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There was a question on my mind lately, regarding ego. It is not paradox per se but I find it slightly paradoxical.

Because people have such a strong ego, humanity has risen above the animal level. Our ego was main reason that we progressed, our desire to improve etc.

If it wasn't for our ego, we would still be in caves, struggling and Buddhism would never exist. Isn't this paradoxical? Ego is the main reason that we came to the point where we are trying to forget our ego?

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    I've edited the title to better reflect the content of the question. Please roll back if the title isn't suitable. My edit is a bit clunky though so please improve or disregard. Metta – Crab Bucket Aug 19 '15 at 10:52
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    You say that it's because of ego that we've [risen above animals, progressed, left caves, invented buddhism, etc], and "ego should be forgotten". But I think this is only a paradox if you say that the purpose of humanity is to [rise above animals, progress, leave caves, invent buddhism, etc]. Also, I think "ego" is being further conflated with atman here, when you say "we are trying to forget out ego". – Thiago Aug 19 '15 at 13:30
  • Our ability to meditate isn't caused by our strong ego. The truths of Buddhism could be discovered even if we lived in caves. It's even possible that they were discovered by some cave dwellers, but simply didn't get widespread recognition and eventually got forgotten about. – michau Nov 3 '15 at 23:14
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I think that views about the self are problematic. For example the Sabbasava Sutta is quoted as describing an "identity view" ...

This is how he attends inappropriately: 'Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what was I in the past? Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what shall I be in the future?' Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the immediate present: 'Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where is it bound?'

As he attends inappropriately in this way, one of six kinds of view arises in him: The view I have a self arises in him as true & established, or the view I have no self... or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive self... or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive not-self... or the view It is precisely by means of not-self that I perceive self arises in him as true & established, or else he has a view like this: This very self of mine — the knower that is sensitive here & there to the ripening of good & bad actions — is the self of mine that is constant, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and will stay just as it is for eternity. This is called a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is not freed from birth, aging, & death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. He is not freed, I tell you, from suffering & stress.

... where "identity view" is one of the "fetters" associated with suffering, and "eradicating" this view is one of the stages of enlightenment.


So when I read your question about "ego", I associated the word "ego" with dukkha and with desire; and so I re-read your question, substituting "suffering" and "desire" instead of "ego" into the question:

  • Because people have such a strong suffering, humanity has risen above the animal level. Our suffering was main reason that we progressed, our desire to improve etc.

    If it wasn't for our suffering, we would still be in caves, struggling and Buddhism would never exist. Isn't this paradoxical? Suffering is the main reason that we came to the point where we are trying to forget our suffering?

  • Because people have such a strong desire, humanity has risen above the animal level. Our desire was main reason that we progressed, our desire to improve etc.

    If it wasn't for our desire, we would still be in caves, struggling and Buddhism would never exist. Isn't this paradoxical? Desire is the main reason that we came to the point where we are trying to forget our desire

You ask whether that's "paradoxical" and therefore the question reminds me of this question (and the answers to that question) about whether it's "paradoxical" to want to end desire: Stopping Tanha or craving. I recommend you read the answers to that question; but I won't requote those answers here.

If you phrase the question like that (i.e. "Suffering is the main reason that we came to the point where we are trying to forget our suffering") then I don't see see it as paradoxical. Phrasing it like that depends on the idea that "ego" (and/or a process related to ego for example "attachment") contributes to suffering. In the same way that there is wholesome desire and unwholesome desire, perhaps there is unwholesome ego; and to whatever extent ego contributes to suffering, to that extent we might want to forget ego.

This article, Selves & Not-self by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, says,

The path begins with discernment — the factors of right view and right resolve — and discernment begins with this basic question about which actions are really skillful: "What, when I do it, will lead to long-term welfare and happiness?" [§8] The Buddha's teaching on not-self — and his teaching on self — are, in part, answers to this question. To fit into this question, perceptions of self and perceptions of not-self are best viewed as kamma or actions: actions of identification and dis-identification. In the terms of the texts, the perception of self is called an action of "I-making" and "my-making (ahaṅkāra mamaṅkāra)." The perception of not-self is part of an activity called the "not-self contemplation (anattānupassanā)." Thus the question becomes: When is the perception of self a skillful action that leads to long-term welfare and happiness, when is the perception of not-self a skillful action that leads to long-term welfare and happiness?

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It's important to realise that ego is not something we have, but something that we do. At least in Freud's use of the word, ego is a function of the mind, not an entity. And yes it makes all kinds of things possible, not the least of which is empathy for other beings. There is a Pāḷi verse on this subject in the Rāja Sutta (Udāna 5.1; PTS: Ud 47 & Saṃyutta Nikāya 3.8; PTS: SN i.75):

Sabbā disā anuparigamma cetasā,
Nevajjhagā piyataramattanā kvaci;
Evaṃ piyo puthu attā paresaṃ,
Tasmā na hiṃse paramattakāmoti.

Going around all the directions in imagination
[Something] more dear than one's self, is nowhere found
The self of other individuals is similarly dear
Therefore don't harm another self that is loved.

It's not that ego is strong or weak, but that we clearly distinguish ourselves as individuals against a social background. In some places where there is less individualism, identity (and therefore ego) can be more strongly linked to one's family and/or social group. On the other hand ego allows us to see and respond to others as individuals, to communicate, to learn, and so on. Ego is effectively the process of interacting with the world. Buddhism says there are better ways to interact with the world. People who reorganise their minds to bypass ego (or however we describe enlightenment) do not there by lose their individuality. If anything they are more distinctively individual. Think of the all the arahants in the Pāḷi texts and how each of them has a distinct personality and personal strengths.

In my view, it is civilisation that upset the natural balance that humans have with nature and experience. It has made our lives immeasurably better, and considerably longer, but it has also warped our relationship to sensory experience and lead us toward the warped view that happiness is attained through sense pleasures. I was quite interested in this question a few years ago and wrote a series of essays, for example, Why do we suffer? An alternate take.

  • something that we do -- Is it conventionally described as a view (i.e. "identity view") rather than as an activity? But perhaps they're closely related (i.e. we 'do' because of 'how we see'). – ChrisW Aug 19 '15 at 9:31
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    Buddhists generally problematise the sense of "I" in a way that psychologists do not. But ahaṃkāra '"I making" is the activity that leads to sakkāyadiṭṭhi "belief in a real self". It's a problem because of another process, mamaṃkāra "making it mine" - trying to take possession of experiences that cannot be owned. But even Buddhists recognise "I" as the basis of empathy, as the verse shows. – Jayarava Aug 19 '15 at 9:44
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Because people have such a strong ego, humanity has risen above the animal level. Our ego was main reason that we progressed, our desire to improve etc

As far as Buddhism is concerned, humanity began at a far elevated level, and has declined, not progressed, since then, due to the rise of greed, anger, and delusion. See The Lion's Roar on the Turning of the Wheel (Cakkavatti-Sihanada Sutta)

If it wasn't for our ego, we would still be in caves, struggling and Buddhism would never exist. Isn't this paradoxical? Ego is the main reason that we came to the point where we are trying to forget our ego?

This question presumes an ego. Within the Buddhist framework of ultimate reality, there is no ego. There are only the 6 experiences of reality, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, and thinking. "Ego" is a concept, an artificial construct that exists only within the mind.

This question also presumes that humanity wasn't aware of its present state of suffering and seeking to alleviate it prior to the conditions of Buddhism arising being met, which according to the Buddha's teaching is not the case. The Buddha taught that Pacceka Buddha's arise during the times in human history when there is not a Buddha's dispensation to be heard and practiced, and instead achieve an enlightenment by themselves, but don't/aren't able to teach it en mass.

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As I see it, there is a progression of development: pre-ego (child, animal), ego (corresponding approximately to Concrete Operations stage), mature ego (Formal Operations), Neo (self with ego temporarily not operating, like satori or other trans-personal experiences), non-self (nonduality, early "stages" of enlightenment / realization), liberation.

In this way, ego is not a paradox, any more than adolescence is. Buddhism simply urges us not to remain teen-agers forever. If someone remained a child, yes they would not have all the urges toward self-improvement that more mature people do. Or even if they did, they would not be developed enough to coherently act on them.

I heard that Ram Dass said, "Ego is like an office that we go in to when we need to be efficient." Just remember to go home and have your real life as well.

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First of all as to Buddhism every being has an ego not only us humans.

If no other creature had ego will they fight for survival,no!

You need to understand one thing

Yes Buddhism has its own version of "Evolution" and it may be the only religion on the face of the earth that will ever accept evolution because other cry babies can't do it with all the unscientific lies they believe in!

But as to the evolution Buddhism believes in our bodies evolved according to the environment, not our minds.We were always mentally above those poor animals.You see "Darwin's Evolution" and "Buddha's Evolution" are two different things.As to Lord Buddha's evolution we are not from apes, Yes we were in the caves but not as dum apes.And as to Lord Buddha we had many extremely advanced civilizations before the current. As to Lord Buddha yearly versions of humans lived so long (even above 60,000 years of lie expectancy) and they had no sicknesses because everything was new.

As Lord Buddha our ability to do advanced thoughts and logic is not anything but what is given to a human by Karma.Whoever born as an animal has less karma and will not have that ability but it will still have an ego (For example look at the kingdom of monkeys the alpha male kill or bite off the penis of new born's and less powerful monkeys to own the female kind and the rights to have sex).But Buddhism deny that one day the animals can be like us,As to Buddhism it is impossible because the mind's abilities are a cause of Karma not a matter of the brain's size.

And Buddhism is not a product of some guy's ego.Buddhism is the product of a great one who was riddled by the world. The very birth of Buddhism was born with the destruction of "Prince Siddahrtha's ego" (The price who became our Lord Buddha).

If you have any questions please leave a comment below.

May triple gems bless you!

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