The Ego and Self in ZEN

Author: Carsten Koßwig
Category: Buddhism
Issue No: 86

The tradition of Zen Buddhism, which focuses on the attainment of enlightenment, also has its own understanding of the terms “I” and “Self”, although these definitions leave the logical-rational space and are rather experience-based. Nevertheless, the author dares to attempt to name the ineffable and inexplicable.

Before dealing with the topic “The I and the Self in ZEN”, I would like to present the basic view of ZEN. In this way it will be easier for the readers to follow my explanations.

In ZEN no scientific and logical conclusions can be drawn. Statements on any subject only reflect the author’s spiritual enlightenment experiences in this context. These experiences are neither rationally nor mentally comprehensible, but can only be experienced.

ZEN has developed out of Buddhism, whereby in ZEN the perfection of the spiritual experience is emphasized in every single moment and one is aware of the “uselessness of ritual religious exercises and intellectual examination of the teachings for the attainment of liberation (enlightenment)”. It is sitting in absorption (jap. zazen) that constitutes the core practice of ZEN. The ZEN practitioner refers to the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who experienced enlightenment simply by sitting under the Bodhi tree. Siddhartha wanted to know where human suffering comes from, and in the enlightenment experience realized that suffering is related to being human and that it can be resolved through enlightenment. He expressed this in his Four Noble Truths, which he imparted as a teaching at the urging of his former companions. The four Noble Truths are expressed in the following sense:



Because we human beings are not only beings who have a physical body that can die, but because we have the possibility of transcendence.

We have the possibility to go beyond the I that is limiting in its view.

The ego is dissolved in enlightenment and in the realization of reality at every moment. The opposite of the I, the You, merges with the I at that moment.

Dualism is dissolved, and the I merges into oneness. Nevertheless, we also experience enlightenment as human beings. We as individuals experience oneness with everything.

Not my counterpart, my you. I alone experience the oneness, the dissolution of the ego at this moment. Therefore, one speaks of non-duality. Thus, the I is also present in enlightenment, although it has dissolved. This apparent contradiction, logically speaking, is what confuses many people who are dealing with the phenomenon of “I.” It is a both/and.

The self exists through the physical person, but the self can also transcend, that is, go beyond the self, at any moment.



What is the self from the point of view of ZEN? Does the self exist? This is also a little problematic to understand. Commonly, the self is divided into two categories. First, there is the self as a concept that refers to the ego. So a self that reflects itself, that is defined by the ego. As in, “I define myself” or “I define myself. “6 This makes ego a synonym for self, and it leads to the same chain of explanation as ego described earlier. Then I can stop explaining the self.

It is different with the definition of the self as a self standing above things, above people, above time, which can already be considered as existing before my physical birth and after my death. If there should be such a “superself” or “higher self”, then we must examine it more closely.

If it should be so, then we have a self that is distinct from the person who has a Higher Self. This view is dualistic, which again does not correspond to my spiritual experience.





In my opinion both exist! Only rationally one cannot comprehend it. Only in the experience of the unity, in which nothing exists, except the unity with everything, so also the unity between the I and the self, the self and also the I can exist. It is a simultaneous experience of the One and the Whole, which includes everything.

So in reality there exists only this one moment, that of non-dualism. In this one moment, I live as the I and the Self. The self, the I and the superself therefore exist in the constant not-self, in the not-I, in the not-superself as something being there in the emptiness of the being!

And why does also a ZEN master suffer? Why does he also have to satisfy the need for food intake and bowel movement? Quite simply, in spite of transcendental experience, in spite of perfect “presence in the moment” he is and remains always human. He too, like the historical Buddha himself, will die one day. He will therefore be exposed to all the vicissitudes of life, such as emotions and feelings, sometimes err and make wrong decisions. Suffering in itself is not simply resolved. But the spiritually experienced person is aware of his non-duality. He knows about the unity of form and emptiness and acts accordingly. Namely out of intuition.

About the author: Carsten Koßwig

Carsten Koßwig, born in 1963, was a ZEN student of Willigis Jäger (Kyo-Un Roshi) until 2015. The latter gave him his teaching license as a Zen teacher in 2015. In the same year Carsten Koßwig founded the Zendo-Merano, which he has been leading ever since. He is the author of the book: Heart Sutra: “Form is really emptiness”, Teishos, spiritual lectures.

This article appeared originally on the German Homepage of Tattva Viveka: https://www.tattva.de/das-ich-und-das-selbst-im-zen/

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