Finding Yourself (Or Not) In Buddhism

February 25, 2011 § 7 Comments

The concept of "No Self" in Buddhism is central in understanding parts of the Four Noble Truths, but is a difficult concept to grasp.

So, you’ve undertaken this journey. This study, this way of thinking, a philosophy, which finally SPEAKS to you. You find thoughts in it you knew you’ve been thinking all along, and you find they’re not just YOUR thoughts, they were also the thoughts of one important person who lived thousands of years ago — his name was Siddharta Gautama. Happily, you read along and learn about the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and slowly but surely, this thing creeps into your consciousness … You realize, there’s no “you” in Buddhism.

You read along and you wonder, WHAT? How could I not be me? How could there be no “me”? “I”‘ve been here all along! Look, “I”‘m still here! See? See that? “Me”! Lookit, there “I” am again! Oops “I” did it again! Here “I” am see? “Me”!

But no, says Buddha, there is no you. The “you” that you think of as “you”, nope. Not there. Not, there, at, all.

And that’s about where I’m finding myself right now in my studies, and BOY is this a tough concept to wrap my head around. It’s an especially tough concept, I think, for most Western-thinkers because of how we structure our idea of ‘self.’Truly, we have a pretty set idea of who ‘we’ are — democrat, republican, Christian, atheist, liberal, conservative, Mom, Dad, Wife, Husband, Brother, Sister, and any combination of those things. We’re any of those things, and that’s it. We don’t really change it. Everything we think and do must fit into the parameters of those things that we’ve identified as part of who that “I” or “self” is.

What I see, though, from what we’ve been reading with the Skeptical Readers of SL book club that I run, is that part of letting go — part of the cessation of ‘dukkha’ or suffering, is understanding this very concept of what is often referred to as ‘no-self.’

Part of understanding the idea of the “I” that we refer to is in taking a look at the Five Aggregates, which I’ve got links to articles and explanations for on my Terminology page. Even with these articles, the idea of there not being a ‘self,’ is really tough to grasp. At one moment I feel like I get it, and the next moment, I clearly do not.

Taking into consideration previous discussions with my virtual Sangha-mates and group discussions, my readings, research, and desperate attempts to wrap my head around this, I’ve come up with this analogy (I need to work in analogies because concepts like this? Yeah, I need to put them into terms I can understand. Remember, I’m SO not academic, ugh.)

“No-Self” is like the color white because …

  • just like white is composed of all the colors of light in the spectrum combined, the picture composed of ‘myself’ comes from the Five Aggregates — how “I” react to various stimuli — sensory, mental, etc., makes up the ‘me’ that I know.
  • just like the color white, that ‘me’ is not unchanging. It is reflected differently at different times — just like the color white can be on cloth, stone, a flower or clouds, and it’s still ‘white,’ “I” take different forms as well.

So, it’s not really that there’s ‘no me,’ just like there’s no ‘no color’ in ‘white,’ it’s just that “I” am made up of the Five Aggregates, and how that ‘me’ is reflected out depends on, well, the ‘material’ on which they are being reflected by–just like all the colors of the spectrum that make the color (soon to be known by me as ‘no-color’) white. White doesn’t change, just what the white is on.

Uhhhhmmm, so am I even close? This is how far I’ve developed my understanding of this question. I’m hoping that I’ve gotten it, or am getting close to getting it, because understanding this idea of ‘self’ is central to fully understanding the concepts of ‘suffering’ (second part of the Four Noble Truths) and the ‘cessation of suffering (Third Noble Truth).

Understanding the self, and how it clings, and how the idea of self and how it should actually be formed are important parts of the idea of reaching nirvana, nibanna, or however else you say ‘enlightenment.’

Not that I ever really expect to actually REACH enlightenment, realistically speaking, but I would still like a shot at trying to gain a glimpse of it, anyway 😉

So, yeah, if any of you who do read this have something to add, a point to clarify, or a way of making me (and consequently others) see this more clearly, I very much welcome you to share! Thanks 😀

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§ 7 Responses to Finding Yourself (Or Not) In Buddhism

  • JK says:

    Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

    — Walt Whitman

  • star says:

    Yes, it works very well. I keep saying that the five aggregates is “one way of looking at it”. It is what it is because it was what people of the Buddha’s time looked at when looking for the self; the other piece that isn’t in the five aggregates, but is in the suttas, is self as “mastery” — that is as the part of our being that is perceived as master of our ship of self. Five minutes trying to be the master of our own minds in meditation puts the lie to *that* one!

    The reason the Buddha was kind of dogmatic about saying there is no self is because the “self” he referred to had a specific definition in his day — he was saying *that* self the one that is thought of as eternal, unchanging, and separate and/or master of our fates — does not exist. And when we feel like there is such a self, we should take a close look at what we are perceiving and see if we can see any aspect that is, in fact, eternal, or unchanging, or separate, or has mastery.

    He is *not* saying that there is no feeling that there is a self. Clearly what we *do* have is a feeling of identity. He is not saying that there is no one home — if there was no one home, morality would be irrelevant. *All* he is saying is that: that which we normally perceive to be the self — which he called “anatta” (not self) is not what we tend to think it is (has no concreteness, mastery, etc) AND is kinda useless. In fact, he says, it is the source of most of our problems in life (not counting, say, earthquakes) and we can learn to do without it.

  • star says:

    I side-tracked myself. What I started out to say is that the Buddha showed us how we can try to locate what we think of as ourselves through looking at the five aggregates. He was sure we would then notice that none of those ways we usually see ourselves (as eternal, changeless, separate, master of our lives) would prove that we are all that.

    But these are not the *only* ways one can ever conceive of one as having a lasting self. And whatever way we do think of ourselves as having a lasting self, we should look at that, too. The point is to see what we are made of, and it turns out, just as you say, that we are made of many colors. There is something there we mistake for a lasting self — it *is* there, it is as real as our emotions are real, as fire is real — it is there and real because we give it reality, it is part of our reality. But that does not mean it is exactly what we tend to feel it is when we just feel it and don’t think about it, or look at it too closely.

    If we don’t think about it and look at it closely, white is colorless. Maybe if we do decide to think about it, and look at it, we see that what we thought of as white is made up of many colors, and has to “land” on something so it is part of whatever it lands on, too, the white of the cloud being different from the white sand on a beach.

    • So Linda, is the problem with perceiving as having an unchanging self that we cling to that idea of the self as being a certain way? If we see ourselves as ‘unchanging,’ instead of being open to ideas and various events in life and stimuli and accepting them ‘as they are,’ we perceive them through the filter of that ‘self’ that we’ve constructed? If we don’t have that ‘self’ that is unchanging, the idea is that we are more receptive to people, ideas, etc. without being mired down with them having to fit into the parameters of our expectations, which are often set up by who or what we *think* we are. Am I way off base here? Looking at that, I feel like I’ve strayed away from what I was originally saying …

      • star says:

        I suspect it’s deeper than just “how we perceive ourselves”. My reading of the suttas indicates to me that the Buddha was saying it is *that* we perceive ourselves. Period.

        With the “how” parts he was trying to shake us loose from a perception of self by getting us to look at aspects that we take to be self and see that they were not valid. But he didn’t stop there in his attempts, so it wasn’t just about the “how”.

        He also tried to get us to look at our lives, from the tiniest moments on up, to see how operating from any sense-of-self at all causes us to make wrong assumptions and we burn ourselves with those wrong assumptions.

      • star says:

        So *part* of the problem of having a self manifests as us being inflexible because we have a fixed sense of self — the result of us digging in and defending our concepts is definitely “dukkha” — but the problem starts farther back than attachment to views of things, and because it goes back farther than that, it is larger than just that aspect, has results that stem from more than just inflexibility.

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