What does "self" mean in Buddhism

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  • Joyo
    • Jun 2024

    What does "self" mean in Buddhism

    I was having a conversation with my husband (he does not study Buddhism at all) and trying to explain what the word "self" means. I was directly referring to this quote by Dogen....

    “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”



    Funny as I understand what this quote means (at least partly) but I have a hard time explaining to someone what the "self" means from a Buddhist perspective. I would say ego? our perceptions on things?

    Gassho,
    Joyo
    sat today
  • Jakuden
    Member
    • Jun 2015
    • 6142

    #2
    Hi Joyo! I think about this statement a lot! In my mind, the beginning part of the quote starts with the egocentric self, then describes how this egocentric self drops away and becomes everything, and nothing, infinitely...

    Gassho,
    Sierra
    SatToday

    Comment

    • Rich
      Member
      • Apr 2009
      • 2595

      #3
      Yea, I'd say ego. So if we are just in the present that consciousness or wakefulness is non self or no mind which is ego less. And then you say words can't describe it and then they roll their eyes 👀😊 -)

      SAT today
      _/_
      Rich
      MUHYO
      無 (MU, Emptiness) and 氷 (HYO, Ice) ... Emptiness Ice ...

      https://instagram.com/notmovingmind

      Comment

      • Jundo
        Treeleaf Founder and Priest
        • Apr 2006
        • 39211

        #4
        Hi,

        I feel what Sierra is describing. Lovely.

        Of course, we must be cautious about putting this too much into words and formulas, because then it becomes too much a philosophical understanding which keeps us from really embodying so (much as the difference between philosophizing about "what is 'sweetness'" and actually tasting the ice cream ), but almost all Zen teachers through history spoke more or less so when they had to say something.

        Generally, the small "self" is the little inner model of ourself which we create within, and which feels separate from the rest of the "not me", then separates and categorizes the world into all manner of separate things, judges dichotomies such as good and bad, healthy and sick, life and death (because even being "born" and "dying" can only apply to something which is separate from everything), here and there, yesterday today and tomorrow etc. etc. etc. Even this "me/mine" is made an object in the mind which we judge, fixate upon and worry about endlessly.

        Some schools of Buddhism and other Eastern/mystical religions and philosophies tend to describe this experience of "small self" as "false", while the dropping away of all that separation, thinging and judging is "True", whereby the target is to drop the "little self" completely. Most flavors of Zen Buddhism, however, have a much more subtle teaching, which I might describe as "the little self may be false in one way, but also useful and golden while it lasts". The enterprise then becomes to see through it, drop it and embrace the little self all at once! Each view is true in its way depending on one's perspective (and "non-perspective", because when all division is dropped what "seer" having a view of a "seen" is possible), and also the illumination of this Wonderful Whole shines beyond, through and precisely -as- each separate thing.

        The result is something like saying "there is no sickness and health, life and death, nothing to fear ... and yet, at the same time, there is sickness and health, life and death and each is a precious jewel in the moment (so when sick, just be sick ... when healthy just be healthy) ... while, at the same time, take your vitamins and exercise (for while sickness and death may be just a dream, no need to rush that dream ). Much of Genjo Koan (where your quote comes from) is filled with this view of transcending, dropping and also reactualizing this self and all things as shining jewels ... each a total facet of the Great Jewel which is Enlightenment.

        Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. Although its light is wide and great, the moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water.
        Enlightenment does not divide you, just as the moon does not break the water. You cannot hinder enlightenment, just as a drop of water does not hinder the moon in the sky. The depth of the drop is the height of the moon. Each reflection, however long or short its duration, manifests the vastness of the dewdrop, and realizes the limitlessness of the moonlight in the sky.
        http://www.thezensite.com/ZenTeachin...GenjoKoan8.htm
        I find this a very healthy, wise and gentle way to live, so recommend this Practice to folks.

        Gassho, J

        SatToday
        Last edited by Jundo; 12-26-2015, 08:38 PM.
        ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

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        • Jishin
          Member
          • Oct 2012
          • 4819

          #5
          What does "self" mean in Buddhism

          Hi,

          I would say that self is a sound. It can be approximated by those who read and speak English and put the letters s e l f together. Depending from where the person is from, the pronunciation may sound different. Maybe even unintelligible between two English speakers. Likewise, it may not be understood by someone with a minimal education. But the sound and word self is not understood by non English speakers. It is also not understood by a rock, tree, cat or dog. The sound is not understood by a deaf person either. So I would say self is a pretty worthless word with no meaning, maybe best described as no-self.

          Gasho, Jishin, _/st\_
          Last edited by Jishin; 12-26-2015, 10:58 PM.

          Comment

          • Mp

            #6
            Hello Joyo,

            Wonderful reflection here for sure ... for me, simply put the self is the ego. If we see the ego for what it is and açcept it for what it is, it falls away. =)

            Gassho
            Shingen

            Sent from my Nexus 7 using Tapatalk

            Comment

            • CK732
              Member
              • Aug 2015
              • 252

              #7
              Originally posted by Jishin
              Hi,

              I would say that self is a sound. It can be approximated by those who read and speak English and put the letters s e l f together. Depending from where the person is from, the pronunciation may sound different. Maybe even unintelligible between two English speakers. Likewise, it may not be understood by someone with a minimal education. But the sound and word self is not understood by non English speakers. It is also not understood by a rock, tree, cat or dog. The sound is not understood by a deaf person either. So I would say self is a pretty worthless word with no meaning, maybe best described as no-self.

              Gasho, Jishin, _/st\_
              Very interesting Jishin [emoji848] I believe we can say this about all words and labels. Would you agree? The only meaning they all have is the meaning that we choose to give it.

              Gassho

              Clarisse Sat2Day


              Sent from my iPad using Tapatalk

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              • Jishin
                Member
                • Oct 2012
                • 4819

                #8
                Originally posted by CK732
                The only meaning they all have is the meaning that we choose to give it.
                The only meaning they all have is not the meaning that we choose to give it. It's the meaning I chose to give them.

                Gasho, Jishin, _/st\_

                Comment

                • Kyonin
                  Treeleaf Priest / Engineer
                  • Oct 2010
                  • 6739

                  #9
                  Hi Joyo,

                  The way I understand the concept of self and ego is that both are the way we humans have to understand and to relate with the universe. We have developed it through out hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. We are a weak species, so we need cunning and intelligence to have competitive advantage against the dangers of the environment and to get our food.

                  We see a phenomenon in the world and find out how will it affect us. We developed language to communicate with each other, but also to give things names so we can understand them. So we establish relationships with things, environment and people based on how much they affect US (or I).

                  The self or ego is the collection of stories we tell ourselves in order make sense of the universe and see the impact it will have in our lives. The problem is we grasp to these stories and convert them into opinions and judgments, assuming that what we think is reality.

                  But this complex way to see the universe is only a human thing. In nature there is no ego or self. Living beings will protect their lives and may have basic egos, but at the end, they won't create a huge drama out of stuff. Things happen because that's nature and is how the cosmos works.

                  Ego and self are just illusions that create a divisive mind that separates a person from the the rest of living beings. And I don't have to say the countless problems this has created for us.

                  I hope this all makes sense. Just woke up and I am still with my first cup of coffee

                  Gassho,

                  Kyonin
                  Hondō Kyōnin
                  奔道 協忍

                  Comment

                  • Joyo

                    #10
                    Thank you everyone.

                    Kyonin, what you said made total sense. =)

                    Gassho,
                    Joyo
                    sat today

                    Comment

                    • Frank
                      Member
                      • Dec 2015
                      • 94

                      #11
                      Just reminds me of my martial.arts background. In the movie about Samurai with Tom Cruise, he keeps fumbling and getting beat up untIL someone tells him NO MIND..YOU MUST HAVE NO MIND.
                      He was then there present, but not there, he was aware, but not locked on any moment, fluid and flowing like water. In the eye of the hurricane at all.times, nor affected but ever present in control.
                      No mind.

                      Comment

                      • Eishuu

                        #12
                        Absolutely beautiful quote about the moon in a dewdrop...just wow! Am putting that up in my home to reflect on (no pun intended :-)) Thank you.

                        Gassho
                        Lucy
                        Sat today

                        Comment

                        • Jakuden
                          Member
                          • Jun 2015
                          • 6142

                          #13
                          Originally posted by Kyonin
                          The self or ego is the collection of stories we tell ourselves in order make sense of the universe and see the impact it will have in our lives. The problem is we grasp to these stories and convert them into opinions and judgments, assuming that what we think is reality.
                          That's a pretty darn coherent summary for being on your first cup of coffee, Kyonin!

                          Gassho,
                          Sierra
                          SatToday

                          Comment

                          • Jundo
                            Treeleaf Founder and Priest
                            • Apr 2006
                            • 39211

                            #14
                            Originally posted by Frank
                            Just reminds me of my martial.arts background. In the movie about Samurai with Tom Cruise, he keeps fumbling and getting beat up untIL someone tells him NO MIND..YOU MUST HAVE NO MIND.
                            He was then there present, but not there, he was aware, but not locked on any moment, fluid and flowing like water. In the eye of the hurricane at all.times, nor affected but ever present in control.
                            No mind.
                            Hi Frank,

                            The one point (pun intended) I would mention when someone brings up such "one pointedness" of "Samurai Tom Cruise Mind" is that such is one tool on the Zen tool belt. Some folks think that the point of this Practice is to learn to be such all the time.

                            Well, good for swordsmen and other martial artists in battle, divers about to go off the high board, tea masters drinking tea, sewers of the Rakusu sometimes, the ritual of Zazen sometimes and all manner of Zen Ceremonies such as Oryoki and all manner of "be flowing in the moment" life moments ...

                            ... but it is not be necessary, practical, healthy or (in my view) possible to live such way all the time.

                            If you don't mind (pun intended), I wrote a bit more about that here:

                            Being mindful of 'mindful'

                            It seems to me that many people in Zen Practice have come to confuse "being present/mindful in the moment" (for example, "when drinking tea, just drink tea" ... a sometimes appropriate and lovely way to experience life) ... with "being present with the moment" (allowing and merging with conditions


                            Gassho, J

                            SatToday
                            Last edited by Jundo; 12-28-2015, 01:07 AM.
                            ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

                            Comment

                            • Anshu Bryson
                              Member
                              • Aug 2014
                              • 566

                              #15
                              I think it is difficult to nail down. When we say 'self' in the Buddhist context, we are usually talking about 'atta'/'atman' (sometimes translated into English as 'ego', but I understand it to be more like the concept of 'soul', which is quite different than 'ego', I'd suggest). In Japanese, the kanji I think is most often used (Jundo please correct me if I'm mistaken) for 'self' or in Japanese is 'ga' (我. 'No self' being 'muga'/'無我') which, from a J-E dictionary search, simply translates as 'self' or 'ego'. It really depends on what kanji Dogen used in the original text. And, if indeed it was 'ga', we should be aware that the Japanese translation might not be fully accurate. It's a sort of like the 'Chinese Whispers/Telephone' game. Each time a term is translated from one language to the next, it loses some nuance. We are a couple of translations down the line; we might not always get the right nuance from any English version. So, perhaps it's a good thing that Zen is a 'transmission beyond words'...

                              All that boring technical stuff aside , I do like Kyonin's observation: "Ego and self are just illusions that create a divisive mind that separates a person from the rest of living beings. And I don't have to say the countless problems this has created for us..."

                              Gassho,
                              Anshu

                              -sat today-

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