How do you resonate with the Buddhist teaching that our sense of self is an illusion? I imagine you feel very real. You exist, and you are not the same as everyone and everything else. You move through your life with a sense of continuity from one moment, one day, one year, to the next. In what way is our sense of “self” an illusion?
Once upon a time a very bold man, King Milinda, put this question to a Buddhist sage named Nagasena. They started out their dialogue like this:
“King Milinda asked [Nagasena}: "How is Your Reverence known, and what is your name, sir?"
"As Nagasena I am known, O Great King, and as Nagasena do my fellow religious habitually address me. But although parents give names such as Nagasena, or Surasena, or Virasena, or Sihasena, nevertheless, this word ‘Nagasena’ is just a denomination, a designation, a conceptual term, a current appellation, a mere name. For no real person can here be apprehended."
But King Milinda explained: "Now listen, you 500 Greeks and 80,000 monks [assembled in the audience], this Nagasena tells me that he is not a real person! How can I be expected to agree with that!" 1
Nagasena responded by asking Milinda whether the king had arrived at their location via chariot. The king answered that he had. Then Nagasena asked him what the chariot was. Was the chariot the axle? The king replied “No.” Was it the wheels, the frame, the flag-staff, the yoke, or the goad-stick of the chariot? The king replied no to all of these questions, because none of these taken in isolation could be called the chariot. Then Nagasena asked whether the collection of all of these objects could be called the chariot (picture them piled up together). The king replied no. Nagasena then asked whether the chariot could be found outside that collection of objects, and of course the answer was no. The dialogue continued:
Nagasena: “Then, ask as I may, I can discover no chariot at all. Just a mere sound is this ‘chariot’. But what is the real chariot? Your Majesty has told a lie, has spoken a falsehood! There really is no chariot…”
Milinda: “I have not, Nagasena, spoken a falsehood. For it is in dependence on the pole, the axle, the wheels, the framework, the flag-staff, etc., that there takes place this denomination ‘chariot,’ this designation, this conceptual term, a current appellation, and a mere name.”
Nagasena: “Your Majesty has spoken well about the chariot. It is just so with me. In dependence on the thirty-two parts of the body and the five Skandhas there takes place this denomination ‘Nagasena,’ this designation, this conceptual term, a current appellation, and a mere name. In ultimate reality, however, this person cannot be apprehended.”
The “Five Skandhas” Nagasena refers to are the original Buddhist description of the five principles components of a human being: form (the physical body), sensation (raw physical and emotional data arising from contact between the world and the senses), perception (the mental processes resulting from sensation, including the sensing of thoughts), formation (the mental constructs formed within the mind when perception meets volition), and consciousness (our sense of continuous self-awareness). “Skandha” can be translated as “pile,” “aggregate” or “bundle.”
At first glance the teaching of the five aggregates can suggest a view that we are a just a collection of stuff that just happens to result in the phenomenon of self-consciousness. This is a bleak, mechanistic view, and it does not reflect the real teaching. After all, we are not a random collection of stuff in any case; we are a particular kind of collection brought about by a particular set of causes and effects. And as Nagasena’s analogy demonstrates, there is a certain kind of reality to the “self,” just as there is a reality to a chariot. A chariot did, indeed, function to transport King Milinda to Nagasena’s teaching! It is useful to be able to give a chariot a name and then make use of the chariot’s function. Similarly, to function in the world we not only need a sense of self, we also need to be able to talk about it and make use of it.
Still… the person we think we are “cannot be apprehended,” and this tends to bother most of us, whether we are aware of it or not. We are generally attached to one or another of the five skandhas, thinking, “I am my body,” or “I am my feelings… perceptions… thoughts… consciousness.” This is like deciding that the axle of the chariot is the chariot, when in fact the functional “chariot” arises from a combination of causes and conditions that, when separated, cease to be functional.
The first main point of Buddhism is that human beings are fixated on finding their “real” self, and this causes them great existential grief because the real nature of the self is an emergent phenomenon. The second main point of Buddhism is that we can relieve ourselves of this existential grief and distress by accepting and embracing the real nature of the self – which really isn’t so bad. We can actually delight in this emergent phenomenon which we cannot, in the final analysis, apprehend. We can ride on the flow of self like we are floating down a river.
1 The Questions of King Milinda (Milindapanha), translated by Edward Conze. See: http://instruct.westvalley.edu/lafave/The%20Questions%20of%20King%20Milinda.htm