Posted inOther Teachings

The Suffering of Self, Part 3 of 4, by David Loy

March 4, 2017

Most fundamentally, Buddhism is about awakening, which means realizing something about the constructedness of the sense of self and the nothing at its core.


Read Part 1 and Part 2 of The Suffering of Self.

How does our repressed sense of unreality return to consciousness? As a feeling that there is something missing or lacking in my life. What is it that’s lacking? How I understand that depends upon the kind of person I am, and the kind of society I live in. The sense that something is wrong with me is too amorphous. It needs to be given more specific form if I’m to do something about it, and that form usually depends upon how I have been raised.

In modern developed (or “economized”) societies such as the United States, I am likely to understand my lack as not enough money – regardless of how much money I already have. Money is important to us not only because we can buy anything with it, but also because it has become a kind of collective reality symbol. The more money you get, the more real you become! That’s the way we tend to think, anyway. (When a wealthy person arrives somewhere his or her presence is acknowledged much more than the arrival of a “nobody.”) Because money doesn’t really end dukkha — it can’t fill up the bottomless hole at my core – this way of thinking often becomes a trap. You’re a multi-millionaire but still feel like something is wrong with your life? Obviously you don’t have enough money yet.

Another example is fame. If I am known by lots and lots of people, then I must be real, right? Yet the attention of other people, who are haunted by their own sense of lack, can’t fill up our own sense of lack. If you think that fame is what will make you real, you can never be famous enough.

This understanding of anatta gives us some insight into karma, especially the Buddha’s take on it, which emphasized the role of motivations and intentions. If my sense of self is actually composed of habitual ways of perceiving, feeling, thinking and behaving, then karma isn’t something I have, it’s what I am. The important point is that I change my karma by changing who “I” am: by reconstructing my habitual ways of perceiving, feeling, thinking and behaving. The problematical motivations that cause so much trouble for myself and for others – greed, ill will and delusion, the three unwholesome roots – need to be transformed into their more positive counterparts that work to reduce dukkha: generosity, loving-kindness, and wisdom.

Whether or not you believe in karma as something magical, as an objective moral law of the universe, on a more psychological level karma is about how certain habitual ways of thinking and acting tend to create certain types of situations. If I’m motivated by greed, ill will and delusion, then I need to be manipulative, which alienates other people and also makes me feel more separate from them. Ironically, I’m busy trying to defend and promote the interests of something that doesn’t exist: my self. (It’s because the sense of self is not a real self that it feels so vulnerable, always in need of defense and support.) Yet acting in that way reinforces my delusive sense of self. When I’m motivated by generosity and loving-kindness, however, I can relax and open up, be less defensive. Again, other people tend to respond in the same way, which works to reduce dukkha for all of us.

Transforming our karma in this way is very important, yet it is not the only goal or the main goal of Buddhist practice…

Most fundamentally, Buddhism is about awakening, which means realizing something about the constructedness of the sense of self and the nothing at its core.

If changing karma involves reconstructing the sense of self, deconstructing the sense of self involves directly experiencing its emptiness. Usually that void at our core is so uncomfortable that we try to evade it, by identifying with something else that might give us stability and security. Another way to say it is that we keep trying to fill up that hole, yet it’s a bottomless pit. Nothing that we can ever grasp or achieve can end our sense of lack.

Read Part 4 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: Arthur/The Quest, by Hartwig HKD, CC by-ND 2.0, from
Featured Image: Self Portrait Trauma Scars, by Jane Fox, CC by-ND 2.0, from

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