To begin, a few comments on language:
Talking about the ego is tricky, for our language assumes very specific answers for many of the questions we might want to discuss. For example, if I say “I think,” what is it that is taking an action, and what is the action? What does “I” point to? In just about all uses, it points directly at some ego or another. This can get us into trouble very quickly.
We might translate “I think that...” to something like “Ego is providing the information that....” This raises two questions:
1) To what is ego providing the information?
2) Are there sources of information besides ego available to us?
Approaching the first question cuts right to the heart of spiritual practice. If we are not our egos, what are we? There are many names for it, but they are only placeholders. To really know, we must seek out direct experience of it. For the sake of discussion, I’ll use “that which experiences” as my placeholder of choice
In my experience (Whose experience?!) “The record of observations of that which observes around these parts” ... to be clear is so tricky!), the answer to the second question is an emphatic “YES!” As we learn to turn our attention away from ego, we find that there is a tremendous wealth of information - joyful, life-affirming, effortless, and true - available to us in any given moment. What are we to call the source of all this wonderful information? Profoundly creative being that I am, I’ll refer to this as “the source of true information.”
I hasten to emphasize again that these are merely placeholders that point to experiences one must seek out to begin to answer these questions. I (!) hope that using a phrase instead of a word will help us to avoid the confusion between the pointer and that which is pointed to - the finger and the moon, if you will.
With our linguistic disclaimers out of the way, let’s turn to the question:
“In what way is the ego an illusion?”
My understanding is that the ego is something like a mirage; something is clearly there, but our vision of it is indistinct, and we can’t quite make out what is. This leads us to be misled about its nature and what it means for us.
The only mirage I’m personally familiar with is the one that appears on hot days on the highway. In the distance it appears as if the road is swallowed up by a great blue lake, and yet when you arrive at any given point you find only dry highway. Something is clearly going on, but we lack the knowledge to make sense of it. Thus, it seems like a vast lake is retreating away from us as we head down the road.
If we had a friend along for the ride who knew some physics, she might explain to us that the black asphalt of the road was heating the air above it, and that the hot air has a different refractive index than the air around it, causing light from a patch of sky to be bent up toward our eyes. With our friend’s help we can see that what we took for a vast pool of water is in fact a trick of light and a bit of hot air.
With ego, we are similarly confused on two counts: we’re mixed up about what it is, and have trouble getting a sense of the scale of it. We need someone like our learned physics friend above to help us see through the illusion. This is why we encounter bits of scriptures like the following:
“If you see someone wise, who can steer you away from the wrong path, follow that person as you would one who can reveal hidden treasures. Only good can come of it.” --Dhammapada 76
“Good friends! You already possess the prajna wisdom of enlightenment! But because your minds are deluded, you can’t understand by yourselves. You need to find a truly good friend to show you the way to see your nature. Good friends, the buddha nature isn’t different for the ignorant and the wise. It’s just that people are deluded or awake. When people are deluded, they’re ignorant. When they wake up, they become wise.” -- The Platform Sutra of Hui-Neng
Fortunately, there are lots of good friends available to help us understand - most especially our cushions!
So what is ego? It is the kernel of conditioned mind, that which every suffering being has in common. It is the central core of the myriad attention monopolizing machines which keep suffering beings from discovering that they already have all they need to live in peace and joy. The primary way it accomplishes this feat is to continuously provide the information that ego and “that which observes” are one and the same. This is how ego becomes the “self” that is separate from everything else.
In order to maintain the illusion that it is all there is to know about a given suffering being, ego makes itself out to be vast and overwhelming. When we are in it, this seems very true. Everywhere we look we’re met with ego’s information about what is true of us and the world, but this too is an illusion. Ego is like the sheen on an oil drop floating on the ocean. If you’re inside the drop looking out, the sheen is everywhere. In every direction you turn, you’re dazzled by brilliant greens, reds and yellows. If, however, you move in any direction you find yourself swimming in the vast blue ocean. From this place, the drop is seen for what it is - a tiny point in an unending sea.
This leads us to a very different model of experience than the one that prevails in most places and times. “That which observes” exists in a vast space of possibility. It can turn its attention wherever it pleases. Overwhelmingly this space is occupied by “the source of true information.” One very small region of this vast space is inhabited by ego. When “that which observes” moves its attention into ego’s domain, it is bombarded by the information that this is the only thing that exists. If it believes the information, then it falls into the illusion of ego and remains trapped in that small space with ego.
In our lives, asking for help is one way of making the move out of the drop. Going to the cushion is another way. As soon as we make an effort to take care, the illusion begins to unravel and we can see that we exist in a much larger space than the tiny corner ego wants to keep us in.