In Buddhism one can be confused at seemingly opposite teachings on individuality and self-reliance. On the one hand, it teaches us to let go of ego. On the other hand, it teaches ekagata, which is spiritual self-sufficiency. How is this best understood?

Let’s consider ekagata first. What is it to be spiritually self-sufficient? It means that even if everybody else is panicking, one need not panic; one may stay calm because one’s refuge in the Dharma is stronger than the panic provoking stimulus.

This is particularly the case when the stimulus is something that could seem threatening to one’s person, reputation or interests. There are several sutras where the Buddha talks about or demonstrates how to not respond in kind when insulted.

When we consider instances of the kind just mentioned, I think we should be able to see how spiritual self-sufficiency equates to non-ego. The person who is not spiritually self-sufficient is triggered by insult because his or her ego is involved. We call this taking something personally.

The person of ekagata lays aside ego so that when a person says something to him or her he can consider objectively if it is so or not. If it is so, he can admit it. If it is not, he can let it pass.


Our contemporary society is much concerned with image and style. The modern idea of individuality is about developing a personal image and style. This is an attempt to control how others see one in order to optimise one’s access to social approval. Because one is seeking approval of others, one cannot actually afford to step outside rather narrow parameters. From a Buddhist perspective this type of strategy is not genuine, but only a pose.

Such a project has obvious pitfalls. If one believes in one’s image, then one is at the mercy of changing fashion and of modes of opinion. One will have to be a kind of chameleon in order to stay popular. One sees this in certain politicians.

Of course, this can lead to a second level phenomenon in which a person puts on a show for public consumption without believing in it him or herself. This leads to a lot of hypocrisy.

Then again, even more complicated, one has the phenomenon of skilful means. Sometimes it is necessary to dissemble in order to bring about a well-intentioned change. This is a very tricky area. One thinks of certain guru figures who are skilled at taking photo opportunities. It is difficult to tell from outside whether the person is really sincere or not.


What we do know is that in the Pari-Nirvana Sutra, King Ajatashatru send his adisor to ask questions of the Buddha because “Tathagatas do not speak falsely.” It is true that in the conversation that follows the Buddha only says what is true, but it is also apparent that he chooses which things to say judiciously and does not say everything.

So what can we draw from all this? On the one hand, it is not always possible to perceive whether another person is sincere, nor to assess accurately their true motive or character. On the other hand, insofar as we can set ego aside, we ourselves become more spiritually self-sufficient and liberated. This makes it much easier to be both truthful and judicious. We might have to occupy certain roles from time to time, but it is best not to get too invested in them. On the other hand, simply putting on a show for the sake of social approval is only rarely part of a genuinely wise and compassionate intention.

To the outside observer, the bodhisattva might seem saintly or simply eccentric, but this is not something that the person herself worries about over-much. She simply does what has to be done. The observer will try to put her into a characterisation, but she herself is not playing that game.

In Western psychology, the aim is ego strength and positive self-regard. This is quite different to the Buddhist approach in which the aim is to diminish and abandon ego investment. In the Western model the person combats threats through inner strength. It is, however, impossible to be so thick skinned that nothing gets through. In the Buddhist approach insult simply passes by or remains with the perpetrator because the bodhisattva is not touched by it. The Western approach is really a conflict model whereas the Buddhist approach is based on the principle of emptiness. This difference of philosophy runs very deep. The Buddha has an open hand, not a clenched fist.

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Replies to This Discussion

Thanks Dharmavidya. Being helplessly influenced, even overwhelmed sometimes, by the social conditions into which we have all been indoctrinated makes this a very tricky issue. Even on a basic level there is a need for social acceptance and conforming to the "norm" as a defence from rejection and ostracization. In my understanding this is how the ego was formed in the first place. As a psychological response to the complexed integration process and the pressures of society. I often find myself falling into old patterns when interacting with the secular world but also find that it's very helpful in making connections and offers many opportunities for skilfull means to be effected. Another example of the paradox of Bombu nature I suppose.

Namo Amida Bu(   ,

I am sometimes a bit confused in acting between the Western and the Buddhist approach.

You write: " In Western psychology, the aim is ego strength and positive self-regard....."

As I am confronted every week with the upgrowing of 300 children in my art classes I know how important it is to develop this positive self- regard for them. Also I have  encountered that with a lack of  positive self-regard  it can go wrong for people in the Sangha. Could we not say, we have to have a strong ego, to  not to get lost, before we would lay it down?

I have the same problem with Mushotoku Mind, an attitude of no profit, no gain, where we act from the heart. There again, in an education situation here in the West, I feel that children have to learn to say "thank you". I should not expect it if I do things for them from the heart, but still politeness is also something they have to learn....

There is a balance to be struck between Positive Self Regard and Egoic self cherishment which is, I believe, almost impossible to "achieve" on self power. The Capitalist "Each Man for Himself" ethos encourages the development of the ego by exploiting our basic fear of failure and rejection. This distorts the natural function of ego producing a narcissistic effect which is at the root of much social imbalance and psychological disease. Humility is often seen as a weakness rather than a spiritual virtue. This is how our social conditioning works in keeping us ignorant, greedy and hateful!

Namo Amida Bu( ,

In a classical approach to the arts it is the artistic product that matters and the artist disappears. In a more modern approach, narcissism has taken over and art is produced not so much so that the art can be admired as so that the artist can shine and have a reputation. It is important to esteem truth and beauty. This does not have to be transmitted via self-regard. Maturity involves indifference to how one is regarded. Einstein was not much involved in being Einstein, he was much involved in solving the problem of understanding the universe. When one makes a pot, it is the pot that matters.

I agree. I would say that a true artist has to make a journey with the unbridled ego to a more mature mindset and the art can act as the vehicle for the transition. I think this was as much true for Einstein as any modern artist. There are many factors(causes and conditions) at play and I believe that art is an expression of the soul, in which the ego is embedded. It is possible to see a maturity developing in the careers of many artists throughout the ages.
Namo Amida Bu( ,

Good morning David. I am sending energy to you, to make you strong and well...

Thanks for the article. and as I read it, it reminded me a situation with a client who was very angry, with uncountable grievances, and "placed" them on my lap, in one of our therapy sessions. It was difficult to listen without interfering in his narrative at first, and then I realized that I could not take personal, His grievances are about people who betrayed him, abandoned him, disrespect him, and the fear of ending the psychotherapy for him would rekindle past losses of attachment challenge the trust he put in others, and ultimately the fear of not being able to take care of himself and his family. .As an Indigenous he dealt with many who considered themselves "civilized", knowledgeable... and to be actively engaged in our dialogues must have been always a reminder of the threat and possibilities of oppression in some way. You are right, the Buddha keep an open hand, not a clenched fist.... and by the end of a long session, we were looking at each other with clear eyes, mindfully knowing that moments have passed, and he was once again hopeful to live, relate, and enjoy his day...

Namo Amida Bu

Thank you, Yaya, for sharing that excellent example.



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