That we are self-oriented is as inevitable as that we have cells that are born and die within us, that we must breathe, that we must intake substances from our environment and that we must get rid of these from our body back into our environment. Even the word “selfless” contains “self” as 50% of it and indicates a focus on self.


In order to clarify and improve our relationships to ourselves (“our selfs”), we first need to understand what the self is, what that means in terms of how we experience it (i.e. ourself) and how we can derive the greatest benefit from it.


First, it is beneficial if we look at the various forms of self-orientation people both exhibit and aspire to:

1)    Self-ish-ness: Actually, short of the best type of self-orientation, which I will identify last on the list, this is the best form of self-orientation of all the others. It is the conscious awareness that you care about yourself and that protecting and benefitting yourself feels better and creates greater benefit in your life than concerning yourself with others’ well-being. From the limited, partial perspective with which we understand truth and reality, a totality of the universe that we cannot possibly know but a tiny part of, it makes sense to be concerned with our survival, our well-being, our comfort and our pleasure, for that is all we palpably experience as inseparable from us and dependent on our attention to it. But our inability to have omniscience is precisely why this orientation is dangerous, false and unreliable. Although it seems perfectly reasonable and accurate that our being our self is our body, our mind, our spirit, our looks, the clothes we wear, our sexual orientation, the color of our skin, the religion we practice, our bank account, the car we drive, the home we own or not—identification with all these forms of self-identification simply because they are palpable to us as ourself is not at all reasonable and certainly not accurate. How could it be? Since we don’t know everything that is in this universe, how can we be sure of knowing everything about ourself? The point is we must take care not to confuse semblance with reality. The earth seems flat, the sun seems to move around the still earth, our body, looks and how much money we have seem to identify who we are. I think you got my point by now.

2)    Self-less-ness: This is the opposite of self-ish-ness. At some point, some percentage of human beings becomes aware as new discoveries debunk old “truth”s, such as the world really not being flat and the sun really not moving around it, that things are not always the way they seem. They also, as they are alive longer in this world, come to understand that the identification and preoccupation with the self they perceive can lead to unhappiness; they see the danger I spoke of earlier with regard to that first orientation. But here’s where they make a big mistake. They use deductive reasoning to conclude that if self-ish-ness is unreliable and inaccurate, that therefore, its opposite, self-less-ness, must be reliable. Thus they preoccupy themselves with not only the wellbeing of others but also with denying themselves any attention to their own wellbeing. There are two huge problems with this approach, as relatively enlightened it is over the first one. 1) Just because something is untrue doesn’t automatically make its opposite true. Such deductive reasoning is actually faulty as truth does not guarantee that it’s lack necessitates it as the antithesis to that lack. Truth, like life itself, has its own modus operandi and is not subject to the binary calculations we use to arrive at it. In fact, to deduct is by definition to alter so we must be very careful about doing so. 2) The second drawback to self-less-ness is that in order to deny self, we have to focus on self and therefore it cannot truly be called self-less as the consciousness of self contradicts the definition of being self-less. We can’t ever be truly self-less because we can’t be unless we are in this body, this life, this personality, this ego, this means of supporting oneself known in modern terms as a bank account and all those other things that are the self. And when others encounter us, they will draw our attention to ourself simply by calling us by the name that was given to us. They will also mirror us by how the react to us.

But the biggest reason no one can successfully and truly be self-less is the reason we choose to become self-less has to do with us and our inability to find true happiness through being self-ish. Whose happiness are we then ultimately concerned with? Every attention to and activity concerning anyone else is ultimately an attention to and an activity concerning ourself primarily.

3)    Self-Awareness: Which brings me to the real way to find happiness in life and have the proper and most effective orientation to ourself—how aware we are of our reality and our relationship to the world around us. Nichiren Buddhism teaches a concept called the oneness of life and its environment. What that literally means is that life—self—and environment—others, the world—are two but not two. What, you say? That doesn’t make sense. But where does my reality end and yours begin? Clearly there is a locus of being unique to every living being, and yet there is no world in one’s life that is unshared with others. In fact, while Nichiren Buddhism speaks of various realms that separate different beings both spatially and in terms of life condition, it also declares that the universe itself is one interwoven thread of interconnection in which nothing exists in complete isolation from any other one thing. Even the most distant life form in the most distant galaxy (and whether there is anything that could be called “most distant” in this universe which could very well be without limit and therefore it not being possible to call anything most distant) is in relationship to every other thing, including you and me. How could this not be? To even conceive of one universe means that every particle in it shares the fact of being in that universe. So where does one autonomous being leave off? In truth, nowhere completely. Yes, we can draw limits at the edge of our skin and the farthest place others can perceive us, but to deny the connectivity of what is not consciously known to us is arrogant and presumptuous, again demanding that the universe and truth be anchored to what we can possibly know and that what we cannot possibly know must therefore be false.

Simply to be aware that that which we identify as ourself in the “self-ish” orientation and the other we preoccupy ourself with in the “self-less” orientation are in connection as one and not the same but one and different at the same time is the beginning of “self-awareness”. Ultimately, as the members of the SGI, studying and practicing Nichiren Buddhism, have become aware, the most effective way to live is with an orientation of ourself and others growing together. Even the Christian motto, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” acknowledges that it is not that we should do unto others what we ourselves would want yet not do such unto ourselves but a step up in recognizing that what others want and what we want are really the same. Obviously, there are differences and SGI members live with the understanding that even more important than doing for others what we would want them to do for us, it is important that we strive to understand what they want, what they need, what makes them tick and endeavor to satisfy that. That is the way to truly give meaning to doing unto others.

And as we strive to understand others, we in the process become even more self-aware because any endeavor to strengthen our relationship with another builds the awareness of who we truly are. In fact, the more people we are truly connected to, the more we see and understand ourselves. In isolation, our understanding of who we are is very small. It is through relating to others that we learn about ourselves, the part of us which is us and the part of us which is them.

So, in conclusion, yes it is absolutely true that the motivation for all the good we do in this world is a self-oriented one, to become happier, calmer and more at peace. Therefore, to say that the most giving person is also the most selfish person is not a falsity but is actually the most accurate description of the truth. We give because we understand that that will make us most happy. Why else would we give? The first two orientations do not understand that self is not versus other but self and other are together in relationship. Therefore, it does not have to be me or you who is the benefactor. It has to be both me and you. If you are happy, I am happy. That is not simply a mushy statement of an altruist. It is a fact of cause and effect that what we give out will always come back to us. Thus to say that the giver is not selfish is to do a disservice to everyone. In fact, there are many people chained to their self-orientation as the self of the body and all those other things easy to identify as ourselves. When they hear that they must give up all that and totally dedicate themselves to others without being given a reason that is in conformity with reality, that is actually an abuse of such a person as well as a misrepresentation of reality. However, when they hear that what goes around comes back around, that is the reassurance that they need. And you know what? Everyone, you included, needs that reassurance. There’s nothing wrong with knowing that there’s something in it for you. Something much greater than any benefit preoccupation with your limited self could ever muster up. That alone, that sense of satisfaction and of love shared is what makes it most accurate to call the giving person truly the most selfish person. And leave it at that. Don’t try to make him or you sound better. Because that act alone is a selfishness of the first, lesser kind.


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