Saturday, August 28, 2010

I know you are, but what am I?

No, this is not a post about childish teasing or catty comebacks. This post is about anatta – no self. It’s an important Buddhist concept, but it’s also a beguiling one. Some confuse themselves by devoting a great deal of energy into solving the apparent riddle that if there is no self, “then who am I?” Others take the extreme, almost nihilist and literal view that no self means there is no individual identity at all, “we are all one with the trees and the molecules and the air that blows.” This can lead to the very wrong conclusion that “we don’t exist.”

As Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes in “No Self or Not Self?”:

“If there's no self, what experiences the results of kamma and takes rebirth? Second, it doesn't fit well with our own Judeo-Christian background, which assumes the existence of an eternal soul or self as a basic presupposition: If there's no self, what's the purpose of a spiritual life?”

As an aside, there’s been ongoing discussion about the “difference” between Western and Asian Buddhism, causing many to assert that we ought to stop this “meaningless” discussion and just talk about Buddhism (I’m afraid that at times I have been one of these, “can’t we just talk about Buddhism?”). But the dichotomy is real, and Thanissaro Bhikkhu touches on this when he talks about Westerners’ “Judeo-Christian background.” Folks, this perspective, this ken, is fundamentally different from the Hindu influence found in South Asia and the Confucian influence found in East Asia. These varying cultural backgrounds have real influence on how we not only perceive the world around us, but how we categorize and “understand” these concepts.

But once again, I digress.

The Buddha knew that to answer such questions like “Do I exist?” or “Is there a self?” was to lead one into a rabbit hole of circular intellectual activity. To directly address the issue of self or no-self was to continue one’s attachment to either concept, which was a source of suffering. The Buddha’s teaching is all about how to end suffering, so to dwell on issues relating to “self” would have been the antithesis of his teaching.

And yet, the Buddha was always talking about the self. Or was he?

In the Dighanaka Sutta: To LongNails (MN 74), the Buddha tells Aggivessana: “A monk whose mind is thus released does not take sides with anyone, does not dispute with anyone. He words things by means of what is said in the world but without grasping at it.”

Bhikkhu Bodhi explains that what the Buddha is telling Aggivessana is that “an arahant may use the words ‘I’ and ‘mine’ without giving rise to conceit or misconceiving them as referring to a self or ego.” The Buddha states similarly in the Samyutta Nikaya and the Digha Nikaya when he says, “These are merely names, expressions, turns of speech, designations in common use in the world, which the Tathagata uses without misapprehending them.”

Let’s make it simple. The image I selected for this post is of me when I was 4 years old. I say it is an image of “me,” when “I” was a little boy, but the boy in that photo is completely different from who “I” am today. And not just because I am 52 and have different likes and dislikes than I did then. I am so different that I am completely biologically different now from when I was 4; every single cell in my body is different now. In fact, every 7 years, my body completely rebuilds itself with new cells. So biologically speaking, I am not the same biological living mass of matter now as when I was 45.

Yet here I am. And those who have known me for more than 7 years would look at me and say, “there you are.”

This is the source of dukkha – that we are impermanent beings living in a world of impermanent phenomena. We are constantly changing, as is the world around us, and yet we speak and act as though everything was permanent. How have you been? It’s good to see you again. You’re looking the same as ever. Ah yes, it’s the same you.

But like an arahant – despite the fact I am not and nowhere near being one – I can cultivate an attitude of ease and accept that this is how the world works while still gaining wisdom about the impermanency of self. And so yes, I tell others I am gay; I love another man who makes me feel comfortable and brings me happiness and joy, and I hope I do the same for him. I love to cook and enjoy having friends over for dinner. I am a Frank Zappa aficionado; I enjoy wine; I like to ride my bicycle along the Lake Michigan shore here in Chicago; and I am going to have fun when I go to see Scissor Sisters next week.


  1. Nice post, thank you, and great quotes. We Buddhists get so hung up on the idea of self and not-self, don't we? Perhaps the important thing, as you seem to be saying, is not to fool ourselves into thinking that we are here to stay - whether that is for a moment or a lifetime.

    One important thing to get to grips with, and something that can help resolve these contradictions, I've found, is that this doesn't mean we are going to be anywhere else, either. The emptiness of conventional 'reality' is simply a reflection of the emptiness of non-conventional reality. If you think about it, this is a great liberation - no longer do we have to search for the 'ultimate'. And this is why we are able, as Nagarjuna might have said, to flood the conventional with meaning, impermanent though that might be.