No self means no self.

March 17, 2018 § Leave a comment

The Buddhist nun Ayya Khema said that the most difficult aspect of the Buddha’s teaching is that there is no individual self who owns the body and mind. That’s quite a bold statement. Outside of an asylum you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t believe they actually exist. So what can we make of this teaching?

In previous posts I described the self as a concept, in the traditional sense of a concept as an idea that brings together a collection of things under one name. A bed, for instance, is an idea that arises out of the combination of a mattress, duvet, pillows and the need for sleep. The Buddha said that the self is composed of the five aggregates of body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and sense consciousness. So the self is a concept that brings the five aggregates together under one name.

When we speak of a bed we do not believe that it is something other than its component parts. Yet when we speak of the self we believe we are talking about something other than its five aggregates. I believe we do this because the aggregates are experienced as something real, so we falsely conclude that the concept that represents it, i.e., the self, must be real, too. But concepts are not real things in the world, they are just ideas about the world.

Even though the self is just an idea, its five aggregates are real and so cannot be ignored. The psychologist Carl Jung pointed this out when he said that the contents of the psyche are not just psychological. They are as real in the experiential sense as anything felt through the physical senses. This appearance of reality adds to our sense that there is something real called the self. But lest you decide that the self may as well be taken as real if you’re going to experience it that way, remember that you also believe in your dreams when you’re sleeping.

At this point I doubt that you are now convinced that there is no self. Especially if you happen to have read Zen Master Hakuin’s account of his first meeting with Shōju Rōjin. He writes of it in “Hakuin’s Precious Mirror Cave.”

“We arrived in Iiyama, and I was granted an interview with Shōju Rōjin. The old teacher took one look at me and immediately asked, “How do you see Mu?” “No way to lay a hand or foot on it,” I replied. Shōju reached out, pushed the end of my nose with his fingers, and said, “Well, I just got a hand on it!”

Shōju Rōjin was showing Master Hakuin that Mu, our true nature, is real. So you might conclude from this that there is a self. But Shōju Rōjin wasn’t saying that, unless you want to believe that your nose is your real self.

To understand Shōju it would perhaps help if I reminded you that concepts are a sampling of reality. They take specific things from the environment and group them together in a way that makes them appear separate from all other things. Hence the bed is separate from the floor. The floor is different from the wall, which is different from the body, which is different from the self that calls the bed “mine.” That’s what the mind does when it conceptualizes. It makes the true nature of things appear separate when, in reality, there is no separation. Zen Master Dōgen put it this way in his epic work, Shōbōgenzō, where he compared life to being in a boat.

He first wrote, …there is no “I” other than the boat. Then went on to say,

When we are riding in a boat, our body and mind, self and environment, are all “essential parts” of the boat. The whole great earth and the whole empty space are essential parts of the boat. “I” as “life” and “life” as “I” are thus.

In the best sense of the Buddhist principle of dependent origination Dōgen illustrates how everything is an essential part of everything else, which means that everything is connected. “Body and mind, self and environment” are all essential parts of life. That part about self might seem confusing but by it Dōgen meant the five aggregates. It is the “me” referred to the first part of the quote that I now add in its entirety,

Life, for example, is similar to a person riding in a boat. In this boat, “I” use the sails, “I” am at the helm, and “I” pole the boat. Although “I” operate the boat, the boat is carrying “me” and there is no “I” other than the boat. “I” am on the boat and “I” make the boat into the boat.

Dōgen speaks of the “I” and the “me” in terms of the former being the operator and the latter being a passenger. The “I” as operator is what I’ve called in previous posts the bare point of awareness but here Dōgen identifies it as the bare power of awareness. “I” use the sails, “I” am at the helm, and “I” pole the boat. This “I” is not just a passive observer like the “me” being carried through life. It is the active power behind life, the life of the universe and the activity of your life as “me.” It is this “I” that Shōju Rōjin was bringing to Master Hakuin’s attention when he pulled his nose.

This “I” is the same “I” in “you” as it is in “me.” They are not two but One. It is formlessness and emptiness so may be called no self. Yet it is not nothingness so it may be called the True Self, even though in comparison to It “you” and “me” are just illusion. Yet even as illusion we are essential parts that the “I” not only guides and directs though life but also is our Life. Realizing “I” as “life” and “life” as “I” are thus, is enlightenment.

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