Saturday, May 31, 2014

Leggo my Ego - 'Cause It's Not Even There

It seems that the Western language of Buddhism is stuck in some fundamental ways in a psychological vocabulary long extinct. I easily read 1 to 5 bits of Buddhist ephemera a day (blog posts, Facebook comments, etc...) that use the word 'ego' as if it means something.

I think that ultimately Buddha, and the many of the great leaders of Zen thought were striving to understand the human 'self'. The self-experience. How the human perception of the world gives rise to suffering. How I interact with my surroundings, how my person was informed by past events, that gives rise to my 'now.' Buddhism is a science, but importantly, a practical science, not a science of wild un-experienceable theories. I love the phrase 'natural philosophy' so I'll marry it with Buddhism. Buddhism, and I think most specifically Zen, is the attempt to really probe human experience as a practical reality, which must admit the role of mind. Zen strives to unravel mind, to step outside mind. To SEE mind.

Therefore Zen does not look well on theories alone. Zen trips up theories in subtle and important ways. "Pain is only the mind a work, I have transcended it" -- until you stub your toe and cry "ouch". You have transcended nothing, Zen teaches.

Zen-speak is very stuck on ego. But serious Zen practitioners (or perhaps l should be more generous and simply say, practitioners who are striving for the truth in the manner I expound above), should be very careful of the idea-set that has "ego" at its center. Zen is a science, and must move forward with new understandings in how mind works and how "self" is experienced in the body.

I think the ancients knew well how "things worked" in the human experience. I think the ancients did their best to express what they saw and knew. It think many translations and subsequent teachers using English have completely mis-colored Zen with the idea of Ego.

Ego was largely invented by Freud and is now largely discredited. It no long has meaning. It was a theory set of how the mind works that is no longer held by most modern technical analysts of the human condition. "Ego" was just a fantasy of Freud that appealed as religion to the tribal lust of a generation. It was not based on scientific method.

Quoting from "Why Freud Still Matters, When He Was Wrong About Almost Everything" (Emphasis added)

"Freudian Fallacies

The primary trouble with Freud is that, while his ideas appear intriguing and even common sensical, there’s very little empirical evidence to back them up. Modern psychology has produced very little to substantiate many of his claims.
For instance, there’s no scientific evidence in support of the idea that boys lust after their mothers and hate their fathers. He was totally, utterly wrong about gender. And his notion of “penis envy” is now both laughable and tragic.
There’s no proof of the id, ego, or superego. There’s also no evidence to support the notion that human development proceeds through oral, anal, phallic, and genital stages. Nor that the interference, or arresting, of these stages leads to specific developmental manifestations."
I may do wrong things, and sabotage myself. I may insist "I" exist. I may be drawn to certain false idea's. But it is not because of a pernicious 'ego' acting in me. The brain is a complex and real system of interconnects of matter, of flesh. And, indeed, modern science is beginning to see in demonstrable ways how the brain is not alone in our bodies in informing our experience of self. Nervous and endocrine systems not between my ears are a significant part of experience of 'me'. 
I am not a theory run by some disembodied rule set, which is what Freud's theories essentially described. E.g., where was the seat of the compulsion he described for me to want to kill my father? In which part of the brain was a knot of neurons consistently formed in all peoples to carry this desire? Of course, in fact, there is none. 
Freuds ideas, including Ego, are a story. A well meant fairy tale of red riding hood and the wolf that tasted of the truth but was not indeed the truth. 
It is time for Buddhists to let go the fallacy of 'ego.' The earth is not flat. 


Mike Carter said...

Freud and Adler were wide of the mark but Jung is not. Id, Ego and Super-ego are all constructs of Freud's mind but Jung's idea of Ego, Persona and Self make more sense.

Zen Buddhism as it stands is not a science because science requires objectivity not repeatable, verifiable subjectivity, In Zen two people describe a territory in terms of a map but there is no way to verify that the maps they describe point to the same territory. If the two are versed in the sutras they might just be talking about a common understanding of a religious doctrine.

But underlying it all is I think something that we might call neuroscience, wr could stick two practicioners in MRIs and see similar brain patterns for similar experiences. But let's be clear here western languages make a distinction between subjective and objective and many languages do not.

The atman vs no-atman debate is probably best define as a homunculus vs no-homunculus to more accurately capture the concepts IMV. The Freudian concept of an ego does not map over correctly,

Is there something that I call " me" which exists independently of this body or does this body as a feature of it's existence on this planet and i. Relation to others manifest something that I then call. "Me".

This may sound a bit geeky but it has implications. It's not fair to either science or Zen to call Zen scientific - they are different, related and overlapping domains.

Lauren said...


Thanks for the comment.

You've said a lot, and not all I can respond to (my limit of knowledge), but regarding science, I mean it in the sense of an attempt of discovery without first turning to dogma. Perhaps it is my prejudice as a sometimes scientist to see science in Zen, but I find the story of Buddha's attempt to understand suffering from first principles to be fairly scientific. Likewise many of the cliches of Koans like "it's the mind that waves" seem to be investigating, in part, the limits of perception as evidence.

And to your later question (perhaps it was rhetorical) I currently believe there is no 'me' independent of body. I read Dogen as putting forward the same belief.

I do yield that Zen is not science per se, and perhaps I've bent the real norm of Zen more to my liking than what it really is.

I know only enough of Freud to dislike his theories, and am thankful of modern books on brain function that put him out to pasture. I've never read Jung. Can you suggest any primers?

Sorry about the goofy syntax. I've been reading too much Shakespeare of late. It's had its influence.

Mike Carter said...


Unfortunately it is often closer to Dogma than science. "Give me an experiment that can prove that you/I do/do-not have a soul".

We manifest in this world as human bodies that we can dissect and scan. When we assign abstract meaning to the scans we are straying into dogma. Enlightenment/Unenlightenment is a dogma thing - if something leaves no trace was it ever there?

The heart Sutra says that Buddhism is basically dogma - but that is also dogma.

For Jung I'd strongly reccommend reading Jung. Anywhere on the internet can summarise him and his ideas - and it's useful but misses a lot - jung was a geek and a mystic and in this realm the two blend.

Jung - "the undiscovered self" and "Synchronicity and the Paranormal".

Marie-Louis Von Franz "Psyche and Matter"

Freud "Totem and Taboo"

These are very muddy waters in which you are trying to swim and not much is clear-cut. Even Jung wrote "Look, I made this shit up, it's just a working model based on observation OK" (he used different words)