This is an exchange of comments about ideas expressed in a video by Mexie Mermaid "Have Nothing, Give Everything. [Buddhism and Selfishness]"

Fruitarian Lena: 

I wonder about your sources for the base idea of selfishness. It sounds like popularized nonsense (sorry, I like your channel, and expect more :) 

So, all people who save money for their future or business, are selfish?! I don't know people who don't want to give anything of theirs for anything. 

Do you know a bit from history, what happens when property rights are not respected? And what on Earth "patriarchy" has to do with it?

Mexie Mermaid: 

Thanks for your comment! By 'the base idea of selfishness' are you talking about the idea that there is no self? My sources on that are Buddhist monks, mainly I like Buddhadhasa's explanation, but I didn't have time to get deep into that theory with this video. I only wanted to touch on how selfishness permeates society and how by changing our own attitudes, recognizing that we have more than we need, and recognizing that generosity is a better path to peace of mind and happiness than self-grasping or grasping onto material things, then we have the power to transform the world for the better. So yes, the examples became a bit general. Of course saving for the future is just smart practice, but the point here is that the 'American dream' that everyone has been sold is not only unnecessary for happiness, but also detrimental in the sense that it produces inequality and degrades the environment. Patriarchy is a big part of that (patriarchy as a system based on domination and oppression, as opposed to egalitarianism and moving beyond difference). I would venture to say that we all have selfishness in us, and that we're almost brought up that way, to believe in "I" and "mine" and to believe that success = lots of wealth, and that = happiness. This is about challenging that view and asking everyone to look inwards, discover what is truly important for human happiness, and to spread that to others any way we are able. It's not about denigrating ourselves, but about recognizing what we do have and the power we have to help and bring happiness to others. Buddhists would say there is more happiness to be found in generosity than in searching for self-satisfaction. I hope that made sense and was more clear. Sorry the video wasn't what you were expecting :)

Fruitarian Lena: 

Thank you for such a detailed and thoughtful response. I like it more than your points in the video. 

First, do you mean Buddhadasa Bhikkhu? I see many issues with this particular interpretation of Buddhist ideas. "Self" is necessary concept for survival and creation, and many other aspects of fulfilled life. 

Second, I lived in several cultures, and see US Americans as the most eager to help others personally, for some reason :) The system can be adjusted, perhaps, but can it be, you argue against capitalism in general? There is no pure capitalism, and even USA is a social democracy to some extend. Degradation of environment is not only "American dream" problem. 

Happiness in generosity is a personal thing - not to be confused for a solution to global systemic problems of humanity. 

Mexie Mermaid: 

+Fruitarian Lena Yes I do mean Buddhadhasa Bikkhu. I think I will have to do a more detailed video talking about the Self. The idea that there is no fixed self doesn't negate the idea that self love is important. It's more of a tool to help people to move past ego and towards enlightenment. Self love is very different than selfishness, one positive and one negative. 

Also I don't mean to say that Americans aren't generous. Of course, there are amazing people everywhere, and selfish people everywhere too. I only meant the 'American dream' as in the classic individualistic, competitive, everyone can make it if they just have enough gumption. And in a neoliberal capitalist society, this just isn't so. I would argue against capitalism in general, but mostly the neoliberal model, which is inherently detrimental to both social equity and environmental sustainability. Degradation of the environment is a problem worldwide yes, but largely because of the neoliberal model. I would say that democracy in America is not what it was or what it could/should be, because moneyed interests have bought politics, and the two party system leaves much to be desired. Of course happiness and generosity are personal, but that is the point. Buddhists believe that if we want to change the world, we have to change ourselves. That is the most powerful thing we can do, and it's because changing ourselves will influence everything that we do and the choices we make (which is why I brought up political systems, it would influence what kind of society we would vote to build or not to build, etc.). So yes, it's personal :), that's where the power for bigger systemic change starts, with every individual working from within.

I just want to add also that you don't necessarily have to agree with all of this, your points are well taken and everyone needs to find their own path. These are just some of the teachings of Buddhism that I find powerful myself, so I'm sharing in the hopes of inspiring others or maybe helping them in some way. If it doesn't resonate with you, that's okay too. :)

Fruitarian Lena: 

Ego IS self, you seem to be using it as "egotism" - like many others in the context of the current pop-culture interpretation of Buddhism. I was not talking about self-love, just about the concept of self (ego), self-identity. Interesting, that you used the term neoliberalism: do you have a good alternative in mind for social market economy? Your statement about general believe of Buddhists is not quite correct, in my opinion. Of course, personal changes might have a noticeable impact on the society. I surely understand, that you share your personal inspiration by Buddhist personalities and ideas, it does resonate with me, but not in the way you probably intended. You sound like you don't see much sense in our dialogue, so I'll just stop :)

 (changed her name on youtube during this conversation)

I don't agree that ego IS the self, in Buddhism ego is the delusion of the self, the delusion described by "self-grasping", the story that we tell ourselves about the self. But the ego is not the self. This is an excerpt about emptiness, which is behind the idea of real selflessness:

"Ultimate wisdom (jñana in Sanskrit) refers to a direct realisation which is non-dualistic, and contradicts the way in which we ordinarily perceive the world. The direct experience of ultimate truth, selflessness or emptiness is beyond duality. 

It is important to remember that emptiness here does not refer to nothingness or some kind of nihilistic view. Emptiness refers to the fact that ultimately, our day-to-day experience and perception of reality is wrong, and reality is actually 'empty' of many qualities that we normally assign to it.

Describing this non-dual experience in words is not really possible, as language is based on duality and contrasts. Trying to explain this experience - which contradicts our normal perception - is a bit like explaining colors to someone who is born blind; difficult to say the least... So it is important not to get impatient with it - emptiness is probably one of the most difficult concepts to really get a grasp on - but understanding selfless / emptiness is very important."

This is quite a difficult concept to convey, especially in a YouTube comment box ;). But no, I would say ego is not the self, it's part of our many delusions... indeed it is a trap for our minds. 

As for neoliberalism, I would want to see some form of ecosocialism replace it. I'll actually be working on theorizing new political economies (of conservation, specifically) next year in my postdoc. Political economies are always context specific, though, as a set of social relations, so a 'one size fits all' wouldn't necessary be the case. Even a more Keynesian esque capitalism would be a step in the right direction in terms of inequality and sustainability, but I would advocate for more change than that. 

I believe my statements about Buddhism to be correct, from my studies of the philosophy. It truly is about changing ourselves to change the world, to serve the bigger picture, that is the point of Buddhism at it's core. If we were all to truly grasp these philosophies and live accordingly, in selfless compassion, the world would be a complete utopia. The point is for us all to become buddhas so that we can help others along the same path, that is what Buddhism is about. 

I didn't mean to imply I don't see sense in this dialogue :), it's really wonderful to discuss. I don't think I'm incorrect with my interpretations, though, I think I have a firm grasp, but perhaps you've interpreted it all in another way, which is also fine. A lot of the concepts are things that are hard to convey but need to be discovered personally through practice and mindfulness.

Fruitarian Lena: 

Mexie, 1) you are citing Rudy Harderwijk, it is his opinion, and it does not follow from it that ego is not self. In English language - and this is the one you use to address your audience - it is, by definition. In Latin "ego" ment "I", as well as in Western tradition, also "self" (Kant), and that's why Freud's terms were translated this way. You did not explain in the video that you use it in a specific sense and did not provide the alternative (your current) understanding. Selflessness in the the context of emptiness in zen is quite a different thing!

2) I agree about the comment box (I've been typing my last responses in an article on my site, for convenience), so let's round it up, and leave it maybe till another time. 

3) Good luck with your postdoc! Your statement about "the right direction" towards Keynesian economics seems strange to me, I could only guess, what part of his model you want to adapt more. (Regulatory role of government to protect environment?) As I mentioned earlier, even US have social democracy of some kind, with tons of regulations and public services. 

4) Your view of Buddhism must be formed after exposure to those sources I am still wondering about :D - Buddhas do not help people, maybe Bodhisattvas do, in a way. I hope you would agree that inviting everyone to become a pure selfless compassion is not the most effective way to resolve the major problems of humanity. 


Hi Lena,

1) I've never read Rudy Harderwijik in depth, just his website there, but other monks and scholars elaborate on this idea, and I believe it does help to explain how/why ego is not the self. I also am not Freudian and don't really ascribe to his views on ego, and I don't think they even mesh well with Buddhist philosophy. Sorry if that was confusing! When I talk about ego I'm not talking in the Freudian sense, I'm talking about the delusion of self-grasping.

2) Okay, send me a link to your website? I can check it out :)

3) By "the right direction" I am talking about more mechanisms for redistribution and yes, more sane regulations with regards to the environment, moving away from the completely broken/utopian 'free market' ideology. The US does have some kind of democracy, but it's not a system I hold in especially high esteem, unlike some of the Scandinavian countries, for example.

4) I'm not sure what you're talking about here, what sources. Buddhism truly must be discovered. It's the only religion where you are asked to practice it yourself, to make your own determinations about the teachings based on how you experience them, as opposed to most religions that just tell you, "This is the word of God, so believe it.", Buddhism offers wisdom and teachings, but you discover for yourself that they are true through practice. I wonder what sources you are reading if you do not think that the goal of reaching enlightenment is in part to help others do the same. I think if everyone was ACTUALLY living a life of selfless compassion, the problems of humanity would be slim to nil.

Fruitarian Lena: 

Mexie, thank you for keeping the conversation going. But at this point, I am getting discouraged regarding its quality. You have a special (maybe professional) way to address me, as if you were teaching me philosophy, and as if I were confused by the complexity of the subject. Also, you have not responded with a contra-argument to some important points I made. I also believe, you should have at least looked up the difference between buddhas and bodhisattvas, composing your last comment, and things like that. I hope you understand and agree, that it is fine to stop at this point, maybe after your last words in this discussion - please summ it up for us both. 

I was simply copying our conversation into an article, it is posted here (the topic is somewhat irrelevant to this site, but might be interesting to someone, because we mention compassion and environment):

Hope we have interesting exchanges in the future. Wish you a great weekend! 


Hi Lena, I'm sorry you feel as though I'm being condescending, I don't mean to be at all. But I do feel as though we are speaking past each other here. I just don't fully agree with your interpretation of some of the concepts, perhaps, and I'm not sure which points you want contra-arguments to? I am totally open to other interpretations though and so I would welcome suggestions from you for sources you enjoy about the ego, self, etc. 

I do know the difference between a buddha and a boddhisattva, I'm sorry I didn't bring that up before, you're right I was slipping terminology there. Often I'll read or have discussions with people where we just say buddha for simplicity but yes, you're totally right, boddhisattva is more accurate for what I was talking about. Thanks for engaging so thoroughly with the video and the concepts! You've inspired me to look deeply at it again and grapple with some of the more challenging aspects of self/ego. Happy to talk more any time. Have a great weekend and happy Halloween!


Lena Nechet, artist - Fine art, media productions, language.
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