We encounter the idea of our true self, sometimes spoken of as our Buddha-nature, in many contexts. And the uses of the idea of a true self, when we see it used in philosophy or psychology or Zen, may be quite confusing. It may seem like they’re talking about the same thing from different directions, but actually there are quite a different number of ideas in play that I’d like to sort out this morning.
In psychoanalysis, the idea of a true or a false self is often associated with the British psychoanalyst, Winnicott, and he was primarily concerned with the false self as a combination of conformity, the idea that in order to win love or approval or to get along with the other kids in the school yard, you had to adopt a kind of social persona as a way of getting along, not making yourself stand out or getting in trouble. He saw that as a kind of social strait-jacket that kept you from being in touch with the more authentic set of feelings and aspirations.
Being a rather up-tight Englishman himself, in his practice I think he had a tendency to enjoy working with the juvenile delinquents who did all the things he was afraid to do as a kid. Part of his empathy and ability as an analyst, I think, was being able to see the stifled, healthy, expansive impulses in what other people were calling just bad behavior or psychopathology. And so there you get a sense of true self being equated with authenticity, how you really feel, who you really are underneath this social crust. It’s our job of practice, whether it’s analysis or something else to try to break through, and I think that’s a very valid and legitimate way of talking about a true self, but it has nothing to do with Zen or Buddha Nature.
Another kind of model of our true self, rather than being who we already authentically are under the surface, is more of a developmental kind of nature. In Aristotle you get the idea that as a human being we have the capacity to develop certain virtues or capacities, such as courage and wisdom and moderation and justice, but these things aren’t already in you in any kind of fully developed way. It’s more like they’re seeds or capacities that have to be nourished by the development of the right kind of habits and the right kind of social settings, given the right kind of opportunities and the right kind of role models.
If all these factors come together, you’re capable of achieving eudaimonia, which is variously translated as happiness or flourishing, but it means a kind of development of our potential, and Aristotle had a particular kind of teleological picture where there were a pre-given set of potentials in people, and it was a question of how well or badly they got developed under particular circumstances. I think that model of the development of inner potential is something that people often fall back on when they talk about Buddha Nature, as if it was our potential for enlightenment, that deep down we have this inner capacity for realization, but it’s only through practice that we develop this latent capacity and bring it into full flower.
Again, that’s an important and admirable dimension of what practice does. In many settings, it allows us to mature and develop, become who we might be. But again, even though that’s something we need to do in practice, it really has nothing to do with our true self or Buddha-nature, as we understand it in Zen. I’ll just add a word about existentialism since I’m in the middle of reading about de Beauvoir and Sartre at the moment. There, she famously says, “One is not born a woman but becomes a woman.” And the becoming is crucial in that kind of existentialist model, where it’s a kind of radically anti-essentialist view. They want to do away with any idea that there is any kind of preformed teleology to being human. They don’t want to say that there is a real inner you, that you just have to add water and it’s going to grow and develop. Rather, what’s crucial is that you have the freedom to choose, make decisions, decide what kind of person you’re going to be and what kinds of things you’re going to do. Their slogan was, “Being precedes essence.” There’s no essential you, and your choices are what define you, not some inner seed that you’re trying to nurture.
And they had a picture of a false self in a way very much like Winnicott, a kind of sense of, in their language, bad faith, which also means something like social-in-combination, a conformity, a kind of go-along, keep your head down, do what everybody expects of you, and you can particularly see in de Beauvoir the sense that all these socially and culturally determined notions of what a woman is supposed to be, and how it requires a lifetime of radical choices to break out of social expectation. So again, it’s a kind of model where it’s much easier to say what the false self is than what the true self is, because the true self doesn’t exist yet, it’s what you’re going to make of yourself.
So in that sense, in the anti-essentialist version, it starts to sound more like what we talk about in Zen, but again there’s this notion of choice and a project that is going to lead to you becoming a true self and once more that’s a kind of necessary dimension to our life, the way we think about what we’re up to. It’s not what true self or Buddha-nature means.
So? What does it mean? We probably all remember Joko’s definition of enlightenment: Would it be OK with you if you lost your arms and legs? Would it be OK with you if you were never loved? Would it be OK with you if everything you devoted yourself to in your life was a failure? She has a whole list of stuff like that. Very appealing, right? She says, people have all these ideas about enlightenment, as if it means once and for all becoming clear and calm and compassionate and accepting and so forth. But what she wants to say is that enlightenment has no content whatsoever. It’s not the fulfillment of any project or development. See, in the Aristotelian model you’ve got this developmental project that culminates in eudaimonia and happiness and flourishing, but it’s very hard to describe having your arms and legs cut off as flourishing. In a sense she’s talking about, well, what happens if all these qualities you identify with and rely on go away?
And so Buddha-nature, or true self, takes us back very simply to the basic truths of impermanence and interdependence. Joan Stambaugh, who writes that great book about Dogen and Heidegger, just has the title of that book, “Impermanence is Buddha-nature.” If you just remember that, you got it all. Buddha-nature is not a seed or potential of enlightenment or seed or potential to become a bodhisattva or anything like that. Buddha-nature is impermanence. Buddha-nature is the realization of just how things are moment to moment, and they’re already impermanent, they’re already interdependent. This is not something we achieve after decades of practice. It’s there whether we practice or not.
So our true self, in Zen, is the kind of experience of our Buddha-nature, which is our impermanence and interdependence, moment after moment after moment, and it’s everywhere, it’s already everywhere, it’s not something we develop, it’s not something we aspire to. In a way it’s a matter of simply recognizing what’s in the mirror. In the koan, “Show me your true face before the birth of your parents,” the question is set up to go along with our fantasy, that our true self, our original face is something hidden away, something elusive, something that we have to dig deep down to find, that it’s somehow hidden by that crust of false self that Winnicott or de Beauvoir are talking about. But it’s not hidden at all. Every moment, it’s right there in the mirror.