Becoming a Nobody: an Ash Wednesday Reflection

One of the many reasons I have enjoyed being Chaplain in Episcopal Schools is that I probably spend more time than the average parish priest reading, thinking about, and teaching from wisdom traditions other than Christianity. I’m a Jesus guy at heart—and I know where my allegiances are—but my experience teaching the great wisdom traditions of the world has opened my mind to new ways of thinking and approaching problems that arise in life. Occasionally, I learn something from another tradition that feels entirely compatible with my Christian faith, so much so that I have to remind myself it doesn’t appear anywhere in the gospels. Today I’m referencing the Buddhist idea of nirvana. 

The word means something like “extinguished” and references the spiritual awakening that results when we dissolve the performative, egoic, false self. My favorite summary of this idea comes from late spiritual teacher Ram Dass who said “The game is not about becoming somebody, it’s about becoming nobody.” While I can’t fully appreciate all this means for a Buddhist, for me it means that the restless and rigid striving after inflated ideas of my public self reliably yields suffering and sin. Being somebody we aren’t is exhausting and demoralizing; we should start by trying to be a nobody. 

Becoming nobody is an ironic admonition to be made by a man who enjoyed a fair degree of international celebrity! And the person to whom the idea is ultimately credited—the Buddha himself—was also a renowned popular teacher. It does not seem then that extinguishing the ego means recusing oneself from the burden of being interesting or influential. Rather, it is to strip away the veneer of inauthenticity and to uncover what is actually interesting and influential about us—God. 

Perhaps another way of understanding nirvana—a Christian way—is to say that we find authentic and abundant life precisely when we fully reject the false gods we have been serving. Consider the zen master from Nazareth: He who finds his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for my sake will find it (Mt 10:39); Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted (Mt 23:12); What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world but forfeits his soul (Mt 16: 26); Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant. (Mt 20:26) 

Indeed, it is this very logic of counter-intuition and paradox that we are invited to comprehend and remember on Ash Wednesday, whether or not we receive the imposition of Ashes. Even if the pandemic means we feast on the Word alone or on zoom, may we remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. 

Last year was a good reminder that death is always a present reality, and for me that has meant getting more serious about living. I ran a marathon. I finally did lesson planning (shhh). I have taken to heart that I will someday be a dead nobody and that some days I already am a dead nobody. I have been reminded that if I repent of my sins, if I seek to extinguish the power of my performative, egoic, false self, God might actually unleash a living somebody. And “what the world needs,” according to civil rights leader Howard Thurman, “is people who have come alive.” Amen?

Lots of smart people have told me that Irenaeus of Lyons said, “the glory of God is the human being fully alive.” I’m not completely sure what Irenaeus meant, but surely it reflects the renunciations and commitments of baptism wherein we die with Christ so that we might rise to new life with him also. Dying and being born to eternal life begins now for all who would truly pray: Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. 

May it be so for all of us who are called to by God to be interesting and influential for a generation of children that is desperate for authenticity and genuine love. Amen. 

The Rev. Joshua A. Hill is Chaplain and Chair of Theology & Religious Studies at the Holderness School, Holderness, NH.