Unraveling the Buddha’s teachings on how we construct ourselves
The core insight of the Buddhist tradition—the relentless emptiness of phenomena—has profound implications for all of us who are trying to understand the nature of life. It points to the disturbing fact that all nouns are arbitrary constructions. A person, place or thing is just an idea invented to freeze the fluid flow of the world into objects that can be labeled and manipulated by adroit but shallow modes of mind. Beyond and behind these snapshots we take for ourselves is a vast and unnamable process.
Of all the words we use to disguise the hollowness of the human condition, none is more influential than “myself.” It consists of a collage of still images—name, gender, nationality, profession, enthusiasms, relationships—that are renovated from time to time, but otherwise are each a relic from one particular experience or another. The defining teaching of the Buddhist tradition, that of non-self, is merely pointing out the limitations of this reflexive view we hold of ourselves. It’s not that the self does not exist, but that it is as cobbled-together and transient as everything else.
The practice of meditation invites us to investigate the flux of arising and passing events. When we get the hang of it, we can begin to see how each artifact of the mind is raised and lowered to view, like so many flashcards. But we can also glimpse, once in a while, the sleight-of-hand shuffling the cards and pulling them off the deck. Behind the objects lies a process. Self is a process. Self is a verb.
How do we go about selfing ourselves? This is something the Buddha looked at very closely, and he left us a trail to follow that reveals the process. The name of this trail is dependent origination, and it starts (in some formulations) with a moment of consciousness, the cognizing of a sense object with a sense organ. Most other thinkers (both then and now) consider the matter to begin and end here, that consciousness is self. Where there is an object, there must be a subject, right? Subject and object define one another.
But at least in the earliest teachings of the Buddhist tradition, all that is granted is that consciousness defines an object. To be aware is to be aware of something. Yet as everyone knows—everyone who has lost themselves for a few precious moments in music or dance or sport, or even sex—one can be fully aware of objects without the corresponding creation of the subject. Selfing is optional.
When an object is known by means of an organ, a moment of contact is born. This is the elemental unit of experience upon which our world of experience is constructed, and is an event that occurs rather than an entity that exists. Perception and feeling also arise in conjunction with this moment of contact, and the whole arisen bundle is further conditioned by a particular intentional stance or attitude. All this amounts to an elegant, but selfless, interdependent arising of physical and mental phenomena (aka the five aggregates), in response to the presentation of information at a sense door. It functions similarly for a suffering worldling or for an awakened Buddha.
The process of constructing a self begins as an uninformed response to the texture of the ensuing feeling tone. Desire is a state of disequilibrium between what is arising and what one wants to be arising. The process is the same whether one wants vanishing pleasure to endure or one wants presenting pain to go away. In either case, desire can only manifest when a person who desires is created. The self (as a noun) is created as the (imaginary) subject of desire through an event that English won’t even let us name: selfing.
The manner in which this is done employs the mediating function of grasping or clinging, which consists of holding on or pushing away. Prompted by desire, the wanting-of-things-to-be-other-than-they-are, the response of holding on to what I like or pushing away what I don’t like gets acted out. The making-of-a-self is the verb, and the view-of-a-self is its residue. The process of selfing manifests as an attitude to phenomena, expressed through the unskillful conditioning of intention, rather than as thing itself. Hence the Buddhist teaching of non-self as a particular kind of corrective to wrong view, rather than as the negation of an entity. As the matter is put in the Pali texts:
“When there is a self (attan), there is what belongs to my self; When there is what belongs to my self, there is a self.” (Majjhima Nikaya 22:25)
“This is the way leading to the origination of self (sakkaya): one regards [all phenomena] thus: 'This is mine, this is me, this is my self’ This is the way leading to the cessation of self: one regards [all phenomena] thus: 'This is not mine, this is not me, this is not my self.’” (M 148:16-27)
What becomes clear through this analysis of moment-to-moment experience is that grasping is not something done by the self, but rather self is something done by grasping. The self is constructed each moment for the simple purpose of providing the one who likes or doesn’t like, holds on to or pushes away, what is unfolding in experience. Just as there is a fundamental interdependence between consciousness and its object, so also is there an interdependence between desire and its subject. But there is no inherent bond between subject and object or between consciousness and desire.
The gift bequeathed to us by the Buddha is the possibility of seeing how consciousness can become liberated from desire, allowing it to cognize objects more intimately without the intermediary epiphenomenon of a subject. When desire is replaced by equanimity, and awareness of all phenomena thus unfolds without reference to self, we gain the freedom to move along with change rather than setting ourselves against it.
But don’t take the Buddha’s word for it. Try locating the grasping reflex in your own experience, the subtle attitude of holding on to or pushing away what suits or vexes “me,” and see for yourself what happens when it is replaced at any given moment by equanimity. To self or not to selfï¿½it’s a choice to be made.
Andrew Olendzki, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, in Barre, Massachusetts, and is editor of Insight Journal. This column is the author’s second in a series of reflections on selected passages from the Pali canon.
Lick and Lather (Detail), Janine Antoni, 1993-1994, soap and chocolate self-portrait busts, 24 x 16 x 13 inches each. Photograph ©Jon Bessler; courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York City