‘He has been stilled where the currents of construing do not flow. And when the currents of construing do not flow, he is said to be a sage at peace.’ Thus was it said. With reference to what was it said? ‘I am’ is a construing. ‘I am this’ is a construing. ‘I shall be’ is a construing. ‘I shall not be’… ‘I shall be possessed of form’… ‘I shall not be possessed of form’… ‘I shall be percipient’… ‘I shall not be percipient’… ‘I shall be neither percipient nor non-percipient’ is a construing. Construing is a disease, construing is a cancer, construing is an arrow. By going beyond all construing, he is said to be a sage at peace. [Dhatuvibhanga Sutta]
The “construing” that the Buddha talks about here is construing that we have some kind of self, or any kind of construing based on the assumption that we have some kind of self. Construing that “I am” is a source of suffering. Construing that “I am this” or “I am like this” or “this is what I am” is a source of suffering. Construing what we will be like, or not be like, in the future is a source of suffering.
The Buddha lived without a sense of self, and he, out of upekkha — the compassionate and loving desire to lead beings to peace — encouraged us to let go of identifying anything as the self, or living in any kind of self-referential way.
This might seem quite puzzling, but actually there are many times when our sense of self is wafer thin. When we’re in any state of “flow” or joyful absorption, we largely lose our sense of self. We simply act spontaneously and unselfconsciously. We get to the point where the practices I was pointing to in yesterday’s post are a way of life. When we’re aware of ourself we’re aware that “stuff just happens.” We simply notice experience, thought, feeling, action — noticing itself — springing into being without “us” having to do anything. Life is spontaneous, and free, and effortless.
This doesn’t imply that we should not take responsibility for ourselves. This is one of the greatest apparent paradoxes of the spiritual path! There is no “you” to take responsibility for yourself, and yet taking responsibility just happens. When I assume there’s a “me” that takes responsibility for myself, I’m back to construing a self. I’ve taken one part of myself (words truly can’t express this, so we end up with these ambiguities) to be “the boss,” the “real me.” But the part or parts of me that takes responsibility is no more “really” me than the parts of me that are resistant to taking responsibility.
What ends up happening, in effect, is that a self-organizing process emerges. It’s like an ecosystem; you don’t have this “thing” called an ecosystem that’s saying “OK, this tree has died, now we need to recycle it. Send in the fungi!” There’s no central control that says “The beetles are getting out of hand, let’s breed some more sparrows to eat them and keep the numbers down.” It all just happens. And the collection of experiences and impulses that we call the self acts this way too. As it happens, the “self” in which the perception of a self is most strong is the “self” in which there’s most conflict and turbulence. And the “self” in which the perception of a self is most weak, or even absent, is the “self” in which there is most peace and joy.
This stuff is hard to communicate. Forgive my rambling.
Furthermore, a sage at peace is not born, does not age, does not die, is unagitated, and is free from longing. He has nothing whereby he would be born. Not being born, will he age? Not aging, will he die? Not dying, will he be agitated? Not being agitated, for what will he long? It was in reference to this that it was said, ‘He has been stilled where the currents of construing do not flow. And when the currents of construing do not flow, he is said to be a sage at peace.’
Not only is the awakened mind not busy making assumptions about itself — “construing” a self — it’s, of course, therefore not busy construing things about this self. So we could read that the “sage at peace,” who has let go of the compulsion to be self-referential, not being born, not aging, not dying is something to do with rebirth in some heavenly realm (or, god forbid “going to Nirvana,” as if Nirvana was a place you could go to). But I think it’s both simpler and more profound than this: The sage at peace doesn’t think of him or herself as being anything, or as having any attributes, so the sage at peace doesn’t think about having a self that can age, or die, or be born.
Think about it. How old do you actually feel? You might have associations that aches in the body equate to “old,” but actually that’s just an assumption. Aches are aches, not age. I don’t feel any age! I don’t think I’ve ever done more than make assumptions that feeling one way is “feeling young” and feeling another way is “feeling old.” In essence, I have no age.
The Buddha points to how our experiences constantly changing, ourself (if we had such a thing) is constantly changing too:
Having sensed a feeling of pain [or pleasure, or neutrality] as ‘my self,’ then with the cessation of one’s very own feeling of pain [or pleasure, or neutrality] , ‘my self’ has perished.
But the sage at peace is not even construing these feelings to be the self. So there isn’t even a self that is being born or dying. Birth and death cannot happen to one who has abandoned the construing of a self.
This, in fact, is why the awakened individual is a “sage at peace.” There’s nothing to have, so nothing to lose.
So one again, the relation of this to upekkha is that upekkha being a wish that beings attain the deep peace of awakening, we’re wishing that they experience this freedom from “construing.” We’re wishing that we, and they, experience a complete freedom from being self-referential, and complete freedom from the suffering self-construing brings. We’re wishing them peace.
May all beings cease construing. May all beings find awakening. May all beings dwell in peace.
Is ‘the self’ you write of in the final paragraphs the same thing a what non-dualists would refer to as ‘the ego’? Oh, and by the way, a great read. You didn’t wramble, and your examples always convey the message so clearly to me. Thank you for being a teacher.
“Ego” isn’t a traditional Buddhist term, and I tend not to use it much, although I have to say that when you lose your sense of having a self, you’re still left with what I’ve sometimes called “the ego,” by which I mean autonomous or semi-autonomous processes of craving and aversion. It takes a while for these to run down after the initial seeing through of the illusion of self.
But the term ego is rather ambiguous in normal usage, and I don’t think I know exactly how non-dualists would use it, so I can’t really comment on that.
Oh, and thank you for your kind comments.