Ego: what it is, what it isn’t, and why it matters

I just wanted to share a brief explanation of ego from Traleg Rinpoche (author of a number of books, including the best explanation of karma I’ve ever encountered, Karma: What It Is, What It Isn’t, and Why It Matters). The quote below is from a footnote in his translation of the classic Kagyu meditation manual Moonbeams of Mahamudra. This is a very technical text, so I’m not recommending that you read it unless that’s what you’re looking for. Just wanted to share this, because the question of what ego is and its role in the path to awakening comes up so frequently. [Notes in brackets are mine.]

“Buddhism does not say we must get rid of ego, it says we should overcome our mistaken notions of ego. We mistakenly think something exists over and above our psychophysical constituents [aka, the five skandhas or heaps: body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness]. That idea of ego is a myth; it does not exist.

“If we think of ourselves as composite phenomena [in this case, the skandhas, an ever-changing collection of collections], we still have an identity. It is just not an abiding and permanent one. That is one reason why it is possible for all of us to become enlightened. We may currently experience enormous difficulties, be afflicted by anxiety, depression, and fear, and fail to display any qualities of enlightenment whatsoever, but we can aspire to that state because we do not have any fixed psychic principle. If our true nature were fixed, it would be impossible to attain buddhahood. Buddhism has an elastic view of the ego, which makes our whole existence very flexible.”

I will be contemplating this again and again, and I hope you will, too.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for excellent, accessible books about meditation within the Kagyu lineage, I heartily recommend any of the following:

  • Meditation: Advice to Beginners by Bokar Rinpoche (a profound book for any level of practice)
  • The Joy of Living by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche (includes correspondences with Western neuroscience)
  • Joyful Wisdom by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche
  • The Wisdom of No Escape by Pema Chodron (her first book; especially the chapters “Precision, Gentleness, and Letting Go” and “Not Too Tight, Not Too Loose”)
  • Never Turn Away by Rigdzin Shikpo

For basic instruction on meditation, it’s best to find a teacher, though the first three books are helpful in this regard if you don’t have one. And. . . wait for it . . . the exhortation: just reading about meditation won’t actually get you anywhere, though study is one of the three approaches to wisdom, just as reading recipes won’t feed you and reading airline schedules won’t take you to Paris. If it is truly and genuinely your aspiration to wake up for the benefit of all beings, make sure you also clock the miles on the cushion or chair, every day.

Info on the 37 practices of a bodhisattva study guide: here.