Certain though we are that this one thing above all else is what we know the best, the one thing most unknowable is nothing but the self.
“I know myself better than anyone else ever could,” we assume. Yet the continuing relevance of the ancient Greek admonition to “know thyself” suggests strongly that in fact we humans understand ourselves very little, if at all. We may understand distant workings of the universe, we may elucidate the world of subatomic particles, we may determine sequences of the three billion chemical base pairs that constitute human DNA – and yet the one thing we still cannot pin down is the self.
All people are seeking happiness. However, just who is this ‘self’ that wishes to be happy? Without understanding this essential matter, there is no way we can become happy. Danish philosopher Kierkegaard wrote, “To gain the whole world but lose yourself is futile.” “What am I?” All fields of human endeavour, such as politics, economics, science, medicine, literature, philosophy, and religion, are trying to answer this question. It’s probably no exaggeration to say that the purpose of our lives is to know the true self. However, we don’t have a clue about this ‘self’. An old man was desperately searching for his glasses. When his grandchild said to him, “Grandpa, your glasses are on your head!” he couldn’t help but chuckle at himself.
Just as we cannot understand anything that is too far away from us, we cannot see anything that is too close to us either. It is said that “the eye cannot see itself, nor the sword cut itself.” Even a sword renowned for its extraordinary sharpness cannot cut itself. In the same way, while we can understand others well, we are practically blind when it comes to ourselves. This is because we are too close to ourselves.
In order to see something that is too close to us, we have to use a mirror. However, what kind of mirror might allow us to ‘know ourselves’? The mirror that comes to mind first of all is the ‘mirror of others’, which shows us an image of ourselves generated from other people’s evaluations. Our nerves always end up frayed as we worry about how others see us, and we alternate between joy and sorrow depending on other people’s words. However, as the Zen monk Ikkyū sardonically wrote, “The human tongue gives praise today, tomorrow it finds fault.” People think of others as being good one minute and bad the other based on their own convenience, so there is no way this mirror will reflect our true image. Next, there is the ‘mirror of the self’, which shows us an image of ourselves generated through self-reflection based upon our own sense of morals. However, we see ourselves through tinted glasses of vanity, so it is impossible to see our true self in this mirror too.
Buddhism is the mirror of Dharma. This is the mirror that reflects the image of ourselves that runs through the three periods and the ten directions; in other words, it shows us just as we are. Therefore, to listen to Buddhism is to get closer to the mirror of Dharma. Through the mirror of Dharma, we are made clearly aware that our true image is nothing but worldly passions. Simultaneously we will come to know without doubt the veracity of Amida Buddha’s Vow that saves us exceedingly evil beings as we are.
Source: The Buddhist Village Times #43, What is the Real ‘Me
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