Unique Self Institute

A Buddhist View of Unique Self

The following article was submitted for publication to the Journal of Integral Theory & Practice (JITP) 6:1. Because of space limitations in that volume, it was published online as an Integral Institute position paper.

By Diane Hamilton

The Flower is Red, the Willow is Green:
A Buddhist View of Unique Self

As a true spiritual seeker, Shakyamuni Buddha had one pressing question: How do we relieve the experience of human suffering, freeing ourselves to manifest our life with tenderness and with compassion? This is the question that in his youth caused him to leave the comfort of his known world, and to enter the wilderness of his spiritual search.

As the former son of privilege, some things about our human existence were obvious to him. It was obvious that we are born into this world, not knowing from where we come or why we are here. It was obvious that we tend to seek experiences that give us pleasure and comfort, avoiding those situations that do not. In spite of our best efforts to maintain our comfort and pleasure, we often become ill, we experience misfortune, sometimes we fall, and even when all goes well, eventually, we get old and we die. So what does our attempt to remain comfortable and secure mean in the face of certain death?

Of course, there is an obvious logic in trying to be happy by cultivating experiences of comfort and pleasure, and warding off ordinary suffering in the form of misfortune and pain. The Buddha also observed that our attempts to build up our security and to stabilize the conditions of our life are natural, given that change or impermanence is another mark of our existence. The efforts that we make to secure ourselves in health, good experiences, and security would appear to be the best strategy for being happy. But the Buddha’s deep immersion into this question revealed that there is something even more fundamental that is the source of our discontentment. He discovered that we have a fundamental misunderstanding of the world, and a misunderstanding of ourselves that forms the basis of this discontentment.

Separate Self

You could say that Buddha discovered that we operate under a misperception. He saw that we call a “being,” or an “individual” or an “I”, is a combination of ever-changing physical and mental forces or constructs, which may be divided into groups or aggregates. The Buddha said that these five aggregates of attachment are dukkha, or the First Noble Truth of Suffering.1 In other words, this idea of a self is a false belief with no corresponding, stable reality, and it creates an experience of separation and produces harmful thoughts of me and mine, desire and craving, and aversion and hatred. He concluded that this identification with me and mine is the source of most human problems. At the same time, he also saw that “he who sees dukkha sees also the arising of dukkha, sees also the cessation of dukkha, and sees also the path leading to the cessation of dukkha.”2

The same insight into the nature of suffering leads to the possibility to be relieved of this suffering. But the separate self-identification is so persistent and so close to us that we might wonder how it is possible to see clearly what the Buddha himself saw. We can sit in meditation to access his insight, or we can begin by simply taking the perspective of what we would call the separate self or ego. We want to look directly at the identification as self, seeing how it functions.

When we identify as “I” or “self” and look closely, the first thing we notice is that this self is form of attention that is concerned with its own self-concept and image. We can see how the self is a mental construct whose function is to identify, maintain, and protect itself. There are all kinds of ordinary ways that this occurs, from focusing attention on” who I am”, “how I feel”, or “what I want.” These thoughts lead to actions and behaviors in the world based on a set of conclusions, and these actions often include trying to manage others and control the environment to be safe, secure, and more or less pleased. It is quite a large project.

The perspective of the small self has a very fundamental sense of its own mortality and vulnerability. From this point of view, the world is a vast and unsafe place, so it makes sense that this self works to protect and maintain its identity. This is a completely natural functioning of this egocentrism. It is the perspective which looks out at the world from a sense of separate existence and instinctively experiences the pressure to survive, or in modern parlance, “to keep it together,” or sometimes, to thrive.

This keeping it together requires an enormous amount of energy and focus. It is no small challenge to simply attend to the details of life in all four quadrants – to manage thoughts, emotions, and behavior, to maintain relationships and to regulate interactions, as well as to participate in the collective systems of reality, including having a job, a house, and a retirement plan.

All in all, being a self is a quite a stressful undertaking, one that includes a persistent dimension of effort or striving. And it is a project that is familiar to all of us. If we succeed in the essential task of surviving, we often want to be come even better at being ourselves. We attempt to improve, to become more skilled, make more money, or achieve more status. Perhaps our striving isn’t about money or status, but we might like to be more thoughtful, more compassionate, or a better human being. So as a small self, there seems to be no end to this experience of pressure, and to the pain of separation.

Maybe the greatest pain for the small self is that of being lonely. This loneliness goes with the territory. Because of the innate separateness of self-identification, it is always a profoundly private affair. One can never share the depth of our experience sufficiently, or feel received or supported completely. The natural separation means that no one else, from a deeply ontologically perspective, will ever be able to fully comprehend what it means to be me. In this separate experience, we are forever alone.

From an integral perspective, we could observe that the Buddha was correct about his insight. When we take the view of the separate self, it is immediately obvious that while this identification may have healthy expressions, it is by its nature, also limited, stressful, and lonely. Rather than calling it an illusion, however, we might say that it is incomplete; it is partial. Like everything in the known universe, to use Arthur Koestler’s terms, we are a part and whole – a holon. So we may appear to be separate from the rest of reality from one point of view, but what is a much greater truth is that we are always part of the larger whole. The question is – where and how is this larger awareness identified?

Beyond Self

To study the Buddha way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things.3

This is probably one of the most familiar passages from the entire Buddhist canon. It is first chapter in the Shobogenzo, (The Treasure of the True Dharma Eye) the spiritual masterpiece by the thirteenth century Japanese Soto Zen Master Eihei Dogen. In Zen study, koan can mean a problem to be solved, and this line deals with the deals with the same inquiry of the Buddha into the problem of the self. Dogen expresses the Buddha’s insight that “who sees dukkha sees also the arising of dukkha, sees also the cessation of dukkha, and sees also the path leading to the cessation of dukkha, ” but he says it differently. Rather, he says that “To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things.”

In order to now glimpse Zen Master Dogen’s description of enlightenment, we need as shift our perspective from that of the limited self to a perspective that might be described as awareness itself. We could refer to this awareness as Big Mind, as Now, or All That Is; the name is merely a name, but useful as an entry point into this spaciousness. What is revealed through this perspective is that unqualified awareness is empty of identity, free of an agenda, or a fixed interpretation of reality. It lacks categories of good and bad, right and wrong, and simply reflects what arises in the field of perception without interpretation or distortion. This awareness is non-seeking and non-striving, and as such, is free from dukkha, is vast, complete at is, and at peace.

At the same time, “to be actualized by the myriad things” means awareness is not separate from reality itself. Master Dogen writes, ”Do not think flowing is like wind and rain moving from east to west. The entire world is not unchangeable, is not immoveable. It flows. Flowing is like spring. Spring with all its numerous aspects is called flowing. When spring flows there is nothing outside of spring. Study this in detail.

Spring invariably flows through spring. Although flowing itself is not spring, flowing occurs through spring. Thus, flowing is complete at just this moment of spring. Examine this thoroughly, coming and going. In your study of flowing, if you imagine the objective to be outside and that you flow and move through hundreds and hundreds of worlds, for hundreds, thousands, and myriad of eons, you have not devotedly studied the Buddha Way.”4

Master Dogen’s remarkable expression of shunyata, of radical continuity, empty of concepts and categories, conventional references points of time and space, shows us unqualified awareness includes all phenomena, and goes beyond it. It includes time, and is beyond time. If there were not time, there would not be spring, but spring is without time and beyond coming and going. “When spring flows there is nothing outside of spring.” As primordial awareness, nothing is other, or separate, everything is as it is, moving and constant.

In the absence of the past and future of the self, the craving and desire, worry and concern, the stress and aversion of self-identification, is forgetting the self. To be actualized by the myriad things is to be completely one with the phenomenal world: one with the awareness of spring, of new leaves, of a breeze without beginning or end. Everything in spring or in autumn, is vivid and colorful – a vast array of boundless particularity, of detailed myriad things, of selfless uniqueness. Where before there was loneliness, as Now, fulfillment is the natural state. Awareness relinquishes identification with separate self and is free as what is, the Great Earth, and all sentient beings.5

From this perspective, it is not that egoic functioning is bad or sinful; it is not like an agitating pest to be chased away or caught it killed; it is simply that persistent identification with the separate self can never realize all the vastness or peace of True Self or Buddha Nature. This natural, pristine, unconditioned awareness is our natural birthright. Sometimes it is compared to a diamond that has been sewn into our coat pocket without our knowledge. We go around for years and years looking for more, not realizing that all the time, we are endowed with an abundance of wealth. The truth of our innate sufficiency begs the question as to why would we need to spend enormous time studying and practicing to discover what is already ours? Why do we need to “study in detail” as Master Dogen says, to see that our well being, our sense of peace, is actually not dependent on anything other than our capacity to be one with what is, to just be as things are. It is precisely the functioning of individual sense of identity that separates us from this much larger movement, this much larger reality. Practice is necessary to overcome the deeply engrained habits of mind that separates us from reality and ourselves. And for Master Dogen, Zen practice – zazen, koan study, eating rice and emptying it into a pail – is itself no other than this living reality. Practice is life, and life is practice.

Unique Self

In each moment reality is entirely vivid, perfectly filled, and self-sustaining. As Master Bankei, an eccentric 17th Century Zen Master liked to say, “Everything is marvelously illuminating.”6 Zen poetry and calligraphy abound with depictions of this marvelousness – of red flowers and green willows, of perfectly straight pines and perfectly bent brambles. In the 14th Century, poet Ikkyu wrote,

“clouds very high look
not one word helped them get up there”
“Nobody told the flowers to come up nobody
will ask them to leave when spring’s gone”7
In our time, Zen teacher and author of The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen describes,
“Butter tea and wind pictures, the Crystal Mountain,
and blue sheep dancing on the snow – it’s quite enough.
Have you seen the snow leopard?
No, isn’t that wonderful”8

It is wonderful; it is enough. And nobody had to work to make it happen. It is obvious that the efforting of the separate self is, at some level, unnecessary. It is like slinging an extra, awkward piece of luggage over our shoulder when both hands are already full. When the clinging and anxiety of the ego is put down and attention is open and relaxed, we are free to notice and participate in the specificity of this very moment, and in the details of our life. Or as Master Dogen said, ““to be actualized by the myriad things.” In other words, each of us exists in complete relationship to all four quadrants, and we are enlivened, shaped, and you might even say, evoked, by everything around. The challenge is that to realize this takes deep inquiry and meditative concentration. So we make a concerted effort to practice in order to realize our innate belonging.

From the point of view of practice, then, it is possible to shift to a third perspective, one we can call “Unique Self.” This shift is not for the purpose of reifying a solid self-identity, but simply to employ a skillful means or turning word which allows us to access an intimate experience of our ourselves as a holon – the unique part which functions freely and easily within this vast, limitless whole.

When we identify as Unique Self, the first recognition is that we are a utterly unique manifestation of the greater whole – nowhere else in the entire universe is there anything like us – there never has been and never will be. Everything about us is so specific, so detailed, and so wondrous. Our interior lives are completely our own: our thoughts, feeling states, and dreams. They may pass fleetingly, but in so doing are particular. Our bodies are made of specific qualities like skin tone, eye color, body shape, and gender. We inherit our DNA, and it combines into an utterly unique pattern and expression. These physical traits are not permanent, yet they are the distinct, material qualities that make us up as we go. We each have families, cultural contexts, and histories with great commonalities and shared reference points, but they are entirely specific to each one of us. We are, a Master Bankei, says, “marvelously illuminating,” – a marvelously illuminating part-whole of the universe.

Each of us is the only one experiencing the fullness our life, in this time under these circumstances. But from the Unique Self perspective, loneliness is not the outcome, amazement is. The occasion of our birth is our own birth, and the time and place of our death is ours, and everything in between is the detail of our distinct path, distinct and at the same time, not separate. Further, we have an entirely unique perspective. Ken Wilber has said that “Enlightenment takes on a perspective” – that perspective is Unique Self. It is quite a thing to realize this singularity of this viewpoint. In the entire Cosmos, each of us is the only one looking through a particular lens and seeing what we see. We are the only one capable of offering this perspective. There is an innate dignity to our viewpoint; it is rare and intrinsically valuable. This recognition brings a kind of awe with it, a respect for ourselves and our incarnation of this precious human birth, as it is often called.

When we recognize the deeper reality, we are able to identify as unique self. This is the paradox. By letting go of the separation, we discover our particularity. By practicing meditation, we express our uniqueness in a way that exemplifies the harmony of the whole. Sometimes it is said in the Zen tradition that practice works on us like polishing a piece of wood to bring the fine grain and unique beauty forth. As an expression of practice, we are a whole part. By experiencing our wholeness, we are free to experience our part-ness. And because we experience our wholeness, we are not lonely. The answer to the loneliness problem doesn’t come from a small self-identity finding the perfect relationship; it actually comes from identifying from our limitless nature and offering our loving from that recognition.

Unique Self as Bodhisattva

The fullness expression of Unique Self is in the manifestation of compassion, ethical conduct, and love in the world. The loving comes in as many different forms as there are people to express it. An endless display of talents, gifts, and creativity fall from our practice as naturally as ripe fruit falls from a tree. With sufficient commitment and discipline, our unique qualities combine as unique gifts, and the fulfillment of the spiritual path is in the expression of these gifts in the world. Instead of being motivated by lack, we are now moved by our fullness. Instead of striving to be of service, we learn to show up – ready, available, offering our perspective, our heart, and our skills. We to no longer compete to make a contribution, but find our true place in the world of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, doing what it is that we do.

In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the Bodhisattva is one who is committed to the enlightenment, liberation, and service of all beings. Bodhisattvas make a vow not to dwell in detachment and cling to nirvana, but to hang in with the persistent challenges of the human experience: in bodily form, in relationship, and in the worldly call for fairness and social justice. We vow to participate until all beings are liberated, which is another way of saying that love, ethics, and compassion become the activity our life. The Buddha began his spiritual search in order to alleviate human suffering. He culminated his search with this simple understanding of the role of loving and of kindness.

“So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings:
Radiating kindness over the entire world.”


1 Rahula, Walpola, “What the Buddha Taught.” Grove Press, NY, NY, 1959, p. 10.

2 Rahula, p. 27

3 Dogen, Eihei, “Shobogenzo, Genjokoan,” trans. Moon in a Dewdrop, Kazuaki Tanahashi, North Point Press, 1985, p. 70

4 Dogen, p. 80

5 Cook, Francis, The Record of Transmitting The Light, Case Number One, Shakyamuni. Wisdom Publications, Somerville, MA, 2003

6 Haskel, Peter. “Bankei’s Zen, Grove Press, New York, 1984, p. 33.

7 Ikkyu, Crow with No Mouth, version by Stephen Berg, Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, Washington, 1989 p.23

8 Mathessien, Peter, The Snow Leopard, Penguin Books, New York, New York, 1978

9 Buddha, Metta Sutta, Pali Canon’s Sutta Nipata (Sn 1.8) and Khuddakapatha (Khp 9).

About Diane Hamilton

Diane Hamilton has been a practitioner of meditation for almost 30 years. Diane began her studies at Naropa University in 1983 with Choygam Trungpa Rinpoche, and became a Zen student of Genpo Roshi’s in 1997. In 2003, she received ordination as a Zen monk with her husband Michael Zimmerman, and received dharma transmission from Roshi in 2006. Diane facilitates Big Mind Big Heart, a process developed by Genpo Roshi to help elicit the insights of Zen in Western audiences. She has worked with Ken Wilber and the Integral Institute since 2004. As a mediator, is well known as an innovator in dialogues, especially conversations about culture, religion, race and gender relations.