The Suffering of Self, Part 1 of 4, by David Loy

Buddhism isn’t about helping us become well-adjusted. A socially well-adjusted ego-self is still a sick ego-self, for there remains something problematical about it. It is still infected by dukkha.

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If someone asked you to summarize the teachings of the Buddha, what would you say? For most Buddhists, probably the first thing that would come to mind is the four noble (or “ennobling”) truths: dukkha, its causes, its cessation (better known as nirvana), and the eightfold path that leads to cessation. Shakyamuni Buddha himself is believed to have emphasized those four truths in his first dharma talk, and those of us who teach Buddhism find them quite helpful, because all his other teachings can be included somewhere within them.

Nevertheless, there is nothing exclusively or distinctively Buddhist about any of the four noble truths.

Buddhism has its own take on them, of course, but in their basic form the four noble truths are common to many Indian religious traditions. Dukkha is where many of those spiritual paths begin, including Jainism and Sankhya-Yoga; there is wide agreement that the cause of dukkha is craving, and that liberation from craving is possible; and they all include some sort of way to realize that liberation. Yoga, for example, has a path with seven limbs, which is quite similar to Buddhism’s eightfold path.

So what is truly distinctive about Buddhist teaching? How does it differ from other religious traditions that also explain the world and our role within it? No other spiritual path focuses so sharply on the intrinsic connection between dukkha and our delusive sense of self. They are not only related: for Buddhism the self is dukkha.

Although dukkha is usually translated as “suffering,” that is too narrow. The point of dukkha is that even those who are wealthy and healthy experience a basic dissatisfaction, a dis-ease, which continually festers. That we find life dissatisfactory, one damn problem after another, is not accidental, because it is the nature of the unawakened sense-of-self to be bothered about something.

Pali Buddhism distinguishes three basic types of dukkha. Everything we usually identify as physical and mental suffering – including being separated from those we want to be with, and being stuck with those we don’t want to be with (the Buddha had a sense of humor!) – is included in the first type.

The second type is the dukkha due to impermanence: the realization that, although I might be enjoying an ice-cream cone right now, it will soon be finished.The best example of this type is awareness of mortality, which haunts our appreciation of life. Knowing that death is inevitable casts a shadow that usually hinders our ability to live fully now.

The third type of dukkha is more difficult to understand because it is connected with the delusion of self. It is dukkha due to sankhara “conditioned states,” which is sometimes taken as a reference to the ripening of past karma. More generally, however, sankhara refers to the constructedness of all our experience, including the experience of self. When looked at from the other side, another term for this constructedness is anatta “nonself.” There is no unconditioned self within our constructed sense of self, and this is the source of our deepest dukkha, our worst anguish.

This anguished sense of being a self that is separate from the world I am in is illusory – in fact, it is our most dangerous delusion. Here we can benefit from what is now a truism in contemporary psychology, which has also realized that the sense of self is a psychological-social-linguistic construct. Psychological, because the ego-self is a product of mental conditioning. Social, because a sense of self develops due to social interaction with other constructed selves. Linguistic, because acquiring a sense of self involves learning to use certain names and pronouns such as I, me, mine, myself, words which creates the illusion that there must be some thing being referred to. If the word “cup” refers to this thing I’m drinking coffee out of, then “I” must refer to something too, right? Wrong: this one of the ways language misleads us, by pointing to something that isn’t there to be found.

Yet Buddhism differs from most of modern psychology in two important ways. First, Buddhism emphasizes that there is always something uncomfortable about our constructed sense of self. Much of contemporary psychotherapy is concerned with helping us become “well-adjusted.” The ego-self needs to be repaired so it can fit into society and we can play our social roles better…

Buddhism isn’t about helping us become well-adjusted. A socially well-adjusted ego-self is still a sick ego-self, for there remains something problematical about it. It is still infected by dukkha.

This suggests the other way that Buddhism differs from modern psychology. Buddhism agrees that the sense of self can be reconstructed, and that it needs to be reconstructed, but it emphasizes even more that the sense of self needs to be deconstructed, to realize its true empty nature. Awakening to our constructedness is the only real solution to our most fundamental anxiety. Ironically, the problem and its solution both depend upon the same fact: a constructed sense of self is not a real self. Not being a real self, however, is also what enables the sense of self to be deconstructed and reconstructed. And that is what the spiritual path is about.

Read Part 2 of the Suffering of Self

David Robert Loy is a professor, writer, and Zen teacher in the Sanbo Zen tradition of Japanese Zen Buddhism.  © Copyright 2006, David R. Loy. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.

Image: What will be there? by Hartwig HKD, CC by-ND 2.0, from Flickr.com
Featured Image: Self Portrait Trauma Scars, by Jane Fox, CC by-ND 2.0, from Flickr.com

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