“You is the Universe looking at itself from billions of points of view.” – Alan Watts
“No self, no suffering.” – D.T. Suzuki
Selflessness is a very mistaken idea in our culture, generally taken to be a quality of relationship that places others before and above ourselves. Placing others before ourselves can be admirable in many (but not all) circumstances, placing others above ourselves, as with placing ourselves above others, however, is a sad error.
This is particularly true when it takes the form of a fixed sense of our self, a way of being that can lead to imbalanced and unhealthy relationships and an inability to honor and celebrate our own existence and the existence of others and all life.
In Buddhism, selflessness is the essential point. It is a positioning of our experience within the universe with a clear vision that what we experience as our “self”, our personality, our ego, is not the truth and essence of who we are. It is an understanding that this “self” is just a structure of programmed thoughts, a matrix of ideas conditioned into us by family, culture, society, personal experience and education. This conditioning is the source of all our confusion about who we are in relationship to others, to society, to nature, to life, to our essential self. Hence, the Buddhist instruction, “no self, no suffering.” It is the grasping onto this illusion of a psychological self as who we are that is the essential teaching of Buddhism concerning the source of human suffering. This is the “awakening” that the very word Buddhism (Budh in Sanskrit means “awaken”) is instructing us toward.
There is a world of difference between the American notion of selflessness that legitimizes a hierarchy among people and life, and the Buddhist perspective that bows to all, including, very importantly, this person we experience as myself. Others, neither above nor below, nobody special (in an egoic sense) in self or other. Rather, the eyes of God shining through in all, the specialness of sacredness in me, you, all. “The Universe looking at itself from billions of points of view.” This is the meaning of the ubiquitous yoga greeting, Namaste.
In the Shambala tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, “selflessness” is the third, the liberating, of the Four Noble Truths that leads to the alleviation of suffering. As human beings we invest our sense of self in impermanent qualities of life (this is the first truth): our appearance, capabilities, ethnicity, family origins, health, wealth, relationships, positions, affiliations, possessions, status, etc. Because of this investment of our basic well being, as all impermanent aspects of life change and eventually disappear, we suffer (second truth). Through not investing our sense of self in this impermanence (selflessness), there is a way to be free of this suffering (third truth), which leads to peace (fourth truth).
The great 20th Century Zen teacher, D.T. Suzuki described Zen as the “art of seeing into the nature of one’s being.” He added that to see clearly the “selflessness” at the core of one’s being, “points the way from bondage to freedom.” Zen repeatedly asks, “Who are you?” And for every answer that can be given from a conventional perspective, it can be pointed out that our memories, our stories, our thoughts, our emotions, our behavior patterns, our positions in the world, our possessions are all ephemeral and changing.
So what is the answer to the great koan, “Who are you?” Can you think of a better answer than Alan Watts gives us, “You is the Universe looking at itself from billions of points of view”? Can you grasp the liberation of this perspective? Unlike what some might protest, it is certainly not immoral. It is perhaps amoral, in that no morality is needed when we grasp, as the Beatles sang, “I am you and you are me and we are all together.” Neither above nor below. There is nobody here. There is nobody there. There is only the Universe unfolding. Get your self out of the way. Then all is meeting all, eye to eye. Hello. No room for exploitation, defensiveness, anxiety, cruelty or trauma to enter, neither to the conventional psychological self nor others.