Self-Effacement

Ajahn Karuṇadhammo • December 2012

Developing insight around the aspect of anattā, not-self, is often understood to arise from a sudden insight, awakening, or penetration that results from the culmination of earnestly practicing samatha and vipassanā, concentration and insight. In a sense there’s a truth to that. A deep and penetrating insight does come through investigation. But there’s a slow, gradual process that can also lead to this insight of not-self. The word that describes this slower process best is self-effacement—a gradual thinning or wearing away of the self-making process, this sense of me and mine, and the ownership and identity around all the things we usually identity with. The process of self-effacement is a progressive and steady process, a whittling away over time through various practices, not only with the practice of meditation and development of insight around the three characteristics—suffering, impermanence, and not-self—but also with everything we do as part of community training. Many of the things that we incorporate into our daily lives and daily practices are ways of increasing this kind of self-effacement, this gradual diminishing of our sense of identity. It’s a process that can take many, many years.

Dhamma practice and training, particularly in the monastic form, is a long-term endeavor. There are many ways that our structures and community life help support self-effacement. For example, the practice of generosity is an external way of reducing the sense of self-importance. We give of ourselves by offering our time and support to each other and by making an effort in how we communicate with one another. We are also generous with the work duties we take on and how we contribute around the monastery. Little by little, if done sincerely, it’s all a part of the self-effacing process.

The hierarchy is another way that we can encourage this process. As much as we try to establish an environment where people feel comfortable to express themselves about the way things should happen, there’s also the sense of hierarchy that we give ourselves to. We have business meetings and regular circle meetings where people contribute in a free way. When decisions need to be made, we utilize this hierarchy based on seniority. Basically, it’s boiled down to one very simple aspect of who’s been around the longest in robes. Hopefully, there’s also a bit of experience and maturity that comes along with years in the robes, so it’s not completely an arbitrary structure. Most importantly, it’s also a way of learning to let go of self views, self opinions, or the thought, My way is the right way. If there’s some sort of disagreement or something that needs to be worked out or decided on with different views and opinions, then seniority plays a part in that. We turn over a bit of selfishness to the monastery hierarchy. As Ajahn Yatiko was saying, if somebody misses a morning meeting, an evening meeting, work, or whatever other communal activity we have, then the proper protocol is to mention one’s absence to the senior monk as a way of being open and honest. This is not encouraged as a punitive guilt trip, but as a way of acknowledging our mistakes. All of these actions add up little by little—working together, bumping up against each other, accommodating each other, giving up our own views and opinions—all of these are subtle ways of working toward self-effacement.

A number of us came to the monastery with a sense of wanting to become something or somebody. It’s sometimes nice to develop a set of skills or a particular training that we can call our own, as a way of feeling like we can contribute something unique. That’s not a bad intention, but it can sometimes be held to as an identity. For example, we might want to become the best work monk, the best guest monk, the best attendant, the best meditator, the best teacher, the most knowledgeable in suttas, or whatever it is that we want to identify with. All of these skills can be useful tools for community life, but we can also develop a sense of identity around them—becoming this or becoming that—and doing what we might be doing if we were engaged in worldly careers. The idea is to pick up all of these things, use them, develop skills around them, but do this for the purpose of maintaining community life and offering service, as well as for the purpose of learning how to give up self identity and a sense of self-importance within this same process. Little by little, bit by bit, with this process we’re realizing that there really isn’t any “me” here who’s doing all of this. We are using skills to develop the Eightfold Path, to encourage each other, and to contribute to Saṅgha harmony. Gradually this process supports us in developing the insight into who we are not.