Filed in Vajrayana, Tibetan

Searching for Self

Dzigar Kongtrül Rinpoche offers advice for facing up to our egos.Dzigar Kongtrül Rinpoche

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© Atta Kim

Holding to an ordinary notion of self, or ego, is the source of all our pain and confusion. The irony is that when we look for this "self" that we're cherishing and protecting, we can't even find it. The self is shifty and ungraspable. When we say "I'm old," we're referring to our body as self. When we say "my body," the self becomes the owner of the body. When we say "I'm tired," the self is equated with physical or emotional feelings. The self is our perceptions when we say "I see," and our thoughts when we say "I think." When we can't find a self within or outside of these parts, we may then conclude that the self is that which is aware of all of these things—the knower or mind.

But when we look for the mind, we can't find any shape, or color, or form. This mind that we identify as the self, which we could call ego-mind, controls everything we do. Yet it can't actually be found—which is somewhat spooky, as if a ghost were managing our home. The house seems to be empty, but all the housework has been done. The bed has been made, our shoes have been polished, the tea has been poured, and the breakfast has been cooked.

The funny thing is that we never question this. We just assume that someone or something is there. But all this time, our life has been managed by a ghost, and it's time to put a stop to it. On one hand, ego-mind has served us—but it hasn't served us well. It has lured us into the suffering of samsara and enslaved us. When ego-mind says, "Get angry," we get angry; when it says, "Get attached," we act out our attachments. When we look into the "slavish" arrangement we have with our ego-mind, we can see how it pressures us, plays tricks on us, and causes us to do things that bring undesirable consequences.

If you want to stop being the slave of a ghost, you must demand that ego-mind show its face. No true ghost will show up when it hears this! You can practice this simple meditation throughout the day. Whenever you don't know what to do with yourself, challenge your ego-mind to show its face. When you're cooking your dinner or waiting for the bus, challenge your ego-mind to show its face. Do it especially when ego-mind overwhelms you, when you feel threatened, fearful, or enslaved by it. Just straighten your posture and challenge ego-mind. Don't be gullible, wiggly, or spineless. When you challenge ego-mind, be firm but gentle, penetrating but never aggressive. Just say to your ego-mind, "Show me your face!" When no mind shows up saying, "Here I am," ego-mind will begin to lose its hold on you and your struggles will lighten up. See if this isn't true. Of course, maybe your mind does have a face and your experience will be different. But if you don't find a mind with a face, you won't take your struggles so seriously, and all of your pain and suffering will lessen.

When we question ego-mind directly, it is exposed for what it is: the absence of everything we believe it to be. We can actually see through this seemingly solid ego-mind, or self. But what are we left with then? We are left with an open, intelligent awareness, unfettered by a self to cherish or protect. This is the primordial wisdom mind of all beings. Relaxing into this discovery is true meditation—and true meditation brings ultimate realization and freedom from suffering.

From It's Up to You © 2005 by Dzigar Kongtrül Rinpoche. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc.,

Image: 15 Buddhas, Atta Kim, 2004, chromogenic print, 74 x 92 inches. © Atta Kim

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sanghadass's picture

you guys make me smile. i love u all.

jacquic37's picture

…."We are left with an open, intelligent awareness." What freedom…to live in the moment without preconceived notions or judgments! All I have to do is deconstruct 76 years of deeply embedded habits and beliefs.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Rather than deconstruct yourself, upgrade your current Buddhist practice.

SandySB's picture

Constructs such as self are useful as far as they go. It is a useful shorthand for living in the world. The self has no permanent existence, our minds and bodies are in constant flux, billions of chemical changes happening every second. The 'I' that started typing is different from the 'I' that finished this post. When we try to make out that it is constant we suffer. Birth, growth, ageing, suffering and death are what happens and at no point is the self constant. Being able to experience this as reality is .....

mralexander99's picture

All I want is a room somewhere, Far away from the cold night air. Who takes "good care" of me ahh wouldn't it be "Loverly"........Ego/Non-Ego......Dualism/Non-Dualism......we are shaped by our language so how do we intersect those dichotomies with curious awareness?

Jakela's picture

"When we question ego-mind directly, it is exposed for what it is: the absence of everything we believe it to be."

But who is the "I" that questions the mind. Seems dualistic

heartjewel's picture

it's turtles all the way down

williamftyler's picture


celticpassage's picture

When people speak about these things it is dualistic. That can't be helped since language is dualistic. The same is true with Dominic's example (or any other analogy): There are sitll Two different sides. It's not possible to speak of non-dualism or enlightenment without misleading people. That's why you often find a student of an ancient Zen master becoming enlightened at some demonstration (without words) of the master. Or some natural occurence (without words) such as a pebble hitting the ground, the sound of a bird or a bell ringing....suddenly there is no "I" and "bell" and "ringing" there is just ringing.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Until human beings master mental telepathy, Celticpassage, language is what we have to work with, with all its dualistic shortcomings. Don't you think?

celticpassage's picture

Yes. It's all we probably will ever have. Dualistic thinking isn't a problem per se. Indeed we need it in order to live. If i want to know if i should bring my umbrella, then i need to know if it will rain today...It's just that we shouldn't believe it.

Dominic Gomez's picture

This is where wisdom comes in. Most decisions are made after some thought. Rather than remaining stuck in the mechanics of process (i.e. "the dualism of it all") Buddhism pushes past it and empowers the individual to make the decision best suited for each situation based on wisdom.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The Lotus Sutra teaches that "the I" and "the mind" are exactly the same thing. There is no dualism. Both are aspects of the buddha nature, which permeates all universal phenomena. Think two sides of the same coin.

runsfree48's picture

If our language is based on the 'ego-mind' and our spiritual path is based on a 'no-mind', how are we to express our spirit? As the 'ego-mind' is peeled away, it is easier to speak without 'I', 'me', 'my', and 'mine'. Try it for an hour; a day; a week; this life-time ... no reference to 'self'. See how more intellegent and soft words become. As that practice becomes easier, perhaps there will be less of a tendency to relinguish the peace of no-mind to the clinging of thinking.

celticpassage's picture

That can be a useful raft for some period of time, however, that's the ego playing a game of pretending it doesn't exist.