Transcending the ego is not an easy task. Particularly since it sneaks up on you when you least expect it. You know the feeling. You have been to many lectures, read many books, and feel you have evolved, spiritually speaking. The trappings of material success seem irrelevant to you. But there is just one problem. Other people. They are annoying. You just can’t stand their one-upmanship. You know you are morally superior to them, but they still seem to be able to get to you…there you go again, ego has snared you.
In the book, ” What the Buddha Never Taught” by Timothy Ward, the author wonders who benefits when the ego is transcended. If the ego is vanquished, then who is there to enjoy the bliss of self-realization? As he explains it, using the mind to get rid of itself is like trying to touch the tip of your tongue with the tongue, or trying to see your eye with your eye.
On a spiritual quest, Timothy Ward, a Canadian from Vancouver, becomes a member of a strict monastic order, Wat Pah Nanachat, located in a remote jungle in Thailand. This is a place of complete self-negation, fasting, ritual begging and manual labor. Austerity is carried to such an extreme in the pursuit of ego removal, that even intellectual discussion is forbidden for being too worldly. One monk who was a musician has given up his instrument. This is not a place of love, harmony, bliss or any of those wholesome feelings. Instead, it is a place where a skeleton is a reminder of the transient nature of things and people revere a monk who committed “samadhi suicide”.
Although his original plan was to become a full-fledged monk, gradually Tim starts to see inconsistencies that disturb him. For a place of no ego, there is a distinct hierarchy among the monks. Instead of being true to their values, the monks just try to follow the letter of the law. For instance, it is OK to get novices to kill pests such as ants, or cut weeds, but not OK for the monks to do it. And even then, it has to be done indirectly, by hinting to them rather then specifically ordering them to do so. The most difficult thing for Tim to swallow is the way the original teacher Ajahn Chah who is in a coma is kept alive and paraded around to visitors. He suspects that it is for fund-raising. He cuts his visit short and quits the order.
Reading this book makes you wonder about the nature of existence. You realize that each environment has its own reality. For example, the qualities that would be essential to achieve material success in a competitive world would be a hindrance in a Theravada Buddhist monastery. If accomplishment is prized in the outside world, detachment and self-control is of more value in a monastery. Perhaps both extremes are unhealthy. Following the ego’s lead will clearly lead to all the suffering we see around us. The constant quest for more is clearly not a recipe for peace. Yet creation deserves appreciation, even if it is an illusion. Perhaps the key is to be detached from the drama of life, but treasure the present moment of experience.