Jesus said, “Deny thyself” (Luke 9:23).
The Buddha spoke of “Non-self” or “No self.”
Both Christians and Buddhists frequently misunderstand what these teachers meant.
What Christians Have Been Taught
Christians, for example, mistakenly think Jesus was suggesting his followers had to deny, denigrate, dissolve, or disregard themselves. As a consequence, throughout Christian history, Christ followers have viewed the body as something evil, mistakenly equating it with what Saint Paul called “flesh.” Consequently, Christians have viewed the body as if there was something evil about it, or tainted, even nasty about the body – which explains the strange views Christians still hold toward sexuality.
When Christians deny women their equal status, as many still do…or, when Christians draw distinctions between people’s natural sexual orientation, these Christians are still living in this illusion that something is fundamentally wrong with the body and, consequently, with sex. It is evil. It is to be denigrated, dissolved, disregarded, and all such notions miss the point altogether.
This is not what Jesus meant by “denying yourself.” Why would Jesus want you to deny who you really are – in body, mind, or soul? The problem Christians still have is they have been misled by well-meaning but misguided teachers in their churches and seminaries. Even the term “human” has become in their thinking something less than divine. Yet, strangely, human was so highly regard by the Divine herself that she chose to become human – that IS the story of Jesus, is it not?
Being a Christian is NOT about denying your humanity and striving to be more divine. Being Christian is the recognition you are divine already and you express that in becoming more and more human.
As a human, you live INTO the full range of emotions, denying none as if they are wrong or evil.
There are times, for example, I am angry. There is no sin in being angry. The sin is when, in the moment of feeling angry, I deny it, pretend I’m not angry, or allow that anger to lead me to behave in ways destructive, either toward myself or, more likely, toward someone else.
But there is nothing wrong with feeling angry. It IS to be human. Jesus was angry. So, if there is no sin in anger, why do you feel as if you are a failure when you do feel angry from time to time? It is because you have been, just as I have been, misled to believe that to feel anger is wrong. What is really wrong is this mis-programming in our internal hard drive. Salvation for Christians, therefore, is unlearning, or better, re-programming the internal hard drive with truth, instead of the lies masquerading as truth taught to many of us.
What Buddhists Have Been Taught
Buddhists make a similar mistake, just as did the Buddha himself. During the seven years he sought the meaning of human existence, he pommeled his body, abused and neglected it, and all in a misguided attempt to bring it into submission. He, too, was misled to believe, only by denying his humanity, could he free himself of self. (For more on this, I would recommend reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Living Buddha, Living Christ).
What, then, did these two spiritual masters, Jesus and the Buddha, really mean by “denying self” and “non-self?”
1. First, they meant essentially the same thing. This may surprise many readers but it need not. There has only ever been one spiritual truth. That truth, however, has been, and still is, experienced and explained in countless different cultures and contexts.
2. Second, to deny self is simply to recognize there is no self to deny. You are not a separate self. This IS the illusion. In other words, there is no distinction between you and me, any more than there is a distinction between “Jew or Gentile, bond or free, male or female,” to borrow Saint Paul’s more enlightened moment of expression (Gal. 3:28). If he were living today, the Apostle Paul, for our modern sakes, might add to his list, “And, furthermore, there is no distinction, as in gay or straight, or marriage between same sex persons or opposite sex persons – there is only married love…”
As long as you and I try to carve things up…draw distinctions…live in classifications and separation from each other, all we are really doing is revealing to the world just how un-Christlike we really are, how out-of-touch we are with what Buddhists call our “Buddha-nature”…just how much we miss the point of what Jesus and the Buddha were really teaching.
There are no distinctions…no separations. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “Deny self.” Whenever the self sees its-self as separate and views another as the “other,” then what Jesus taught is being overlooked. There are only ever the illusory distinctions we create in our heads and so live out in this world that harm us and others.
3. So, to “deny self” is simply to recognize that we are one.
That’s what Jesus asked the One Father with whom he shared oneness to grant to his followers – a similar awareness of their “oneness” with each other and, of course, with God (John 17). This “oneness” is not everybody becoming Catholic or Baptist or any such “distinction.” That again is separation. And, there is no real separation, only that which exists in our misguided understanding of salvation, enlightenment, etc. Oneness is the profoundly deep awareness that humanity – you and me and everybody – are all the same or one-and-the-same.
You and I create distinction and separation whenever we attach our oneness to the illusory ideas we create inside our heads.
The truth is, however, you and I are simply varied expressions of the Eternal I am. When you add something to “I am,” then you are living in the illusion still. You are not “I am…this…or I am that…” You simply ARE. This is the point God was trying to make to Moses. Moses didn’t get it, however. He wanted a name…a distinction…a separate Being he could declare to the Jews had called him to come and rescue them.
Isn’t this the sort of thing we all want? Which is why it is disturbing to people whenever I suggest God is “no-thing.” They want God to be “SOME – THING.” So, they create an image of God – get it – an “image” of God in their heads and what is the most common image people carry about inside their heads about God? It’s the image of God as an old benevolent granddaddy-type who wears a white robe and floats around on a cloud.
The big Dude in the sky.
The great GOD of this universe.
The Divine Santa Claus who sits above the sky observing and recording the behavior of the little selves running about on the planet, mostly misbehaving, and so making themselves undeserving of the little gifts he delivers when they pray correctly and “do” as they’re supposed to do.
And, so, go the illusions on and on and on. We do anything within our power to make of God something we can grasp, control, and seek to become more like.
But all such notions are illusions. All such actions are inside the illusory little me’s who secretly long to be big Me’s!
You are not your name, your body, or even the thoughts in your head. You’re not your titles, tragedies, triumphs, or trophies. You are not any of these things. You simply are and I simply am and together we are…as Jesus put i…as the expressed it…
We are one. That’s it.
And, it’s enough, when you get it.
You need not BECOME anything. You ARE everything already. You only ever need to become something else when you have denied your essential self. Deny instead the illusions of who you are that you carry around in your head. Let go of all such attachments. Let go of all little “selves” little “me’s” – these are those to deny. But not who you are.
When you get this, you are on your way toward “enlightenment,” as the Buddha called it.
You are on your way toward “salvation,” as Jesus taught it.
Until then, you’re a religious person with ideas and beliefs that need to be examined…
Dr. Steve McSwain is an author, speaker, thought leader and spiritual teacher. His books and blogs inspire spiritual seekers around the world. He is a devoted follower of Christ but an interfaith activist as well. He is frequently heard to say, in the words of Mother Teresa, “I love all religions; but I’m IN LOVE with my own.” Read more from Dr. McSwain on his blog Your Best Life Now.