Killing the Self: Zen Buddhism and Ego Death

Often, when Westerners learn of the practices of Buddhist monks, there is a cocktail of awe and confusion. As we watch their disciplined martial arts or young monks steaming towels on their backs, our materialist minds marvel at these impressive feats. That, we assume, is the point of the endless hours and days and years of contemplative meditation. Not so. Even when Westerners engage with meditation, it is only through the soulless practice of mindfulness – stripped of all its spiritual connotations and put to service like a mule to keep us scurrying through the rat race.

Like the laughing Buddha, Zen Buddhists surely find such narrow goals amusing. To these seasoned masters steeped in generations of contemplative practice, meditation has but one purpose: enlightenment. Practitioners studiously learn to dampen one’s thoughts until “you” vanish completely.

Zen Buddhists call this “loss of self” ego death. So significant is this achievement that it is considered the “great death,” in contrast to the “small death” of the physical body.

As Jin Y. Park, Professor of Philosophy and Religion at American University, explains:

Enlightenment occurs when the usually automatized reflexivity of consciousness ceases, which is experienced as a letting-go and falling into the void and being wiped out of existence […] [W]hen consciousness stops trying to catch its own tail, I become nothing, and discover that I am everything.

In some ways, ego death is not the death of the self but an escape from it. After the philosophical death of God, only we remain – existential anxiety, therefore, arises when we realize that this feeling of “I” is a mere illusion. Faced with this terrifying, vertiginous reality, only egolessness allows us to confront death and life without fear. No slights or insults from colleagues, friends, or family matter now. We are free to face life’s “slings and arrows” because we no longer truly exist. We no longer feel greed, aversion, attachment, or hatred – we are finally as indifferent to life as it is to us.

And here, the Westerner parts with his Eastern counterpart. To refute life – and all that it entails – is a rejection of the core principles of Western materialism. It is good to want and desire, we are taught; and ego and desire are two sides of the same coin.

Little wonder the concept of ego death seems alien, even frightening, to Westerners. Indeed, the American Buddhist teacher Shinzen Young calls the experience of no self the “Dark Night,” or…

“… ‘falling into the Pit of the Void.’ It entails an authentic and irreversible insight into Emptiness and No Self. What makes it problematic is that the person interprets it as a bad trip. Instead of being empowering and fulfilling, as the way Buddhist literature claims it will be, it turns into the opposite. In a sense, it’s Enlightenment’s Evil Twin.”

Young’s description is apt. In severe depression, people often feel a sense of depersonalization or detachment within the self. The individual feels like a disconnected observer, that the world is a vague, dreamlike place, and that their actions bear little to no significance. Such detachment is a classic response to acute trauma, minimizing the anxiety the observer feels and its psychological ramifications.

Could it be that the broader concept of ego death is a refuge sought by those who struggle with the suffering of life? Or is this a Western rationalization?

Unlike some of Zen’s more esoteric aspects, egoless individuals exist. In one bizarre case of enlightenment by accident, U. G. Krishnamurti, aged forty-nine, underwent a Near-Death Experience (NDE). In the decades before his accident, U.G. had spent years seeking enlightenment and getting nowhere. Only after his clinical death and rebirth did he find his self-awareness gone. Did he care about this new state? Did this achievement matter to him? It did not. For there was no self to care about it – U. G. simply was: no more, no less. He had dived into the Pit of the Void and swam.

But U. G. was nothing like the serene monks we began with. For the remainder of his life, he was a cantankerous and sometimes humorous man who berated pilgrims that flocked to his door, assassinating all humanity held sacred. To U.G., he was merely an animal among animals – born to survive, reproduce, and die.

U.G. never professed to be able to help people achieve ego death. Nor did he think they could help themselves. It was a fruitless search. Such conclusions were confirmed by Suzanne Segal, who had sought ego death through transcendental meditation. Like U.G., she experienced enlightenment by accident (a cerebral tumor in her case) – later railing against meditation as pointless and even harmful.

Far from the serene oneness described by some Buddhist Masters (and many non-enlightened individuals), the removal of the self is the descent back towards the animal. Those who experience this transformation do not care – as promised, they are untethered from worldly desires, from attachment, from love, from life, from desire, from discontent, from greed, from everything. In short, they are without all that makes life worth living. Still, want to shed your ego? Be careful what you wish for – you may not survive it.

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