An interesting observation about western Buddhism by way of actor Willem Dafoe, quoted here from the book On Acting: Interviews with Actors (2001):
I recently worked with the Chinese director Yim Ho on the film Pavilion of Women (2000). He was talking about Buddhist philosophy one day and very simply said to me, 'You American people that get into eastern religion are always beating yourselves up about your ego, but there is nothing you can do about the ego. You need an ego to stay healthy and to be able to function, so your view of the world needs to get bigger and then proportionally your ego will get smaller.'
Is there a perverse fascination with ego in western Buddhism? At the Burning House our frame of reference is limited to a few zen communities in the United States. There may indeed be something to Yim Ho's comment although we can't say it is all-pervasive among western Buddhists. At times, yes, we have observed a kind of lingering, perhaps a fascination, with ego. It manifests in dharma talks, writings about Buddhism, the questions people ask, and the conversations to which we've been party. It would be so to speak a perverse fascination: pretending to a kind of permanence even while denying the permanence or substance of ego. "I want to be free of ego! I vow to egoless! Then I will be a new and improved, egoless, version of me!"
Yet we can't be too hard on students for falling into this fascination at a certain stage. There is a similar phase for actors -- and some never progress past the point. In the introductory acting classes I teach, there is consistently an uphill slog to get people to analyze their process from a wider perspective than the naive practice of projecting feigned emotions and external qualities. At this stage, the actor's practice is introverted and self-limiting. What they do not yet realize was expressed most concisely by the Providence-based actor Ed Shea to some of his students: "It's not about you! If you make it about you, you're fucked."
We would only rewrite that statement slightly. It's not you that gets fucked -- what is that, anyway? It's the work, the practice, that gets fucked when we fall into our navels. True of acting, true of zen practice.
[Image: Willem Dafoe in a still from the 2001 film]