In this blog, we will be looking at the Buddhist concept of nonself. This is a difficult subject for many of us to grasp because we have invested so much time and effort into building and reinforcing a sense of self. However, Buddha stated that what we call a self is just a coming together of different parts.
A woman goes to the woods to meditate. Whilst she is there her mind gets distracted and these questions arise:
By whom was this being created?
Where is the living being’s maker?
Where has the living being originated?
Where does the living being cease?
These are questions we all grapple with at some time in our lives. However, she doesn’t get distracted by these thoughts and thinks to herself:
‘This is purely a pile of fabrications. Here no living being can be pinned down. Just as when, with an assemblage of parts, there’s the word car, even so when aggregates are present, there’s the convention of a being’.
The questions are presupposing there is a self, but that is just a fabrication. Some people think we are our thoughts, but thoughts come and go, so we are not our thoughts. Others believe we are our bodies, but scientists tell us that millions of cells in our body are renewed every minute, so that by the end of seven years we don’t have a single living cell in our body that was there seven years before. Our bodies are changing, so we can’t be our bodies. So, who are we?
No lasting, permanent self can be pinned down because we are just a collection of parts, much the same as a car. When various parts are assembled, we label it a car, and the same for us. When all the parts come together, we call it a self. As this self is compounded it follows that it is impermanent, and so it will come together, remain for a period of time and finally die.
We have to be careful here that we don’t misunderstand what is being said. Buddha was not saying there is no self or there is a self. The question of there being a self or not is just a ‘thicket of views’, and one should avoid such ways of thinking. This isn’t because he couldn’t answer the question, but that it had no bearing on easing our suffering. These types of questions get us confused and may lead us down the wrong path, such as nihilism or eternalism.
The reason for this teaching was to stop us clinging to a self, because that clinging or attachment will lead to conceit, which will in turn lead to us suffering. He taught three different types of conceit we have to be aware of:
Thinking we are better than others, which causes the seven types of pride: pride of ego clinging, simple pride (thinking you are special), pride of thinking we are better/greater than others, pride of pride (thinking you are the best in the group), pride of thinking we are only slightly inferior to an outstanding person, perverted pride (when we are proud of something that is not good), and blatant arrogance.
Thinking we are worse than others, which leads to envy or resentment.
Thinking we are the same as others, which can lead to us being complacent.
So, the next question that may come to mind is, ‘If there is not a permanent and solid self, how do we experience the world?’ I see, hear, smell and so on, how is that possible? I have a family, friends, and job, so if there is no self, who has all these things? These are all fair questions.
Buddha stated the way we experience the world is through five aggregates. The five aggregates come together through a series of causes and effects, and then we experience the world around us. When the five disperse, we stop experiencing the world—in short, we die. What are these aggregates?
They are form, feeling, conception, mental formation and consciousness.
Form includes our bodies and the material objects that we encounter. This aggregate includes both internal and external matter. It is the only aggregate that represents material things. The remaining four aggregates represent mental phenomena.
Feelings are divided into three parts: pleasant, neutral, and unpleasant. These experiences can be mental or physical. There are six kinds of experience, five physical and one mental. These experiences arise when your eyes come into contact with objects, your ears with sound, nose with smell, tongue with taste, body with tangibles and mind with thoughts and ideas.
Conception is where we attach a name to the experience and categorise it by shape, colour, location, sex and so on. We pick up concepts from our parents, friends, society, teachers. and other social groups. It should be noted that our whole world is built on concepts, judgements, and ideas, and not on objectively existing realities, as is commonly believed.
Mental formation is where we respond to an object of experience. It can stem from an impression created from previous actions, which makes us respond in a certain way. These responses have moral consequences as they can make us act in a skilful, neutral, or unskilful way. We can also decide, when we are being mindful, to act in a new and different way.
The final aggregate is consciousness. This is where we get an awareness of an object. If an eye comes into contact with a visible object, the eye consciousness will become associated with the object and visual consciousness will arise. If the nose comes into contact with a smell, the nose consciousness will become associated with the smell and the olfactory consciousness will arise. The same goes for the remaining four consciousnesses.
So, let’s put this all together. Your eyes see a form. Your consciousness becomes aware of it. Your conception identifies it. A pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant feeling arises. Your mental formation makes you respond to it with a conditioned reaction. This is how the five aggregates work together to give us a personal experience.
If you are walking down the street and a car passes you – this is form. Your eye consciousness becomes aware of the form – this is consciousness. As you know what a car looks like you will identify it as such – this is conception. If you like the car, a pleasant feeling will arise. If you dislike it, an unpleasant feeling arises. If you don’t care one way or another, a neutral feeling will arise – this is the feeling aggregate. Finally, our mental formation will make us act in a certain way, depending on if we like, dislike or don’t care about the car.
You should keep in mind that these aggregates do not constitute a self; they are just the way we experience the world. Buddha explained it this way:
‘…any kind of form whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near, must with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: “This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.”’
And the same goes for the other four aggregates.
These aggregates are compounded and so are impermanent and ever changing, so how can they constitute a self?
Nonself means there is no permanent, solid self. We come into being through a series of causes, conditions and effects, and we experience the world through the coming together of the five aggregates. These five aggregates also come into being through causes, conditions and effects, so they are impermanent and ever changing. In the Kalakarama Sutra prologue it states this about the aggregates:
Form is like a mass of foam,
And feeling—but an airy bubble.
Conception is like a mirage,
And mental formations a plantain tree.
Consciousness is a magic-show,
A juggler’s trick entire…
As impermanence, which was written about in the last blog post, and nonself are such important subjects, and since they can help reduce our suffering if we understand them, we should constantly contemplate them and try to implement their wisdom into our lives.
A central teaching in traditional Buddhism is the principle of dependent arising, which states that all things happen through cause and conditions and that they are interdependent. No phenomenon, whether outer or inner, occurs except as a reaction to a previous cause, and all phenomenon will, in turn, condition the following results. So, in a nutshell, because of one thing something else arises. Nothing in this world arises from its own power. Everything comes through causes and conditions.
By looking at things in this way it avoids the two extremes of eternalism and nihilism. Here, eternalism is the view that there is an external god that shapes our fate. Nihilism is the view that there is no relation between action and result, therefore our fate is predetermined.
The Buddhist view asserts that while there is no godlike figure that controls our fate, there are causes and conditions that effect our lives. We are able to change our lives because these causes and conditions can be known and changed.
There are twelve links that constitute the cycle of existence that makes up samsara. This is the endless circle of dissatisfaction that constitutes an unawakened life. We can escape this cycle of birth, old age, sickness, and death by breaking these links.
The links are not regarded as a linear path, but a cyclical one in which all links are connected to all other links.
Being able to escape from samsara can be initiated at any link in the chain, once any link is broken, the chain is forever broken.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the twelve links are depicted in the wheel of life (called the Dharmachakra) which represents the cycle of birth, rebirth, and existence in samsara.
Link One – Unawareness
Being unaware is the basis of all the other links. It is a lack of awareness of how things really are. Our belief in a true ‘self’ and thinking phenomena are permanent leads us to project things which do not exist. We become deluded and confused. It is also about not understanding and implementing the four noble truths. The first truth states that life brings about suffering. When we misunderstand this truth, we fail to realise the true nature of our lives. We believe we are seeing the world as it is, but in reality, we are mistaken. This is where our first sense of a self is starting to form. In the wheel of life this link is depicted by a blind person.
Link Two – Action
When we misunderstand the way life is it causes our minds to become poisoned by greed, anger, and delusion, known as the three poisons. These cause us to act in certain unskilful and negative ways. It is not just because of the three poisons we perform unhelpful acts. There are numerous causes, but these are three of the main ones. We need to remember here that any act we carry out through our body, speech or mind will have consequences. This is depicted by a potter making a pot.
Link Three – Experience
Because of our unawareness, the first link, we perform an action, which is the second link, and this plants a seed in our mind. This seed is just a potential at this point and may or may not come to fruition. That will depend on if we do the same action again. In the future, because of the seed we planted, we will have an experience. This is depicted by a monkey because that is how our minds operate. We jump from one thing to another, just like the monkey jumps from tree to tree.
Link Four – Name and Form
Name and form mean the five aggregates. Name refers to the last four aggregates – feelings, perception, actions, and consciousness. Form refers to the first aggregate. The way we experience the world is through the five aggregates. Firstly, there is a form, this can be an object, sound, taste, etc. and this is picked up by your consciousness. At this point the form has not been labelled, it is just an awareness. It gets labelled by your perceptions and conceptions. Once it is labelled it causes a feeling to arise. This feeling can be pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant. We then act on that feeling. You can read more about the aggregates by clicking on this link. This link is depicted by five people in a boat. The people represent the aggregates.
Link Five – Six Perceptual Entrances
All types of form – objects, sound, smell, taste, touch, mind – are pick up by our six sense faculties – eye, ear, nose, taste, touch, and mind (in Buddhism, the mind is also classed as a sense organ). These are all developed in the womb and will soon become our only means of perception of this world. Hence, they are called the six perceptual entrances. This link is depicted by a house with six windows.
Link Six – Contact
Link four is concerned with subject and link five is the object. This link is the contact between these two. It is the contact between the sense organs and the form, through the consciousness. Three things are happening here: the form, the faculties, and the linking consciousness. For example, an object, the eye faculty, and eye consciousness. There is a form, which is picked up by the faculty (eye, ear, nose, etc) and then linked to the corresponding consciousness, such as eye consciousness and so on. This is happening simultaneously. This link is depicted by a man and a woman embracing.
Link Seven – Feeling
When the sense organs encounter a form, they bring up feelings. These feelings can be pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant. One of these feelings will be present in every experience we have. This is depicted by a man with an arrow in his eye.
Link Eight – Desire
Contact, link six, leads to feelings, link seven, which in turn leads to link eight, desire. So, first, we make contact with a form. This leads to feelings, and these lead us to have desires. These can be desiring for good feelings to last, which they obviously won’t, or bad ones to end, which, because of impermanence, they will. This is depicted by a drunken man.
Link Nine – Grasping
In the last link, we craved and desired for things. In this link, we hold onto them. We get attached and grasp at the things we like and want. This attachment to things brings us untold mental suffering. It must be noted that at this stage the process is still only mental. A man picking fruit is how this is depicted in the wheel of life.
Link Ten – Becoming
This is where patterns of behaviour are formed. Up to now the things we have craved for were just on a mental level. At this point, the actions now become physical and verbal, and so it is known as ‘becoming.’ This is depicted by a pregnant lady.
Link Eleven – Birth
Because of the imprints from your patterns of behaviour created in the last link, you have a certain rebirth. This is depicted by someone giving birth.
Link Twelve – Decay and Death
Once we are born it is inevitable that we will age, get sick and finally die. This link contains all the physical and mental suffering of the human existence. It is depicted by a dying man.
Let’s try to break this down. Because of our unawareness or ignorance of how the world really works, we act in negative and unhelpful ways. This leads us to have experiences. These experiences can be broken down into the five aggregates, form, feelings, perception, actions, and consciousness. Form is picked up by our six sense organs, eye, ear, nose, taste, touch, and mind. This contact leads us to have feelings and desires, which lead us to start grasping and becoming attached. This in turn leads us to act, and the imprints of these actions are what cause us to take rebirth. Because we are reborn, we start the cycle of old age, sickness, and death all over again.
By understanding the 12 links, we can begin to appreciate that things do not happen on their own. There are always going to be causes and conditions. One thing is inevitably going to lead to another.
One of the best ways to break this cycle of an unsatisfactory life is to truly understand the way the world is. Not how we want it to be or wish it was, but how it actually is. To do this we really need to imbibe Buddha’s key teachings. These are:
Understand and implement the four noble truths
Understand impermanence, and not just at an intellectual level
Understand the dangers of attachment and believing in a permanent and autonomous self
Understand that things happen through causes and conditions
If we can understand and implement these teachings, we will be able to break the first link in the chain, which in turn will break the whole chain forever.
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In Buddhism, one of the most difficult teachings for people to understand is anatman or non-self. The doctrine states that in humans there is no permanent entity that can be called a self or a soul. This denial of “any Soul or Self” is what distinguishes Buddhism from other major religions, such as Christianity and Hinduism, and gives Buddhism its uniqueness.
The teaching is not only difficult, it is also controversial and one of the most poorly understood teachings in Buddhism. Many teachers believe it is more important to learn about karma and rebirth, but I would disagree. Most people usually misunderstand these teachings and they end up reinforcing a sense of self. They believe their karma gets attached to the self, and then this self is reborn. So, personally, I believe, if you want to reduce your suffering in this life, you should understand the teaching of non-self.
This sense of being a permanent, solid, autonomous self is an illusion. The problem is this illusion is so ingrained into our ordinary experience. We have a sense of a permanent, individual self, but that is all it is, a sense, a feeling. If I ask you, ‘Who are you?’ you may tell me about your job – I’m a lawyer, doctor, teacher and so on. But this is not who you are, this is your work. If you changed your job, would you stop being you? So, you are most defiantly not your job.
You may tell me about your family or nationality – I’m from a wealthy, middle-class, poor family. I’m Indian, British, African, and so on. Again, that is not who you are, it is just you in relation to others.
You may tell me you’re a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, etc. But that is your religion and not who you are.
You may say you are your thoughts or feelings or emotions, but these are all impermanent, so they cannot be you. The same goes for your body or your experiences, they are also impermanent and cannot be you.
We can go on with this exercise forever, but everything we find will be impermanent and superficial. There really is nothing within us that is independent and never changing.
So, if you are thinking here that Buddhism is saying you don’t exist, it isn’t. What it’s saying is, you do not exist in the way you think you do. We are not permanent, individual, solid entities. Instead, we are changing moment to moment, like the water flowing down a mountain stream. Giving ourselves a fixed name or identity doesn’t make us permanent, it is just a convention we have come up with so we can talk about ourselves. If you took me apart and laid all of my bits and pieces on the floor, you would not find an inherently existing Yeshe.
So, a question everyone asks when they come across this teaching is, ‘If I am not who I think I am, who am I? Instead of a permanent self or soul the individual is compounded of five factors that are constantly changing (See How we experience the world). These collection of five changing processes, known as the five aggregates, are: the processes of the physical body, of feelings, of perceptions, of responses and of the flow of consciousness that experiences them all.
When we identify with the process of the physical body, we get attached to our physical form. When we identify with the process of our feelings, our perceptions, and our responses, we become attached to them. Our sense of self arises whenever we grasp at, or identify with, these patterns.
The sense of a self is perpetuated because we pay attention to only the surface of our experiences. We never take the time to delve deeper. We identify with what we like and don’t like, what we want and don’t want, our dreams and beliefs. We think our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and physical sensations are a part of us, instead of seeing them as passing phenomena.
If we allow ourselves time to observe these processes come and go, we would be able to see them as just experiences that arise and fall away, and not a self. If we had a permanent self, we would never be able to change. So, if we want to grow and change, we need to let go of this idea that we have a self that defines us.
The next question people ask when they hear about non-self is, ‘So what? Why should I care if I have a self or not?’ This idea of a self produces harmful thoughts of ‘me’ and ‘mine’, selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism and other defilements, impurities, and problems. In fact, in Buddhism, it is said that the illusion of a self is the source of all our suffering.
When we identify with our physical, emotional, and mental experiences we become attached to them; the threat of losing any of these is deemed a threat to our very existence. But we are going to lose them because they are impermanent. This means the illusion of a self is setting ourselves up for failure.
When we observe the rising and falling away of all phenomena, we see that everything arises from nothing and then goes back to nothing. This includes our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and physical sensations. If we examine our experiences in this way, we begin to see that our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and sensations are not a self. This allows us to let go of our attachment to them. This in turn releases us from our suffering.
So, you may still be thinking, ‘if this teaching of non-self is true, then who’s reading this? I would answer, a growing, changing being that is in constant flux, and not a solid, permanent, individual self or soul.
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This blog was first released in January 2018 and is being reposted as part of the Buddha Dharma Series.