Buddhist Tantra and the Emptiness of the Ego

We saw in the article on sunyata how all phenomena are free from inherent existence, that is they are not definable in terms of themselves, but are dependently related to other phenomena.  The same line of reasoning can be applied to our own identities, for if we search hard enough for our Self or Ego -  we find it isn't there!

This may sound a bit scary to anyone unfamiliar with Buddhist philosophy, because we normally regard our sense of selfhood as something absolutely basic to our security and continued existence. Even scarier and weirder is the fact that Buddhist meditators deliberately cultivate the realisation that there is no basis for the Self or Ego.  Why on earth should anyone want to deny their own identity?

Well, it isn't quite like that.  The meditators are trying to clarify the basis of imputation of the Self by clearing away all the socially-conditioned and biologically-contingent accretions. Their intention is to become aware of the clear emptiness, the 'suchness' at the centre of the individual's existence. This realisation leads to liberation from the round of rebirth and suffering, and is the basis for embarking on the Tantric path. 

Of course some Western philosophers, such as the 1950's existentialists, have also come to the conclusion that the individual's identity is unfindable, but they have tended to regard this as a cause of depression and angst rather than as a source of celebration. This culture of 'Existential Angst' probably occurred because the philosophers had discovered the emptiness of the self, but at that time they lacked the meditational tools to build upon it.

Realisation of the emptiness of the self is a cause for celebration rather than depression, because a meditator whose mind has no unchangeable essence also has no constraints, and may choose to change the basis of imputation of the self in order to realise her ultimate potential . In other words, a Tantric practitioner who has realised her emptiness can change the basis of imputation of her Self from the biological realm to the Buddha realm. (We all have biological nature, but also Buddha seed - see symbiotic mind)

Meditation on the emptiness of the self
The meditation on emptiness of the Ego takes various forms, but most involve the gradual stripping away of everything and every relationship that makes us who we are.

We may start with the intellectual realisation that there is no permanent basis for our identity, by considering how the physical, mental, emotional and social bases of imputation of the Self changed as we passed through kindergarten, elementary school, adolescence, college, first job, parenthood, etc.

We then meditate by stripping everything away to reveal the permanent unchanging thing that determines our identity:

  • My job isn't me, if they fired me tomorrow my existence wouldn't be diminished (though my bank balance might)

  • My family relationships aren't me, my children are going to leave home eventually.

  • My car isn't me. I know they say a man/woman is what he/she drives, but my car is going to end up as a pile of rust in the junkyard, hopefully before I reach the same state.

  • My name isn't me. I've already changed it three times to avoid the attentions of the Inland Revenue.

  • My academic qualifications aren't me. I had forgotten half of what I'd learned within two weeks of taking the final examination.

  • My genes aren't me. I share 95% of them with chimpanzees.

  • My physical and chemical composition aren't me. The atoms that make up my body are constantly being lost and replaced (more than replaced judging by the bathroom scales). In any case they're supposed to turn over completely every 7 years.

And so we continue along the via negativa  - examining everything that could possibly be the root cause of what we are, including our beliefs, expectations, attachments, memes, mental processes, habits, evolutionary history, instincts, memories, childhood traumas and so on  -  and discarding each in turn. Eventually, when all things and all relationships have been exhausted, we become aware of the emptiness of our Self.   It isn't nothingness that we become aware of, it is pure formless mind , which is empty of any defining or determining essence.

The basic principle of Tantra is that once we have realised that we are ultimately empty of fixed existence, we should also realise that we are free from any constraints to our potential. 

Tantric meditators start from where meditation on Emptiness left off.   Having learned that  we aren't obliged to use a biological body and evolutionary-detemined instincts as the basis of imputation of the self, we can use something else, for example a Buddha.

In Tantric practice we visualise our self as an Enlightened Being. (This is a meditational practice known as 'bringing the result into the path'. It has recently been adopted by some of the more 'New Age' schools of personal development where the practitioner visualises herself actually going through the process of achieving her goal).

We employ rich symbolically-charged visualisations to experience ourselves arising from the state of emptiness as a Meditation Buddha (such as Tara). Meditational Buddhas are also known as Yidams in Tibetan practice.

The practice of  Tantric visualisations is said to hasten us along the path to enlightenment, and decrease our attachment to being reborn in the biological realms and other states of craving and suffering.

- Sean Robsville

See also:

Meditating on emptiness
'....For a qualified meditator single-pointedly absorbed in emptiness, there is no difference between production and disintegration, impermanence and permanence, going and coming, singularity and plurality - everything is equal in emptiness and all problems of attachment, anger, and self-grasping ignorance are solved...'

The Three Poisons in Buddhism
Rage, Greed and Ignorance

Bringing the future result into the present path
'....even though we have not yet attained enlightenment, when we practise Secret Mantra we try to prevent ordinary appearances and ordinary conceptions of our environment and instead visualize our surroundings as the mandala of a Deity. In the same way, we prevent ordinary appearance of our body, our enjoyments, and our deeds, and, in their place, generate ourself as a Deity, visualize our enjoyments as those of a Buddha, and practise performing enlightened deeds. By doing such practices, we can attain the resultant state of Buddhahood very rapidly...'

Slaves to our self-cherishing mind
'...Our instinctive view is that we are more important than everyone else, whereas the view of all enlightened beings is that it is others who are more important. Which of these views is more beneficial? In life after life, since beginningless time, we have been slaves to our self-cherishing mind. We have trusted it implicitly and obeyed its every command, believing that the way to solve our problems and find happiness is to put ourself before everyone else. We have worked so hard and for so long for our own sake, but what do we have to show for it? Have we solved all our problems and found the lasting happiness we desire? No. It is clear that pursuing our own selfish interests has deceived us. After having indulged our self-cherishing for so many lives, now is the time to realize that it simply does not work. Now is the time to switch the object of our cherishing from ourself to all living beings...'

If we regard Buddhism as a combination of a philosophy, psychology and religion, then how much mileage can we get from the first two aspects before we have to start invoking religious faith?

Christian versus Buddhist worldviews

Buddhism in Everyday Life
The Daily Meditation