“U suton” written originally in Croatian 2012.
“Into the sunset” translation sample, 2017.
The translation is not final. The English version may end up being significantly different from the Croatian original. For instance, the Croatian version uses a more colloquial free-form language, while the English version is more formal. Also, in some places I might write some things differently, so it’s not really a translation, it’s a rewrite.
I’ve recently been thinking about what sheep people really are, how inclined they are to unquestioningly adopt ideas they do not understand, but which are presented to them as authoritative.
In this concrete case, I’m thinking about the concept of ego.
You all probably know what that is about: ego is supposed to be the great evil, from which possessiveness, selfishness, jealousy, hatred, violence, wars and similar horrible things originate. Ego is an evil, tiny gnome that stands between the soul and enlightenment, and if you’re freed from its grasp you will realize that All is One. This is usually followed by quotations from the authoritative oriental scripture which supposedly proves it, and it is something that is beyond question, and all “spiritual people” treat it as an unquestionable fact.
And what are the facts of the matter? Ego, as a concept, originates from 19th century Europe, and was forcefully introduced into the oriental philosophies by means of translations and commentaries made in that period, at the time when the West was originally introduced to the subject matter, and translators and commentators were heavily introduced by the European zeitgeist and the contemporary European philosophies. Here I mean primarily the scientistic worldview, according to which something is either scientific or false, and the “science” of the day was heavily influenced by Freud and his psychoanalytic views. The concept of ego was therefore introduced into the oriental philosophy neither by Buddha nor Shankara, but by Freud and Jung.
You are likely to notice that the original oriental texts such as the Bhagavad-gita mention ego as something that stands in the way of realization, and that this something is called mamata and ahamkara. That is true, but those words don’t mean “ego”, but rather “selfishness” and “arrogance”. Mamata means the possessive attitude, where one claims ownership of things, in a sense of “this is mine, I acquired it, I have the right to claim it”, and ahamkara means literally “I am doing”, the attitude of “I am the master of my own fate, I did this, I decide what is to happen”. This, in short, is the attitude of an arrogant asshole with a big car, golden Rolex watch and a fat bank account, flaunting his wealth and status because he believes it’s all deserved and shows what a great person he is. Surely, everybody will agree that this attitude, which acknowledges neither luck, nor the fortunate circumstances, nor the hand of God, is incompatible with sophisticated spirituality, and this is exactly what the oriental texts are trying to tell us. It’s as clear as day, but it has nothing to do with “ego”.
Ego, as a Freudian concept, does not exist in the oriental philosophy at all, let alone as something that opposes spiritual efforts. On the contrary, the basic concepts relied upon by the Western concept of ego are fundamentally differently understood in the oriental thought, which makes translation of this kind of a concept, as well as the terms that are supposed to explain it, impossible.
“Ego” means literally “I” in Latin; this is the concept of “selfness”, or “self”. It is much closer to what Patañjali calls “asmita”, “the substance of selfness” that is seen in a living being (jivan). This concept has nothing whatsoever to do with the concepts of mamata and ahamkara, and is much closer to the concept of atman, which is seen by Shankaracarya as something that is to be sought exactly in the direction of the personal sense of self, or “ego”, by asking the question “who” am “I” really, or, rather, what “I” am not. He then proceeds to deal with a detailed analysis of the concepts of misidentification of Self with the imposed limitations and illusions, due to which Self is identified with the “vessel” in which it resides; the Upanishads often use a metaphor with the one Moon reflected in many bodies of water, or of milk diluted by water, which a knower (compared to a swan, which was thought to be able to separate milk from water with its beak – however, to digress, it sounds more like a phonetic trick for the initiated ones, because the word “hamsa” sounds like “so ham” (“I Am That”) when the syllables are flipped) can filter out, or discriminate between the reality of Self and the illusion of a limited and mortal being.
This is how Yoga and Vedanta see the concept of selfness. Buddhism, however, has seemingly opposed understanding of the subject matter – it perceives “self” as a non-entity, understanding it to be as fictional as phlogiston and impetus, where the very idea of an eternal and perfect component present within the human reality is fiction which actually causes bondage and delusion. Seemingly, Buddhism teaches that the human self, or ego, is but an emergent quality of the mind and its building blocks, like speed which is the emergent property of automotive parts, where “speed” doesn’t actually exist on the list of automotive parts, but occurs when those parts all perform their intended function. When I say “seemingly”, it means all is not as it appears, since the great teachers of Buddhism, such as Milarepa, expressly teach the knowledge of the true Self, which is in all things identical to the teachings of Vedanta and opposite to Buddhism as it is commonly understood. I thought about this for quite a long time and I came to a very interesting conclusion. You see, Buddha appears not to have taken even the slightest bit of interest in describing the goal of spiritual practice. He thought that anything thus described creates merely another image in the mind of the listener, which will necessarily be illusory and likely binding. He therefore devoted his efforts to explaining the path, and not the goal, explaining what needs to be done and what attitude one is to assume toward things. The point is therefore in the correct attitude which then has a consequence of spiritual transformation. When spiritual transformation takes place, the practitioner acquires realizations and experiences beyond the scope of a verbal explanation. The religious sphere abounds with dogmas and imagery used in order to imprint the minds of the followers, who then proceed to treat this imagery and dogma as realities and not make-believe in the order of magnitude of unicorns and hobbits, which exist as fairytale creatures, which can be imagined and worked with as if they were real, but still exist only within the mind. Where religion says “imagine fire”, Buddhism says “take a magnifying glass, focus sunlight on a piece of paper and observe the occurring phenomenon”. The result of the second approach is the actual fire, not the idea of fire.
In case of fire, we are dealing with a commonly known phenomenon which is in everyone’s personal experience, and so the word “fire” invokes the memory and imagery of actual fire, but imagine what would happen if one didn’t have any pre-existing experience of fire, nor the slightest preconception thereof. For instance, imagine trying to convey the meaning of fire to an intelligent dolphin. You cannot rely upon the word “fire”, nor use comparisons or analogy, because he lacks experiences and memories that are necessary in order to make the connection between a verbal term and a thing, having spent his entire life in water, in the environment where fire cannot exist. The only thing you can do is invite him outside of water, and there you can light a fire and tell him, “here, look, this is fire”.
Buddhism therefore starts with the understanding that it is useless to speak of transcendence, and that the only sensible approach is to provide instructions for its attainment. To speak of transcendence is pointless in any case, since words create meaning by pointing to some preexisting imagery or understanding within the mind, and those can veritably point towards transcendence only if a person has it in personal experience, but to assume pre-existent transcendental experience, in an audience which seeks instructions on attaining transcendence, is not useful.
Buddhism, therefore, sidesteps the problem: it basically tells you that everything in your experience is a huge mess, made of illusory perceptions, projections of the eternal and meaningful upon transitory and meaningless, and attachments that follow from attempts to catch one of those mirages and own it, which returns us to the concepts of possession and the illusion of control over one’s destiny, the mamata and ahamkara. What Buddhism advises here is not to “fight against ego”, but rather to cool down and create a distance between self and all the perceived and desired things, in order to detach oneself from them and understand that we are never actually dealing with the things themselves, but rather their meaning to our psyche, with images, prints in our mind that were left by the things. Buddhism advises us to divest ourselves, or rather to cease investing ourselves, as well as our happiness and fulfillment, into things that we perceive. What will happen when we release all such things and utterly remove investments of self and projections of ownership, that is something that cannot be explained, because it is a transformational experience, a change of the mode of being, which cannot be explained in any way that would produce a useful and constructive effect in the mind of the listener, but it is possible to go through the process of transformation and feel its effects, thus getting a very realistic understanding. If this sounds too complicated, just remember that you have things in your experience that you would not be able to understand from a mere description, but once experienced, they change your reality. One such experience is an orgasm – no amount of explanatory imagery can really convey the experience, and can in fact create a misapprehension. Similarly, it is impossible to explain an experience created by a sense one was born without.
In short, the entire thing is much more complicated than people usually think, and everything you ever heard about spirituality is likely simplified to the point of utter inaccuracy and uselessness. Despite that, the various “spiritual teachers” treat you like children with their “spiritual lectures” where they attempt to explain the “basic concepts” such as the need to fight the evil ego which stands in the way of the realization of “true Self”, with the only result of promoting ungrounded imagery, self-deception, sectarianism and imagined, false spirituality which stands in the way of true understanding of reality of any kind.
Ego is not a hindrance. On the contrary, Shankaracharya teaches that ego is a necessary starting point of a journey towards the realization of atman, which is synonymous with brahman. Without ego, you would be an anatmic (self-less) being, akin to a computer, to whom realization of brahman is not possible. Only through the ego, which is in fact a breakthrough point of atman into the body and mind, in form of self-awareness and self-consciousness, is it possible to isolate the phenomenon of Self and look for its source and true nature.
Buddhism seemingly teaches the opposite, but ask yourselves: what is the empty canvas of spirit which the Buddhist practice strives to attain? Who is the detached observer who witnesses withdrawal from the world, from the senses, from the mental imagery, as well as the projections and desires? Who is he who observes dissolution of all those things? If nirvana is the greatest bliss, this bliss must exist as a state of being, which is the point where you ask “what being?” It is therefore obvious that we are dealing with some sort of a positive, suprahuman form of existence, devoid of limitations and attachments, but one that is to such an extent inhuman and incompatible with human daily experience, that Buddha intentionally brushed off any possibility of identification of this state with anything from the sphere of humanly known, in order to stymie fantasy and imagination as substitutes for the actual experience.
Things are, apparently, much more complicated than the various “authorities” would like you to believe.
Perhaps that is the case because there are no “authorities”, at least not in the sense in which this is commonly meant? The only spiritual authority that remains truly valid, is direct experience and transformation of one’s own psyche, existence and reality. Everything else, as Buddha would say, is devoid of significance.