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The Greater Self

"It is precisely through challenging our self-centeredness through committed altruistic action that we can expand and extend the lesser self toward the ideal of the greater self. Our being expands, as does our capacity for joy, to the degree that we take action for the happiness of others. Such an expansion brings forth wisdom from our lives, enabling us to be ever more effective in these compassionate efforts."

The Greater Self [Oxford University
Museum of Natural History]

The Buddhist concept of the "greater self" (Jpn taiga) provides a framework for the kind of shift in awareness that is necessary to restore the harmony of life on our planet.

The idea of the greater self is sometimes discussed in quite abstract, cosmological terms that risk detracting from its more practical value. The greater self could be described simply as a sense of self that can fully identify and empathize with the suffering of others and is thus motivated to alleviate that suffering; an open, expansive character broadened by an empathy that extends not only to other people but to all life, and thus to the natural environment. It is a self grounded in a deep respect for the dignity of all life--including one's own--and the wisdom that perceives the inextricable interdependence of that life.

This type of expansive life condition could be contrasted with the more limited "lesser self" (Jpn shoga) defined by egotistical concerns and desires.

Buddhism embodies the sustained aspiration and effort to expand one's state of life to manifest the "greater self"--a process of inner-directed struggle that second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda termed "human revolution."

The development of the greater self, it is important to note, does not merely describe a passive change in perception. It must be reflected in the choices and actions that weave the fabric of our daily lives. Specifically, the greater self expresses itself in a broadened sense of responsibility and a wish to contribute to the well-being of others and of the planet. This sense of responsibility and commitment drives the growth of our human capacities, extending our ability to be a positive influence on our environment.

The environmental degradation and social alienation that plague contemporary civilization are symptoms of humankind's collective failure to transcend the lesser self. Consumerism that fans cycles of insatiable desire; discrimination that exaggerates the significance of differences between people, obscuring our shared humanity and at times justifying oppression and violence; a dulled insensitivity to the other life forms with whom we share the planet--all these are examples of the lesser self in action.

But the lesser self, its desires and impulses, cannot simply be denied or repressed. Rather, we need to learn to transform and redirect such desire. We need to change from a culture obsessed with material goods to one focused on cultural and human values; a change of focus, to quote the Earth Charter, from "having more" to "being more."

In the most general sense, any process of conscious change starts with embracing an ideal or establishing an intention to move in a positive and upward direction. To grow as human beings requires that we have ideals to strive for. The Buddha, in this sense, is a projection or embodiment of the most positive aspects and goodness inherent in the human heart. The "true Buddha," as Nichiren writes, is thus none other than the "common mortal." Buddhahood is not something far off but manifests in the actions of ordinary people who strive toward this ideal.

The key characteristic of a Buddha is intense concern and unrelenting effort for the happiness of others. Anchored in the realities of the era and society, a Buddha constantly seeks ways to alleviate the misery of others and increase their happiness, genuinely seeking their growth and independence through efforts that are free of any patronizing or controlling intent.

It is precisely in challenging our self-centeredness through committed altruistic action that we can expand and extend the lesser self toward the ideal of the greater self. Our life expands, as does our capacity for joy, to the degree that we take action for the happiness of others. Such an expansion brings forth wisdom from our lives, enabling us to be ever more effective in these compassionate efforts.

The concept of the greater self offers a hopeful vision, and the assurance that we can begin--at this very moment, right where we are and just as we are--to transform the world.

[Courtesy April 2006 SGI Quarterly]

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