What Do You Mean, “No Self?”

Monks’ quarters at Tibetan Temple, Bodh Gaya, India

Some time ago, I attended a talk by Lama Surya Das, who has studied and practised extensively in the Tibetan tradition, and is apparently known to His Holiness the Dalai Lama as “the American Lama.” The talk was held at the Follen Church, a unique octagon-shaped Unitarian church that was built in 1836 in the village of East Lexington, Massachusetts. It’s a building that I feel very comfortable in. My father worked there as a janitor when I was a kid, and I’d play the pipe organ while he vacuumed the carpeted aisles and arranged the missals in the wooden racks on the backs of the pews. Later in life, I came to know the church for the wonderful A.A. meeting that’s held there every Saturday evening at 5:30. I currently live a block down Mass Ave. from the Follen church, and for the past few years, I’ve used the steeple bell as my meditation timer, sitting on the cushion at twenty minutes to the hour and ending my session at the bell’s toll.

Surya Das was discussing his latest book, Buddha Standard Time, which explores the importance of remaining present as the demands on our attention continue to increase in the 21st century. As we entered the Q and A portion of the evening, I decided to raise my hand. I don’t actually remember what I asked because, to be honest, my intention was really to give my local zen center a plug. What I succeeded in doing was, however, in the parlance of the Kwan Um School of Zen’s practice manual, to “point to the gap between my cognition and my practice.” In other words, I publicly fell on my face in an impromptu koan interview. In the course of my question, just for good measure, I’d worked in the phrase “no self.”

“What do you mean, ‘no self?'” Surya Das interrupted very clearly, very loudly, and a little bit aggressively.

The sound of creaking 175-year-old wooden pews was deafening as 100 people turned their bodies to await my response, which never came. I had no answer, which isn’t a bad response when the interview is one-on-one, but it’s a bit unsettling with a small legion of spiritual seekers looking on. Not only did I no longer feel comfortable in the venerable old church, I no longer felt comfortable in my own skin. “Mortified” is probably the single best descriptor. The ensuing silence was awkward probably to me alone, and possibly enjoyed by anyone fond of seeing a true teacher deftly bludgeoning a student with his own arrogance and confusion. I had glibly tossed out this lofty philosophy with no expectation of being challenged. “We’re all Buddhists here, right?” I thought. Isn’t the whole “no self” thing a given?

“How can you say there’s no self?” the onslaught continued. “If I eat, do you get fed? I’m over here and you’re over there. What do you mean by this ‘no self” thing?”

Whatever words Surya Das delivered next were most likely very good and useful teaching, but I didn’t hear the vast majority of them, stewing as I was in my own embarrassment and shame. After the dust had settled and he was on to the next, more cautious victim, however, I understood what he was getting at. I had no actual experience of “no self.” It’s all just heresay to me.

My daily reality, based in ignorance, doesn’t feel like unity and oneness; it feels like clear division between self and other. I’m sitting here in East Lexington typing these words, and you’re out there somewhere reading them. Two different people… that’s the starting point. To deny that is to be dishonest about my situation, which is never an effective way of dealing with a problem. “No self,” from the perspective of my current state of consciousness, is simply a concept or belief, neither of which is something that zen concerns itself with. Zen is about groundedness and action.

Trusting in the dharma, and all great teachings, how does one transform this idea of “no self” from belief to reality? Only by moment to moment practice. This is where the 12 Step Recovery notion of “act as if” comes into play. The basic premise here is that it’s easier for me to act my way toward right thinking than it is to think my way toward right action. I need to emulate the qualities I want to possess. When I wanted to stop being obsessed with drinking, I needed to act like I wasn’t obsessed with alcohol. After a continued period of not acting on that obsession, it was lifted. Likewise, if I want to truly realize the concept of “no self,” I need to start acting selflessly. “No self” is not a philosophy, it’s a practice, one that has the power to save all sentient beings.

I live in the same town as Lama Surya Das, and I run into him from time to time. I smile and he smiles back. In all liklihood, he has no recollection of me or my “failed” koan. But I remember the words he spoke to let me off the hook before taking another question. “You’re a zen guy,” he said, “so I know you have eyes to hear what I’m saying.”

2 thoughts on “What Do You Mean, “No Self?”

  1. I watched a couple of Lama Surya Das videos recently, it was the first time I’d seen and heard him. I have his Awakening The Buddha Within and just started Buddha Standard Time. It struck me inthe videos that he had a pretty powerful presence. I feel for your predicament that day with someone with that kind of strength…

    • It was a very humbling, and thus valuable, teaching in the moment. I have a friend who has worked extensively with Surya Das over the years. He says that the lama can be positively brutal in one-on-one interviews. For some of us, this approach is necessary at times. One has to trust that the “brutality” is born of compassion…

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