The Tibetan word for ego literally means “owner,” as in claiming ownership or clinging to being the owner. This indicates that ego is something extra added into the situation. This is how to understand ego or self in the Buddhist context. It doesn’t mean that being free of ego is like being switched off, like all the doors and windows are shut and there is no experience of anything ever again. In order to understand the actuality of “no owner,” no self, we need to understand two levels of reality: the seeming and the real—also called the relative and the ultimate. Really and ultimately, we don’t own anything, because really and ultimately there are no things to own. Everything is impermanent and everything is devoid of any independent, true existence. There really are no entities to claim as one’s own. This is a very important point.
Nevertheless, the seeming level of reality also comes about because of not realizing how things actually are, ultimately. We need to respect that level as well, so that we can work with how things seemingly are experienced.
Here’s an example. Let’s say that your daddy has given enough money to a hotel so that your bills are covered for your entire life, no matter how long you stay or what you eat or how much you spend. You move in and stay for a month or two. It is very nice, and you enjoy yourself a lot. You don’t own the hotel, but you are allowed to stay there. Still, you respect the hotel. Something in your suite may break or get a little crack, but this doesn’t really depress you; you don’t fall into despair about it, because after all it’s not really yours. Still, you notice when something breaks, and you take care that it gets repaired. It doesn’t mean that you have to think, “This is not mine, I don’t care, let it break. In fact, I’ll even help a little to break it!” and so you kick the toilet and tear the curtains into pieces. That’s not necessary at all. Just because you don’t own it doesn’t mean that it has to be destroyed. You don’t have to disturb anything. When you act in this way, both levels are present.
Because of respecting the relative level, you are careful about things breaking. Also, when you move to another room, it doesn’t mean you pocket any of the articles. You don’t have to be that way. But because you don’t have the sense of being the owner, because you don’t have the ego-feeling in your relationship to the room, you don’t worry too much if something breaks. It’s not really your problem, although you still take care of it and make sure it gets fixed.
My main point here is that it’s possible to live like one is staying in this hotel—in a way that is respectful but doesn’t assume an extra degree of ownership. Your life is something like a hotel room. You don’t own it forever. You might own it for sixty or seventy years, but it’s not a permanent situation. You are staying as an honest, respectful guest in a hotel.
- Tsoknyi Rinpoche, Fearless Simplicity: The Dzogchen Way of Living Freely in a Complex World (Ranjung Yeshe Publications, 2003)