of the mortal coil - coat, cuticle, flesh and bones, all old clothes."

Socrates: "I am confident that there truly is such a thing as living again, that the living spring from the dead, and that the souls of the dead are in existence."

Jesus Christ in Gnostic Gospels: Pistis Sophia: "Souls are poured from one into another of different kinds of bodies of the world."

Voltaire: It is not more surprising to be born twice than once; everything in nature is resurrection."

Josephus (Jewish historian from the time of Jesus): "All pure and holy spirits live on in heavenly places, and in course of time they are again sent down to inhabit righteous bodies."

Honore Balzac (French writer): "All human beings go through a previous life... Who knows how many fleshly forms the heir of heaven occupies before he can be brought to understand the value of that silence and solitude of spiritual worlds?"

Paul Gauguin (French post-impressionist painter): "When the physical organism breaks up, the soul survives. It then takes on another body."

George Harrison: "Friends are all souls that we've known in other lives. We're drawn to each other. Even if I have only known them a day., it doesn't matter. I'm not going to wait till I have known them for two years, because anyway, we must have met somewhere before, you know."

Zac in Virginia said...

It took a Protestant minister to point out that I was allowed to have a self.

It's weird: you used the same *kind* of language in the rest of your post that tends to lead innocent, trusting gaijin like myself into thinking that we should... destroy our selves.

This reminds me of when you said Nishijima (I think) called a heating pad "too excellent" and I had to just laugh. In your review of "The Last Samurai", you criticized bushido for being all macho and tough. Well, in rejecting efficacious treatment as "too helpful", I think a person could be suffering from monastic machismo.

And why whip yourself by claiming to have "no self"? How is that language helpful? Why not just realize that we do occupy little slots in the universe that we call home, and that the *important* thing is to not do stupid shit because "my self told me to".

It's like "If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!" - if Buddhism becomes an excuse for you to do stupid, hurtful shit, then you're obviously becoming too attached to Buddhism.

Also, Brad, you're quoted on the Zen One-A-Day calendar my aunt gave me. The March 9 page has your bit about "reality is all you've got.... but it's enough."

Good times.

Jinzang said...

And why whip yourself by claiming to have "no self"? How is that language helpful?

You are not the person you think you are. When you stop telling yourself that you are, that's the start of seeing that you aren't.

The *important* thing is to not do stupid shit because "my self told me to".

All the stupid hurtful stuff you do has one root. You cut through that root by seeing things as they are. Otherwise you're just nibbling around the edges.

doug rogers said...

karma gaia, that's an impressive list. Very nice.
Hmmm. Om. Too dark for my tastes.
Ego? Just get out of the way.

Smoggyrob said...

Hi everyone:

"Remember, firewood abides in the place of firewood in the Dharma. It has a past and it has a future. Although it has a past and a future, the past and the future are cut off. Ash exists in the place of ash in the Dharma. It has a past and it has a future. The firewood, after becoming ash, does not again become firewood. Similarly, human beings, after death, do not live again." -- Dogen, Shobogenzo

Here's a link to Nishijima Roshi talking about this.

You want to be born again? We're sitting tomorrow (Sat 08 Mar 2008 0945) at the Hill Street Center in LA. One hour of zazen is 60 minutes, or 3,600 seconds, or 234,000 moments, and you can be reborn in each one.

And then it's snack time.


Anonymous said...

"It's weird: you used the same *kind* of language in the rest of your post that tends to lead innocent, trusting gaijin like myself into thinking that we should... destroy our selves."

zac, buddhism has nothing to do with 'destroying' your self. Trying to destroy your self / ego is like trying to murder santa claus or the tooth fairy. It has nothing to do with allowing or disallowing a self. Just see what's already there before any thought of self or no self comes up. Delusion is all that needs to be destroyed.

"if Buddhism becomes an excuse for you to do stupid, hurtful shit, then you're obviously becoming too attached to Buddhism."

Actually, if buddhism becomes an excuse to do stupid or hurtful shit, you don't understand buddhism.


Anonymous said...

I found a perfect girlfriend for Brad.

Mysterion said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

This whole reincarnation teaching only makes sense for modern ignorants like myself with Brad's view. You exist for some amount of time and there is relationship between those interwoven existences. Fundamentalists disagree though.

Why do jerks always cite quantum physics if they want to claim something supernatural?

Mysterion said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mysterion said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

"No serious study of psychology can be undertaken without looking in Buddhism and the Zen tradition."


Anonymous said...

If you find the Buddha.

He will destroy you.