(This is the continuation of a series exploring the nature of the human ego in the world’s religions and science, beginning with this post.)
In this post I’ll discuss how the falling away of ego-self consciousness is present in the traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism.
In Hinduism, one of the highest attainments is called moksha. This word is translated as “free, let go, release, liberate.” Moksha is a freeing, an emancipation, a liberation, (a similar sense to salvation). What is one being freed from or saved from? Wikipedia notes, “In its epistemological and psychological senses, moksha refers to freedom from ignorance: self-realization and self-knowledge.”
But this is no ordinary “self” that is being realized. It is a state of being and trancendental consciousness, which is “the experience of oneness with Brahman, the One Supreme Self.” Brahman is said to be the highest Ultimate Reality in the universe. It is also described as the “infinite, eternal truth,” the “single binding unity behind diversity in all that exists.” One of the goals of the pursuit of moksha is to realize that one’s Atman (soul) is one with Brahman, “realizing the whole universe as the Self.”
An 8th century CE text ascribed to Shankara notes this about the pursuit of moksha:
Beyond caste, creed, family or lineage,
That which is without name and form, beyond merit and demerit,
That which is beyond space, time and sense-objects,
You are that, God himself; Meditate this within yourself.
(Vivekachudamani, verse 254.)
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This “Self” that is realized seems to go beyond all the normal categories of the ego “self” that we usually define ourselves with, even beyond space and time, even beyond form. It is a Universal Self, a Self that includes all things but is yet beyond all things in particular.
In the Eastern spiritual traditions, there is a seemingly profound difference often cited between the realization of Self in Hinduism, and the realization of no-self in Buddhism. Whereas in Buddhism, nirvana is said to be the realization that there is no self (no soul, anatman), in Hinduism moksha is said to be the realization that all is Self (soul, atman). These seem on the surface to be irreconcilable, even polar opposites. But I think they are perhaps just two sides of the same coin.
To realize that everything is Self, it seems one must first realize that one is not the “self” one thought one was. It seems the typical egoic separated individual “self” must fall away completely in order to realize the true universal Self and its oneness with all that is. The dissolution of ignorance (avidya) which leads to moksha might be the dissolution of that old sense of “self,” the egoic “self” being the source and cause of the ignorance. It is ignorance or incorrect knowledge about the true nature of life’s real or fundamental nature and its place in the universe, which must dissolve in order to perceive the true or real Self that is one with all things, known as Brahman in Hinduism.
In this sense, the self-knowledge one attains in moksha is not of the ego or psychological “self,” but of the highest universal Self beyond the ego, which is One with the Universe.
As noted, the highest attainment in Buddhism is known as nirvana. This word means “blown out,” “quenching,” or “becoming extinct.” Like moksha, it is a state of freedom, liberation, and highest happiness. What is being “blown out” or extinguished? It seems that it is egoic consciousness itself that stops, and yet conscious awareness continues, just without any sense of “self” or personal ego in that consciousness.
Nirvana is the state of realization of non-self or anatman or anatta. One experiences being liberated from the illusory sense of having a “self” or ego. It is that sense of a “self” or ego that is said to be the cause and source of suffering itself, that suffering is caused through the ego’s attachments, particularly to its desires and aversions, and through the liberation of that sense of “self” one is freed from suffering. Without a “self” that suffers, there is no suffering. All thoughts of a “self” are extinguished, and that would seem to include that “self’s” suffering. This seems to be related to the “cessation of suffering” in the Buddha’s teachings. Interestingly, however, it is said the Buddha also taught reincarnation and rebirth. What it was that was being reincarnated, if not a self or soul of some kind, is a question.
In some Thai Buddhist traditions they have taught that “nirvana is indeed the true Self.” Some teachers, such as Ajahn Maha Bua, taught that “not-self is merely a perception that is used to pry one away from infatuation with the concept of a self, and that once this infatuation is gone the idea of not-self must be dropped as well.”
If there is a state of consciousness beyond the egoic self, and I think there is, then it is conscious of something, whether emptiness, or freedom, or liberation, or Buddha-nature. It may simply be beyond names, it may transcend all forms and thoughts and things altogether, which may be partly the reason for the dispute between atman and anatman. Some might say that they cannot say that it is in any way a “Self,” because that would then be a thing, a form, a thought. Rather, it seems to be simply pure consciousness without content, an awareness of the absolute Purity of Awareness, of Being.
The Avataṃsaka Sūtra text is said to relate the following:
All in One, One in All. The All melts into a single whole. There are no divisions in the totality of reality… it views the cosmos as holy, as “one bright pearl,” the universal reality of the Buddha. The universal Buddhahood of all reality is the religious message of the Avatamsaka-sutra.
This seems similar to the Hindu idea of Atman as One with Brahman, One is in the All, and is the All, the totality of reality. The extinguishing of the ego self is what allows one to realize this true undivided wholeness and true nondual nature of reality, the Buddhahood or Buddha-nature of All.
The next post I will explore the passing away of “self” in Islam.
(Next post in series: The Passing Away of Ego-Self in Islam)