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Buddhadharma : Winter 2010
51 winter 2 01 0 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly A question that almost always comes up when women talk about the dharma is how the idea of no-self relates to our ongoing work of examining the expectations, both inner and outer, of what it means to be a woman in a particular cul- ture. If we’ve worked so hard to reclaim our sense of self—to understand in a truer way our longings and talents, and to clarify what we want to offer and what we won’t tolerate anymore—do we have to give all that up? In Women Practicing Buddhism, Hilda Ryümon Gutiérrez Baldoquín offers a dharmic take on the problem: “It is the nature of oppression to obscure the limitless essence, the vast- ness of who we are.” When we include this with the familiar political, cultural, and psychological analyses of oppression, it opens a new way of seeing. It points to the true meaning of no- self, which isn’t that the individual ceases to exist or to matter; it is the absence of our habitual ways of thinking about our- selves, making way for a much larger reality to become vis- ible. We see that the “self” made up of experiences, thoughts, feelings, and sensations is just that—an ever-changing creation of inner and outer conditions. In the moments when our exclusive identification with that self is loosened, we find that there is also something uncon- ditioned and uncreated about our being. It is limitless, and completely connected. So when we talk about realizing the true Self, just how large is it? It is bees, freeways, skies, galax- ies; there is nothing outside it, and when we do good or when we do harm, we realize, there is no self and other, only two expressions of the one Self in relationship. This vast view of no-self has application to the everyday moments of our lives. For example, the Zen koan tradition speaks of a true person of no rank, which means someone not bound by a sense of their status, and not bound by any other definition arising from job, family relations, political affiliation, etc. Such a true person is not coming from a pre- determined position, such as expert or inadequate, helper or helped—and she sees everybody else like that, too. She doesn’t yet know the end of the story, and she’s interested to partici- pate in discovering it. When we apply this to the question of self-determination, suddenly we’re not thinking along a self-sacrifice/self-assertion axis in which we’re valiantly intent on replacing damaging roles with healthier ones; we’ve jumped off that axis into the freedom of having no predetermined role at all. Instead of trying to reform something, we’re radically re-visioning it. A true person of no-self is no longer defined by either inner or outer expectations, or her struggles with them; she encounters situations freshly, without prejudging her role in them or their ultimate outcome. This is a generous way to live, both inwardly and out- wardly. The courage it takes arises from our experience of the “vastness of who we are,” which is half of what dharma prac- tice is about. When we bring in the other half—discovering the specific forms that generosity and courage take in each of our lives—we begin to reconcile aspiration and challenge. With less reaction and more responsiveness, with a longer view and a steadier heart, we are better able to remain open to this breathtakingly beautiful and wounded world, and to imagine how we might be helpful. As we do so, it’s immeasurably valuable to be able to stand on the steady ground of tradition. Some of us are satisfied to concentrate on exploring that terrain; some want to help shape the kitchen we’re building from it. By differentiating between the dharma and the institutions of Buddhism, we can look with fresh eyes at what forms the dharma’s ancient helpfulness wants to take now. Some of the most important opportunities at the intersection of Buddhism and the modern world are exactly where many women aspire to make a contribution— fully including the feeling life; encouraging innovative forms of teaching and learning; redefining what authority means and how it should function; creating new forms of community and engagement with the world, including a commitment to truer diversity in our communities; continuing to reformulate lay practice as a complete realization of spiritual life; and placing at the center of the Way our commitment to all who share this world with us, now and in the future. Dharma, women, potential. Please write your own sentence. A true person of no-self is no longer defined by either inner or outer expectations, or her struggles with them; she encounters situations freshly, without prejudicing her role in them.