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.
This blog is based on my book ‘Life’s Meandering Path’- available from Amazon and Kindle.