SELF-SUFFICIENCY WITHOUT EGO
In Buddhism one can be confused at seemingly opposite teachings on individuality and self-reliance. On the one hand, it teaches us to let go of ego. On the other hand, it teaches ekagata, which is spiritual self-sufficiency. How is this best understood?
Let’s consider ekagata first. What is it to be spiritually self-sufficient? It means that even if everybody else is panicking, one need not panic; one may stay calm because one’s refuge in the Dharma is stronger than the panic provoking stimulus.
This is particularly the case when the stimulus is something that could seem threatening to one’s person, reputation or interests. There are several sutras where the Buddha talks about or demonstrates how to not respond in kind when insulted.
When we consider instances of the kind just mentioned, I think we should be able to see how spiritual self-sufficiency equates to non-ego. The person who is not spiritually self-sufficient is triggered by insult because his or her ego is involved. We call this taking something personally.
The person of ekagata lays aside ego so that when a person says something to him or her he can consider objectively if it is so or not. If it is so, he can admit it. If it is not, he can let it pass.
INDIVIDUALITY AS A POSE
Our contemporary society is much concerned with image and style. The modern idea of individuality is about developing a personal image and style. This is an attempt to control how others see one in order to optimise one’s access to social approval. Because one is seeking approval of others, one cannot actually afford to step outside rather narrow parameters. From a Buddhist perspective this type of strategy is not genuine, but only a pose.
Such a project has obvious pitfalls. If one believes in one’s image, then one is at the mercy of changing fashion and of modes of opinion. One will have to be a kind of chameleon in order to stay popular. One sees this in certain politicians.
Of course, this can lead to a second level phenomenon in which a person puts on a show for public consumption without believing in it him or herself. This leads to a lot of hypocrisy.
Then again, even more complicated, one has the phenomenon of skilful means. Sometimes it is necessary to dissemble in order to bring about a well-intentioned change. This is a very tricky area. One thinks of certain guru figures who are skilled at taking photo opportunities. It is difficult to tell from outside whether the person is really sincere or not.
TATHAGATAS DO NOT SPEAK FALSELY
What we do know is that in the Pari-Nirvana Sutra, King Ajatashatru send his adisor to ask questions of the Buddha because “Tathagatas do not speak falsely.” It is true that in the conversation that follows the Buddha only says what is true, but it is also apparent that he chooses which things to say judiciously and does not say everything.
So what can we draw from all this? On the one hand, it is not always possible to perceive whether another person is sincere, nor to assess accurately their true motive or character. On the other hand, insofar as we can set ego aside, we ourselves become more spiritually self-sufficient and liberated. This makes it much easier to be both truthful and judicious. We might have to occupy certain roles from time to time, but it is best not to get too invested in them. On the other hand, simply putting on a show for the sake of social approval is only rarely part of a genuinely wise and compassionate intention.
To the outside observer, the bodhisattva might seem saintly or simply eccentric, but this is not something that the person herself worries about over-much. She simply does what has to be done. The observer will try to put her into a characterisation, but she herself is not playing that game.
In Western psychology, the aim is ego strength and positive self-regard. This is quite different to the Buddhist approach in which the aim is to diminish and abandon ego investment. In the Western model the person combats threats through inner strength. It is, however, impossible to be so thick skinned that nothing gets through. In the Buddhist approach insult simply passes by or remains with the perpetrator because the bodhisattva is not touched by it. The Western approach is really a conflict model whereas the Buddhist approach is based on the principle of emptiness. This difference of philosophy runs very deep. The Buddha has an open hand, not a clenched fist.