Self-Realization, Not Self-Aggrandizement

Robert Aitken, Roshi

Zen master, professor, pacifist, and social activist Robert Aitken, Roshi, was a pioneer in bringing Zen to the West in the 1950’s.  He founded the Honolulu Diamond Sangha, which now has affiliates worldwide, co-founded the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and authored over ten books of Zen teachings.  He died at age 93 last summer; what turned out to be his final interview was published in Tricycle magazine this spring.  One of his statements in that interview impressed me so much that I invite you to ponder it with me:

“Just because historical statistics show lots of war, it does not follow that behind history there is an imperative to wage war.  Indeed, the imperative is self-realization.  It is the perversion of self- realization into self-aggrandizement that directs the course of our lives to violence.”

To aggrandize means “to increase the power, rank, or wealth of” and “to cause to appear greater than is the case.”  We all want to develop and share our unique creativity and talents, and to receive recognition for them.  Many of us are also motivated to seek answers to the big questions of life and death.  These pursuits are positive and supportive of individual and community well- being.  But they can so easily be misdirected toward ego gratification, competition, domination, the acquisition of as much wealth as we can grab, the lust for power–all of which lead to violence and war.

How can we strengthen the urge toward self-realization and sharing, yet minimize self- aggrandizement, in our youth, in our political leaders, in ourselves?  I don’t have all the answers, but I suggest we explore the question.

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