The second fundamental certainty is the discovery of the cause of the experience of unsatisfactoriness. We experience life as being unsatisfactory because of our struggle to maintain ourselves in an artificial condition. The artificial condition is one in which we consider ourselves to be safe from impermanence. We struggle continually to justify the notion that we are solid, permanent, separate, continuous, and defined – qualities linked with the five elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space.
Earth is the nondual quality of solidity and intangibility. Water is the nondual quality of permanence and impermanence. Fire is the nondual quality of separateness and inseparability. Air is the nondual quality of continuity and discontinuity. Space is the nondual quality of definition and lack of definition. As soon as we attempt to split the qualities and to adhere only to the form qualities of the elements, we create samsara. The form qualities of emptiness cannot be split from the emptiness qualities of form.
If we try to obtain the experiential qualities of tangibility, permanence, separateness, continuity, and definition; and reject obtaining the experiential qualities of intangibility, impermanence, inseperability, discontinuity, and non-definition or continuous re-definition – this is what is known as duality. In terms of duality we perpetually struggle to maintain the illusion that we exist as solid, permanent, separate, continuous, and defined beings – and our constant failure to establish this illusion, creates the fabric of the experience of unsatisfactoriness.
It’s as if I were trying to prevent myself from drowning by adding more and more weights to my body – and I just cannot bring myself to believe that it is these very weights that are my problem. I’m fixated by the idea that if only I could just add enough weights I’d stay afloat. So I’d be drowning myself in an insane attempt to avoid drowning.
If it were not so sad, it would be comical. I’m afraid that I might not be able to exist in a state of flux. I have the ingrained notion that if I let go of reference points for a moment, I would disappear without a trace. There is some truth in that however. This fear isn’t totally groundless. If I let go of my reference points ‘I’ would disappear.
That is to say, what I think I am would disappear and the nature of being 14 would shine through. This always seems to be too much of a risk, so instead, we restrict our natural freedom by clinging to something that is nothing – a solid, permanent, separate, continuous, and defined sense of identity.
We could disinhibit our natural freedom—through meditation practice—and risk being nothing that is something: an intangible, impermanent, inseparable, discontinuous, and undefined sense of perception. As long as we cling to a solid, permanent, separate, continuous, and defined sense of identity however, we limit ourselves to the three possible distracted potentialities: attraction, aversion, and indifference.
Attraction arises when we recognise the phenomena of our perception—people, situations, objects, and ideas—as providing further substantiation for our fictions about how we happen to exist.
Aversion arises when we recognise phenomena as undermining our carefully fabricated security systems and threatening our notions of image and territory.
Indifference arises when we are confronted with neutrality which we recognise or designate as unusable. This neutrality fits no category. It neither serves to establish us, nor does it threaten us – and so we ignore it.
This artificial style of being is generally termed ‘ego’. In terms of Buddhism however, ‘ego’ is not ‘a thing’ – it is not a ‘lower-self’ as opposed to a ‘higher self’. I mention these terms merely because people have used them when asking me questions. Ego does not constitute part of us which can be amputated, avulsed, or surgically removed.
Ego is the way in which we perceive. It is a process not a product. It is a style of being which evaporates into emptiness, as soon as we drop the use of that style.
Because ‘ego’ was Freud’s word, I have come to feel it is problematic to use it in the context of Buddhism. If Buddhists do not have healthy egos—in Freud’s terms—then they would find the practice of Buddhism too difficult. The term ‘ego’ makes sense in the context of Western psychology and that is where it should remain.
I am therefore not going to use the word ‘ego’ again in our discussion. Too many bizarre philosophies have grown up around the word for it to be of any use to us.
I am therefore going to use the term distracted-being. In terms of liberation from that state of unsatisfactoriness – I’m going to use the term liberated-being.
As soon as we become aware that the cause of our experience of unsatisfactoriness is our artificial mode of perception and response, we discover the third fundamental certainty – that the cessation of the experience of unsatisfactoriness is possible. We realise that our experience can be liberated from fabricated constraints.
14. ngo-wo ku (ngo bo sKu), Skt: svavabhikakaya – the unity of the three spheres of being.