Some years ago I posted a story about one of the times I landed in the middle of a media firestorm when I was working in local government. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had poisoned a flock of birds that were eating a local farmer’s crops. The dead birds started dropping in the middle of a nearby neighborhood. The USDA had not notified local officials, and everyone was caught by surprise.
When the story spread in the national media, as township manager I started getting a lot of angry calls asking how could I kill those poor innocent birds. Usually people calmed down once I explained that we had nothing to do with what the USDA had done. In the meantime I was talking not only with angry residents, callers and emailers from around the country, but also with many print and electronic media.
After it was all over, a local politician commented, “You must have skin of iron.” Without thinking, I said to him, “More like, no skin.” I could see he had no idea what I was talking about. So I didn’t add what also came to mind, “More like, no me.” My first thought had been that I had let the arrows just pass through. My second thought was that there was no “me” there to be harmed. No ego that had to be protected with a thick skin.
I called that post “No skin.” In it I drew some Daoist lessons about the practice of opening and used it to explain one of the Buddha’s more paradoxical expressions. As I’ve developed my meditation practice, I see the story also as an illustration of another of the Buddha’s more difficult teachings: “no self.”
Since some readers have commented that I lose them when I take off on a philosophical rumination, I will save them for Part 2 of this post. Right now I simply want to note how the story illustrates the main function of practicing “no self” and, indeed, of all the Buddha’s teachings: to free us from dissatisfaction, frustration, upset, pain, suffering, or any of the many other ways to translate dukkha into English. Once we rid ourselves of the activity of making a self, dukkha has no place to arise.