The second mark of existence is commonly the most easily mischaracterized. While the final of the three is also used as a detriment of Buddhism, this one easily mystifies people in how it approaches what we take for granted over time, our self. Another way to phrase it might be our experience of existence, studied in the philosophical discipline called phenomenology, which relates to Buddhist teaching on getting closer to reality. The most simple translation of anatta, sometimes phrased as anatman, is “no-self”, but another more specific meaning is “non-self”. The nuance between the two is that Buddhism doesn’t disbelieve in a self by empirical standards. Even as I type this, I have a sense of individual personality. My hands type, my eyes look across the screen, my memory is scanned for facts to consider and relationships between them. But the dual-pronged importance of this easily skimmed over tenet of Buddhism cannot be overstated. The first message is that our self is compound by nature and thus affected by impermanence, which I spoke about in “Flux and Flow” The second is that with the impermanent and aggregate quality of our self, we cannot say that anything is owned by us. Both of these are intertwined with other aspects of Buddhism and I’ll explain that shortly.
The best way to explain the self’s nature is through the analogy from Vajira, a Buddhist nun who confronted a personification of temptation, Mara (also well known for having tempted the Buddha in a way similar to Jesus in the wilderness meeting the Devil). Mara asks Vajira to explain her “being” and where it came from, where it will end and what it consists of. She responds that he is conceiving of an idea that has parts to it, explaining that the idea of the self comes and goes from one’s own thoughts and then compares the self to a chariot, both composed of pieces. Wheels, axels, the seat and other parts are all constructed together to make what we call a chariot, but we can also break it down into those parts and they can serve other functions elsewhere and can be understood on their own. In the same way, the skandhas, the five constituents of our self, can be understood separately, but also are inseparable from each other. The first is form, followed by sense, thought, habits and consciousness. Each of these has a basis in the first, but then becomes more and more immaterial as we get to the point of our own individual experiences of everyday events. Each of these things, like the parts of a chariot, is affected by other conditions outside themselves. Wheels become uneven by wear and tear, axels can break, and other ravages of time affect these physical things. Similarly, our brain as the basis of our senses, thoughts, habits and awareness (another way to think of consciousness) is affected by our ingestion of alcohol or drugs as well as blows to the head or chemical imbalances which can affect what we perceive. One of the more common demonstrations of this is brain scanning related to patients who claimed to have had NDEs (Near Death Experiences). The brain is said to function in a way remarkably similar to when we dream, stimulating chemicals that simulate a variety of initially inexplicable sensations, like floating above your body. But we have evidence to suggest that it is not anything immaterial that stimulates our trance like state that commonly happens when the brain is in an adverse situation such as temporary heart failure. Our brain affects virtually every part of our body in some way or another. It is the foundation, in a sense, of the other skandhas (aggregates) but even it is subject to change, the impermanence I spoke of at length last week. With this in mind, it stands to reason that our experiences through our sensory organs and our contemplation of abstract ideas also change over time as we mature and gain new information. Our senses become sharper, but inevitably dull in part and we approach ideas like good and evil from different perspectives and our initially simple concepts evolve.
With anything we understand in a monolithic sense, like our discovery of what makes us unique as a person and the resultant idea that our mind is more like a large whole instead of interconnected parts, there is a tendency to dismiss other ideas as denying the soul’s existence. While Buddhism may deny that there is an immaterial substance that survives past our deaths, it neither denies that we have a mental experience of something we call a self, nor does it claim we do not in a sense survive our deaths, albeit it is through others, not in and of ourselves, which I talked about in “Funerals AreFor Both the Living and the Dead,” We do experience a continuum of ourselves, somewhat recognizing that we change quite drastically over every year, if not every moment. In that sense, we do at least perceive something like a self through our minds. But this doesn’t mean it reflects reality that this mind will go on like a ghost after our body expires. The compound and bundled nature of our self makes it something complex enough to speak for a whole article itself, but to transition to the other issue, it is pertinent to say that while we have many everyday experiences we take as factual, we should not take them at face value to be so, which is a virtue of skepticism Buddhism emphasizes in practice many times.
Something very much related to my discussion in “Desire and Delusion” is the realization that results from understanding that the self is temporary and transient by nature. Nothing you originally thought was yours is ultimately so and couldn’t be even if you had a soul. Even your very identity is not yours finally, because your identity will only remain perceived as long as your body remains. Perhaps other people will remember you, but that reflects on the interrelation of people’s own ideas about you with the identity you constructed in those relationships. Since the very self you experience day by day is not yours, you can progressively relinquish your attachments to other things, connecting right back to the distinction between desire and craving. It’s normal to want things in the same way that it’s normal to develop a personality as you grow up, an individual identity that sets you apart from other people. But like your friends, your attachment to yourself or them existing forever in some way can be said to bind you to existence and necessitates that you let go of that preconception that you living forever is preferable to your eventual nonexistence that was the case before you were born and after you die. Once we divest ourselves of the idea that our self is so magnificent that it must be independent of other things, we can then recognize our dependence on other things while also not letting ourselves become either attached or detached, but let them come and go as they will, in a sort of Greek Stoic sense.
In Buddhism, the self does not exist except as a perception, which, along with many other things, doesn’t reflect reality as it is, but only as we approach it. The skandhas are those perceptions and bases for those perceptions the further down you go into physical matter. But all of these in some sense can be boiled down, albeit with some complex neurology and physics, to physical matter and energy. Buddhists don’t need to believe we have a self in order to believe in karma, nor do they need to believe in a self in order to believe in some form of reincarnation that’s more like reconstitution of elements into another form. Your elements become one with other things and thus you have a sense of interdependence with other things and thus the idea of a self becomes less likely. I’ll eventually get to dependent origination, also called pratiyasamutpada, which is another very important belief of Buddhists, but look forward to possibly the most easily twisted idea in Buddhism from Christian apologists and critics of Buddhism anywhere, dukkha, or “suffering”, or, as I prefer to call it, unsatisfactoriness. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.