Why self-mastery is self-defeatingDavid Brazier

The logic of morality is often based on a wish, an assumption, or an aspiration toward self-mastery in service of a spiritual or worldly goal. Buddhists in the West, for instance, often present morality as the necessary basis for meditation, as a means of gaining a personal stability that allows one to practice beneficially. Another kind of moral logic is based on calculation. This might manifest as fear of retribution, whether in terms of karma or as sin against divine law, or, conversely, as hope for a reward. Even secular morality often has this attitude: if I am good to others when they need help, then I’m creating social capital for when I need help. Modern Western Buddhists often include in this kind of logic of morality a calculation about gaining happiness: if I am good to others, I create the conditions for my own mental well-being.

Pureland Buddhism has a different starting point. Pureland moral logic starts with the recognition that self-mastery sets the self against the self and thereby undermines the very thing it is attempting to do. Pureland instead aims to undermine the calculation involved in trying to master oneself. It does this by directing us to be grateful for the support of others for whatever good we are able to do. Our meritorious actions are only possible because of countless others who conspire unknowingly to guide us, help us, and create the conditions in which our typically confused and ambiguous efforts to do good don’t backfire on us. Pureland’s faith in other-power and nembutsu (keeping Buddha in mind) lays a basis for a radically different approach to spiritual practice than what many meditators bring to it. Let us, therefore, consider the possibility, whether or not one is a Pureland Buddhist, that Pureland ideas can reorient and enrich how we understand morality, resting it on a foundation that does not set the self against itself and that starts not from how we imagine we’d like to be but from how we actually are.

At the core of morality is morale; a person in good morale is less likely to act in an unprincipled manner. Morale is essentially a matter of faith, which is the mainspring of motivation. People do things that contribute to what they have faith in, be it a goal, an ideal, certain values, an institution, or some other base. Obviously, faith is not always positive. No doubt the Gestapo had faith in the supremacy of the Aryan race, for instance. Or as Dale Carnegie points out in the original self-help book How to Make Friends and Influence People, even Al Capone regarded himself as a good man who was simply implementing the values he believed in. This is all in line with basic Buddhist thinking that wickedness is mainly a matter of error. Acts that are akushala (mentally unskillful or unwholesome) rather than kushala (wholesome or skillful), to use the Indian terminology, are basically mistakes flowing from wrong belief rather than sins or disobedience to an overruling deity.

The Pali Buddhist texts contain repeated descriptions of sila, samadhi, and prajna. The moral guidelines (shila) precede descriptions of meditation (samadhi) that in turn precede descriptions of wisdom (prajna). It is common, therefore, to understand that morality is a foundation for meditation and that meditation is a foundation for wisdom. It is, however, also possible to read the causal relationship in the reverse direction, seeing morality as the surface level, dependent upon a rightly ordered mind, which in turn depends upon wisdom.

Morality, then, is an outcome or consequence of a well-ordered mind, and such a mind is well-ordered because there is correct understanding of the true situation. It is not so much that morality leads to meditation and meditation to wisdom as that wisdom naturally leads to right-mindedness and that this, in turn, leads to the kind of behavior that even the uninitiated recognize as moral.

If wisdom is at the core of the Buddhist understanding of morality, what can we say about wisdom itself? In Buddhism, wisdom is closely related, on the one hand, to foresight and, on the other, to faith. (Foresight is, in fact, one implication of the word prajna.) Buddhas see the long term, which obviously has a good deal to do with morality. Immoral acts arise from unskillful intentions based on the kleshas (mental hindrances) of greed, hatred, and ignorance. Often, the harm brought by immoral acts comes only in the long run; many immoral acts have a short-term payoff. If they didn’t, no one would bother with them. Understanding the long-term consequences of our acts is a case of right orientation of mind leading naturally to rightly ordered behavior. As it says in the Dhammapada regarding our actions, “Mind is first. Mind made are they. If a person acts with a right mind, happiness clings to them like a shadow.” Faith and foresight go together, because to act on foresight is to act in faith. The Buddha prescribes a life of good faith.

The Buddhist notion of foresight is closely tied to the teaching of dependent origination, that everything arises in dependence on multiple causes and conditions. Things become possible only when the necessary conditions are in place, and right-mindedness and wisdom are necessary conditions for right behavior. The question is, therefore, how to understand this wisdom and right-mindedness. In East Asia, dependent origination underwent two distinctive and contrasting developments. One, deriving from the idealism of Yogacara philosophy, was the downplaying of the element of temporality. This ultimately led to the ideas about nonduality, interbeing, and non-arising that modern Western students of Mahayana are generally familiar with.

For East Asian Buddhist practitioners, however, it was the second development that had more impact. This was the transformation of dependent origination into other-power, a natural development from the Buddha’s first two teachings. The Buddha’s first teaching was on the eightfold path and the four noble truths, which can be described as essentially a distillation of dependent origination. His second teaching was on non-self, within which we find the repeating refrain “this is not me, this is not mine, this is not myself.” If forces are at work in our lives that are not oneself, then they are other.

Over time, this led to a Buddhist approach that was based on a principle quite different from the idea of deliberately pursuing spiritual achievement. In this approach, the major forces at work were taken to be non-self, or what we moderns might call unconscious. This is completely in accord with the actual experience of anyone who tries to keep a New Year’s resolution. One makes a conscious resolve . . . and then something else happens. Positive psychology adherents would say that one did not try hard enough. Followers of Pureland Buddhism would say, however, that one is not capable of achieving one’s salvation by one’s own conscious effort. In fact, it is the very realization that one is so incapable that leads to the transformation that constitutes real Buddhist wisdom: namely, the awakening to non-self.

Let us consider another example. It is notoriously difficult to give up smoking. Doing so requires persistence and, from a self-power perspective, one can say that what is needed is strong willpower. What actually motivates a person, however, is foresight. It is generally only when a person becomes strongly aware of the future consequences that he does something about the habit. Often this happens too late. If a person does not stop smoking until he has had one lung surgically removed, then we can readily say that he should have stopped earlier. Why didn’t he, and why can he do so now? One might say that it is because his fear is now strengthening his willpower. But what usually happens is actually the reverse: the evidence of surgery has brought home to the person the fact that he is mortal and that he cannot, by the power of self alone, defy natural processes. It is the realization that natural processes are stronger that paradoxically permits the person to do what he could not do before when his self felt more powerful. This is not a case of self-assertion but of self-diminishment; not one of achievement, but of submission.

Moral resolve is like this. A noble person does not do good because of willpower. She does it through a combination of, on the one hand, modesty about self, and, on the other hand, faith in a higher purpose, a higher meaning, in powers more potent than self-will. Such a person is not moral through gritted teeth. She is at ease in goodness.

Buddhism revolves around the idea of refuge. One takes refuge not from a position of strength but from a position that acknowledges weakness. Right-mindedness is self-diminishment plus gratitude for higher guidance and assistance. For a Buddhist, the source of guidance and assistance is the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. Since the dharma is the teaching of Buddha and the sangha is the community of Buddha, the core of refuge is the Buddha himself.

Other-power thus came to mean allowing Buddha to work in, on, and for us by reducing our self-estimation, willfulness, ambition, and conceit. The core attitudes here are gratitude and assurance: gratitude for the awakened one who “has-come-to-us” (Japanese, Nyorai; Sanskrit, Tathagata), and assurance that comes from confidence in the power and process that result from our taking refuge therein. From such gratitude the traditional virtues such as generosity, energy, patience, balance, foresight, and morality flow naturally without special effort. From such assurance flows a confidence that takes away the need to grasp at short-term personal gain or be ever vigilant in self-defense. In this way, right-mindedness naturally gives rise to right behavior. It is not a case of achieving morality by will-power as a necessary basis for mental cultivation—such a method is self-defeating and ignores the inherent weakness of the individual. In sutra after sutra, the Buddha tries to combat the folly of conceit. Conceit says, “I can do this; I am a special case; I will not reap the consequences that others reap.” Wisdom says, “I cannot do this by my own power; I am not a special case; I, like all others, am subject to suffering and impermanence; all dharma is non-self.” For one who has such faith, morality is not rule-keeping, it is naturalness.

David Brazier (Dharma Master Dharmavidya) is the president of the International Zen Therapy Institute and the head of the Order of Amida Buddha. The author of nine books, he travels frequently from his hermitage in France to lecture worldwide.

Artwork by Don Morris
Image 1: Heroes of the City, courtesy Elisa Contemporary Art.
Image 2: Detail from
Heroes of the City, courtesy Elisa Contemporary Art.
Image 3:
Our Town, courtesy Elisa Contemporary Art.

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jackelope65's picture

It may be as Mr Brazier pointed out that "other power" is the subconscious. This is in line with the research of moral psychology researcher, Jonathan Haidt, who, amongst others have demonstrate that we are not born with a "blank slate," but the subconscious comes prewired with tendencies that may be modified but not completely changed by our environment ie. the saint, the politician, and the crook all coming from the same parents and household. Dr Haidt points out in "The Righteous Mind" that the subconscious power can be compared to an "elephant" and the power of conscious mind to the "rider." Although, the rider , conscious mind, may be able to train the elephant, if there is a tsunami coming, the elephant is running uphill, rider or not. This may be compared to the addicted mind with the subconscious controlled repeatedly by dopamine release. Dr Haidt points out that generally the conscious mind will be most effective when teamed up with other conscious minds aimed towards the same goal even if it is against great odds,eg. The Apollo Space Mission scientists sending a rocket to the moon., members of A.A. trying to control addiction, or a Sangha pursuing enlightenment.

Dominic Gomez's picture

That "elephant" being as unfathomable (at present) and ubiquitous as the universe itself.

John Haspel's picture

I appreciate Mr. Braziers article but find it illogical in relation to the teachings of the Buddha. It reads to me as a “thicket of views” and concepts, making a simple and direct path of awakening more of an ideal than a practical application of wisdom, virtue and concentration.

Of course the ideals of Pureland Buddhism were never taught by the Buddha. As with most Buddhist Religions parts of the Buddha’s teachings have been adapted to support subsequent views.

The Buddha taught the Eightfold Path beginning with Right View and Right Intention, These first two factors are known as the wisdom factors. They are presented first to initially acknowledge the Right View in turning one’s mind to the Dhamma. One must first understand, at least on a superficial level, that the currently held view of self is causing confusion and suffering.

Holding this basic Right View than allows for Right Intention. Right Intention is holding in mind (mindfulness) the strong resolve to renounce all causes of confusion and suffering, including arising views of self and others.

These first two factors provide the necessary mindful framework and initial wisdom to develop heightened virtue and heightened concentration.

As a starting point for developing understanding, wisdom now informs the development of virtue, or morality, and also impacts morale. Having Right View and knowing freedom and liberation depend on actions, not on God or even a Buddha or the Buddha to intervene and impose awakening brings great inspiration and determination to Dhamma practice. Created beliefs (views) then are not what drives practice but a true, though initial, understanding.

By practicing the Dhamma as presented one immediately begins to set aside all views rather than create more to fit an initial false view.

Wisdom is both the starting point of understanding and ultimately wisdom is the defining characteristic of an awakened mind, a mind of equanimity, a mind holding no views.

The Buddha’s teaching on non-self point to the impermanence and insubstantiality of what most cling to as a self, which is simply another false view. The teachings on dependent co-arising and the 5 clinging-aggregates clearly show that what most so desperately try to establish and maintain as self is not worth the effort to do so.

By understanding non-self as the Buddha taught all views are abandoned and all confusion and suffering ends. Creating more views will never develop the cessation of views.

The Buddha taught to take refuge as the ONLY form of strength worth being mindful of. To confuse taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha with weakness, even the view that one must view themselves as week, undermines the whole Dhamma. Taking Refuge in the Buddha is not seeking assistance from the Buddha. The Buddha was very clear to monks, nuns and lay followers, and as preserved in the Pali Canon, that he was simply the teacher of the Dhamma. It was up to each individual to gain understanding for themselves.

The Three Refuge are also known as the Three Jewels (of understanding). Taking Refuge in the Buddha is taking refuge in the understanding that a human being, Siddartha Guatama, achieved awakening through these same Four Noble Truths including this same Eightfold Path. That a human being was able to achieve liberation and freedom from confusion and suffering shows that we all have the inner resources, the inner strength to do the same.

Understanding that the same Dhamma that Siddartha used to awaken, and the same Dhamma that he taught, is available to anyone provided they have the wisdom to engage in it.

True lineage is the lineage of the Dhamma that was set in motion during the Buddha’s first teaching that set the wheel of truth, The Four Noble Truths, in motion. The lineage of the Dhamma has been passed through each mind that has had the inner strength and Right Intention to avoid distraction and develop an understanding of the Four Noble Truths.

Taking refuge in the sangha is similar to taking refuge in the Buddha. By being a vital and giving part of a sangha we are sharing our inner strength and understanding with others.

One of the rules of behavior that is found in the Vinaya Pitaka is that when the sangha is gathered discussion should be on the Dhamma and not on other issues, or embellishments to the Dhamma. This rule was put in place by the Buddha so that the sangha continue as a refuge, as a jewel of understanding, and does not develop confusion, false views and continued unhappiness.

I understand that Pureland is based on worship of the Buddha rather than reverence for what a human being achieved. I respect all religions. That respect does not always equate with agreement. The idea of having the Buddha, or any other being of any realm “work on us” is contrary to the entirety of the Dhamma. The final words of the Buddha make this most important point very clear: “Impermanence and decay are relentless, work diligently for your own salvation.”

I sincerely apologize to Mr Brazier for expressing a contrary understanding of the Dhamma. I intend no disrespect. Peace.

John Haspel

sallyotter's picture

Interesting. As a long time 12 Step Program member, I appreciate the idea of higher power. The very concept that "I" can't fix myself, can't make self moral. To attempt to do so involves the ego, and only strengthens the illusion of self.

oconnellmichaelryan's picture

Thank you, David. A very enjoyable read.

andrew522's picture

I cannot see faith as anything but a hindrance, a dangerous shortcut which, once applied, can lead to all sorts of misdirection.To say we should humbly, or in whatever manner, be guided by others (a majority opinion), to my mind, is an equally dangerous shortcut. Essentially this Pure Land Buddhism seems to want to needlessly expand upon the truth of life, namely, that I have been born and that shortly I will be no more. What is wrong with self mastery? Does it in fact set self against self? Or is it not (as I believe)the very essence of what a Buddhist should strive for?

bardo's picture

You are missing the point. Buddhism is about Awakening. When you awaken there is no self. Using the self to get there is mastery. But when you Awaken you will not be a self.

JoseBuendia's picture

Actually, before you awaken there is no self as well. It is just that, prior to awakening, we experience "no self" as suffering.

amclellan's picture

Interesting article, although I wonder if Mr Brazier might have diminished the importance of non-self elements in other Buddhist paths? Focussing on self-mastery as a way of achieving happiness or good karma is a very relative way of looking at the path which every Buddhist tradition I have worked in (mostly Tibetan schools and Soto Zen) challenges.

In the Pali Canon, dependent-arising (paticca-samuppada) makes it clear that there is no self and we are totally comprised of other or, as Dogen puts it in Genjokoan: "To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be filled by myriad things." Much of the path taught in Tibetan Buddhism is also focussed on gratitude towards other beings and expressing that through one's words, thoughts and actions.

So, in essence, I very much enjoyed this perspective of Pure Land Buddhism but worry that it plays down the sense of other in the remaining Buddhist traditions. As with Tibetan tantra, Pure Land practice seems very much to use the sense of other to diminish the sense of self but I don't think the fact that other traditions use different methods to achieve this is in any sense a weakness. It is a case of either allowing otherness in to diminish self or diminishing self to allow otherness in. Which method you use is a method of personal preference, in my opinion, and each is open to its flaws. Just as other schools can foster attachment to the sense of self through noble action, so Pure Land has been criticised for becoming attached to the absolute reality of that other power.

rohiller's picture

Don't think of it as either or, but rather as both and.

bill.cook68's picture

well thought-out uncomplicated arguments such as these should I suggest,help to make the pure-Land path
much more acceptable as a viable path in the West as it is in The East. Many Thanks!

barry.wharton's picture

Where I start to question this thesis is in the treatment of non self. "If forces are at work in our lives that are not oneself then they are other". This seems to contort the meaning of annata which is referring to a lack of self nature. It seems to me to confuse a number of basic tenets which become compounded as the article progresses beyond this point. Perhaps I am misunderstanding an aspect of the argument.

shinen's picture

Excellent piece! I really appreciate this writing. I've learned more about Pure Land Buddhism that I was unaware of before. Really refreshing exploration, thank you.

glenzorn's picture

Theistic, dualistic, perfectionist, childishly dependent.