I recently heard someone use the word “ego” at a meditation group. I had not heard that in a while and it got me to thinking.
It is unfortunate that the word has come into common use in Western Buddhism. My guess is that when Zen and Tibetan Buddhism came to the West, the Buddhist teachers found something in common with Western psychology. So they adapted the use of the word “ego” as a way of expressing the Buddha’s teachings on self and non-self to a Western audience. At the time it probably felt quite skillful. Here was a way in which they could relate the Buddha’s teachings to a new culture.
What makes that unfortunate, however, is that an ego, by definition, is a thing. If we think in terms of an ego, we turn what the Buddha described as a process – a chain of causes and effects – into an object. We are doing exactly what the Buddha told us not to do, and that is to take that chain of causes and effects and turn it into something substantial, a kind of self.
By objectifying this process, we give it life. And by turning it into the bad guy we set up an adversarial relationship with a concept. The concept of an ego is just that, a concept. And as Ajahn Lee says, concepts are just shadows that cross the mind. They are illusions, and further they are illusions that we create. We fabricate this notion of an ego, and create yet another way to suffer.
The Buddha clearly stated that there are no things, just processes:
“Good, bhikkhus. So you say thus, and I also say thus: ‘When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises.’” – [MN 38.19]
This is the Buddha’s simplest expression of dependent co-arising. It applies, in fact, to the whole of existence. Everything that comes to be is the result of causes and conditions. And it is our attachment to the transient processes of body and mind that causes a great deal of suffering. This is the teaching on non-self. And when we relate it to the whole of existence, it is emptiness.
It is actually easier to deal with this attachment if we do not empower it by calling it an “ego.” It is simply an impersonal process of causes and effects. If anger arises and there is a decision to act on it, then the result is likely to be unwholesome. There is no “I” or “me”. There is simply this cause and effect. And if the unskillful cause is seen and there is a choice not to react to it, then the result is wholesome. This is how the mind is trained. And there does not have to be shame or guilt or self-loathing because there is no one to feel the shame, guilt or self-loathing. There is just this.