Self and no-self: the personality crisis of a Zen master

- New York Times Mag article 26.04.09 -
- New York Times Mag article 26.04.09 -

Someone pointed me to this fascinating article in the New York Times Magazine (23 April). It’s about a 63-year old academic who has spent much of his life as a dedicated Zen practitioner – now a Zen master – but who has in recent years undergone a personality crisis. He went into therapy with Jeffrey Rubin, author of Psychotherapy and Buddhism: Toward an Integration, and had a breakthrough.

Basically, he realised that he had used the Buddhist concept of no-self to evade his inner process and unconscious traumas. All his ‘stuff’ came back to him, and with his owning it came a joyful rediscovery of self.

I have long had a problem with the Buddhist doctrine of no-self. I think it is based on a profound truth: that ultimately all is one, “one without a second”, utterly devoid of form. But I think this has been (or at least can be) twisted into a harsh form of self-denial, as the article illustrates.

Some people have directly experienced the ultimate nature of reality in a moment of enlightenment or awakening, and have described it using terms like “absolute emptiness” and “utterly impersonal”. But religious leaders have a habit of making dogma out of such insights and realisations – “You must experience pure emptiness or your insight is not real enlightenment.” And what’s more: “To experience real enlightenment, you must stop experiencing the self.” So any form of self-awareness or self-related experience becomes anathema.

One or two examples of this harsh teaching of self-denial are mentioned in the article.

The thing is, the direct experience of the absolute can be framed by different people at different times in different ways. Truth is truth, and there is only one absolute. But to a human being discovering the nature of that truth there are many—perhaps infinitely many—aspects to it.

An enlightement experience isn’t always and only the realisation of emptiness—there are many varieties of enlightement experience (in terms of what people “get”). Some, for instance, might describe the same experience using terms like “absolute fullness” rather than “absolute emptiness”. Others call it “God”. Also, people get to it from different places, different contexts, different perspectives.

I think what we remember most about the absolute after we’ve experienced it is probably what surprises us the most. What struck me the most about my first experience was the fact that I really do exist—I had been assuming that “I” was just a figment of “my” imagination.

Indeed, the doctrine of no-self is flat-out contradicted by many, many people’s enlightenment experiences. You can, and people frequently do, directly experience the self, the true nature of one’s innermost being or essence. Perhaps the commonest enlightenment experience people have on an Enlightenment Intensive is pure and simple self-realisation: I AM.

In addition to this realisation of being, other common self-experiences inclue the realisation of the nature of being: I AM FREE, I AM LOVE, and I AM GOD or I AM ALL THAT IS.

So I think it would be advisable for those who are seeking enlightenment (however they define that) through Zen or other forms of Buddhism to be aware of these dogmatic aspects. The article shows the psychological dangers (as well as seductiveness) of making oneself believe that one’s own experience and awareness of self is irrelevant.

Imagine spending 40 years suppressing your own feelings and life experiences in the belief that they are ultimately meaningless. At the very least the doctrine of no-self confuses people because it denies the validity of self-experience and self-awareness. Worse, it encourages a pointless, potentially pathological self-denial where any sign of personality or individualness is regarded as the enemy.

I wonder if more cases like this will come out of the closet now.

Further reading

See my other posts on enlightenment.

And here’s the article link again: Enlightenment Therapy.

1 thought on “Self and no-self: the personality crisis of a Zen master

  1. Hi Barry,
    Great article…. first on the topic of “Truth,” I completely agree that there must be some “Absolute Truth,” however as you said, I also am not so sure that any one human mind can come to this realization. Because I agree that there are actually many, many versions of the truth in this physical world. I used to say that there is only one truth, and that there are not versions of the truth. However, I do not believe this to be true anymore.


    Let’s say three different individuals witness a man steeling a woman’s purse. The thief has a knife and uses it in an attempt to cut the strap of the purse and get away. But the woman lets say sees him approaching with the knife out or feels the tug and pulls back on the strap, holding on to the purse. Now because she does this the man by mistake slices into her side.

    And What did the three witnesses see? Well…..

    Witness #1 – (a man)
    He sees a man approach a woman and sees him pull on her purse, but from his range of sight he can not see the knife. However, he does see the woman holding on to the strap, then he sees her collapse to her knees, then the man run off with her purse.

    Witness #2: (a woman)
    Now this witness is a bit closer and viewing from a different angle, so she sees the knife and sees the man slash into the woman’s side. However, because she couldn’t see the man’s face, only his backside, she thought that the man deliberately stabbed the woman to take her purse. Then ran off.

    Witness #3 – (a man)
    This witness was even closer and had a clear shot of the front view of both the robber and the victim and saw the same thing that the woman (witness #2) saw. With the exception that he could see the look on the man’s face during the chain of events. And because of this, he concluded that the robber did not mean to slice into the woman’s side. He only meant to use the knife to cut the strap of her purse, but because the woman pulled back on her purse, the knife went in her side. When this happened, this witness saw the surprised and even scared expression on the robber’s face before he ran off.

    Now each of these witnesses saw the same event, but because they were all viewing it from different distances and angles they all saw a slightly different chain of events. But each of them believes that what they saw was what actually happened, “the truth.” So “truth” is one’s perception and perceptions can vary. These variations are not always just because of the angle of view. They can also be because of an individual’s personal experiences in life.


    Lets say that when Witness #1 saw the woman fall to her knees, he thought that the robber punched the woman and that is why she fell. Because witness #1 might have seen his father hit his mom on more then one occasion growing up.


    Witness #2 had been attack in the past in much the same way that the victim was in this event, and because of this took an automatic bitter attitude toward the whole thing, she might have (subconsciously) embellished the truth a bit.


    Maybe Witness #3 had in the past accidentally hurt someone, so he felt pity on behalf of the robber, even though what he was doing we wrong.

    So now the “Truth” is being even more distorted, but in their minds they all believe what they saw was the truth, right? Lol…crazy world.

    Sorry I guess I didn’t have to go into such detail……. Bah….. bah….. bah……

    But I have to say that it is sure nice to know that I’m not the only one who has ever wondered if all of this is real or if we are all just thoughts in the mind of God. Part of some main frame computer program. Lol. Of course you can only ponder this idea so long before realizing the physical reality. But what exactly is Self? Is it the Mind, the Soul or the combo of both in the Body? How much of ourselves do you think we keep when we leave the physical world? I often wonder this question. After reading “The Perfect Way” I’m thinking that our “Minds” are part of the Astral Body, and I’m not so sure that it ever goes any further then the Astral Plane. It is the “Soul” if anything that returns to the divine. After all every time we reincarnate, we become someone different don’t we? We could be a man in this life and a woman in the next, right?

    Our souls surely must retain some aspects of our experiences, but only the emotional reflections and effects that those experiences have left on our hearts. Not the actual lessons themselves. This is what one might call a gut feeling or intuition whenever we get a bad feeling about something. Our soul is trying to tell us something, perhaps we been in this situition before and it didn’t end well.

    Do you think that every time we reincarnate into a new body that a new astral body is created within that body to house the soul? Or do we remain connected to our astral body until such time as no further reincarnations are necessary?

    Do you think that each individual life that we live is for our benefit or for the benefit of the whole?



    I’m not sure how much weight the Zodiac may hold for you, but “I AM” is of the first sign – Aries, then as follows:
    Taurus – I Have
    Gemini – I Think
    Cancer – I Feel
    Virgo – I Analyze
    Libra – I Balance
    Scorpio – I Desire
    Sagittarius – I See
    Capricorn – I Use
    Aquarius – I Know
    Pisces – I Believe

    Well hope I haven’t rambled on to much for you, and look forward to hearing from you, thank you again for your insightful words.

💬 Leave a Reply 💬