The death of the ego
Let me ask you a question. How can that which does not exist, die?
Probably because of Ramana's extremely well known recounting of his enlightenment experience which he perceived as a physical death, it has become quite common to accept that the entity known as the ego, I, or me, must "die" as part of the awakening experience.
At least this true in some Advaita circles.
However, if we examine his experience closely, he talks about an imaginary death of his body, and does not relate the death experience to anything deeper, such as the I, or me. In fact, he talks about the primary experience to be sought in self inquiry is the I-I experience, the feeling of the connection between the small I of the person, and the Self. So the small I experience is a feeling, not an entity, and feelings come and go.
Robert Adams when he talked about his awakening experience, talked about his sense of self expanding until it filled and was identical with his perceived universe. There was a merger with the totality of his perceived universe, but he never mentions a snuffing out of anything. That is, he saw his essential nature as being merged with the totality, then he returned to ordinary consciousness, but with the fantastic knowledge that he was not human, or a body.
The old-school Buddhists, the Theravadins, talked about a "snuffing out" of desire, becoming an empty vessel. But in Buddhism, there is no self to die. Desires and vasanas are to be rooted out through prolonged practice, but there is no self to die. The self is no more than a collection of thoughts, emotions, images, loosely held together in the mind.
Nowhere in Zen to find the concept of the death of the ego. What you do find is an emphasis on embracing of the totality of the moment without interference of the mind.
In a book by David Godman, there is a story mentioned of how Nisargadatta accepted a student known as Rudi as completely enlightened, and showered praise on him. In the story they bantered back and forth until Nisargadatta asked him a question, "Awakening is not really complete, until you die, don't you think?"
Rudi's response would be my own. He stated, "How can you talk about such things? It's all illusion, what is there to die?"
So I ask, what is it in those who fantasize about the death of the ego that they hope to obtain from such an experience? They must have a concept or idea of the consequences of the dissolution of their fantasy selves. That is, they hold onto a concept of some transcendental state that must exist other than what they know in the daily dissolutions of the ego everyone encounters, especially if they practice meditation, that somehow is different in its permanence. But is this not just a fantasy? What kind of experience will satisfy the longing created by a fantasy?
Very readily one can obtain a state of meditation called Nirvakalpa samadhi, wherein the felt sense of self and body disappears, and one obtains unity with the world. Supposedly, repeated often enough, over the years, this samadhi becomes Sahaja samadhi, or the permanent dissolution of the individuality and entering a constant oneness state of merger.
Robert was often asked if he experienced the world in such a way, as a complete merger. His response was, "Of course not, I would not be able to function if I did not see the world as did you."
So I ask, what is it that these seekers of permanent dissolution of one’s fantasy self, seek? What is it that they seek other than a permanent extension of the temporary no- self state obtained in meditation? What is the benefit? What is the benefit of being in some dissolution of the ego state 24/7 as opposed to off and on all day?
This same sort of question holds for enlightenment itself. What is it that people think they are seeking, when they are seeking awakening? Do they have the slightest clue? Or is it all fantasy? What kind of experience will satisfy this fantasy itch?
Inside those who believe in the permanent death of the self kind of experience, there is a yearning or hunger for some not yet known experience or fantasized completion.
You see, merger experiences and complete death of the self in the sense I and the mind disappear, are extremely common and easy to obtain in meditation. However, "normality" also keeps returning over, and over, and over, following every no self experience. That is, the internal map of self and other objects and concepts returns which allows us to function in the world.
In Zen, the endeavor is never to transcend the ego or personal self through its death, but to end its dominance, and to integrate both the self and no self experiences in everyday life. They perform this integration either through quiet sitting and reading the Scriptures as in Soto Zen, or through intensive koan work, where they integrate various aspects of the no self experience into a body of knowledge which becomes incorporated in the student is a Zen experience, or a Zen life.
I used to ask myself the question many times a day when I was a new Zen student experiencing the total dissolution of any sense of self many times a day, which state is real? Is it the no-self self state of oneness and dissolution of the personal found in deep meditation, after the mind is flushed away like water down the drain, and one is left thoughtless, selfless, and utterly merged with the world, or is it the state of ordinary mind I returned to after each no mind state? At that time I did not conceive of an answer such as they were both equally real or equally unreal, because they had such different presentations and were such different experiences. I thought one or the other must be real.
Much later, in 1995, I was to discover both were unreal. Even the unity state is not real. One sees that the state appears "to me," but I am beyond and entirely separate from consciousness.
In that year, I had an awakening experience while taking a shower, wherein I turned my attention inward and asked "Who is it that feels the water touching this body?" I had asked similar questions tens of thousands of times before, and in this ordinary mind state I looked within and saw the inner void which was always there, and saw that there was no I. I saw there was no entity, no person, no Ed to take possession of the experience. The void itself was permeated by a non-centralized awareness thoughtlessly observing the water hitting the body.
What a stunning revelation. I discovered that the word I had no referent. There was only the one Void, encompassing both the inner and outer with no distinction between. I was not my body, but I was everywhere, permeating my body of the universe, the totality of all my experience in the immediate presence with no separation.
I saw that the word I referred to an empty concept of I-ness. There is no I, there is no not I. If there is no I within, there is no not I without. Inner and outer disappeared as a distinction. Consciousness had no direction it permeated everywhere. All words were void. All words were empty. All forms were absorbed in emptiness, and were devoid of any substantiality or permanence. I, whoever that is, was not real; all that I perceived, thought, and felt was not real.
There was no experience or entity that was self sustained and existed apart from me. Experience, the world, and entities were permeated by the void and by me but I myself had no existence, I was not there. There was only witnessing of objects that had no reality.
Given such a realization, and there were others to follow, it is readily seen that there is no ego, or fantasy self, that has any existence such that it could die. There is only a set of thoughts, memories, feelings and images that are loosely tied together in the mind that altogether created the feeling of me. When it is seen that this entity does not really exist, where is there anything to die? One just laughs at one's mistake of having believed that there was an I or ego or world in the first place.
Therefore, to seek a death experience of some sort of self-entity, for whatever fantasy reason, is an endeavor that must be looked upon with suspicion, for that person is not living in the present, in the immediacy of the now.
As Robert stated, Sahaja samadhi is merely a return to the ordinary, but now filled with the wonder of the extraordinary, and the knowledge that the world does not exist, and that my essential nature is not touched by the world, I am entirely beyond it.