The Dalai Lama Does Not Exist and Neither Do I

When the Dalai Lama teaches that according to Buddhist cosmology, the separate self does not exist, I have to pause. This world religious leader doesn't exist. And neither do you and I.
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At Radio City Music Hall last week, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama came forth to offer Buddhist wisdom. As robed monks in red and ochre filed in to take their seats, the walls were illuminated in ochre, as if we had entered a giant, cozy cathedral of Buddhism. I was grateful to be there but even so must confess that I find it hard to get my mind around certain aspects of Buddhist cosmology.

Very clearly, the Dalai Lama is not urging the Buddhist view on everyone. In fact, he encourages people to follow their own heritage, and told us that, in a non-Buddhist country, a lecture by a Buddhist monk "looks a little strange, but may be useful."

Over the last 23 years that I've received His Holiness' teachings, they have most certainly been useful. I've valued Buddhism for its emphasis on compassion and loving kindness, its reminder that we are all interconnected, its tolerance of religious diversity, and the high value it places on all life. Science has confirmed the value of Buddhist practices: Long time meditators develop health-promoting inner calm, resilience and happiness. New research indicates that those with the ability to calm the mind can also effect material phenomena through the power of awareness.

To me all of this is Buddhism's "good news," and it certainly is plentiful.

Yet as I sat back readying myself to hear the newest wrinkle on the ancient teachings, I felt a familiar combination of dread and relief. Dread because I knew that the ultimate truth in Buddhism is that all is emptiness. And that includes me. Relief for reasons I can't quite name.

For an American, the freedom to be "me" reigns supreme. In a culture that glorifies individuality, celebrity, self-discovery and even the independence to buy a Big Mac, having it "my way," is what it's all about. Like one giant assembly line of "selfhood," our media and culture churn out icons at a steady pace, each one mirroring a common need to be recognized, respected, understood, successful and loved.

Yet when one of the most respected and enduring "icons" of our time, the Dalai Lama, teaches that according to Buddhist cosmology, fundamentally the separate self does not exist, I have to pause. What does that mean? It means at a foundational level, this world religious leader doesn't exist. And neither do you and I.

Undoubtedly, on what Buddhist teachings call the "conventional' level, when I get up every morning there I am. My self is my most familiar companion, the one who's always there, accompanying me through life. Yet on an ultimate level, that cherished self, so special, so individual, so charming, (and sometimes a real pain) -- that "me"-- is a construct, a wispy illusion, say the Buddhist teachings.

Instead of creating my own reality or being the architect of my life and destiny, I am nothing. That precious self to whom I cling and for whom I labor to make a good and worthy life, in the mirror of Buddhism face its essential emptiness. A blank void stares back at me in place of that cherished and familiar old face of mine -- my identity.

Something inside me silently screams: Say it isn't so.

Yet within also arises a sense of relief, as if welcoming the opportunity to let go of that striving to protect that self, or even to assure its spiritual evolution and good karma. Somewhere I know that this clinging to identity and to life is what prompts all of us to do the icky stuff we sometimes find ourselves doing.

It's easier to see the grasping self at work in others. Since profit-driven corporations are now people, too -- corporations who cut corners to protect their own profits, and end up polluting the waters upon which life on earth depends top my current list of self-graspers. But there are many ornery others, all with their different self agendas, and of course there are my own.

Even by writing a blog on my struggle with deep cosmology, I'm interjecting my individual selfhood into the spiritual mix.

Evolving, surviving, doing good, belonging -- psychology has taught me to gently acknowledge my self's favorite drivers, and to value the process and learning I undergo thanks to them. But Buddhism keeps reminding me of the empty resonant void beyond this striving -- a void that once frightened me, which now I resist, but which beckons somehow. Perhaps because alongside this abundant world with its cornucopia of action, even my little old self would welcome a space where emptiness carries it all.

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