For me, one of the most difficult lessons to master is transcending the ego. On an intellectual level, I can understand all the reasoning behind the lesson, but when the time comes to walk the walk and not just talk the talk, my actions often fall short of the ideals I envision.
In the past, my ego tended to manifest itself as a powerful urge to be right. Its effect was insidious - I was usually unaware of it when it exerted its influence over me. It was a negative force because it did not compel me to seek deeper truths or further clarifications. Instead, it took the shortcut of twisting my thoughts until I became convinced of my own correctness.
Armed with this conviction, I would launch into a manic drive to prove my point, to win at any cost. Sometimes my position matched objective reality; other times it did not. Blinded by my ego, I could not see the difference between the two. And even if I were ultimately proven correct, the victory would feel hollow and empty, because it had been obtained at the expense of harmony and compassion.
I reminded myself to keep my ego in check, but the moment someone attacked my views, I immediately discarded the reminders and jumped right into the fray. It felt as if I was not truly in charge, as if my actions and words were under the control of my trigger-happy, contentious ego. I despaired of ever getting rid of it. The situation seemed hopeless.
It occurred to me that stories could often succeed in making an impression where doctrines and reasoning failed, so I delved into the treasure trove of traditional teachings. What I came up with was a story about Su Dongpo, one of the great Chinese poets who lived about a thousand years ago, in the Song dynasty.
Su Dongpo was an avid student of Buddhist teachings, and often discussed them with his good friend, the Zen master Foyin. The two lived across the river from one another - Su Dongpo's residence on the north side and Foyin's Gold Mountain Temple on the south side.
One day, Su Dongpo felt inspired and wrote the following poem:
I bow my head to the heaven within heaven
Impressed by himself, Su Dongpo dispatched a servant to hand-carry this poem to Foyin. He felt certain that his friend would be just as impressed.
When Foyin read the poem, he immediately saw that it was both a tribute to the Buddha and a declaration of spiritual refinement. The "eight winds" in the poem referred to praise, ridicule, honor, disgrace, gain, loss, pleasure and misery - interpersonal forces of the material world that drove and influenced the hearts of men. Su Dongpo was saying that he had attained a higher level of spirituality, where these forces no longer affected him.
Smiling, the Zen master wrote "fart" on the manuscript and had it returned to Su Dongpo.
Su Dongpo had been expecting compliments and a seal of approval, so he was shocked when he saw what the Zen master had written. He hit the roof: "How dare he insult me like this? Why that lousy old monk! He's got a lot of explaining to do!"
Full of indignation, Su Dongpo ordered a boat to ferry him to the other shore as quickly as possible. Once there, he jumped off and charged into the temple. He wanted to find Foyin and demand an apology.
He found Foyin's door closed. On the door was a piece of paper, with the following two lines:
The eight winds cannot move me
This stopped Su Dongpo cold. Foyin had anticipated this hotheaded visit. Su Dongpo's anger suddenly drained away as he understood his friend's meaning. If he really was a man of spiritual refinement, completely unaffected by the eight winds, then how could he be so easily provoked?
With a few strokes of the pen and minimal effort, Foyin showed that Su Dongpo was in fact not as spiritually advanced as he claimed to be. Ashamed but wiser, Su Dongpo departed quietly.
This event proved to be a turning point in Su Dongpo's spiritual development. From that point on, he became a man of humility, and not merely someone who boasted of possessing the virtue.
After I read this story, I felt better about myself. Managing one's ego seemed to be a perpetual human challenge, as tricky a thousand years ago as it is today. If even the great Su Dongpo had trouble with it, then of course mere mortals like myself would have at least some issues.
The story made a clear distinction between knowing a truth and living it. Su Dongpo's mental brilliance was beyond question, noted by his contemporaries and those of subsequent generations who studied his poems. In all likelihood, he really did understand the eight winds very well. Unfortunately, this was an intellectual understanding that did not translate into correct action or appropriate inaction.
In the same way, my own understanding of the ego did not translate into the ability to control it. Without true mastery, and merely knowing the reasoning behind the lesson on a rational level, I continued to make the same mistakes again and again. Being able to see a path was not the same as walking it. Slowly, the truth began to sink in.
The ego operates within a social context. Su Dongpo sought peer approval because he craved praise and admiration, which was in turn because the ego is all about "looking good" to others. We can think of it as a mask that we put on to play a certain role in life. This mask comes off when we are alone - away from the social context - because then we don't have a need to cut a dashing figure for the sake of appearance.
This means the total elimination of the ego may not be a realistic goal. As social creatures, most of us will always need and seek out the company of other human beings. Some measure of ego will always be present as long as human interactions persist, no matter how saintly the participants of such interactions may be.
Perhaps this is the key. I felt I had to "get rid of" the ego somehow. Could it be that I gave myself an impossible task? What would happen if I focus my goal on freedom instead of elimination?
Ego enslaves us by making us too dependent on what other people think. And if we were to give in to its craving for attention, we would quickly find that it can never be satisfied. An entertainer can be the idol of millions and the center of adulation in a stadium full of fans, and still feel utterly alone. Once the ego grows out of balance, it can easily become a bottomless hole, forever wanting more.
Thus, by freedom from ego, I do not mean extinction of the ego in the Buddhist sense, nor am I talking about suppressing it or denying its existence. Suppression and denial are among the least effective ways of dealing with the ego. To be free from the ego simply means breaking away from its grip so we are not enslaved by its domination. We want to master the ego, and not be its servants.
In my case, this means letting go of the need to defend my views. I relinquish the desire to convince or persuade others. I can hold on to my views without having to make any points, prove anything, or justify any positions.
Like Su Dongpo, I became easily incensed when I did not get the approval or concurrence I expected. It was easy for ego to enslave me because I had a need to be seen by others as being correct.
When I free myself from this falsehood, I gain clarity. I begin to see that being defensive is a tremendous waste of energy that achieves nothing useful. My views do not gain any validity when I defend them, nor do they lose any validity when I choose not to defend.
Dealing with the ego still isn't easy for me - and perhaps it never will be - but thanks to Su Dongpo and the insights from his story, I now have a new direction and some new ideas I can really apply. There's light at the end of the tunnel. I guess the situation isn't so hopeless after all!