What is buddhahood? It is the attaining of egolessness. But what are we realizing the egolessness of?
According to the Theravada school of Buddhism, if we attain egolessness of self, we realize nirvana, enlightenment. This is a common approach: to attain enlightenment for oneself. But when we have discovered the emptiness of the self, what is left? The other. In the Mahayana school, the "Great Path," egolessness of other is one of the most profound teachings.
The self has no entity in itself, but it believes it does. Its nature is that it spreads. Wherever it goes it pervades; whatever it encounters it begins to absorb as “I.” For example, when we are born, somehow our consciousness has been able to transfer from our previous life into this body, which exists only in a temporary way. Once we came into this body, we thought, "Hmm, not bad. It’s not mine, but I’ll make it mine." And once we got used to our body, we immediately began thinking: my mother, my father, my house. Then my city, my state, my country, my planet, and so forth.
Ego has no boundary. It can go on continuously, appropriating other. When we come in contact with something, initially we look at it in a neutral way; we see it as belonging to somebody else, or maybe belonging to no one. If we see a tree, we don’t automatically think, “My tree.” Then we build a house next to it—and after a while, we think, “My tree.” This happens in any situation. When we buy an article of clothing, at first it feels foreign, but then it begins to feel familiar as my shirt. It is other, but the ego is constantly solidifying it as self.
The Mahayana teaches that complete egolessness comes about only when we have understood egolessness of other as well as the egolessness of self. There are two approaches in terms of how to practice the Mahayana: the direct path and the gradual path. On the direct path, we recognize the empty nature of self and other on the spot. On the gradual path, we recognize the nature of things progressively: First we recognize the self as empty. Then we recognize other to be empty. Then we recognize things to be the mind, and that this mind itself is empty.
These teachings direct us toward helping other sentient beings, because being able to help others is grounded in having discovered the emptiness of the self. So Mahayana logic is that we begin to flip from self to other.
A crucial element of the Mahayana is the bodhichitta practice of tonglen, “sending and taking.” In Tibetan, tong means “to send,” and len means “to get.” With a basic understanding of this practice, we begin to draw in the pain of others and send out goodness.
We can practice this exchange in many ways. For instance, we can do it specifically for someone who is ill, taking in that person’s suffering and claustrophobia and breathing out spaciousness. We do that by visualizing the inbreath as heavy and the outbreath as light, drawing in negative energy and sending out love.
At first it is important that we take this dualistic approach, because we can use what we see “out there” to incite compassion “in here.” In the same way, it is good that we have emotions, because then we have something to work with. With our breath, we can take in aggression and give out peace. We can breathe in pain and breathe out relief. That’s why human birth is so precious: it provides us with the attributes to go on the path.
Scholars and yogis have divided the ego into fifty-one levels of thought patterns and emotions. They’re listed in several categories, including universal patterns such as form and feeling, occasional patterns such as rapture, unwholesome patterns such as recklessness and lack of shame, and wholesome patterns like faith, love, and compassion.
Love and compassion are wholesome because when we experience them—even at an ordinary level—some kind of openness takes place. Those emotions are a fault line of the ego—when we feel them, the ego breaks down a little and we begin to see that our sense of “me” is not airtight. Even though love is an emotion and is often connected with someone we want, or who makes us happy, it contains some quality of relaxing and letting go. Compassion works in the same way, poking holes in the seeming solidity of self and other.
Tonglen is a very potent practice that helps us develop confidence in kindness and compassion. It brings sanity to us and to others because it provides a practical way of working with our mind. For example, if we are calmly practicing tonglen for someone who is close to us, we are not spinning out of control with worry about what could happen to them. Therefore, the meditation is a way to actually bring some sanity to us and the other person.
When we begin to do tonglen practice, the question arises: who or what is sending out, and who is taking in? Through practicing mindfulness, or shamatha, we have established peace. Now, through practicing insight, or vipashyana, we begin to develop wisdom. We begin to realize that we can’t actually find the mind we have tamed. Where exactly is it? Is the mind in the body? Is it in the eyes? Is it in the feelings? Where is the mind that is following the breath? Where is it coming from? Where is it going? Where is its space? We can’t really say that it’s here or it’s there. Nevertheless, there is definitely a process of experiencing being here—experiencing wildness of mind, and experiencing peace. Where is that peace? If I’m meditating, I feel tranquil. Where is that tranquility?
As we progress in our meditation, emptiness becomes more apparent. Emptiness means that there is no inherent existence. Emptiness and egolessness are very similar in that way. Emptiness is empty of our assumptions, and it is full of compassion. We realize that assumptions are the basis of most of our experiences, and we discover that the mind and the world are actually empty of those assumptions. Discovering our selfless nature is freedom.
Sometimes we misunderstand emptiness to mean that nothing exists, which is nihilism. A more accurate perspective is that without emptiness, we cannot have form, and without form we cannot have emptiness. They are inseparable. Exchanging self for other, we realize the self is empty. Then we realize that other is empty, too. That is how true giving and taking can happen. Exchanging oneself for other is the point where relative and absolute truth meet. The whole notion of self and other starts dissolving. If there’s somebody sending, who’s receiving?
As our meditation progresses, we begin to see egolessness—we can’t find any inherent thing. Compassion seems endless and boundless, but where does compassion come from? Where does insight come from? Where is this mind? Actually, we all have the capacity to know, but we can’t completely understand unless we practice meditation. Mind is empty and luminous: this is its nature. The Mahayana teachings say that with the right view, we can utilize certain aspects of our emotions in order to bring out this natural wisdom. As we develop love and compassion through the practice of tonglen, glimmers of wisdom begin to shine through.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is the spiritual leader of Shambhala, an international network of Buddhist meditation and retreat centers. He is the author of Turning the Mind into an Ally and Ruling Your World.