Sunday, March 18, 2012

Buddha on willpower and ego

I have been listening to talks given by Buddhist scholars on audiodharma. I particularly like talks by Thannissaro Bhikkhu. He has a way of teaching by using examples from everyday life. He does it with humor too. Although most of these talks are common sense, when you listen to them, you realize that when you are caught in a battle between the different "yous" in your head, this common sense evaporates like ether.

In this talk about Buddha on Willpower.  Thanissaro talks about the 'categorization' of actions Buddha gave us. There are four groups of actions that we do in our everyday life:

1. Actions we like doing and bring us good
2. Actions we don't like doing and bring us bad
3. Actions we like doing BUT bring us bad
4. Actions we don't like doing BUT bring us good

The measure of our knowledge is in how we handle the last two of the above. Most problems that I create for myself are due to bad handling of the last two categories.
Whether it is sticking to my diet, or finishing the tasks I have given myself at work. All of it falls in the last two groups.

In this talk about Buddha on Ego, which is titled 'Wisdom of the Ego', Thanissaro talks about how the West thinks of Buddhism. In the West, people do not see human ego as a necessarily bad entity. In the East, we are brought up believing that ego (ahankar in Sanskrit, which literally translates as 'the sound of me') comes in the way of happiness. Buddhist philosophy talks about Annatta (non-self) which is an essential step towards attaining wisdom, happiness and enlightenment. However, Buddhism does not call for an annihilation of ego in order to be happy.

Then, he compares Freud's functions of ego to Buddha's functions of ego.

According to Freud, ego is essential to human beings because it is able to carry out certain important functions for the well being of the mind.

1. Anticipation (it can anticipate the dangers in the near future and guide us)
2. Suppression (it can help us postpone gratification for our own long term happiness)
3. Sublimation (it can help us divert our attention from desire by engaging in art, sports, creativity)
4. Altruism (stems from the belief that we need to make others happy in order to be happy ourselves)
5. Humor (helps us laugh at ourselves)

Buddhist philosophy also explains all the above functions in it's own way. The concept of non-self is not rejecting oneself. It is about expanding the mind's eye to realize that there is much more to the world than me and my thoughts. Buddhist philosophy accepts the existence of ego, anticipates the damage it could do and evolves strategies to minimize the possibilities of the ego going out of control. Since there is no all-knowing God in Buddhist way, disciplining yourself starts with understanding your own mind. It is a very difficult path but it changes you for your own sake.

There are descriptions of the self (mind/ego) in the Bhagwad Gita too
In the fifth verse of the sixth chapter (Dhyanayoga) Lord Krishna says,

बन्धुरत्मात्मनस्तस्य येनात्मैवात्मना जित: |
अनात्मनस्तु शत्रुत्वे वर्तेतात्मैव शत्रुवत् ||

The self (mind) which is conquered by the self (mind) is a friend. But for someone who has failed to control the self (mind) , the self (mind) harms like an enemy.

What I like about the Buddhist philosophy is the absence of an all knowing, accounting and punishing God. What you do, is for your own self first. Even your generosity stems from helping yourself and not others. So the delusions that could occur as a result ("I did this for you!"), get mitigated by the thought that it is for your own well being ("I am doing this for myself").

Even in letting go, the Buddha says,
"Whatever is not you and not yours, let it go. That would be for your long term happiness"

The life long experiment in controlling one's own mind for one's own sake is one of the most ideal yet most difficult states of being. These talks sound simple because of the meditation that has been devoted to them. It brings back the recurring realization I get -- that most simple things around us are profoundly difficult to achieve. And it also includes simple joy.

Audiodharma is available free to the world on the principles of Buddhist traditions. Their talks and guided meditations are very helpful if you are serious about daily practice. This website is run entirely on donations. So if you find it helpful, please let them know through a small donation.

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