Learning No Self from Legos
Put something together and take it apart. A Lego truck for example. When all the pieces are dumped out of the box, is it a truck or just a few dozen Legos? When you’re snapping the pieces together, at what point do you say that it’s a truck? Similarly, start taking it apart and systematically arrange the pieces on the floor. When all the pieces are neatly arranged, is there a truck on the floor in front of you? In fact, there’s no such thing as a truck; nothing permanent there. Not permanent and abiding. Use this idea to look at yourself and your thoughts and feelings. They too are all just a collection of pieces, of thoughts and conditions glommed together.
By neuropsychologist Chris Niebauer
Everyone always tells you to “just be yourself.” But what if you don’t know who that self really is? More confusing yet, what if there’s no such thing as your “self?” If that strikes you as the wackiest thing you’ve ever heard, you’re not alone! Almost all of Western philosophy centers on the concept of the self, including such notable ideas as Rene Descartes’ seventeenth century assertion, “Cogito, ergo sum — I think, therefore I am.” Descartes believed that humanity is defined by thinking and this in turn implies a stable, continuous self. Although the person we are may grow, develop, and change throughout our lifetime, we at least accept that there is one definitive sense of “I” rather than multiple shifting versions of ourselves.
But does that singular “I” really exist? Where Western philosophy explicitly affirms that it does, Eastern philosophy posits that there is no singular sense of self and that all human suffering can be attributed to the illusion that there is.
Brief Understanding of No Self
Because everything is ever-changing, because everything is impermanent, nothing can have a permanent, abiding definition, meaning, value, or function. So everything has No Self (or Non-Self if it is other than human or alive).
Unfortunately, in order for us to deal with the world we assign definitions and labels to everything and attach to those labels, especially the value we place on those entities, causing us anxiety and stress (dukkha). Those labels reify all phenomena we come into contact with, leading us to a deluded and false view of the world—leading us to seeing permanence where there is only No Self.
If the meaning of “No Self” were that there is literally no Self whatsoever, no personal identity and no moral agency, then the only logical conclusion would be that Buddhism is nonsense. But that’s not the case. It simply means that there is no permanent Self to be found in us. No magical being (Self or Soul, or the like) that is permanent and separate from our mind-body.
Self-Consciousness is the Delusion
As human beings we are conscious not only of the world around us but also of ourselves: our activities, our bodies, and our mental lives. We are, that is, self-conscious (or, equivalently, self-aware). Self-consciousness can be understood as an awareness of oneself. But a self-conscious subject is not just aware of something that merely happens to be themselves, as one is if one sees an old photograph without realizing that it is of oneself. Rather a self-conscious subject is aware of themselves as themselves; it is manifest to them that they themselves are the object of awareness. This awareness is our sense of Self, and because it arises delusionally, we can understand it as No Self.
Self-consciousness is a form of consciousness that is paradigmatically expressed in English by the words “I,” “me,” “my,” and “mine,” terms that we use to refer to ourselves delusionally as self-existent.
No Self and the Aggregates
The Five Aggregates define our psycho-physical Self. Very simply, they might be thought of as conditions or components that come together to make an individual self-aware of being a Self.
Everything that we think of as “I” is a function of the aggregates. Understanding that each of the five is empty teaches us that Self must therefore be empty, thus there is No Self.
If the Self doesn’t exist as an autonomous, self-existent and self-directed being (No Self), who is the person we see in the mirror?
What we perceive as an individual Self is really just the five aggregates coming together to form a story about us, and those around us, of which we are made aware when we develop consciousness in the fifth aggregate and which we mistakenly understand as a Self.
The mistaken belief that the “I” exists is the source of all of our suffering.
By understanding these physical and mental processes—the Five Aggregates–we can unlearn the fundamental mistake that keeps us locked in suffering—the mistaken belief that the “I” exists. That’s why the notion of No Self is so important: it is the key to lessening, perhaps someday even virtually ending, our suffering.
Again, it is the mistaken belief that the “I” exists as an individual, autonomous Being that is the source of all of our suffering, and that belief arises when the aggregates come together to form our consciousness.
Clinging to the aggregates as though they are a Self is the problem; realizing the aggregates as empty–and thus No Self–is the solution to our living a healthier and more peaceful life.
Simply put, the aggregates look like this when charted:
The Aggregates, Briefly Explained
- All phenomena arise from a Sense Contact (rupa). This is usually translated as “form” or “materiality”, but operationally, “Sense Contact” is easier to understand and still accurate enough.
- At the moment there is a contact with one of our senses (there are six senses in Buddhism: sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing, and mind/thinking), a Feeling arises to define the positive (affinity) or negative (aversion) value of the contact.
- Next, the combined contact and feeling, if deemed worthy of Cognition, are recognized—meaning named or labeled.
- From the recognized condition having been labeled, a story about it arises. This story tells us how to act in relation to the previous three conditions. These stories are based on our Karma, our memory bank of imprints (stories) that act as Motivational Dispositions.
- Finally, the story arises in our Consciousness where we assert a Self to identify and appropriate the story as Self and doer.
Because each of the five aggregates is empty, the Self that arises is empty—thus No Self.
For an indepth explanation of the Five Aggregates, consider digging into these two analyses:
A Discussion of the Five Aggregates by Vasubandhu, https://www.deepdharma.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Vasu-5-Aggregates-to-post.pdf
The Five Aggregates (Understanding Theravada Psychology and Soteriology), by Mathieu Boisvert, http://www.ahandfulofleaves.org/documents/The%20Five%20Aggregates_Understanding%20Theravada%20Psychology%20and%20Soteriology_Boisvert.pdf
The Search for No-Self
By Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey
If the I exists in the way that it appears, it must exist in one of four ways: as the body, as the mind, as the collection of the body and mind, or as something separate from the body and mind; there is no other possibility. We contemplate this carefully until we become convinced that this is the case and then we proceed to examine each of the four possibilities:
(1) If our I is our body, there is no sense in saying “my body,” because the possessor and the possessed are identical.
If our I is our body, there is no future rebirth [or even moment to moment rebirth] because the I ceases when the body dies. If our I and our body are identical, then since we are capable of developing faith, dreaming, solving mathematical puzzles and so on, it follows that flesh, blood and bones can do the same. Since none of this is true, it follows that our I is not our body.
(2) If our I is our mind, there is no sense in saying “my mind,” because the possessor and the possessed are identical; but usually when we focus on our mind we say “my mind”. This clearly indicates that our I is not our mind.
If our I is our mind, then since we have many types of mind, such as the six consciousnesses, conceptual minds and non-conceptual minds, it follows that we have just as many I’s. Since this is absurd, our I cannot be our mind.
(3) Since our body is not our I and our mind is not our I, the collection of our body and mind cannot be our I. The collection of our body and mind is a collection of things that are not our I, so how can the collection itself be our I? For example, in a herd of cows none of the animals is a sheep, therefore the herd itself is not sheep. In the same way, in the collection of our body and mind, neither our body nor our mind is our I, therefore the collection itself is not our I.
(4) If our I is not our body, not our mind, and not the collection of our body and mind, the only possibility that remains is that it is something separate from our body and mind. If this is the case, we must be able to apprehend our I without either our body or our mind appearing, but if we imagine that our body and our mind were completely to disappear there would be nothing remaining that could be called our I. Therefore it follows that our I is not separate from our body and mind.
We should imagine that our body gradually dissolves into thin air, and then our mind dissolves, our thoughts scatter with the wind, our feelings, wishes and awareness melt into nothingness. Is there anything left that is our I? There is nothing. Clearly our I is not something separate from our body and mind. We have now examined all four possibilities and have failed to find our I or self. Since we have already decided that there is no fifth possibility, we must conclude that our I that we normally grasp at and cherish does not exist at all. Where there previously appeared an inherently existent I, there now appears an absence of that I. This absence of an inherently existent I is emptiness, ultimate truth.
Remember, a Self is the sense we have of us as the same individual throughout time and space. As a Being we believe that we must differentiate the Us from the unity of the subject-object relationship and segregate the experiencer from the experienced. Once we see how making ourselves into a Self causes us to suffer, we can stop differentiating ourselves in this way and move further along the path to the peace and tranquility of No Self and the wisdom of emptiness.
A Much Deeper Delve into The Search for Self
When we use reason to suggest no self, the question is, what are we refuting?
Only through a thorough search for self can we refute self and ultimately end our suffering and the suffering of all sentient beings.
In the Madhyamakavatara, Candrakirti says that all our afflictions–all of our distress and hardships, all of our uneasiness and suffering, all of our pain and trouble–arise from ignorance. Ignorance being a misunderstanding of the nature of the self: an inability to see our self as it really is, and instead to reify it. Dealing with this misunderstanding, head-on, therefore, is our most important spiritual practice.
The traditional Tibetan practice for doing this, for developing an understanding of the emptiness of self-existence rather than for believing in it as our reificiation projects it, is called the “Four Essential Points,” or the “Four Keys.”
Once we use this practice to gain an understanding of the selflessness of “I,” of the self, the we use it to gain an understanding of the selflessness of all phenomena.
Point One: Determining What Needs to Be Eliminated
We cannot realize emptiness without first knowing what it is that things are empty of; emptiness isn’t some vague nothingness.
This first point helps us understand how the false self—the object to be refuted and eliminated—exists. We need to recognize how we view the “I” as inherently existent, as if it were independent of the aggregates of body and mind. The “I” appears to be substantially established, existent in its own right, and this mode of existence does not appear to be imposed by our own mental projection.
The way we hold and believe the “I” to exist becomes particularly clear when we’re angry or afraid. At such times we should analyze how the self appears to our mind; how our mind apprehends it. We can provoke these emotions in meditation and, while maintaining them, use a subtle part of our consciousness to recognize how we conceive our “I.”
In order to catch a thief we have to know who the person is and what he or she looks like. The greatest thief of all is our mistaken sense of self—the conception that not only ourselves but all other phenomena as well are truly existent. We believe that things really exist the way they appear to our senses, as objectively established, as existing from their own side. This, then, is what we have to know in order to catch this great thief, who steals all our happiness and peace of mind.
If we do not recognize this wrong conception and simply walk around saying, “Emptiness! Emptiness!” we are likely to fall into one of the two extremes of eternalism or nihilism—believing either that things are inherently existent or that nothing exists at all, thus exaggerating or denying conventional reality.
Therefore, we must recognize the false self, the object of refutation, before we can start actually refuting, or eliminating, it. This is the initial step in developing an understanding of emptiness and the foundation of realizing it. First, we must look for the false self, not selflessness. This requires a great deal of meditation on emptiness to be effective, as well as a daily practice that is mindful, generous and pure.
When we start observing how the false self—the self we have habitually assumed to exist in persons and objects—manifests, we soon discover that it does not exist at all. Before we begin cultivating this awareness, our “I” seems to really be there, very solidly, but as soon as we start checking, we cannot find it. It disappears. If the “I” truly did exist, the more we searched for it the more concrete it should become. At the very least we should at least be able to find it. If it can’t be found, how can it exist?
Point Two: Only Two Options, Same As or Different From
The inherently existent “I” must exist as either one with the body and mind, meaning identical with them, or separate from them. There is no third way in which it can exist. This is the second point, determining with certainly that there are only the two possibilities of sameness or difference.
Here we search for, watch for the self-existent “I,” the “I” that appears to be established independently, as if it were not created by the mind. If that “I” does not exist as it appears, then obviously we should not believe in it. It is critical here to understand that there’s no third alternative. Therefore, we have to meditate on the second key with awareness that if this apparent “I” is neither identical with nor separate from the five aggregates of body and mind, there’s no way it can exist.
At this point it becomes easy for us to understand the general character of emptiness.
Point Three: “I” and the Five Aggregates Are Not The Same
Here we ascertain the absence of sameness of the “I” and the five aggregates. Once we have ascertained the object of refutation by meditating on emptiness and seen how it cannot exist in a way other than as one with the five aggregates or separate from them, we concentrate on whether or not the self-existent “I” can exist as one with the five aggregates.
If the “I” is the same as the aggregates, then because there are five aggregates, there must be five continuums of the “I” or, because the “I” is one, the five aggregates must be an indivisible whole. We therefore examine each aggregate to see if it is the same as the self. We ask, “Am “I” and my body the same?” “Am “I” and my feelings the same?” “Am “I” and my discriminating awareness the same?” And so forth.
There are many different analytical procedures to show that the concept of the self as one with the psychophysical aggregates is wrong. For example, if the self were a permanent entity, as self-existence implies, destroying it would be impossible. Then, if the “I” were the same as the body, the body could never die and the corpse could never be burned, because this would destroy the self. Obviously, this is nonsense.
Also, the mind and body would be unchanging, because that is the nature of a substantial self. Furthermore, if there were a self-existent “I” identical with the body and the mind, it would be one indistinguishable entity and the individual designations of “my body” and “my mind” would be incorrect.
There are many different ways we can reason and meditate upon to arrive at the conclusion that reality and our habitual way of perceiving things are completely different. We are not fixed, permanent entities.
Having ascertained that the self and the aggregates are not a true unity, we then consider whether or not our self-existent “I” is different from and unrelated to the aggregates. This is the fourth key, ascertaining the absence of any true difference between the self and the aggregates.
For example, if you have a car, a truck and a motorcycle, you can find the motorcycle by taking away the car and the truck. Similarly, if the “I” existed separately from the body and the mind, when we eliminated the body and the mind we would be left with a third entity to represent the “I.” But when we search outside of our body, feelings, consciousness, etc., we come up with nothing. Nearly 3000 years of meditators and gurus and yogis have observed that there is nothing to be found beyond the aggregates.
If they were truly different, if self and the aggregates were truly separate, there would be no connection between them. When we said, for example, “My head aches,” the “my” would refer to something other than the “head” (the form aggregate) and “ache” (the feeling aggregate); it would be something that existed somewhere else. The aggregate would hurt, not me. If the self were truly a different thing, a true polarity apart from the aggregates, it would be absurd to say, “My head hurts,” “My hand hurts,” etc., as though the pain somehow affected the self.
By performing different kinds of analysis we cultivate the certainty that the self and the aggregates are not truly different.
Meditation on Emptiness
Since these four keys contain the essential points of Nagarjuna’s main treatises on the Middle Way, they make it easy to meditate on emptiness.
- If we meditate with the four keys to search for the self in our body, from the top of our head to the tips of our toes, and our aggregates of mind as well, we won’t find anything. Thus, we will come to the realization that a fixed, unchanging self does not exist.
It’s like looking for a cow in a certain field. We walk all around: up the hills, down the valleys, through the trees, everywhere. Having searched the entire area and found nothing, we arrive at the certainty that the cow simply isn’t there. Similarly, when we investigate the aggregates of body and mind and find nothing, we arrive at the certainty that the self-existent “I” simply isn’t there either. This is the understanding of emptiness.
- We then concentrate single-pointedly on the experience of the absence of the self that we had always presumed to exist. Whenever this certainty begins to weaken or lose clarity, we return to our analytical meditation and again check through the four keys. Once more a sharpness of certainty arises and we return to concentrating on it single-pointedly.
In this way we cultivate two things:
(1) the certainty of finding nothing there and
(2) the subjective experience of how this appears.
By keeping these two together and not allowing our mind to wander we reach what is called the single-pointed concentration wherein everything appears non-dual. Subject and object merge like water poured into water.
We also have to learn what to do when we arise from meditation—in the post-meditation period we have to view everything that appears as illusory. Even though things appear to be self-existent, they are simply the sport of emptiness, like a magician’s illusions.
Our practice should alternate in this way between (1) and (2), between this certainty and the subjective experience. This avoids the pitfalls of the extremes of absolutism and nihilism. It also activates a sense of intense physical and mental ease. Our meditation just seems to take off on its own without requiring any effort.
We should spend a great deal of time meditating on the four keys. It may be difficult but it is the most powerful and beneficial form of meditation for counteracting delusions. As Aryadeva said, “Even doubting the validity of emptiness rips samsara to shreds.”
Meditation on emptiness is the most powerful way to purify negative karma. During Guru Shakyamuni Buddha’s time there was a king who had killed his own father. He was terrified that this evil act would cause him to be reborn in hell and asked the Buddha for advice. The Buddha instructed him to meditate on emptiness. The king devoted himself to this practice and was able to purify that negative karma from his mindstream.
After Lama Tsongkhapa attained enlightenment he wrote the poem In Praise of the Buddha’s Teaching on Dependent Arising, in which he stated that although all of the Buddha’s teachings are beneficial and undeceiving, the most beneficial and undeceiving, the most miraculously wonderful, is his teaching on emptiness, because by meditating on it sentient beings can cut the root of samsara and attain liberation from all suffering. In awe and amazement, Lama Tsongkhapa thus praised the Buddha’s uncanny perceptiveness and reliability of knowledge as both a scientist and philosopher.
When we understand that the Buddha really did know and describe the true nature of reality by means of his teachings on emptiness, firm faith arises within us. This faith is not based upon stories or fantasy but upon the experience that arises by practicing and realizing the situation for ourselves. We find that reality exists exactly the way the Buddha described it. Furthermore, he discovered this reality a long, long time ago, without the need of so-called scientific instruments.
Scriptural Sources for More Reading
The Buddha’s main teachings on eradicating ignorance by understanding and realizing the wisdom of non-self-existence are found in his Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) Sutras, and these texts are the main scriptural source for the great sage Nagarjuna’s Six-fold Canon of Reasoning, especially his Root Verses on Wisdom (Mulamadhyamakakarika). Other teachings on the wisdom realizing emptiness may be found in Aryadeva’s Four Hundred Verses; Buddhapalita’s famous Commentary on [Nagarjuna’s] Treatise on the Middle Way (Buddhapalita-Mulamamadhyamakavrtti); Chandrakirti’s Clear Phrases (Prasannapada); and the ninth chapter of Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life.
Finally, Understanding the Nearly Incomprehensible – 2 Descriptions
A Brief Refresher for the Serious Student of “No Self”
Description 1 – Memory and “Coherence”
At about the age of two, the hippocampus develops sufficiently for us to have explicit memory. Explicit memory yields a kind of retrieval that involves the sense of recollection–and, if autobiographical, of the “self” at some time in the past. This autobiographical memory is the ability to perform “mental time travel,” creating mental representations of the self in the past, present and future. This narrative process allows us to shape the flow of information about self and others into a coherence. –Daniel Seigel
From a neuroscience perspective, coherence is the important module here. From a Buddhist perspective, coherence is the problem, here and everywhere.
What is not explicit in Dr. Seigel’s description is that we are creating a fictionalized, a fantasized understanding of our Self in this way. This Self of ours is created within modules (strong habitual belief and value patterns) from fragments of stored memory based on previously stored fragments of memory, habitually retrieved fragments and patterns of retrieval, making it appear to our mind that the Self we are imaging is real, true and permanent, as presented.
Neuroscience is, in fact, proving what the Buddha described 2600 years ago, that there is Self–but not in the way the mind presents it to us, and not as we commonly understand it.
If there is not Self in the permanent, true coherent way our minds describes us to our consciousness; if it is just a made up fiction to produce coherence from one episode of our lives to another, then who is Carl, the writer of this email. Carl is a nominal label and characterization of an impermanence–a useful understanding for everyday communication. There is no mental time traveler named Carl that exists in a coherent, cohesive way and whose characteristics change while he remains permanent. That would be a completely incoherent thought. Yes, I am here, this is not a denial of physical reality, just of the erroneous way I understand my Self.
Realizing this, realizing that there is not Self, not in the way we ordinarily perceive it, is one of the most important teachings, or tenets, of Buddhism. It is the gate to living a peaceful, happy, healthy life.
Once we weaken the fiction of our Self, we generalize and weaken our fictions about all the other Selfs, and then and only then does live become clear, easy, satisfying–without the need for stress or anxiety.
Description 2 – Emptiness and Memory
If the meaning of “no Self” were that there is literally no Self whatsoever, no personal identity and no moral agency, then the only logical conclusion would be that Buddhism is nonsense. But that’s not the case. Let’s take a brief, but deep look at no Self.
The doctrine of no Self is best understood on two levels:
- The first is the conventional level, that of everyday life, which does not question the concept of Self and freely uses personal terms, like names and pronouns, in accordance with ordinary language and social conventions. It is the Us as we generally imagine ourselves to be and the everyday Us as generally understood, even though we don’t actually exist in the substantive way we perceive our Selves. (So . . . no Self.)
- The second, the considered level, is more sophisticated and rejects views of Self and personal identity where either (1) Self is permanent, inherent, and autonomous, or (2) where Self arises from a dualistic subject/object perception.
In Buddhist philosophy, these describe the only two ways to create a Self. (So . . . no Self.)
Behind this second level there is a technical understanding that Self and personal identity are just combinations of imaginary momentary psychophysical processes and perceptions, all interrelated and ever-changing, and which, when they arise and aggregate, falsely appear to create an existent Self “from its own side.” This binds level one to level two; in fact, this makes them the same (i.e., always dependent on preceding phenomena; having no independent self-supporting existence) and in doing gives rise to no Self.
The concept of the Self as permanent (or existent in the conventional way) is a misperception that arises from aggregated momentary cognitions and affects that are associated with “the conceit I am” and the underlying ignorant tendency to “the conceits I and mine.”
This combination of conceit and ignorance fosters different types of cravings, especially cravings for being, meaning for eternal existence, and subsequently, speculations about the past and future existences of and for the Self. The doctrine of No Self is primarily intended to counteract views of the Self and personal identity that are rooted in ignorance regarding the nature of how we really are; in doing so it relieves suffering.
Put another way, the Self, which is the source of all our suffering, is an imaginary being that falsely appears, from moment to moment, to be real, independent and autonomous from its side. This imagined Self takes the shape of a time traveler with an inherent essence that moves through time and space as an entity somehow fantasized as being within the mind, or body, or both, or neither, but that is never discoverable there upon examination. And this false conceit of a nonexistent Self as existent in the way we are perceiving it, that is the source of our suffering, all our suffering, for there is no such being.
It is not just that there is no one to suffer; it is also that there is no such thing as Suffering, for the doctrine of no Self also extends to suffering. Incidentally, the traditional Buddhist understanding of the doctrine of no Self is that a Self is incompatible with any metaphysical or occult Me, or with past or future lives, all of which require permanence.