“Self-liberate even the antidote, or, Do not hang on to anything – even the realization that there’s nothing to hold on to.”

Avalokiteshvara, The Bodhisattva of Compassion
Avalokiteshvara, The Bodhisattva of Compassion

Learn to let go. This is one of the most concise instructions for living and dying in Buddhist teachings. I’ll explain why by way of a story about a pig.

I recently saw a performance by The Dance Brigade in San Francisco. The show, The Great Liberation Upon Hearing, is a dramatization of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The show began with one simple, but somewhat alarming, question: “Did you kill the pig, and why?” (The question itself wasn’t so alarming, but the pig carcass a few feet away from my seat sure was.)

The performance explored how killing the pig, with varying motives and intentions, could lead to the accumulation of merit or the lack thereof, also known as good and bad karma. In the instances in which killing the pig was done as a selfless act – say to feed a starving village – one accumulated good merit. Yet, when one killed the pig to satisfy one’s own self-serving ends, one did not accumulate merit. It is conceivable that killing the pig for a starving village could still be a deeply self-serving act if the intention behind feeding the village was to gain recognition, rather than purely helping others. While some good comes of it, it doesn’t generate good merit. This leads me to my next point.

"Pig head businessman counts US dollar" by Kutay Tanir

The desire to gain recognition (among others) is an ego driven desire. It is a desire to amplify ego, to make one’s sense of self bigger, more robust and more potent. Ego-amplification depends upon a conception of oneself as independent and separate from others (indeed, separate from everything in the universe), such that one’s primary concern is to indulge one’s self-interests, and appease one’s desires without much regard for how self-satiation impacts the larger environment in which one lives, and from which one gains life. We can call this ego-clinging.

Ego-clinging is the fertile ground from which identities sprout. Identities are rigid little boogers that have the force of substantialist grammar behind them. Substantialist grammar is grounded in, well, fantasies of substance. It is way of speaking about the phenomenal world that yields an illusion of fully present and finite objects with impermeable boundaries between them. One thing cannot be another thing, right? A bird cannot also be a cat. Water cannot also be a tree. And most of all, I cannot be you, right?

Well, maybe we’re wrong. Maybe our perception is a bit off, restricted as it is by the physical limits of the human eye. Maybe one thing can be in two places at the same time. (Or, so says quantum physics about matter at the subatomic level.) Perhaps there is nothing existing(?!) That is, no-thing, or no individual thing in existence, but everything existing in everything else to varying degrees?

If so, then, might s/he who kills the pig with the intention of ego-gratification also be the pig who dies?

I’m not sure. But I do know that the idea of no-thing existing is the basic proposition of Buddhist theories of interdependence. It proposes re-imagining the phenomenal world in “both/and” terms, rather than in binaries. The idea of interdependence encourages us to see, for example, the interconnectedness of water, sunlight and plantlife, such that we can say, the water is the tree, for without precipitation and the process of photosynthesis, seeds cannot grow into trees. And, without food, which contains other elements in it, we cannot exist, so we inter-are with cabbage, apples, chickens, pigs, quinoa, wheat, and so on. Being is seen as interrelated. Being ceases to be singular and we speak in terms of inter-being, in terms of humans being part of an ecosystem not of our own making.

If we take the proposition of interdependence seriously, then ego-clinging turns out to be a disavowal of the vast network of relationships between “things”: between people, sentient beings, various forms of inanimate matter, and ultimately the universe that holds us. In this repudiation of connection, one clings to oneself despite the ongoing fact of connectivity. According to the Dharma, clinging, or attachment, is the source of suffering. For instance, one clings to good feelings and pushes away painful ones. Yet, no feeling lasts forever. So, as the phenomenon of impermanence swaps out one feeling for another, we experience suffering because we yearn for something that can no longer be, at least not in the present moment.

"Hand of person grips chain" by Michael Hitoshi
"Hand of person grips chain" by Michael Hitoshi

Or, consider how much suffering we are currently experiencing because we insist on clinging to an economic system that is failing precisely because it is grounded in the ego-based fiction of self-interests that are seen as separate from the interests of others. This is a double-whammy, where attachment is at work on two levels.

First, we are clinging to the individual subject at the heart of (neo)liberal economic and social theory. If we think in terms of interdependence, or ecosystems, then the individual cannot be the primary unit of society because society is comprised of various networks. Thus, the networks are primary, not the nodes.

Second, we are clinging to the economic system built around this individual subject and “his” hoarding activities. “Financial Bailout” is a tactic that reveals an attachment to a system that is deteriorating under the force of its own effects. Rather than figure out how to craft a better system that reflects the shared and collective process of wealth generation, our elected officials move in the opposite direction.

But this is not unusual. We tend to turn away from pain rather than sit with it. Allowing the economy to fully collapse so another system can emerge from its ashes would be absolute pandemonium. Lots of people would suffer terribly from various forms of deprivation. And that kind of potential chaos, insecurity and contingency triggers attachment to things that are not in themselves solid, like this notion of “our way of life.”

What does all of this have to do with self-liberating the antidote? The antidote is the realization that there is nothing solid to hold on to, not one’s ego, nor the teachings themselves. I’ve learned that letting go of my attachment to the various identities I crafted for myself over the years opened me up to changes that were coming into my life whether I wanted them or not. Practicing non-attachment helped me meet change with less resistance. In short, I suffer less. For such an insight to be useful in the context above, we’d have to experience a broad-based transformation in social consciousness whereby we’d be less attached to ego, the idea of individuality, and all that comes with living in an ego-centric world. But that’s a big let go, especially for those of us who aren’t even aware of our egocentrism. Maybe we better start by thinking about why we killed the pig.

One thought on “Ego-A-Go-Go

  1. kloncke says:

    Yes. Absolutely. Eckhart Tolle (writer of The Power Of Now and A New Earth), has been talking about this recently, too: the entire neoliberal economic structure as a reflection of the ego-based mental structure, and as such a kind of external proxy for the dysfunction of the ego. Destruction and collapse need to happen on both levels: confronting the ego, its illusions and constant clinging; and letting go of our attachment to external systems that are clearly very damaging to ourselves and to others (which, as you note, are ultimately one and the same.)

    It’s going to be a very interesting and profound decade…

    Thanks for these insights!

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