Buddhists talk a lot about self. We strive to let go of attachment to self. We teach that there is no inherently-existing, enduring self. We work toward an experience of no-self, alternately known as an experience of our True Self.
Buddhist practitioners often find it challenging to understand and transform their relationship to self. What self is good and useful, and what self is a hindrance? We are supposed to be letting go of self, so why is there so much emphasis in practice on a deep acceptance of self and recognition of a bigger, deeper self? Self, self, self!
If you find the Buddhist teachings on self to be challenging, that is just as it should be. They are meant to raise more questions than answers as you explore a teaching like Dogen’s:
“To study the buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no trace continues endlessly.” – Genjokoan
What is the self? How do you study it, and how do you forget it? Is there something in your experience which is not the self?
Given that our practice should include a struggle with our understanding/experience of self, you are not meant to read this essay and conclude, “Oh, I get it, that’s what Buddhists mean by self.” I hope, instead, that you read this essay and gain an increased appreciation for how profound and expansive this subject is. The word “self” is used to refer to who and what we are, and this can be considered at many different levels. It is not selfish to want to understand who and what we are; it is the essence of the spiritual search.
To begin with, there is no problem whatsoever with the fact that we each have what I am going to call a “Conventional Self.” This is the sum total of our parts assembled in such a way that our body functions, along with all of the phenomena that emerge because of it. These phenomena include sensations, perceptions, emotions, thoughts, consciousness, characteristics and tendencies. Because of the way life evolved on our planet, almost all living things manifest as individuals – distinguishable from one another and indivisible into more than one living unit – so the nature of our Conventional Self is separateness and independence.
We have a Conventional Self whether we like it or not. No spiritual seeker has ever literally freed himself from his Conventional Self, at least not during his lifetime (and many have tried). Fortunately, from the Buddhist point of view, the reality of a Conventional Self does not obstruct spiritual liberation.
This brings us to the next aspect of self, “Self-Consciousness.” Given our human intelligence, we are conscious of our Conventional Self as a separate existence over time. According to Buddhist teachings, this Self-Consciousness leads to an illusion and the beginning of our spiritual problems. Of course, it is not an illusion that our Conventional Self exists over time, and an awareness of this is necessary for survival. The problem arises because the utilitarian phenomenon of Self-Consciousness results in an attributive error: we assume that because we have a sensation of being a self moving through time, there is an inherently-existing, enduring self which moves through time. We come to believe we have some kind of self-essence or soul that retains its identity through changing conditions.
Once we conclude that we have an inherently-existing, enduring self, we are of course supremely interested in this self’s survival and well-being. We try to make it as substantial as possible, which leads us to our “Self-Concept.” This is everything – all of the sensations, emotions, thoughts, opinions, plans, relationships, roles, possessions, talents, etc. – with which we identify our self and label, “I, me, and mine.” It overlaps with our Conventional Self but includes many things beyond it; for example, I may include my husband in my Self-Concept while he is not part of my Conventional Self. We are rather like the hermit crabs that find bits of debris on the ocean floor and then glue it to their shells for camouflage. We incorporate more and more things into our Self-Concept until – hopefully – we feel our self is protected, substantial, and real.
Buddhist practice begins by asking us to challenge our Self-Concept, which is actually quite fragile. Often, life events have shaken or damaged our Self-Concept and caused us to turn to spiritual practice in the first place. The things we identify with are terrifyingly subject to change and loss, and when pieces of our Self-Concept get stripped away our self feels smaller and more vulnerable. This can cause anxiety, depression, angst, denial, or a desperate scramble to find new stuff to identify with self. Or – when we are ready – it can cause us to start our study of self itself.
Driving our study of self is usually a question like, “Who or what am I, really?” In Zen practice we often approach this question by first looking diligently for our own deep conviction that we have an inherently-existing, enduring self. It takes a while to find this delusion within us. We watch our Self-Concept change over time and morph according to conditions, so we learn not to rely on it so much. We methodically identify all those things which we consider “not-self;” all those things we could lose (limbs, senses, values, personality characteristics, even consciousness) and still feel like we are our “self.” Underneath it all, usually without realizing it, we strongly adhere to the belief that there is a least some kind of fundamental self-particle that we can count on to be there throughout our lives.
In reality there is no inherently-existing, enduring self. What we experience is a flow of causation over time operating in and around our Conventional Self. While our Conventional Self is, in one sense, separate and independent, it is also without fixed boundaries, constantly changing, and completely interdependent with the rest of the universe. Self-Consciousness is an amazing emergent phenomenon1 of an incredibly complex living system, not proof of a soul.
In Buddhist practice it is the attributive error that we seek to correct (the assumption of an inherently-existing, enduring self behind our sensation of Self-Consciousness), not the awareness of the Conventional Self, Self-Consciousness, or even a Self-Concept. All three of these aspects of self serve important functions and are not a problem or a hindrance unless we insist on attributing inherent existence and permanence to them, or to some essential part of them. When we personally experience the three aspects of self as empty – that is, empty of inherent, enduring existence – we are liberated from the bondage of fear and greed felt on behalf of our inherently existing self. We still feel plenty of concern about the well-being of our Conventional Self, but the fear and greed are not nearly so powerful as when we are worried about the survival of our self-essence. Before awakening we are very, very worried about that self-essence.
So – what about this “True Self,” or Buddha-nature, that we seek to experience? An ancient master said “Our true self-nature is no self-nature,” so don’t get your hopes up for finding the new-and-improved-truly-wonderful-and-infallible self-particle. At the same time, this True Self is not affected by conditions, so it is very worth investigating.
Basically, here’s the scenario. You’ve worked hard at spiritual practice and have some direct experience of the fact that there is no inherently-existing, enduring self. You sensed the emptiness of the Conventional Self, Self-Consciousness and Self-Concept. So what the heck are you? The experience of emptiness can be very unnerving. Once you’ve gotten used to the spiritual sensation of it – which is a bit like walking on air, moving forward as you usually do but without any of the usual support – and you become more confident that you aren’t going to fall into the void, you wonder why, despite everything, you feel so… alive. You feel more you than you ever have, or like you have come home at last, or like you are so stable nothing in the universe could knock you over. And yet when you try to find what defines “you,” you can’t find anything. The Truth of this self does not rely on any details of your Conventional Self, Self-Consciousness or Self-Concept. So in a sense it’s not “you” or “yours” at all.
True Self is just what we are when we are without the delusion of inherent, enduring self-existence. The three mundane aspects of self – Conventional Self, Self-Consciousness and Self-Concept – do not in any way prevent the manifestation of True Self; in fact, True Self, or Buddha-nature, has never manifested apart from these phenomena. It is a miraculous discovery of the sages that cannot be located or defined, just experienced.
1. emergence – Properties of a complex physical system are emergent just in case they are neither (i) properties had by any parts of the system taken in isolation nor (ii) resultant of a mere summation of properties of parts of the system. From the Dictionary of Philosophy of Mind, http://philosophy.uwaterloo.ca/MindDict/emergence.html