Nirvana Sutra

Appreciation of the "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra"

Dr. Shenpen Hookham on the True Self

Dr. Shenpen Hookham is the holder of an Oxford University doctorate in Buddhist studies (specialising in the Tathagatagarbha teachings) and a Tibetan lama of the Nyingma and Kagyu schools. She has her own Sangha and freely gives out teachings on the Dharma to all who are interested. You can sign up for her very insightful and wise answers to her students' questions here: Buddhism Connect http://buddhism-connect.org/what-we-offer/teachings-by-email/

Dr. Shenpen Hookham writes affirmatively on the reality of a True Self within Buddhism. In the book, Buddhism and Animals by Dr. Tony Page (UKAVIS, London, 1999, p. 4), she comments on how various traditions of Tibetan Buddhism have upheld this notion of a real, eternal Self, saying:

'Many venerable saints and scholars have argued for the Self in the past and do so in the present. Great teachers of the Tibetan Nyingma, Kagyu and Sakya schools have and do argue that such a view [i.e. the reality of an essential True Self] is fundamental to the practice of the Buddhist path and the attainment of Enlightenment.'

In her answers to two different students of the Dharma who ask her about non-Self and Self, Dr. Hookham comments (in 2008) on how she has never denied the existence of the Self:

'Do I actually say that the self is non-existent? I didnít mean to. What the Buddha always taught was that what was impermanent, unsatisfactory and not as we wanted it could not be the self. The self, in this context, is the one who wants happiness. None of the things we grasp at as self provide that happiness so our whole idea of our self causes us suffering.

'Who is the us that discovers that? It is the ungrasped self, the true self, the self that is not impermanent, not suffering, that is as we want it to be. It is the Buddha Nature. When we discover that we realise that this is what we always wanted but we sought for it in the wrong place and in the wrong way. We found aspects of it that we tried to grasp at and own but they just became unsatisfactory as soon as we grasped them. In fact we tried to grasp them only to find we had grasped at thin air, but instead of just ceasing to grasp we got terrified and grasped more and more. Then we became more and more confused and still were left with just thin air. It is only when the fundamental awareness of our being turns towards that thin air and recognises its experience of itself for what it is that it can relax the grasping reaction and let that truth be.

'You could call that the end of ego grasping and the life of the true self - or true nature - the ultimate reality of what we are. It is not something we can know by the grasping mind. It is not something to believe in as a concept. It is reality that discovers itself!

'So it itself is motivated to discover itself ...! '

Dr. Hookham later (on 3 May 2009) has this to say on the Self:

'... the Buddha pointed out that everything conditioned and impermanent in our experience is not our true nature or self. Our true nature or self is something that is not impermanent, not conditioned, and is ungraspable as either self or not self. 

'... It would be what the Dzogchen tradition would call the Indestructible Heart Essence. It is the self or true nature that is not graspable as either self or not self. It is not bound by time and space.'

Shenpen's student asks:

'Re change and not-change: We start to awaken (change) and yet our basic Buddha nature is there all the time (no change). Again, could it not be "both/and" rather than "either/or"?'

Lama Shenpen replies:

'More precision is needed beyond simply saying it is both changing and not changing. In what sense can one say that something that is not graspable as being there in the first place can change into something else. There is a huge flaw in the whole idea of change. What cannot be grasped as being there in the first place cannot be said to change.

Yet, as you say, the world manifests, we awaken, there certainly seems to be change. The question has to be approached meditatively with precision and care..................resting in that mysterious place that is aware and yet not grasping anything. '

So the real Self is that Awareness which does not grasp but which dwells in a mysterious realm of Knowing. It is the opposite of the non-Self, which is ignorance itself. - Dr. Tony Page.

 

In a later question and answer session, Dr Hookham speaks more on the true nature or true Self of us all:

 

Where Does Motivation Come From?
Summary: If the self is non-existent, what motivates people to do things?

A student writes:

I know you are very busy, but I was very puzzled about no-self as discussed in book 3 of the course (Discovering the Heart of Buddhism).

What I cannot understand is that if the self is non-existent, what motivates people to do things, such as this course?

Lama Shenpen replies:

Do I actually say that the self is non-existent? I didnít mean to. What the Buddha always taught was that what was impermanent, unsatisfactory and not as we wanted it could not be the self - the self is the one who wants happiness and none of the things we grasp at as self provide that happiness - our whole idea of our self causes us suffering - so who is the us that discovers that? It is the un-grasping self, the true self, the self that is not impermanent, not suffering, that is as we want it to be. It is the Buddha Nature. When we discover that, we realise that this is what we always wanted but sought in the wrong place in the wrong way. We found aspects of it that we tried to grasp at and own but they just became unsatisfactory as soon as we grasped them -in fact we tried to grasp them only to find we had grasped at thin air - but instead of just ceasing to grasp, we became terrified and grasped more and more - and became more and more confused and still were left with just thin air. It is only when the fundamental awareness of our being turns towards that thin air, and recognises its experience of itself for what it is, that it can relax the grasping reaction and let that truth be.

You could call that the end of ego grasping and the life of the true self - or true nature - the ultimate reality of what we are. It is not something we can know by the grasping mind. It is not something to believe in as a concept Ė itís a reality that discovers itself!

So it itself is motivated to discover itself and do this course!

Student:

If it is purely awareness reacting to circumstances, we would not get out of bed.

Lama Shenpen:

Volition is actually an aspect of that fundamental awareness - even our volition that tries to grasp, is an aspect of fundamental awareness - but it is confused awareness. It wants the joy of life to the full, it wants the happiness of all beings, but in its confusion it does not recognise that this is possible and so chooses lesser goals that seem more attainable. Actually none of the lesser goals bring the happiness it longs for - nonetheless the search for happiness drives us on and on from life to life. What will stop that? Realising that happiness is in awareness itself and so giving up searching for it elsewhere. That is what motivates you to follow this course. A part of you - the Buddha nature part - recognises something true about what you are discovering in your direct experience and that is motivating you to look deeper - because itís true and it brings a feeling of rightness and happiness. Even if itís painful, it feels alive and true and as if all this is going somewhere meaningful.

And all that is sensed by awareness itself as within itself, not something that it can grasp as an idea but something it can live, it can follow and it can find meaning in.

Do you think that is true?

Student:

Christians put a lot of faith in the soul, which they believe is a separate unchanging entity. Surely, if there was nothing there, one of them would have noticed by now.

Lama Shenpen:

You get all kinds of Christians like you get all kinds of Buddhists. Some have strong conceptual beliefs that they just trot out and say they believe in - they donít want to think too much about whether their beliefs are true or not. They just want something to cling on to that confirms them in their idea of themselves.

Some Buddhists are like that too.

Other Christians are connecting deeply to their hearts and discovering what is genuine and true in their experience - and they find what anyone finds who does that. So they talk about their experience in much the same terms as we would.

As for soul - well it just depends what one means by it doesnít it?


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