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The Perception Of Self Within Tibetan Buddhism

Updated on November 28, 2017
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Missing Link is originally from rural Ohio. He currently lives in Hillsboro, OR. with his Wife and two Sons.

I wrote the following more than 20 years ago and thought it would make a nice hub. I have done a bit of editing to the text. The pictures, material, and the links at the end were not part of the original.

I was much more idealistic all those years ago and I want to issue a very serious warning. Do not over-idealize any Tibetans or practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism you may come across. Just because someone is Buddhist or Tibetan doesn't mean they are more advanced, enlightened or better than you. There are Tibetans who prey upon and take advantage of people who have over-idealized views of them. There are Tibetans that are liars, thieves, users and on and on. The vast majority of Tibetans are good people.

Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes the practice of meditation, self-examination and, self-awareness. Through the teachings of these practices, Tibetan Buddhism hopes to help others transcend their "normal" earthly existence. Tibetan Buddhism strives to help other people transcend their "normal lifestyle" because it views most people's lives as being one of suffering. The teachings concerning the escape from suffering have largely to do with the religion's perception of self or how well one understands one's self or lack of self. If one can get to the point of understanding one's inner being and mind, and if one can realize that there is no self, indeed that there is nothing, then this enhanced understanding of the nature of the mind can be used to escape form the world of suffering. The escape from suffering is the main emphasis of Buddhism in general.

Buddhism was first expounded in the modern era (in the 6th century B.C.) by Prince Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Shakyamuni Buddha (awakened one). Siddhartha, as a young lad, became fascinated with the existence of suffering. He noticed that everyone suffered in one way or another, be it due to hard physical labor, pain, growing old, etc. He assumed that suffering existed because everyone and everything was in the process of changing, and therefore would someday pass away. He had searched for ways to escape a life of suffering, be it with knowledge gained from spiritual teachers or religious sects, but he knew he had not found the answers to his questions. He grew disenchanted with his teachers and went off by himself on a search for truth. One day, while sitting under the Bodhi tree, Siddhartha became enlightened, he awoke, he knew how to escape suffering, he was the Buddha.

As people learned of Gautama's awakening, many thirsted for his knowledge, and as a result, the Buddha gained many disciples.

The Buddha best described his new philosophy in the following paragraph. The Buddha said


"There is, disciples, a Realm devoid of earth and water, fire and air. It is not endless space, nor infinite thought, nor nothingness, neither ideas nor non-ideas. Not this world nor that is it. I call it neither a coming nor a departing, nor a standing still, nor death, nor birth; it is without a basis, progress, or a stay; it is the ending of sorrow.

'For that which clingeth to another thing there is a fall; but unto that which clingeth not no fall can come. Where no fall cometh, there is rest, and where rest is, there is no keen desire. Where keen desire is not, naught cometh or goeth; and where naught cometh or goeth there is no death, no birth. Where there is neither death nor birth, there neither is this world nor that, nor in between---it is the ending of sorrow.

'There is, disciples, an Unbecome, Unborn, Unmade, Unformed; if there were not this Unbecome, Unborn, Unmade, Unformed, there would be no way out for that which is become, born, made, and formed; but since there is an Unbecome, Unborn, Unmade, Unformed, there is escape for that which is become, born, made, and formed" (Evans-Wentz 1960:68).

This statement summarizes much of the Buddha's philosophy. The Buddha's teachings and philosophy soon became of way of life for millions of people.

Attachments are seen as obstacles which hinder one's quest for attaining nirvana (Enlightenment). This hindrance is due to our becoming attached to objects which we perceive as being separate from ourselves. In other words, we live a dualistic existence. We cling to objects as if we do not realize all things will pass away.

In the West we have been taught to look at life as if separateness were reality. We think of life dualistically--as subject and object, good and bad, you and me. At the core of [Tibetan] Buddhist philosophical thought is the concept that, in reality, there is no separated self. "Relinquishing the idea of the separated self or ego is a state to be diligently cultivated on the path to enlightenment" (Tulku 1975a:145).

Unfortunately, most people do not realize that a self does not exist. This is because most of us live in an I, Me, Mine world in which we are busily searching for some pleasure or means by which we can satisfy ourselves. According to Tibetan Buddhism, this is the main problem which keeps people from attaining nirvana. We are trying to satisfy ourselves without realizing that we have no self. It seems that we look all around for happiness but only find suffering. This is because our "ego-centered attachment, aversion and indifference create a mental atmosphere of confusion that makes it difficult for us to relate openly and honestly with ourselves and the world around us" ("Welcome to Karma...).

This "ego-centered attachment" is cultivated and perpetuated throughout our entire lives, especially when we are young. This happens mainly through the process of socialization, the process by which our elders educate and raise us in a certain in which we are often stereotyped according to sex, age, skin color, beliefs, etc.

Although there are many types of socialization or ways of living we become accustomed to, it seems the socialized concept we become most attached to is the belief that we are an "I." Tibetan Buddhism was aware of the dangers of this type of attachment long before the West was.

"Because of beginningless conditioning, the mind tightly holds to 'I', 'I' even in dreams, and through the power of this conception, self-attachment and so forth occur. This false conception of 'I' arises because of one's lack of knowledge concerning the mode of existence of things. The fact that all objects are empty of inherent existence is obscured and one conceives things to exist inherently; the strong conception of 'I' derives from this. Therefore, the conception that phenomena inherently exist is the afflicting ignorance that is the ultimate root of all afflictions" (Gyatso, T. 1975:26).

Once internalized, the belief that objects really exist is a very difficult belief to purge from one's consciousness. One way to do this is to become aware of the suffering and impermanence that is bound up with our dualistic attitude. Once this is done, then one can work towards negating the self. As mentioned above, this is difficult because people grasp onto the self. That is, people are in a false frame of mind "which conceives the inherent existence of 'self' of persons or other phenomena" (Gyatso, G. 1984:103).

As mentioned previously, this notion of a self or self image is the main hindrance in keeping people from realizing the oneness in things.  One's self image can be a type of fixation; "It catches you, and you freeze there. You accept the static, frozen image as a true and permanent picture of your self" (Tulku 1975a:150). When a person has such images and is not conscious of them, they can dictate that person's actions; however, when one is conscious of such images as self-images, one can become free from such dictation. Once this freedom is attained, one "can act with awareness of what is appropriate at the moment rather than from habit or some computerized response that one of your self-images has fed into the control system" (Tulku 1975a:154). But how does one attain freedom from the dualistic attitude? How does one go about attaining nirvana?

"The remedy lies in freeing oneself from Samsara forever by destroying the last shreds of egohood" (Blofeld 1987:48). The freedom comes from escaping the wheel of life. The wheel of life refers to the process of the continuity of life, and therefore suffering. The wheel of life represents the on-going life of the spirit as it continues from death to re-birth until nirvana is reached, however, from one life to another, a spirit's living condition can change. This depends on the persons Karma.

Karma explains all the acts and events of one's life as the results of deeds done in previous incarnations. Karma creates a system of punishment and reward by "sinking the wicked through the lower stages of human and animal existence, and even to hell, and lifting the good to the level of mighty kings, and even to the gods" (Waddell 1971:101). On earth, good Karma may be laid up, and bad Karma worked out by suffering. Finally, "the individual returns no more to earth-life; and the spiritual state becomes permanent and exalted" (Bettany 1988:292). Six different levels of existence are represented on the wheel of life. These differing levels represent 1.) The Gods 2.) The Titans 3.) Man 4.) Beasts 5.) Tantalized Ghosts and 6.) Hell. The existence in the first three levels are seen as acceptable or good while existence in the last three levels are seen as inferior or bad.

Tibetan Buddhism compares samsara to the waves of the sea. They say that we are not beings but waves of being. "At sea we can watch the arising of a wave, see it grow big, diminish and cease to be. We think of it as an individual wave, but we know that the water composing it is changing all the time and that it is in fact inseparable from the sea. Only the motion is real" (Blofeld 1987:48). This comparison smacks of the wheel of life. Just as the water composing a wave is changing all the time, so does our position on the wheel of life change from one lifetime to another. Of this vicious cycle of suffering, Buddha was supposedly the first to break free. To escape samsara, Buddha utilized several techniques which enabled him to break free from all his attachments. This detachment, among other things, is what allowed him to awake.

Of these techniques, meditation is the most important. The practice of meditation is based on focusing the mind on a particular point so as to be better able to control the mind through enhanced concentration. The meditator develops new depths of insight through direct communication with the reality of the phenomenal world. This type of concentration gives one an inner peace and is seen as one way to enlightenment. At the moment of meditation "you are contacting your own mind nature, and in realizing the contact, you are no longer separate. No subject, no object, no separation. Your mind, your awareness are one" (Tulku 1975a:146). From this statement, it is obvious that meditation is looked upon within Tibetan Buddhism as being an excellent way to escape from the dualistic attitude.

Through the practice of meditation, one can see the simplicity of one's existence. Without the presence of complexity or duality, the meditator can become aware of things exactly as they are, not merely in the physical sense, but also in a spiritual sense. This in turn leads to a greater understanding of all that is [or perhaps of all that is not]. This greater understanding of all that is, which practitioners of meditation claim to have access to, can be obtained by utilizing various techniques of meditation.

The repeating of mantras, phrases understood as prayers to Buddhist deities (but at the same time seen as being inspired by those same Buddhist deities), is seen as a way in which one can work towards obtaining nirvana. "In order to weaken the strength of ego, one somehow must establish a link between the imaginary and the watcher of oneself, the ego" (Trungpa 1973:232). According to Buddhist tradition, mantras can serve as this link.

Like meditation, the repeating of mantras can help one reach a state of mental fixity in which one can feel "the living quality of peace" (Trungpa 1973:198). Tibetan Buddhists chant a mantra until the mantra fuses with the practitioners conscience and vice versa. By this method, the meditator loses contact with the dualistic world and becomes one with the mantra of which the most common is Om Mani Padme Hum.

By choosing a mantra and focusing on it, a person can develop a new state of mental calmness. This calmness, along with the loss of attachment to the dualistic attitude, helps the practitioner in his/her quest for enlightenment. When one learns a mantra well, and when the repeating of the mantra becomes effortless and automatic "not even a speck of a dark corner exists for doubt and hypocrisy" (Trungpa 1973: 198-199).

Tibetan monks creating a virtual mandala.
Tibetan monks creating a virtual mandala.

"As a result of using mantras, mandalas, which are often called magic circles, are formed" (Waddell 1971:144). "The mandala is generally depicted as a circle which revolves around a center, which signifies that everything around you becomes part of your awareness, the whole sphere expressing the vivid reality of life" (Trungpa 1973:223). Like mantras, the formation of mandalas are seen as having a supernatural origin.

"Mandalas are viewed by Tibetan Buddhists as being partly composed of spiritual deities who are magically enticed to enter the mandala by the user of the mantra" (Waddell 1971:144). Once within the mandala, the deities have no choice but to help the user obtain the means by which he/she can obtain nirvana. For this reason, mandalas are often used to focus one's concentration.

If an awakened one chooses to stay on earth, he/she is called a Bodhisattva. Bodhisattva is a term which refers to Buddhas who, while in their "normal" life on earth, try to free other people from the chains of samsara. They are "Enlightened Beings who renounce Nirvana's bliss in order to remain in the universe and aid the liberation of their fellow beings" (Blofeld 1987:65). The Dalai Lama, Tibet's central religious figure, is seen as the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. "The Dalai Lama is seen as the embodiment of Bodhisat Avalokita, the Bodhisat or God who presides over the various worlds of re-birth" (Waddell 1971:39). In other words, each Dalai Lama is seen as a self-reincarnating God. Buddhas on the other hand, choose to follow a different path than Bodisattvas. They pass on and forever become one with nirvana. The journey to reach enlightenment is a long and difficult one, but if one subscribes to and practices the techniques which have been outlined above, the goal, according to Tibetan Buddhism can be reached.

The Tibetan Buddhists' lessons are so simple to understand, and yet, because of our attachments to objects, and especially because of our attachment to a self, most of us will never come close to attaining the altered states of which they speak. It seems that

"Our greatest confusion is that we have an expectation that the causes of liberation must come from somewhere or something outside ourselves. In our confusion we believe that only by accumulating this or that, or only through an association with someone or something else, can we gain the cause of perfect joy. Our preoccupation with these external concerns leads us to develop a tremendous sense of impoverishment, as though we were totally devoid of any possibility of goodness. As far as we are concerned, we are totally barren of the slightest possibility of a spark of enlightened intelligence. Our greatest bewilderment is our failure to turn inward and really examine the workings of our minds. It is only when we begin working with our own minds that we become practical as far as the search for enlightenment is concerned" (Rinpoche 1982:4).

Until we follow Tibetan Buddhism's lead, and start to work more with our mind and inner thatness, we will forever be imprisoned in the world of suffering; forever destined to samsara. Until we give up our attachments, the road to nirvana will be impeded. If we but attempt to change our perception of self, as have the Tibetan Buddhists, we will find ourselves climbing the ladder out of the wheel of life and into Buddhahood. This new way of existence could be most illuminating, in fact, it could be enlightening.

By meditating and focusing on mantras and mandalas, one can climb the spiritual ladder and escape from the wheel of life. One who finds him/herself at the top of this ladder "forgets all distinctions between the self and others, life and death, right and wrong, and by forgetting such distinctions he becomes one with the universe and lives as long as the universe exists" (Ch'en 1968:140). What then is "left is the immaculate non-substance that neither exists nor is non-existent, in which there is no duality, let alone plurality" (Blofeld 1987:53). This is called attaining nirvana or becoming enlightened. This enlightenment results from realizing the unreality of samsara and of all that which makes up samsara.

Enlightenment is the freedom from the self and the joining with the one that is the all which is empty. It is the attaining of Buddha-hood. It is freedom from the ignorance which assumes the existence of an I and which distinguishes between you and me. Once this state of enlightenment is reached, an individual has to choose between staying on earth as a bodhisattva or forever joining the bliss of nirvana as a Buddha.

© 2010 Missing Link


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