Early in his book Be Nobody, Lama Marut offers this story from the Upanishads about two birds:
Two birds, inseparable friends, perch on the same tree. One of them eats a tasty fig while the other looks on without eating. Sitting on that same tree, deluded self is overwhelmed by the belief that he is a powerless victim and he despairs. When he sees the other, the beloved Master, and realizes that all greatness is his, then his despair vanishes (26–27).
The one bird, eating its fig, represents our “somebody self,” the self we understand ourselves to have and thus project to others. The other bird, the one who calmly looks on, represents our “nobody self,” the part of us “that is always satisfied and never feels the compulsion to be more or better” (26). Lama Marut calls our attention to the fact that the text insists these two birds are “inseparable friends,” not “irreconcilable antagonists,” as we shall see (203).
In chapter 1, Lama Marut identifies two common attitudes and two common desires. First, the common attitudes are to be extraordinary and—once we start competing over extraordinariness—to be more special than those around us. These are the attitudes of our “somebody selves.” The two desires he identifies, on the other hand, are to avoid suffering and be happy. To the issue of suffering, Lama Marut offers us two things to remember: “Suffering isn’t just random bad luck; rather, encountering misfortune is inevitably part of living life,” and “when the suffering nature of life whacks you upside the head, it’s not just you” (20). Through suffering, we can be opened “up to a compassionate empathy that enlarges our sense of self,” thereby increasing our sense of solidarity with others (22). As our empathy increases, we can come to know happiness through “a universally affirmed method taught in the spiritual traditions”—which “involves less, not more, self-centeredness; it entails relinquishing the individual’s insatiable demands and losing oneself in something larger” (23). We become nobody. And herein lies the tension that frames the rest of the book—the tension between somebody and nobody.
Chapter 2 is titled “What Goes Up, Must Come Down” and is about pride and judgmentalism. “Pride is universally identified in the world’s religions as one of the biggest dangers for a spiritual practitioner” because it breaks connections between persons by elevating one over the other (30). It makes us want to be somebody, creating a me/them dichotomy that “obscure[s] or even den[ies] the deep commonalities we share with all other living beings” (34). Having broken our bond of connections through pride, we become susceptible to judgmentalism, which Lama Marut rightly describes as “destroy[ing] our wisdom, our forbearance, and our love and compassion, and leav[ing] us just feeling smug and isolated. …Passing judgments like this…denies a basic fact of life: everything and everybody is impermanent and in a perpetual state of flux and change” (38). Pride and judgmentalism sustain themselves by causing a person to enter “willful isolation from those who would challenge [them],” leading to further disconnection (43).
In chapter 3, Lama Marut discusses the two causes of unhappiness and imprisonment: desire and ignorance. Our desires are summed up by the phrase “If only…” “If only I had x,” for example, “I would be truly happy.” This is “the repetitive call of incessant yearning and discontent, the ‘somebody self’ always wanting more” (58). He likens it unto a scratch that we itch thinking the act of scratching the itch will make the itch go away; of course, the itch is only made worse. “And so freedom, we could say, is nothing more than the exalted state of itchlessness—being satisfied with everything we have,” being content (59). Our ignorance, then, “is not so much not knowing as it is mis-knowing” (62). Lama Marut names four mis-knowings: “we believe what is impermanent to be permanent;” “we believe what is impure to be pure;” “we believe what will bring suffering will bring happiness;” and “we believe what is without an essence has an essence” (62–65). For Lama Marut, this fourth one is the “root of the root,” and he explains it thusly: suppose I have an annoying person in my life; I judge that person to be essentially annoying, but really that is a judgment that I have made and not an actual quality of the other person. Lama Marut sums it up: “We don’t see the world and the people in it as they are; we see them as we are. There are no difficult people in the world until and unless you find them to be so” (67). Now “the ‘root of the root of the root’ is ignorance about the self.”
We believe that we ourselves have a fixed, inherently existing, definitive essence, a self (atman), when there actually is no such thing (anatman). And it is really this foundational error that not only undergirds all our misperceptions but also undermines any chance we have for finding true happiness and real self-knowledge (68).
Chapter 4 focuses on the fact that we should try to make our “somebody self” better. Lama Marut asserts that self is a process, like a river. “Every part of what we include in our idea of ‘me’…is changing, moment by moment. The kind of idea I have about ‘me’ deceives me. I think my concept of ‘me’ refers to a unitary, independent, and unchanging entity, when all it denominates is a flow” (85). So he suggests a term: “autobiographical self,” following Juian Baggini. By telling and retelling our stories, “we can gift ourselves with a different set of ideas about both inner and outer worlds” (86). Renarrating our “somebody self” in this way depends on the Law of Karma: “No action in this world goes for naught or brings about a contrary result” (88). Everything has an effect; “an act…done with a good intention—that is, with a selfless, kind, altruistic, compassionate motivation—will bring about a good…result” (89). Karma boils down to this quote from Shantideva: “And so, although I am unable to exercise control over external phenomena, I will restrain my own mind. What else is there that I can really control?” (92). So we wrestle our selfish thoughts, in order to form better, more selfless selves.
Chapter 5 is about selfless love and compassion as the means for growth. “Any task is easier if it’s done selflessly rather than egotistically, and that very much includes the big life project of improving the ‘somebody self’—and thereby improving the world we live in” (119). For Lama Marut, love asks, What can I do for you. And love demands empathy, “the ability to put oneself in another’s position, to feel what they must be feeling and to relate to what they must be thinking. …The more we empathize with another, the less we are preoccupied with ourselves” (135). He suggests we adopt the mantra, “We’re all just doing our best,” as a way to give others the benefit of the doubt (138). Our response becomes compassion instead of egoism (139).
Chapter 6 begins by looking at the notion of “flow,” as in just-go-with-the-flow. “The flow state is the thorough engagement with the present, the utter embrace of reality as it’s happening. It’s like this now—entirely accepted and embodied” (153). Lama Marut calls this embodying “mindful unselfconsciousness” (155) and contrasts it to the notion of busyness. In simplicity, he cites a children’s song: “Row, row, row your boat, goes the song. We have things to do and responsibilities to fulfill, so keep rowing! The converse of keeping busy in compulsive activity is not slothful inactivity. But row your boat gently down the stream (and also merrily, merrily, merrily!)” (164). It’s like when children are at play; “children, before they are taught that the point is to ‘win,’ exemplify the pure version of playful activity. If you’ve been around small children…you know that kids get totally and tirelessly absorbed in what is, after all, purposeless action” (176). This is flow and a wonderful example for us to follow as we try to reform our “somebody self,” for, “as the ancient Greek thinker Heraclitus observed, ‘Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play’” (177).
So who are we? This is the question asked in chapter 7. Lama Marut starts, “If we wish to think of ourselves as a better somebody, we must act, speak, and think in a more selfless and less selfish ways—in our relationships with others and in our everyday activities. We gain a better sense of self when we’re not thinking about ourselves” (191). Lama Marut then goes on to discuss the “true self,” the “nobody self,” relating it to Buddha nature or the Tao. In fact he quotes the Tao Te Ching when talking about how the true Ground of Being cannot be named: “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao…” This is the same spirit expressed in the Christian tradition of the via negativa (195). Quoting Rajneesh, Lama Marut affirms, “When you come to your deepest core, you suddenly know that you are neither this nor that, you are no one. You are not an ego. You are just a vast emptiness” (195). And this emptiness is the emptiness that is the truest Reality, the Unnameable that flows through all us somebodies. And so Lama Marut turns to the notion of bardo:
In a system that presupposes rebirth, the bardo is thought of as a sort of purgatory, betwixt and between the end of one life and the beginning of another. But there is also a larger and more inclusive understanding of the term bardo. While living, we are in between birth and death; when we’re middle-aged, we’re in between youth and old age;…and in this very moment, we’re in between the past and the future. So from this point of view, we are always in some bardo or another. We’re always “in between” (197).
We’re always in between somebody and nobody. “So the spiritual goal is not to somehow disappear the ‘somebody self’ but rather to know it for what it is and detach from the belief that it’s the only self there is” (200). There are two birds, inseparable friends, that share the same branch.
As the book draws to a close, Lama Marut says, “Although we may be unaware of its existence, we all have within us this precious treasure, which is our true nature, our ‘nobody self.’ It is always with us, right under our house; it is always available and accessible. But we need to notice, embrace, and identify with it if we are to partake of this inner abundance” (204). The book actually ends with a meditation on the Christ hymn of Philippians 2, in which Lama Marut says, “When we empty ourselves completely, we automatically slip into our ‘nobody self.’…When a ‘somebody self’ learns to be more of a nobody, they increasingly actualize their capacity to identify more with everybody” (206–207).
This quote-heavy essay is an early draft of a presentation I prepared for CPE.