To know and experience the nature of self correctly is to experience nirvana. To know the nature of self in a distorted manner is to experience samsara. It is therefore imperative that we devote ourselves to establishing just what the nature of self is!
In Dharmakirti’s Pramanavartika (Exposition of Valid Cognition), he states:
When there is grasping at self,
Discrimination between self and others arises;
Emotions and afflictions then follow.
If we observe our perceptions and thoughts we notice that a sense of self arises in us very naturally. We instinctively think, “I am getting up,” or “I am going out.” Is this sense of “I” mistaken? I don’t believe it is. The fact that we exist as individuals is undeniable. This is affirmed by our own experience as we try to be happy and overcome difficulties, and— as Buddhists—work to attain buddhahood for the benefit of ourselves and others. Regardless of how difficult it may be to identify just what this self is, there is something to which the thought “I am” refers: There is a “me” who “is.” And it is from this “me” that our natural intuitive feelings of self arise.
It is just such a self—an atman independent of the various components that make up the personality—that the ancient Indian philosophers proposed. They subscribed to the idea of rebirth, with some adherents able to remember experiences from past lives. How else, they argued, could the continuity of an individual self over lifetimes be explained, given that the physical aspects of this self only come into being at the conception of this life? They therefore proposed a self that could continue across lifetimes while remaining independent of physical existences during individual lives.
The concept of self they put forward was singular, while the mental and physical parts we are composed of are numerous. The self was held to be permanent and unchanging, while these parts are impermanent and ever-changing. This core self was thought to be independent and autonomous, while its more exterior parts would depend on outside influences. Thus these ancient philosophers posited an atman that would be distinct from, and independent of, the mental and physical parts that make us up.
Buddha offered a radical departure from this view, proposing that the self exists merely in dependence upon its mental and physical parts. Just as there can be no bullock cart free of the parts that make it up, Buddha explained, there can be no self that exists independently of the aggregates comprising a person.
Buddha taught that to posit a unitary, unchanging, permanent, autonomous self independent of the aggregates that make up a person would introduce something that doesn’t exist, and would thereby reinforce our instinctual sense of self. Buddha thus propounded the idea of selflessness—anatman.
The Existent Self and the Nonexistent Self
It is essential that we distinguish between the self that exists conventionally and the self that doesn’t exist at all, as it is our grasping at the nonexistent self that is the source of all suffering.
Buddhist yogis—meditators—who are engaged in profound analytical meditation on the existence of self focus their analysis on their experience of “me” as an inherently real and independent self, the existence of which their meditative investigation will eventually negate. They thereby make a clear distinction between a conventional self that is the object of our reification, and the reified self that is to be negated.
In our own normal day-to-day intuitions, we have a natural and legitimate sense of self that thinks, “I’m cultivating bodhichitta,” or “I’m meditating on selflessness.” A problem arises when this sense of self is too extreme, and we start to think of it as independent and autonomous—as real. Once we cling to such a notion, we begin to feel justified in making a stark distinction between ourselves and others. As a result of this, there is a natural tendency to regard others as totally unrelated to us, almost as objects to be exploited by this real, concrete “me.” Out of this powerful attachment to a self that we falsely perceive as an identifiable, solid reality arise the equally strong attachments we develop to our belongings, our homes, our friends, and our family.
Through meditative analytical investigation we can come to recognize that at the root of the afflictions we experience lies our strong but mistaken clinging to what we perceive to be our inherently real self. From a Buddhist point of view, this sense of self is natural and also innate. In fact, Buddhists would argue that the unitary, eternal, and autonomous self postulated by non- Buddhist philosophers is a mere conceptual construct, whereas the sense of self that we innately possess is natural even in animals. If we examine the dynamic of our natural sense of self, we find that it resembles a ruler presiding over his or her subjects—our physical and mental parts. We have a sense that above and beyond the aggregates of body and mind, there is something we think of as “me,” and that the physical and mental aggregates are dependent on “me” while “I” am autonomous. Though natural, our sense of self is mistaken, and in our quest for freedom from the miseries caused by our self-grasping, we must change our perception of ourselves.
Our Sense of Self
As long as we cling to some notion of objective existence—the idea that something actually exists in a concrete, identifiable way—emotions such as desire and aversion will follow. When we see something we like—a beautiful watch, for example— we perceive it as having some real quality of existence among its parts. We see the watch not as a collection of parts, but as an existing entity with a specific quality of watch-ness to it. And if it’s a fine mechanical timepiece, our perception is enhanced by qualities that are seen to exist definitely as part of the nature of the watch. It is as a result of this misperception of the watch that our desire to possess it arises. In a similar manner, our aversion to someone we dislike arises as a result of attributing inherent negative qualities to the person.
When we relate this process to how we experience our own sense of existence—how the thought “I” or “I am” arises—we notice that it invariably does so in relation to some aspect of our physical or mental aggregates. Our notion of ourselves is based upon a sense of our physical and emotional selves. What’s more, we feel that these physical and mental aspects of ourselves exist inherently. My body is not something of which I doubt the specificity. There is a body-ness as well as a me-ness about it that very evidently exists. It seems to be a natural basis for my identifying my body as “me.” Our emotions such as fear are similarly experienced as having a valid existence and as being natural bases for our identifying ourselves as “me.” Both our loves and our hates serve to deepen the self sense. Even the mere feeling “I’m cold” contributes to our sense of being a solid and legitimate “I.”
Negating the Self
All Buddhists advocate the cultivation of an insight into the lack—or emptiness—of self. According to Hinayana philosophers, one works to realize the absence of a self-sufficient and substantially real self. They claim that by developing one’s insight into one’s own personal selflessness through profound meditation over a long time—months, years, and maybe even lifetimes—one can attain liberation from the beginningless cycle of life, death, and rebirth. We shall further explore these ideas in the next chapter.
Nagarjuna, the Mahayana trailblazer who established the Middle Way school, suggests that as long as we feel that our parts or aggregates have some legitimate natural existence, we will not be able to completely eliminate our grasping at a sense of self. These aggregates are themselves composed of smaller parts and mental experiences upon which we base ourselves. He argues that in order to gain deep insight into the selflessness of person—ourselves, that is—we must develop the same insight into the selflessness of phenomena—the parts we are made up of. He states that regarding what is to be negated— the inherent existence of our own selves and the inherent existence of phenomena—it is the same. In fact, our insight into one will complement and reinforce our insight into the other.
A true understanding of emptiness of any inherent existence must touch upon the very manner in which we intuitively and instinctively perceive things. For example, when we say “this form,” “this material object,” we feel as if our perception of the physical object before us is true, as if there is something that the term “material object” refers to, and as if the perception that we have somehow represents what is truly there in front of us. A correct understanding of emptiness must reach that level of perception so that we no longer cling to any notion of objective inherent reality.
Nagarjuna emphasizes that so long as we impart objective reality to the world that encompasses us, we will fuel a host of thoughts and emotions such as attachment, hostility, and anger. For Nagarjuna, the understanding of selflessness arrived at by the lower Buddhist philosophical schools is not the consummation of Buddha’s teaching on selflessness because there remains some trace of grasping at a notion of independent and objective, inherently existent reality. Therefore it is through cultivating insight into this most subtle meaning of emptiness— emptiness in terms of an absence of inherent existence— that one can eradicate the fundamental ignorance that binds us in samsara.
Emptiness of Self
In his work In Praise of Dharmadhatu (Ultimate Expanse), Nagarjuna states:
Meditations on impermanence
And overcoming clinging to permanence,
Are all elements of training the mind.
However, the supreme purification of mind
Is achieved through insight into emptiness.
Nagarjuna defines emptiness as an absence of inherent existence. In the Heart Sutra, the Buddha makes his well-known cryptic statement,
Form is empty, emptiness is form.
There is a clearer presentation of this terse statement in the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in 25,000 Lines, where Buddha says:
Form is not empty of emptiness;
Form itself is that emptiness.
In the first line Buddha specifies that what is being negated in respect to form is not something other than its inherent existence. In the second line he establishes the conventionally existent form that exists due to its emptiness of inherent existence. What appears when we negate the inherent existence of form, is form. The nonexistence—or emptiness—of any inherent quality of form is what enables form to exist.
Buddha pointed out that without knowledge of the emptiness of inherent existence of self there is no possibility of attaining freedom from our miserable state. The most profound meditative state of single-pointed absorption, free of all distractions of sensual experience, cannot dispel grasping at a sense of self. Sooner or later this self-grasping will serve as the basis for our experience of afflictions. These afflictions will lead to actions that will provoke more actions, resulting in our experience of misery in cyclic existence.
If, however, we had no sense of self, there would be no basis for the occurrence of attachment or aversion. Attachment comes about in response to the perception of something’s being attractive. For something to be desirable there must be someone to whom it is so, as an object would not be attractive all by itself. Only when something is attractive to me do I desire it. In the same way, when something is perceived to be unattractive, aversion arises and can grow into anger and even hostility. All these strong emotions are initially due to an “I” that is experiencing a perceived attractiveness or unattractiveness of an object.
Since our experience with afflictions such as desire or aversion, pride or jealousy, is due to things being attractive or repellant to us, once the notion of this independent self is removed there is no possibility of these afflictions arising. If, however, we do not negate the mistaken notion of the “I,” regardless of the profundity of our meditation, afflictions will eventually arise in us and lead to our suffering.
Buddha taught many practices by which happiness can grow in our lives, such as acting generously toward others and rejoicing in their virtues. But as these do not directly oppose our distorted grasping at a notion of self, the qualities that these practices engender cannot provide us with the ultimate state of happiness: freedom from all suffering. Only the insight into selflessness, with its direct antidote to our ignorant selfgrasping, can accomplish this.
It is essential that we penetrate the nature of phenomena by means of profound study and critical analysis. This will lead us to recognize the absence of any independent, identifiable self in all phenomena. If we then cultivate our realization of selflessness in meditation, we will eventually attain true liberation—nirvana.
The Continuum of the Mere I
Let us examine the elements upon which the self depends for its existence. When we identify ourselves as human beings, our identity is dependent upon our human body and our human mind. This continuum of “self,” made up of a series of moments of “me,” begins at birth or conception, and ends at death.
Were we not to identify ourselves as humans but merely as “me,” or as the “mere I,” would this self have a beginning or an end? When we look back at our past and think, “when I was young, when I became an adult,” or “when I reached middle age,” we personally identify with each stage, while also identifying with the continuum that spans all of the stages of our life. We are very naturally able to shift our sense of self from the present to the past, and to the totality of stages that make up a lifetime. Is it possible that this “mere I” might also extend beyond the limits of this life?
Between mind and body, it is particularly our mind or consciousness with which we identify as this “mere I.” Our mind is transient, existing momentarily, each moment of consciousness affecting the next. Thus our thoughts and ideas evolve over time, as do our emotions. Change exists as well in the world of solid things. The magnificent Himalayan range may seem to have a permanent solidity, but when we view those mountains over a period of millions of years we can detect changes. In order for those changes to take place, there must be change within a time frame of one hundred years. Such change would necessitate year-by-year change, which would in turn depend upon change occurring on a monthly basis, and this would depend on smaller and smaller increments of transformation taking place from minute to minute, second to second, and at even smaller slivers of time. It is these minuscule momentary changes that form the basis for more noticeable change.
This nature of moment-by-moment change is a quality that occurs as a result of something being produced; no other cause is necessary to bring it about.
There are certain causes that cease once their effect arises. Such causes turn into their effects, as a seed turns into a sprout. The seed is the substantial cause of the ensuing sprout. There are other causes and conditions that serve as contributory factors in bringing about an effect, such as the water, fertilizer, and sunlight that contribute to the sprouting of a seed. Taking our human body as an example, we can trace the continuum of moments leading to our present human body back to the beginning of this life, the moment of conception. This moment is called “that which is becoming human.”
Our present physical body’s continuum can be traced to that substantial cause—its moment of conception—which in turn can be traced back further, moment by moment, to the beginning of the universe and the subtle matter that existed at that time. From a Buddhist point of view, the continuum of substantial causes preceding our conception can be traced back to before the Big Bang, to when the universe was a void. Actually, if we follow the line of reasoning by which we trace our continuum back to before the Big Bang, we would have to acknowledge that there could not be a first moment to the continuum of substantial causes of any conditioned phenomenon.
Just as material things possess their substantial causes and their contributory conditions, mental phenomena do as well. Our feelings, our thoughts and emotions, all of which make up our consciousness, have both substantial causes that turn into a particular moment of cognition, and contributory factors that may be physical or mental.
The primary characteristic of our consciousness is its clarity and knowing. This quality of pure luminous knowing cannot be a product of a physical condition alone. From the Buddhist understanding of causality, a substantial cause must be substantially commensurate with its effect. A physical phenomenon could therefore not serve as the substantial cause of a moment of consciousness, as the nature of clarity and knowing is not physical.
Let us examine the process of conscious perception. When we see a tree, we are experiencing a mental perception of the tree before us. The tree and our physical eye serve as the contributory conditions for our conscious experience of the tree. The substantial cause of that mental experience of the tree is our immediately preceding condition of clarity and knowing. It is this preceding moment of consciousness that gives the character of clarity—of pure knowing—to our visual experience of the tree. Each moment of clarity and knowing in the continuum of our consciousness is caused by a preceding moment of clarity and knowing. The substantial cause of a moment of consciousness cannot be something that has a different substantial quality from clarity and knowing.
If the continuum of our mind had a first moment, it would have had to arise either from no cause or from a cause that was not substantially commensurate with the nature of mind itself. Since neither of these possibilities is acceptable, the continuum of consciousness is understood to have no beginning. This is how we explain past lives and reincarnation, given that the continuum of moments of consciousness of each of us must extend back infinite moments. And, just as the continuum of consciousness has no beginning, the identity of a self designated to that continuum is beginningless. This is corroborated by the many cases of people who recall experiences from their past lives.
And what of an end of consciousness? Some Buddhist scholars of the past maintained that upon attaining the state of nirvana the continuum of one’s mental and physical existence would cease. However, an absurd consequence of this view is that there would be no one to experience the state of nirvana. The individual instances of consciousness that we experience throughout life—perceptions of all we see and feel as well as thought processes we’ve engaged in—will cease when our physical being expires at death. However, our fundamental quality of clarity and knowing— the essential nature of consciousness— does not end at death; its continuum is unceasing.
There also exists a very subtle physical body, referred to in Buddha’s Vajrayana or tantric teachings, that acts as the basis for our most subtle consciousness. Just as the continuum of our subtle consciousness has no beginning or end, so the continuum of this most subtle physical aspect of self is also beginningless and endless.
I find beauty in the idea of no beginning or end to the continuum of self. If there were an end to self, there would be a total annihilation, a complete darkness. For someone desperately wishing to escape the torments of life by committing suicide, such an end might seem desirable. I believe, however, that most of us prefer the idea of continuity, as it suggests a fullness of our experiences and emotions.
From A Profound Mind by the Dalai Lama; edited by Nicholas Vreeland. Published by Harmony Books, September 2011. Reprinted with permission of The Crown Publishing Group.