Spoiler alert: no!
'Who am I?' is the quintessential spiritual question. It's been a favourite topic of sages, mystics and contemplatives for thousands of years, and it comes up on this website quite a bit as well!
This week (and next), we're going to take a look at what is traditionally considered to be the second discourse given by the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama - the 'discourse on not-self' - in which the Buddha outlines his take on what's going on, and gives us some tools to explore it for ourselves.
If you've been following this blog for a while, you can treat this article and next week's as a sequel of sorts to the two-part series on the Buddha's first discourse (part 1, part 2). That discourse gave us the bones of early Buddhism - the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The present discourse now puts flesh on those bones, taking a look at the nature of the self (which we'll consider this week) and inviting us to explore the all-important Three Characteristics (which will be next week's subject).
First things first - what do we mean by 'self' anyway?
It might seem a bit pedantic or scholarly to start with definitions - all I can say is that the maths degree I studied at university has clearly left its mark on me - but in this case at least it's pretty important, because the concept that the Buddha was exploring which we usually translate as 'self' is probably pretty different to what you or I mean by the term in casual usage.
In the time of the Buddha, the prevailing world view was quite different to the one we have today. Time was seen as fundamentally cyclic - you would live, die, be reborn, and more or less the same things would happen over and over, a bit like a cosmic Groundhog Day.
Many spiritual teachers of the day taught that each person possessed an atman (Sanskrit; the Pali is atta). The atman was seen as something akin to a 'soul' in Christianity - an enduring 'essence' which survived the death of the body and went on to be reborn into the next life. A commonly held belief was that each atman was a small piece chipped off a larger divine being or essence, Brahman, and that the 'goal' of spiritual practice was to reunite one's atman with Brahman and thus escape the wheel of rebirth into the material world of suffering.
Now, in the 21st century Western world, there's a good chance that you don't believe in a spiritual essence that lives somewhere inside you and migrates from body to body across lifetimes. (Maybe you do, in which case you can skip to the next section!) However, I'm going to suggest that even modern audiences can meaningfully engage with this teaching if we reframe it slightly.
Whether you believe that there's anything after this life or not, most people would agree that it feels like there's a 'me' here having this experience - and, furthermore, that that 'me' doesn't really seem to change, despite all the experiences in our lives. It feels very much to me like whatever is looking out of my eyes is the same 'me' that was riding my BMX bike around with my friends when I was nine years old, or the 'me' that was doing maths exams a little over twenty years ago.
We often feel this 'sense of self' especially strongly when in a difficult situation - for example, when someone calls your name in a crowded room, and then maybe follows it up with 'This is all your fault!' It tends to be quieter and more in the background when we're alone in nature. Nevertheless, it's pretty pervasive, and is at the root of our sense of identity - the sense that there's an identifiable 'me' here which has some kind of fixed essence, some 'me-ness' which makes me who I am, regardless of whatever else might change in my life.
So whether or not you believe you have an atman which is trying to find its way back to Brahman, you can hopefully relate to this 'sense of self' in your own experience. (If not, the rest of this article isn't going to make a lot of sense!)
The Buddha's discourse on non-self (anatta or anatman)
Now that we've set up some basic concepts, let's see what the Buddha has to say about the self. We're going now to Samyutta Nikaya 22.59, the Discourse on Anatta.
Thus have I heard. At one time the Buddha was staying near Baraṇasi, in the deer park at Isipatana. There the Buddha addressed the group of five mendicants: “Mendicants!”
“Venerable sir,” they replied. The Buddha said this:
“Mendicants, form is not-self. For if form were self, it wouldn’t lead to affliction. And you could compel form: ‘May my form be like this! May it not be like that!’ But because form is not-self, it leads to affliction. And you can’t compel form: ‘May my form be like this! May it not be like that!’
'Form' here means 'material form', i.e. 'the body'. What the Buddha is saying is that - whether or not you do have some kind of 'essence' - your body can't be it. Why not? Because if your body were really 100% 'you' then you should have complete control over it - you should be able to decide how you want it to be, and that should be all there is to it.
I don't know about you, but my body doesn't work like that! If I had complete control over it, I'd change one or two things - get rid of the asthma, add a bit of muscle tone, shed a few pounds of useless but remarkably stubborn fat, that kind of thing.
Clearly, I don't have absolute control over my body. Much as I'd like to, I can't stop myself getting ill - my body does that by itself. Sometimes I'm physically clumsy when I'd much rather be precise and skilful - no matter how hard I concentrate, my limbs refuse to move with the precision I desire.
On the other hand, it isn't that my body is 100% disconnected from 'me' either. It certainly seems that I'm able to make choices and influence what happens to my body over time. I do an exercise routine pretty consistently, and it definitely helps to keep me reasonably fit. When I choose to eat a lot of unhealthy food, my body gets fatter, and when I make different choices, it gets slimmer (although it gets fatter much more easily than it gets slimmer - something else I'd change if I could!).
So the relationship between 'me' and 'the body'/'my body' is not one of absolute control; but equally, it isn't that there's no relationship at all either. My behaviour affects my body (and vice versa). My body is clearly an important aspect of who I am - but the relationship is one of mutual influence rather than absolute control. It's more like the relationship we might have with a close friend - we can make suggestions, but sometimes our friend has other ideas.
The discourse continues:
Feeling is not-self …
Perception is not-self …
Choices are not-self …
Consciousness is not-self. For if consciousness were self, it wouldn’t lead to affliction. And you could compel consciousness: ‘May my consciousness be like this! May it not be like that!’ But because consciousness is not-self, it leads to affliction. And you can’t compel consciousness: ‘May my consciousness be like this! May it not be like that!’
Readers familiar with early Buddhism will recognise the scheme of the Five Aggregates here. I've written extensively on these previously, so go and check out that article if you don't recognise them.
In brief, though, the Buddha is saying that every other aspect of who we are is just like the body - the things we like and dislike, the concepts we use to understand the world, the choices we make (whether intentional or impulsive), and even our basic ability to recognise what's going on around us. Just like the body, all of these are clearly important aspects of who we are - and, just like the body, they're neither entirely within our control nor entirely beyond it.
So what does that leave? Who actually are we?
Sometimes, people say that the Buddha taught 'no self', but as you can hopefully see from the above, that isn't what's going on at all. It isn't that there's 'nobody here at all' - we aren't helpless or powerless, and what we do in the world really matters. At the same time, though, we aren't fixed in the way that we usually take ourselves to be - we're much more 'process' than 'thing'.
Small glimpses, many times
Insight practice can sometimes come across as being a bit 'heady' or intellectual, and up to this point what I've written could come across as a logical, rational argument intended to persuade you to believe something about the nature of the self. But simply changing an abstract, intellectual belief is not at all what this practice is about. Here's what the Buddha says:
“So you should truly see any kind of form at all — past, future, or present; internal or external; coarse or fine; inferior or superior; far or near: all form — with right understanding: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’
Any kind of feeling at all …
Any kind of perception at all …
Any kind of choices at all …
You should truly see any kind of consciousness at all — past, future, or present; internal or external; coarse or fine; inferior or superior; far or near: all consciousness — with right understanding: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’
The aim of insight practice is to change the way you experience the world, not just the way you think about it. The invitation here is to explore your moment-to-moment sensory experience, lightly holding the question 'Who am I?' as you do. What's going on right now? Who are you in this moment? Is your sense of self tied up in your body, your thoughts and emotions, something else? Is it always the same, or does it change from one situation to the next? Can you pin down 'Aha, this bit is me!', or is it a moving target? Can you find anything fixed or solid - anything like an 'essence'? Or can you see clearly for yourself, in your immediate experience, that it's all processes and interactions, all a complex web of relationships, with nothing solid to be found anywhere?
Why do this?
The exploration of the self has been central to spiritual practice for millennia for good reason. We tend to approach the world from the standpoint of our 'self' - we judge and measure what's going on as it relates to us, as it provides us with opportunities for loss or gain, pleasure or pain and so on. Because this sense of self provides the foundation for our whole world view, a lot of mental energy has to go into keeping the self propped up, advertised to those around us and defended from whatever might threaten it. Unfortunately, this gives rise to inner conflict - we try to relate to ourselves as if we were something fixed, ignoring the reality that everything is in motion all the time. We take what should be free-flowing water and freeze it into ice, then wonder why it's no longer able to flow smoothly with the twists and turns of life's river.
As we turn the light of awareness onto our 'self', the ice begins to melt, and we come to a different relationship with what's going on - one that's based in flow. We come into a dynamic intimacy with life, flowing effortlessly with the bends in the river, ebbing and surging as the situation requires.
May your ice melt soon!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!