Freud vs. Buddha: Can the ego be overcome?

On a spiritual path, the relationship to our egos may be the most challenging part. On the one hand, without a strong ego how are we going to develop the discipline to be on a spiritual path to begin with?  Yet narcissism and self-centeredness, to say nothing of expectation of a spiritual "reward", are the very things that are the most in our way.  

Excerpted from The Heart of Zen

Question: Does anyone ever completely overcome the ego? The Buddha did, right?

Jun Po Roshi: I'll get to that in a minute. For now. let me say that the ego insists on its view.  It does not want to change; it will not be successfully bullied, overpowered, or fought.  Who, exactly, will overpower your ego, anyway?

Keith Martin-Smith: That’s what Zen masters are for.

JP: (laughs) Come here!  (pretends to hit me)  So many of us realize our egos are, pardon my French, full of shit.  Yet we try to use the ego to overcome the ego. (shakes head).  What a pity.  It will never work; it can never work.

KMS: So what, then?

JP: To be politically incorrect for a moment, remember that the spiritual path is about seduction, not rape.  Awakening starts with a deep curiosity, a deep questioning of who you really are.  Then you must have the experience of turiyatita, or oneness, for yourself.  That’s where practice comes in, and not just any kind of New Age chanting or relational interconnecting or other ego-based practices, but real practice.  Concentration.  Insight. Cutting through.  No practice, in my rather wide experience, is better at opening you up to shunyata, Emptiness, than Zen meditation, Zazen.

Then based on your experience, not theory or ideas, for the first time you have achoice.  To live in freedom, or to continue to live in reactive patterns, bound to your ego’s whims and conditioning; a dog trained by your parents and your culture and your genes. Sit.  Stay. Beg.  Complain. Achieve. Run. You must remember that you are actually choosing your habitual reactions. No one has made you react in a certain way; no one has ever made you angry, shamed you, or caused you to numb out. All the dumb shit you do is not caused by anyone else but you; not mom and dad’s fault, not because you’ve been culturally repressed, not because of anything external.  There are no victims in Zen.

KMS: I think I just heard the sound of hundreds of books slamming shut.

JP: (laughs) I never said the truth was easy. Emotional koans can solve the problem of our ignorant choices and victimhood, and transform them into conscious responses and real, lived empowerment.  Not from the ego, but through the ego.

KMS: So we're always subject to ego?

JP: No. Fully awakened is fully awakened.  Compassion replaces, informs and transforms, greed, anger, and ignorance. No more negative ego drama. You have completely seen through the construct. The ego is still in place, though; it gives view to what is arising so it's not a muddled mess, but the drama is gone. Not overcome, but gone. No opposition, no forcing. Yet very few just wake up. The rest of us have to practice, have to keep practicing. Remember, practice isEnlightenment!

KMS: What about the Buddha? Did he overcome the ego? 

JP: The historical Buddha? Who knows? It’s conjecture to even guess. I would say he was adequately awakened, most definitely adequately awakened. [laughs] 

I once asked my teacher,Eido Roshi, if he knew of any fully Enlightened teachers.

‘Oh yes,’ Eido said.

‘You’ve met them?’I asked.

Eido thought a moment. ‘Well, no,” he said. ‘But I’ve heard of two.’

(laughs) And that’s the problem. We’ve all heard of those teachers, but it seems that none of us has actually met one. If you think you have, spend some time with him or her —go out to a few dinners, see how they are in relationship, see how they are around money, spend as much time as possible as you can with them. Ask their students and ex-students, or their spouses. (pauses) Or ex-spouses(laughs). You will probably find they have clay feet, just like you. They may have very deep insight indeed, but they are still standing on clay feet. I’ve got size 13’s myself.

KMS: So you can’t ever really overcome the ego drama then?

JP: I didn’t say that. The question itself is somewhat problematic. From an Awakened view, the ego drama is glorious. It’s no longer a problem, no longer needs to be silenced, and can in fact bring you tremendous information because you’re no longer exclusively identified with it. Not drama. Information.

Understand that deep spiritual insight doesn’t promise you that you won’t feel — quite the opposite, I’m afraid. Practice, evolution, takes time. That is wonderful.  But you, with Mondo emotional koans, can experience the truth underlying the emotions — you can get the information in the feeling, and you can choose a compassionate and effective response to it, instead of merely reacting.

For most of us, with time and effort you can learn to choose awakening for yourself, moment to moment, and reside in the bliss of samadhi. Your angst becomes your liberation. You may still have to practice, but now you know why. (laughs)

Freedom is possible, because it's the truth of who you are. You can just wake up.

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If you're interested in how these principles and ideas can be applied to your own life, let's set up a free Discovery Call for a coaching conversation today. 

Keith Martin-Smith is a published author of fiction and non-fiction, a Shaolin Kung Fu lineage holder and teacher, and an ordained Zen priest. He helps leaders, creative visionaries, and entrepreneurs clarify their goals and overcome obstacles. 

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