Tuesday, June 7, 2005

Opportunity versus obligation

There has been quite a lot of writing about the concept of self and no-self in Buddhism. If you've ever read any of it, you'll appreciate the fact that a portion of it seems devoid of what it means beyond some kind of cool sounding contradiction, which has been translated into a form of anti-intellectualism. In fact, given some descriptions, it's hard to see any conclusion except for soft nihilism. I have addressed this elsewhere to some extent (Contradictions and Negations).

For some, the distinction between a conventional self and an ultimate self helps. These are the ideas which involve analogies like wave versus water. Another way to approach it is to use the terms selfish and selfless. I think this might be good for some folks who get tripped up by the whole self/no-self discussion. This can be further distinguished by attitude. There is a difference between "I ought to/have to be nice to this person" and "I get to be nice to this person." When compassion, generosity, loving-kindness, mindfulness, etc. seems like an obligation, that is the ego-centric view (i.e. self, selfish mind). When these things seem like an opportunity, that is the other-centric view (i.e. no-self, selfless). Nor does this mean that you must de-value yourself. You are included in the "other" of the other-centric view, you just aren't THE main focus.

Of course, if it still isn't clear, here is an example that I think really makes it clear. Imagine you are standing (or sitting) near a set of steps. Really imagine you are there and seeing what I describe. A very pretty, sweet young woman, who happens to be blind and pregnant, is walking down the steps with a large bag of groceries. Tick-tack-tack-tick-tick-tack-tack-tick goes her cane. Then she stumbles and the groceries go flying. She tumbles down the stairs and crashes to the bottom...

What would be your reaction? Do you pause or hesitate? Do you think about yourself? Do you consider whether or not to help her? I am going to bet that most of you would simply run (or wheel yourself) right over to her as fast as you could and ask if she is alright. You would offer to get some additional help if she needs it and would likely help gather up her groceries. No hesitation. You would just spring into action. Just like that. That is no-self, the selfless mind, the other-centered view. The difference between a regular person and a Buddha/Bodhisattva is this: They would have the same reaction if they saw the guy that just cut them off/flipped them off in rush hour traffic sitting by the side of the road with a blowout and no spare. They would have the same reaction if a convicted murderer was scared and alone before his execution. That is, I personally believe (and obviously take that for what it is or isn't worth), the expression of Bodhi mind.

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