It is commonly understood that the final goal of Buddhist practice involves a realization of not-self, or no-self; the direct “seeing” that there is no substantial and lasting essence in “me” (or in “you” or in anyone else). In American society, this can conflict with our desire to have a “healthy self-image” or adequate self-esteem. So, sometimes proponents of Buddhism in America dismiss the psychological need for a self in most people; while many others, familiar with Western psychology, worry about the possibility and health-effects of seeking this particular goal.
There are a number of other angles from which we, as Buddhists in the modern world, can talk about this experience of non-self. One way is love. In love, our sense of self expands out, without our even knowing it, to encompass our beloved. Their wants, needs, fears, joys, become our own. Thus the locus of our “self” moves from just in here, in this ball of flesh, to a new place somewhere between here and there. This expansion is like our own solitary sense of self: sometimes clearer, sometimes more vague, sometimes missing altogether in our experience.
Another way to extend out the self is to travel to new countries. In the last week I have been living in China, first in Beijing and now in a rural monastery near Fuding, south of Shanghai along the coast. I’m told that on a clear day we can see Taiwan. And, as we are situated on a mountaintop with vast views in all directions, I don’t doubt it.
In our travels we do not so much extend out our sense of self to another person or group of people, but leave behind the routine self of our pre-travel life. Here, abroad, everything is fresh, new, perhaps dangerous (but rarely as much as one worries it will be). And it is an opportunity to live a different life: different views, different difficulties, different food, words, friends, etc. My time here in China thus far has been wonderful – also frustrating and tiring and much of the time very “normal” but nonetheless wonderful.
My worry though is that too few Americans really experience these extensions of the self. The first one, okay, maybe. But the second one is far too rare: this opportunity to live abroad, to be a different person, to see one’s homeland through the eyes of people thousands of miles away, to see what is different and, what of that is most certainly better. Several times in my brief stay here I’ve been told or simply thought, “China is the future.” We Americans are woefully ignorant of China, thinking of it as just a place that manufactures all of our stuff, or a growing power behind a menacing (to most Americans) Communist party. But first and foremost, China is nearly 1.4 billion people, each with their own dreams and aspirations, many of whom are already living those dreams.
Thinking about the people here, and it certainly helps to be among them, to hear stories of their successes and failures, my own sense of self has expanded. I’ve broken out, a bit, and for now, of the Justin Whitaker of Seattle, USA and can feel the Justin Whitaker, World Citizen, again. This is something that arises whenever I spend time abroad. And it is exciting, a bit like love (but don’t tell my fiancée that).
I hope that through travels like this I can strengthen that sense of a wider self, as well as inspire others to study and travel themselves. We need it, desperately, I think, in this world of narrow self-interests and rampant fear of foreigners. Here, I am the foreigner. I am the one who might get a second look. But I also know that China is an incredibly safe country for foreigners, unlike some others. So I rest assured and simply hope that we (the “we” back home) can do better.
If we continue to act this way as “top dog,” how do we expect to be treated when we are no longer that. And I can’t emphasize strongly enough how soon that might be.
Let us travel, let us love. Let us break down barriers between ourselves and others in our politics, our writing, our every breath and action. It is our path as Buddhists and our only hope as a global human race.