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The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.
How do I become Baha’i?

Religion and the Self: How Do I Stop Being Me?

David Langness | May 5, 2016

PART 2 IN SERIES Escaping the Greatest Prison

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.

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David Langness | May 5, 2016

PART 2 IN SERIES Escaping the Greatest Prison

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.

Renunciation is not about pushing something away, it is about letting go. It’s facing the fact that certain things cause us pain, and they cause other people pain. Renunciation is a commitment to let go of things that create suffering. It is the intention to stop hurting ourselves and others. – Noah Levine, Against the Stream: A Buddhist Manual for Spiritual Revolutionaries

Asked if one had to renounce his or her possessions, Mahatma Gandhi said, “No… you have to renounce the possessor.”

Let your vision be world-embracing, rather than confined to your own self. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 94.

When seekers explore various spiritual paths and religions, they often soon realize that a spiritual life requires grappling with the ego, the self, the “I.”

Most major Faiths advise those who seek spiritual growth and enlightenment to renounce the self—to let go of the ego and the suffering it can cause, and to transcend the boundaries of the inner self.


Buddhists call it nekkhamma, which means “renouncing the world and leading a holy life.” Hindus call it sannyasa, the life stage of renunciation, which involves abandoning material desires and prejudices for a more peaceful, loving, simple inner life. In Christianity, renunciation emerges primarily from the salvation exemplified by the synoptic Gospels. In Islam, the Sufi tradition of rebirth focuses on renouncing the self. In the Baha’i teachings, Baha’u’llah advises all seekers to free themselves from the self’s “man-made limitations:”

With the hands of renunciation draw forth from its life-giving waters, and sprinkle therewith all created things, that they may be cleansed from all man-made limitations and may approach the mighty seat of God, this hallowed and resplendent Spot. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 279-280.

This universal spiritual call does not mean giving up your individuality.

Instead, the great Faiths ask each of us to transcend our own small, petty, individual concerns in order to love one another. They ask us to expand our vision and devote our energies, not to ourselves, but to humanity itself. They recommend a wider embrace:

O My brother! Forsake thine own desires, turn thy face unto thy Lord, and walk not in the footsteps of those who have taken their corrupt inclinations for their god, that perchance thou mayest find shelter in the heart of existence, beneath the redeeming shadow of Him Who traineth all names and attributes…

In this connection We will relate unto thee that which was revealed of old concerning “life”, that perchance it may turn thee away from the promptings of self, deliver thee from the narrow confines of thy prison in this gloomy plane, and aid thee to become of them that are guided aright in the darkness of this world. – Baha’u’llah, Gems of Divine Mysteries, pp. 48-49.

Every human being has those “promptings of self” that Baha’u’llah describes. We all want something in this world—material success, possessions, fame, power, etc.  We all have earthly desires—and those desires can become a prison, barring us from the higher, more spiritual stages of our development.

How does that happen? Simple: we focus all of our energies and our resources on achieving those fleeting material desires; and they control us, dominate the expenditure of our energies and blind us to more noble and selfless goals:

Every soul seeketh an object and cherisheth a desire, and day and night striveth to attain his aim. One craveth riches, another thirsteth for glory and still another yearneth for fame, for art, for prosperity and the like. Yet finally all are doomed to loss and disappointment. One and all they leave behind them all that is theirs and empty-handed hasten to the realm beyond, and all their labours shall be in vain. To dust they shall all return, denuded, depressed, disheartened and in utter despair.

But, praised be the Lord, thou art engaged in that which secureth for thee a gain that shall eternally endure; and that is naught but thine attraction to the Kingdom of God, thy faith, and thy knowledge, the enlightenment of thine heart, and thine earnest endeavour to promote the Divine Teachings. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 204.

That teaching, common to every legitimate belief system and religion, reminds us that nothing physical can last. Every object, every achievement and every possession will someday fade and vanish:

…Rejoice not in the things ye possess; tonight they are yours, tomorrow others will possess them. Thus warneth you He Who is the All-Knowing, the All-Informed. Say: Can ye claim that what ye own is lasting or secure? Nay! By Myself, the All-Merciful. The days of your life flee away as a breath of wind, and all your pomp and glory shall be folded up as were the pomp and glory of those gone before you. Reflect, O people! What hath become of your bygone days, your lost centuries? Happy the days that have been consecrated to the remembrance of God, and blessed the hours which have been spent in praise of Him Who is the All-Wise. By My life! Neither the pomp of the mighty, nor the wealth of the rich, nor even the ascendancy of the ungodly will endure. All will perish, at a word from Him. He, verily, is the All-Powerful, the All-Compelling, the Almighty. What advantage is there in the earthly things which men possess? That which shall profit them, they have utterly neglected. Erelong, they will awake from their slumber, and find themselves unable to obtain that which hath escaped them in the days of their Lord, the Almighty, the All-Praised. Did they but know it, they would renounce their all, that their names may be mentioned before His throne. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 138-139.

Detachment and renunciation of the material world, every truly spiritual path tells us, don’t require us to give up our identities or our personalities. Instead, they ask us to discover our real identities, our authentic inner selves, our actual relationship to the Creator. Renouncing that self—the one that focuses on the lower nature—actually allows our true inner self, our spiritual essence, to emerge.

Next: O God, Protect Me From Myself!

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  • May 5, 2016
    Actually, nekkhama is only mentioned in Theravada Buddhism rather than Mahayana Buddhism. The concept is sorta there in Mahayna Buddhism, but with a Mahayana twist on it that is too complicated to summarize in a coo meant here.
    Vajra Enterprises is a publishing company and Seeker is one of the books it publishes. It describes the eight paths of: -/+ Feeling, Harmony, Self, and Thought. It also describes various traditions and their relationship to the eight paths. There is also an included role playing game to help people explore the concepts. Buddhism, for example, is related to +Harmony, -Feeling, ...-Self, -Thought, and sometimes +Feeling, but that last one, +Feeling, is a Mahayana and Vajrayana exclusive associated path. The deifintions of evil, mental illness, and nature in each tradition and path is also mentioned in the book as well as things to focus upon the path and traditions for each one of them to.
    It's advertised as a role playing game, but has lots of in-depth discussion of philosophy, religion, and spirituality like all the books published by Vajra Enterprises.
    I've noticed you've ignored all the comments (well you haven't posted reposnses to anything recently) in the past few posts here, so I don't know if you ever re-read your posts here. I don't even know if you will ever read this comment. I highly reccomend buying all Vajrayana Enterprises books, but I only linked the one I talked about.
    While I agree with this article on selflessness, in past article you have used the phrase all major Faiths to basically reckon Baha'i beliefs onto all other major Faiths basically. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the Baha'i Faith, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and Buddhism are the major Faiths I assume. There are also Jainism, Sikhism, Confucianism, Toaism, and Shinto, but Baha'i only mention seven rather than twelve. For someone who always mentions that all major Faiths teach (insert teaching here), you almost never quote from them in comparison to Baha'i quotes always in your articles. Does Buddhism teach there is such a thing as a true self or a Creator or etc? That's a question as an example, but a whole plethora could be used as other examples.
    • Jun 22, 2016
      Similarities in some concepts between Christian beliefs and Buddhism have been noted by various scholars. In essence, the Christian concept of “God” and the Buddhist concept of the “Universal Law” share many features, such as: “the eternal”, “the creative power” , “the unborn”, as well as properties of “wisdom” and “compassion”.
      One of the main differences between these two philosophies perhaps, is that “God” has a personified character in Christianity (and is referred to by a male indication),
      while in Nichiren Buddhism the “Universal Law” has non-personified character,
      (having also both male and female qualities).
      Concepts such as: male-female, light-darkness, life-death, good-evil - are viewed in Christianity as separate from each other. The Buddhist view, however, is based on non-duality. In this understanding, “Life” in Buddhism is understood as encompassing both good and evil, life and death ...etc.
      Christianity considers the spiritual aspect of life as the Ultimate Truth (God) whose existence is independent of the Universe. On the other hand, Nichiren Buddhism considers the Life of the Universe as the Ultimate Truth, having inseparable aspects: physical (matter) and spiritual (mind). The visible aspect of one’s current life and the dormant aspect of one’s future death are both inseparable phases of one cycle, eternally repeating. Based on this understanding of “Life” as the ultimate truth in Buddhism, the following may give a glimpse or a quick view on corresponding concepts in Buddhism and Christianity:
      Corresponding concepts in Christianity and Nichiren Buddhism
      Christianity S G I Buddhism
      • The Divine: God Life
      • The Origin: Uncreated, Unborn Uncreated, Unborn
      • Time span: God is eternal Life is eternal
      • The material & spiritual: Separate Inseparable
      • Good and Evil: Separate Inseparable
      • The Afterlife: Death Rebirth
      • Heaven and Hell: Two external places Two internal states
      The essence of Buddhist and Christian beliefs is also expressed by the behaviour of their founders in the real world, becoming role models for humanity. However - as was the case with Shakyamuni Buddha (ca 500 BC) - the events of life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth were written down by his disciples after the founder died. This fact creates uncertainty about various doctrines - attributed to the founder but cannot be verified.
      The Issue of Certainty of the Founder’s Teachings
      It is obvious that neither Shakyamuni Buddha nor Jesus of Nazareth had left any written document recording their teachings. If the quality of “certainty” (about founders’ teachings) is of any importance, then Nichiren’s writings come as an example of providing this certainty. Nichiren dedicated great efforts for leaving an enormous hand written accounts on personally encountered events and on specific details about the scope and depth of his teachings - leaving in this way no room for doubt about the teachings he established.
      Nevertheless, Nichiren’s writings - although available in written form - did not escape the tendency of some of his followers to interpret them in variety of ways. This means that both Christianity and Buddhism (and in fact all religions) share this phenomenon of diversity of interpretations of teachings of related schools, each claiming to be “the correct” one. The number of Christian churches and Buddhist schools is perhaps comparably great. Amid this fact of diversity, SGI teachings focus on what is common between various faith systems:
      The search for what is common: Despite diversity of religious views, SGI literature maintains that it is possible to find the common thread of agreement between all religions. This can take place through creating a tendency for interpretation of various doctrines based on the perspective of ‘common humanity’. Humanism can offer a uniting rather than dividing approach for people in their search for spiritual life.
      Christian literature refers to the concept of “Law” in sense of morality as well as in sense of the objective natural principles created by God:
      “Everything in the universe, every plant and animal, every rock, every particle of matter or light wave, is bound by laws which it has no choice but to obey. The Bible tells us that there are laws of nature—“ordinances of heaven and earth” (Jeremiah 33:25). These laws describe the way God normally accomplishes His will in the universe.
      God’s logic is built into the universe, and so the universe is not haphazard or arbitrary”.
      The abovementioned Christian view comes very close to the Buddhist perspective on existence, a perspective which integrates the two concepts of “God” and “Law” into one existence of the: “Eternal Life”:
      “Life at each moment encompasses the body and mind and the self and environment of all sentient beings as well as all insentient beings in the three thousand realms, including plants, sky, earth, and even the minutest particles of dust. Life at each moment permeates the entire realm of phenomena and is revealed in all phenomena’. WND1 p 3
      According to Nichiren, the term ‘Life’ is all-encompassing. Life refers to both living beings and to the inanimate environment. The same laws through which the physical world operates, operate also within the body of living beings. These natural laws make no distinction between living beings and the environment, and their impartial nature creates the background of Life’s phenomena. Living beings display with their bodies (the physical aspect) emotions and intellect (the spiritual aspect). Buddhism teaches that all principles of the physical (matter) and inclinations of the mental (mind) originate from one universal Law: MyoHo, where Myo refers to the mind and Ho to manifestations (matter).
      What comes first?
      There are three major perspectives in philosophy regarding the problem of Mind and Matter:
      -Mind first: the view that Mind (or the intellectual/spiritual aspect) existed before matter, and then (the universe) was consequently created. (Christian view).
      -Matter first: the materialists view that Matter originally existed, then the Mind developed or evolved. (Materialists view)
      -Mind-Matter indivisible: Buddhism unifies both of the above opposing views into that of “Inseparability of Mind and Matter”.
      The Buddhist view on the existence of Mind-Matter is that of non-duality. Neither matter nor mind comes first nor next. Instead of viewing matter and mind as two separate aspects, Buddhism uses the word “Life” which combines both.
      This implies that the concept of God (mind) and the Universe (matter) are inseparable, and both constitute one existence: Life.
      The Concept of Law in Buddhism
      From one point of view, the “Law” in both Christianity and Buddhism covers the spiritual and physical principles - through which the world operates. The word “Law’ implies also the “Truth” or the way the Truth is manifested in all phenomena. The “Truth” is referred to by some Mahayana schools as the Dharma, or the Buddhist Dharma - implying the “teachings” of the Buddha.
      In Nichiren Buddhism, the “Truth” or the Dharma is described as “The Reality of Life”, or the True Aspect of All Phenomena. This “Reality” is called The Law of Cause and Effect:
      “The Mystic Law of cause and effect governs both spiritual and material existence, which we must comprehend non-dualistically” Ikeda-Dewey Dialogue
      Buddhist teachings do not separate between life and the universe, or between the Law and observed phenomena (manifesting the Law): “Buddhism sees the cosmos itself as being the Law. A Buddha is someone who has recognised his identity with this cosmic Law. This is much different from postulating an absolute deity who creates and dominates the Law.” (Ikeda: Life, an Enigma, page 80)
      In this perspective of Nichiren Buddhism, the essence of all laws of nature as well as the patterns of relationships, tendencies and principles in the realm of mind and psychology - all constitute the one “Universal Law of Cause and Effect”.
      Though, I have given all of the above info. It is best to read all sutras in the entirety of the canon rather than just relying on soundbites here and there. You have to be familiar with the whole Buddhist Cosmology rather than just taking a quote or two and running with it or them.
    • Jun 22, 2016
      Actually, the Tathagatarbha texts are referring to Empitniess in a positive sense rather than actually positing an actual thing. The abscence of a Self or Emptieness is being referred to as the True Self (despite not being a Self exactly) as exaplained in chart of possible meanings below.
      Sutton agrees with this critique on the narrowness of interpretation. In discussing the inadequacy of modern scholarship on Buddha-nature, Sutton states,
      One is impressed by the fact that these authors, as a rule, tend to opt for a single meaning disregarding all other possible meanings which are embraced in turn by other ...texts".
      He goes on to point out that the term tathāgatagarbha has up to six possible connotations. Of these, he says the three most important are:
      an underlying ontological reality or essential nature (tathāgata-tathatā-'vyatireka) which is functionally equivalent to a self (ātman) in an Upanishadic sense,
      the dharma-kāya which penetrates all beings (sarva-sattveṣu dharma-kāya-parispharaṇa), which is functionally equivalent to brahman in an Upanishadic sense
      the womb or matrix of Buddhahood existing in all beings (tathāgata-gotra-saṃbhava), which provides beings with the possibility of awakening.
      Of these three, Sutton claims that only the third connotation has any soteriological significance, while the other two posit Buddha-nature as an ontological reality and essential nature behind all phenomena.
      The Ratnagotravibhaga also nullies the concept of Buddha-nature or Tathagatagarbha as a positive ontological existing thing, but a rather alter illogical implication of emptiness.
      Also, ulitimate truth? The Lotus Sutra (the king of sutras) says that sutra has the ultimate truth and not all the other sutras.
    • Mark David Vinzens
      May 9, 2016
      The Buddha teaches both the non-Self and the Self. Let us look at these two facets of his "Dharma" (Truth).
      The Non-Self and the True Self in the Buddha's Teachings
      „It is absolutely vital, however, that we should not mistake our worldly self, our ego, for this True Self, which lies buried beneath all our emotional and mental "defilements" (such as desire, hatred and spiritual delusion). In no way must we think that we can understand our Soul by thought and reasoning alone. It is, in fact, "unthinkable" (acintya). It can only be contacted and "seen" when we ...have cleared away all the obscuring thoughts and emotions which screen it from our view. Only through the cultivation of a moral lifestyle (e.g. avoiding killing, avoiding lying, avoiding stealing, avoiding the eating of meat) and through the practice of meditation can we clear away the nasty clutter of our minds and see the Self, which the Buddha says is "radiantly shining". Our task then is to lead all other beings to this inner realm of Nirvana, enshrined within each being's Soul. If you are one of the vast majority of Mahayana Buddhists who have not been exposed to these teachings, you might feel quite shocked. You may even dismiss these doctrines as un-Buddhistic. And yet it would be a mistake to do so. The Buddha, in some of his most deep-reaching sutras - such as the Tathagata-garbha Sutra, the Srimaladevi Sutra, the Surangama Sutra, and the Mahaparinirvana Sutra (amongst others) - insists that this teaching of the "Buddha-Principle" within all beings is ultimate Truth and must not be rejected. To dwell in one's thoughts and meditation only on what is NOT the Soul, and to teach others only that, and to fail to cultivate the notion of the reality of the True Soul, is to unbalance the Buddhist doctrine and lead people into error“
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