Sunday, October 22, 2006

Giving up self improvement

How to give up self-improvement (from the Appendix to "The Life and Letters of Tofu Roshi" by Susan Ichi Su Moon, Shambala 1988)



I want to talk to you today about the importance of giving up self-improvement. This is one of our hardest tasks, as we train ourselves to follow the Buddha Way. In this modern age, we are met at every turn by new and tempting opportunieis to improve ourselves. We are offered everything from workshops on how to be a better parent to classes in strengthening the quadriceps. We are so deeply habituated to this way of thinking that we do not even recognize it in ourselves. This is the great danger. How many of you first began to sit zazen with the hope that it would in some way make you a better person? For many of us it may take years of hard practice before we are completely sure that we have hoped in vain. Buddhism teaches us that everything always changes, but we must finally admit that it does not change for the better.

---

...Giving up self-improvement is easier said than done. Each of us must walk this path alone, going nowhere.

...I respectfully ask you not to waste your time. You may delude yourself by promising to give up self-improvement soon, after you have stopped biting your fingernails, lost ten pounds, or learned to jitterbug. This is a trap. Tomorrow it may be too late - in the final stages of the disease, the sufferer loses all control and those around him find themselves hiding course catalogues and health-club brochures. ..

...Remember, you are perfect already, exactly as you are. In a manner of speaking. And if you were really perfect, you wouldn't have a friend in the world.



I love this book - a fictional account of the author learning about zen from a wonderfully entertaining but fictional master, Tofu Roshi.

The appendix on how to give up self-improvement is something I had not really noticed when I first read the book back in the early 90s. Now, having spent more time with zen I see the amazing value in this. The rarity of it alone should spark the reader's interest - what religion or activity sells itself by saying that it should not be used to improve yourself. That trying to do so is besides the entire point?

I also am drawn to this appendix because I am a relentless self-improver. I doubt I could stop, but perhaps this only shows how little experience I have with zen?

For example, I am virtually unable to eat "empty calories" - for food to be suitable to me it must offer some nutritional value (the more the better). Especially good are foods claimed to help reduce the chance of cancer or heart disease. Keeping up with the information of which foods are best etc is time consuming but I enjoy it. Is it a sickness? Is it a distraction from experiencing the rest of the world - an inward focus that prevents a relaxed enjoyment of life? Most would say "of course not" but I sometimes envy those humans whose families and cultures have lived in the same place for centuries and simply eat the same foods their ancestors ate. They enjoy them and don't worry about them - they eat for the pleasure of it, not because they've determined it benefits them health-wise.

Saw the movie "Click" last night. It's got some very Zen-like philosophy in it (about taking time to enjoy a quality life moment by moment rather than throwing away the present to achieve a better future).

25 Comments:

At October 22, 2006, Blogger Kamikaze Kurt said...

Eat because it tastes good, and if it's in moderation then you don't have to worry about how many calories how bad it might be for you. In American culture we are so consumer conscious that we demand our Big Mac when all we really should be eating is the Happy Meal. My hometown of Las Vegas is the perfect example of where moderation is forgotten and excess is the norm.

 
At October 23, 2006, Blogger oxeye said...

I don't know if there is a point in a person's life they will give up on self-improvement. Even if it is delusional, it is still a big part of being human. Just as helping others helps yourself, improving yourself improves others. We wake up in the morning and wash our faces. We sit with no intention but we will always try to improve on a recipe. And sitting itself is making countless small adjustments. Our practice refers to a manner, but practice also is something that is done with the deliberate aim of improving.

 
At October 23, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

Buddhism is about Self removal rather than self improvement.

Sometimes the only way to fix a broken thing is to throw it away and start afresh.

 
At October 23, 2006, Blogger Anatman said...

Funny, I was thinking similar thoughts just yesterday. I was talking to a friend who is deeply involved in breathing workshops as a form of therapy. Another friend said, "That sounds very Buddhist."

I didn't voice my disagreement, but my experience of Buddhism is that it is very different than any type of therapy, and definitely different than the myriad self-help movements that have arisen over the past 40 years.

The whole idea that you can somehow "repair" or improve the "self" seems to reinforce a major falacy that Buddhism aims to correct: the delusional identification with an imaginary entity called "self."

I think modern movements to improve the self esteem of our youth are equally misguided, for the same reason.

 
At October 24, 2006, Blogger PA said...

That's an interesting post.
Isn't forgetting the self, improving 'something' though?
I definitely started and continue to do Zazen for self improvement - but it's a paradoxical thing, isn't it? I'm trying to improve myself by realizing I don't need to improve myself which ends up improving myself because I'm not so caught up in improving myself. And lots of the other things we do to make our lives a bit better along the way, help us to be balanced enough to see that we're ok as we are...

 
At October 24, 2006, Blogger PA said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At October 24, 2006, Blogger Anatman said...

If the garbage in your house starts to stink, there are a number of ways to deal with it:

1. Stir up the garbage with a stick and spray perfume in it

or...

2. Take out the trash

They are both attempts to improve the environment in your home, but one method aims to eliminate the problem itself, while the other attempts to improve the quality of the problem.

 
At October 25, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

pa: "? I'm trying to improve myself by realizing I don't need to improve myself which ends up improving myself because I'm not so caught up in improving myself"

You're off base on this.

It's the me/myself and the part that thinks all these thoughts that is got rid off.

The problem was not so much the thoughts but that the part of you that thought them thinks they are real.

 
At October 25, 2006, Blogger PA said...

Mike Doe - and when the part that thinks all these thoughts realizes they aren't real, 'I'm' not improved, but 'things' are surely improved...

 
At October 25, 2006, Blogger oxeye said...

Mikedoe - There is nothing actually gotten rid of. No thing can be removed.

But there can be a shift in perspective. We can acquire multiple vantage points. Our view can be improved.

 
At October 25, 2006, Blogger oxeye said...

Self-improvement exists only in our thoughts. Practice is the goal and any changes resulting can be an improvement or not depending on what people think about them.

 
At October 25, 2006, Blogger me said...

good point oxeye!

 
At October 25, 2006, Blogger grisom said...

Saw the movie "Click" last night. It's got some very Zen-like philosophy in it (about taking time to enjoy a quality life moment by moment rather than throwing away the present to achieve a better future).

Yeah, I really liked that movie. All about the importance of paying attention to and enjoying even the boring stuff in life.

 
At October 26, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

oxeye:
Only something that we think is there but is actually not is gotton rid off.

The idea of an improved view whilst accurate is also a potential trap. ' "I" am seeing more clearly than before' is where that trap lies.

Although seeing more clearly is also a necessary precursor.

 
At October 26, 2006, Blogger oxeye said...

Self is very real. it just exists as part of something greater. Seeing it as separate from the universe is not a trap, just another necessary viewpoint. We cannot function without little mind but we should always try and stay aware of the present moment, which includes it.

 
At October 27, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

Self is not 'real'. It is a construction of thoughts held together by the belief that it is real

It is not separate from you - you create it.

You are not separate from the universe.

The self believes it is in some way separate from you - owner/passenger/observer and it is this belief that makes you believe that you are separate from the universe.

 
At October 27, 2006, Blogger Dan said...

i thought the belief that we are separate from the rest of the universe comes from the fact that all of our available sense data tells us that we are a separate entity from the rest of the universe. that's why we don't bump into things when we walk about cos we think we're separate from the everything else. in that sense the self is real.

what about if sense of self = brain function and brain function is real then sense of self is real?

 
At October 27, 2006, Blogger oxeye said...

There is a real self..

Buddhism is not a belief or thought system. It is not a compilation of our readings. It is not what we believe it to be or think that it might be. Dogen said "To study the Buddha way is to study oneself. To study oneself is to forget oneself. To forget oneself is to be enlightened by the ten thousand dharmas."

Forgetting oneself is not the same as denying the existence of a real self.

There will come a time when belief and non-belief will no longer matter to us. Belief in no-self is incorrect. non-belief in self is correct.

Zen is being our real selves in this very moment.. real self is Buddha nature. Buddha nature is just a moment in eternity. :)

 
At October 27, 2006, Blogger Anatman said...

There is no permanent or enduring self. Self is a particular perspective, like a camera angle at football game.

Self is a collection of thoughts, reactions, and memories that cannot be separated from the greater whole, including the body, and the universe.

Just because one has thoughts of a permanent, separate self, it does not mean that a permanent, separate self exists. Thoughts of The Flying Spaghetti Monster do not make The Monster real.

 
At October 27, 2006, Blogger oxeye said...

We have a self image, which is certainly not real.. It is a mental construction. We have a body, which changes over time and dies and we might identify it for a while as our self, but it passes away. There is the you which acts in the present moment, which doesn't reflect on his/her self-image or think about how his/her body is managing when acting in the present moment. And then there is the real you which cannot be understood by thinking about it. Nagarjuna said, "The Buddhas taught that beyond views that see self and no-self, there is something ineffable that is neither self nor no-self." These four selves could correspond to Nishijima's four philosophies, four views of the self.

Our real self is our Buddha-nature. Very real, buried under our thoughts, reactions, and memories and other defilements, eternal and present in all sentient beings.

 
At October 27, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

Oxeye:

"The Buddhas taught that beyond views that see self and no-self, there is something ineffable that is neither self nor no-self."

Yes.

Our real self is our Buddha-nature. Very real, buried under our thoughts, reactions, and memories and other defilements, eternal and present in all sentient beings.

Roughly yes.

When you act without thought, that is your true self manifest.

If there are thoughts and then action then in general your true self has been restrained or modified in some way. If there is action without thought or action upon which thought follows then that is your true self manifesting.

I think it might be pushing to extremes to refer to memories and other things as defilements.

Memories whilst not accurate do serve a purpose. Most people rely on memories to provide context and history to their lives. In order to interact meaningfully with people it is often essential to be able to recall shared events.

As a starting point I would suggest that your real self be considered as everything that you think of as 'self' plus all the things that you dislike and all the things that you deny. It is not the whole truth and it is not accurate but it is a good starting point.

 
At October 28, 2006, Blogger zenducker said...

What if "self improvement" means that you are going to stop eating meat? What if self improvement means that you are only going to buy eggs from free-range chicken farms? I'm not trying to be cute here I'm serious as hell. As it says in some Buddhist transcript somewhere; "We are fortunate enough to be born as human beings so we should not waste the oppotunity." So if we don't improve and everything is just so, why are we better than worms?

 
At October 29, 2006, Blogger oxeye said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At October 29, 2006, Blogger oxeye said...

MD, yeah, you are right. defilements was too strong. How about obscurations as in obscuring reality?

I agree that sharing memories with a friend is time well spent.

But thinking to yourself about what you should have said in an exchange or what someone else said to you during it is a waste of your time. Because you won't remember it as it was.

 
At October 30, 2006, Blogger Jules said...

Oxeye said: We have a self image, which is certainly not real.. It is a mental construction.

But it is real... it's a real mental construction. As thoughts of the Flying Spaghetti Monster are real thoughts.

Go not to the Buddhists for advice, for they will say both yes and no. (Thanks, JRR Tolkien).

 

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