Dharma Points: On Being a Nobody

Decluttering the Self Makes Room for Peace and Happiness

By Nelle Oosterom

Not long ago, a friend who was doing some decluttering passed on to me a pile of dharma books. While I was tempted to add them to my own dharma pile, I thought the better of it and offered them up to people who participated in our recent Day of Mindfulness. (We had a nice turnout of almost 40 people, by the way.)

By the end of the day, all of the books were gone except a couple of thin volumes of dharma talks by Sister Ayya Khema that were published in Sri Lanka in 1987. You may have seen these kinds of publications: They are intended for free distribution, are usually no more than a hundred pages long, and they are printed on inexpensive newsprint paper, their cost covered by sangha supporters.

I took Ayya Khema’s humble little books home with me, feeling a little sad that no one had picked them up. Ayya Khema, who died in 1997, stood out as a dharma teacher for a couple of reasons. One is that, as a member of a Jewish family who fled Nazi Germany (birth name Ilse Kussel), she knew suffering. Another is that she was the first Western woman to become a Theravadin Buddhist nun. Read more about her here. 

Some years ago I read her well-known book, Being Nobody, Going Nowhere: Meditations on the Buddhist Path (Wisdom Publications 1987) and I recall being impressed with the simple clarity of her teaching.

Still, I wasn’t expecting much when I cracked open one of the recently acquired volumes, called All of Us. In fact I was expecting to skim over material that I was already quite familiar with. But it wasn’t long before I was pausing, mentally underlining passages, and then writing them in my journal. It seemed what Ayya Khema had to say was exactly what I needed to hear.

The gist of the issue is this: I can’t seem to get over myself. I can’t seem to stop striving to be “somebody” — somebody who is loved, appreciated, seen, acknowledged, safe, prosperous, and so on. Even when that happens for a while, it never feels like enough. And when the opposite happens, a wave of hot pain rolls through my belly. Dukkha.

Here’s what Ayya Khema says about that: “What is it that we want out of life? If we want to be important, appreciated, loved, then we have to take their opposites in stride also. Every positive brings with it a negative, just as the sun throws shadows. If we want one, we must accept the other, without moaning about it.”

She continues: “But if we really want a peaceful mind and heart, inner security and solidity, then we have to give up wanting to be somebody. Body and mind won’t disappear…What disappears is the urge, the reaching out, the affirmation of the importance of this particular person, called ‘me.’ One doesn’t get peace and happiness by trying to get more, but by wanting less, becoming emptier and emptier until there is nothing left but empty space to be filled with peace and happiness. As long as our hearts are filled with likes and dislikes, how can peace and happiness find any room?”

I’m not one for making new year’s resolutions but I think I might take some time to declutter myself. Stop trying to be more. Do I really need all these “wants” and “don’t wants” crowding my space?

I could make myself a little emptier. I could make room for better things — like those little books of wisdom by Ayya Khema that I couldn’t even give away. Turned out they had something to teach me.