Enlightenment is ego’s ultimate disappointment. – Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
Over the past few years, I have spent countless hours engaged in heated debate with my friend Bernie about a pair of concepts that taken together seem to create Buddhism’s most glaring contradiction. Earlier this week, a blogger I follow also raised the question of how to justify the belief in reincarnation with the Buddhist notion of Anatman (literally “no soul”). Some clues to the resolution of this paradox can be found in words attributed to Gautama Buddha, the gist of which were admonishments to a disciple upon being questioned about the existence of a soul that if these are one’s concerns when he hasn’t even figured out how to control his own mind, then he is asking the wrong questions and grasping at the extreme of eternalism. This morning, it finally dawned on me that these allegories might just be sufficient to put the matter to rest.
In questioning the logic of the coexistence of reincarnation and Anatman in the Buddhadharma, I was approaching the problem from a distinctly Western mindset; in other words, an ego-driven desire to have everything make sense in a rational context. First of all, let’s look at this Freudian hypothesis of ego. Ego is an abstract idea; it isn’t something that can be located within the physical body or the brain, nor is it a spirit underlying our thoughts and actions. It is a psychological construct that is sustained by man’s fear of non-existence. The word itself was coined as a sort of umbrella term encompassing every self-conscious trick of the mind that serves to imbue the individual with earthly pride and faith in his or her own infinite duration. This can almost make it seem like quite a handy device to minimize our fears and anxieties, but ultimately, it ends up trapping each of us in an ever-growing web of imagined phobias and enemies.
The monotheism of the West feeds the egotism of its adherents by insisting on the existence of an eternal soul within each of us whose job it is to indulge the capricious whims of its incomprehensible and often cruel foreman named God. This concept creates in the minds of its devotees a world of perpetual struggle between “us” (the pious) and “them” (the heathens). It enables the clerics and scribes of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths to proclaim that the ephemeral phenomena of earthly life are vitally important to human salvation and for the faithful to take it as their divine responsibility to evangelize and short of that, to subjugate non-believers through violence. Just think about the ludicrous terms “Holy War”, “Crusade” and “Jihad” and the countless lives that have been cruelly dispatched in the service of this horribly evil theology. People who believe in the same god, read the same scriptures and perform almost identical rituals are nonetheless convinced that slight deviations from orthodoxy are sufficient reason to persecute or even kill people they have willfully forgotten are their own spiritual brethren.
Perhaps now it is becoming clear just how dangerous our ego-driven misinterpretations of esoteric teachings really are. More significantly, our fearful and lazy grasping at the ubiquitous belief systems of our own culture is the catalyst of most of our misery. Look below the surface of any of our current crises and sure as shit, you’ll find monotheism at its core. Political strife, partisan hatred, bigotry, sexism, homophobia, violence, revenge, mass incarceration, warfare – each has its roots in the erroneous belief in mankind’s earthly superiority and eternal soul. The outspoken militancy of our self-declared atheists seems to betray an uncertainty in their own one-sided position that probably arises from a lifetime spent immersed in a culture that so fearfully clings to its own importance.
Therefore, I think the real question isn’t how to resolve the paradoxical nature of two seemingly contradictory Buddhist concepts. The wisdom behind the linguistic confusion is that without an eternal fate to ponder, one is free to find divinity in the moment; in the mundane, the beautiful, the dull and the obscene. When the mind abandons the contemplation of imagined significance in the theoretically suspect directions of linear time, all that remains is the look and feel of the moment. It is here and only here that one’s soul becomes eternal, if only for one glorious instant.