An interview with Venerable Master Sheng-yen
by Carter Phipps
WIE: What is the ego according to Ch'an Buddhism?
Master Sheng-yen: In Ch'an Buddhism the idea of ego revolves around the idea of attachment or clinging. The ego originally does not exist. It is created as a result of attachment to the body and attachment to one's ideas or one's own viewpoint. But because both the body and the mind are impermanent and constantly changing over time, our attachments to them are always changing as well. And as these attachments change, the ego also changes. So from the perspective of Ch'an, the ego does not exist in the sense of being a permanent, unchanging entity. The ego does not exist independent of one's changing attachments to one's body and one's ideas.
WIE: What does it mean to go beyond the ego?
SY: There are two different ways to accomplish this transcendence of the ego. One is experiential, through experiencing the transcendence of the self. And this can be done through practice, the practice of sitting meditation and the investigation of a koan [paradoxical question]. It is possible to attain this experience without a practice, but that's very rare; most people need to do the practice. The point of this kind of practice is to essentially push the ego into a corner so that it has nowhere else to go. It cannot escape anywhere.
So the ego and the method that you are using to transcend the ego are in direct opposition to each other. As I said, the ego is based on attachment—our attachment to the body and to ideas. Therefore, the method of transcending the ego is to deal with this attachment, to put down this attachment. When the ego is cornered and has nowhere to go, the only thing one can do is to put it down. And when one puts down the ego, then that is enlightenment.
WIE: Could you explain further how facing into a koan helps to "corner the ego"?
SY: In this method, you're actually not trying to solve the koan. Rather, the method involves asking the koan to give you the answer. A koan may be like, "What is wu [nothingness]?" So you keep asking and asking the koan to give you the answer to that question. But actually, it's impossible to answer. Of course, in the process of asking, your mind will give you answers, but whatever answer you get you have to reject. And you just stay with this method—keep asking and keep rejecting whatever answer comes up in your mind. In the end you will develop a sense of doubt. You will not be able to ask the koan anymore. In fact, it'll be meaningless to ask anymore. Then there is nothing to do except to finally put down the self and that is when enlightenment appears in front of you. But if you ask the koan and you simply get tired, if you can't get an answer and so you just stop, that's not enlightenment. That's just laziness.
The second way to transcend the ego is the conceptual way. It happens when there's a sudden and complete change in one's viewpoint. It can happen, for example, when one's reading a sutra [Buddhist scripture] or listening to a dharma talk. In an instant, one can become enlightened. But for this to really work, a person has to already want to know the answer to the question, "What is ego, what is the self?" They have to already be engaged with this question in their own mind. And then, when they come across a particular sentence, they can suddenly recognize the answer and instantaneously realize enlightenment. One very good example is the Sixth Patriarch, Hui Neng. He heard one sentence from the Diamond Sutra and got enlightened. However, for people who never think about these issues and questions in their daily life, who don't care about what the ego is and have no desire to know what the self is, this won't work. Listening to a dharma lecture or reading the sutras isn't going to help them.
WIE: What is the role of the teacher in liberating the student from his or her ego?
SY: First of all, the most important thing is that the student has to really want to know what the nature of the ego is. They need to have this burning desire to know. Then, what the teacher can do is to give the students a method or a tool to investigate and show them how to go about practicing the method. Many students may have a method and not be able to use it well. So the teacher can show a student how to use their method properly and can also show the right attitude and conceptual understanding they need in going about their practice. And if the student has a strong desire to understand the nature of their real self, then the method will be helpful. They will be able to see that this self that's based on attachment is illusory. It's not real. And when they realize this, they will also see that there's no such thing as the ego.