As I argued in my book, The Self in No Self, and in my post, “The Misleading Teaching of No Self,” that teaching is a distortion of the Buddha dharma; the Buddha never taught that there is no self. Also the concept is not a reflection of reality.
What the Buddha did was teach what was “not self,” namely whatever causes us suffering, all the emotions and cravings that flow from the ego-mind. Once when he was speaking to his disciples, he asked them whether something caused them suffering. He said, if it does, “it is not you, it is not yours, it is not your self.”
I would argue that the very phrase “not self” implies that the Buddha believed that there was a true self, that is the point of reference, although he never spoke to that issue. He also refers in that very quote to “your self” and goes on to say that “your self would not cause you suffering.”
So assuming that there is a true self, as opposed to the ego which is of dependent origination, what is it? It is your true Buddha nature, the nature that we are all born with and which stays within us throughout our lives. That is the source of the oneness of all people.
But this does not mean we are all the same. As I argue in my book, The Self in No Self, we are each born with an elemental nature, a temperament, that remains a part of us throughout life; similar to the way we are each born with different skin color, hair, etc. Even the most enlightened among us are not clones; there is a difference for example between the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh in their temperament.
There is nothing in the Buddha’s teaching that speaks against this type of individualization; it is not a product of the mind or life experience; it is not of dependent origination; it is not a function of ego; it does not blind us to the truth or prevent dispassion. it is not a force of separation between people. It does not block nirvana.
This teaching is recognition that oneness does not mean sameness. Let me repeat that, oneness does not mean sameness. That is a powerful force for bringing people together.
Much of the dysfunction and suffering in this world is based on the inculcating of an us v them perspective when we are growing up. Whether it concerns religion, race, financial status, nationality, whatever … it is a source of division and conflict. And it is taught. As the wise song says in the musical South Pacific, “You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six, or seven, or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate, you’ve got to be carefully taught.”
There is no question that in reality there is a lot of us v them antagonism out there, with resulting conflict and violence, whether as a result of such teaching or man’s insecurity. One would be a fool not to be aware of this dynamic and not to acknowledge it.
The question is, as a Buddhist, how do you respond to it. The answer is that you teach your children and others that difference in someone does not mean enemy or antagonist. Lack of sameness does not mean lack of oneness. Don’t react to people or nations through stereotypes. Seek instead the truth; seek humanity.
Yet as part of that process, one also needs to teach your children and others that this doesn’t mean looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. One needs to be aware of what is happening out there and respond accordingly to protect oneself.
This is such an entrenched part of the human psyche that not even a second coming would probably change it. But one can, in the little part of the world that you and your family inhabit, create a different dynamic and make the world in that small way a better place.
As an example, my partner received a delivery of a package the other day. He couldn’t go out to the truck because he was working in the house and didn’t have on his shoes, so he said to the Black Jamaican who was the delivery person, “You look young and strong. Could you bring it to me?”
The young man beamed and said, of course. Working in the Berkshires, which has very few Blacks, let alone Jamaicans, it probably was rare for anyone to treat him as a human being, to reach out to him. And so he responded with gratitude and joy.
Another person might have been uneasy around a young Black man and a different dynamic would have resulted. And the world would have continued in its dysfunctional, less than human, way. Instead, there was a moment of light, of humanity, that made the day different for both people involved.