(Ivo Stoyanov, Enlightenment)
'(An) unchanging, unitary, autonomous self is non-existent. Our existence is nominal. Devoid of an owned, inherent nature.’ Allan Wallace.
‘All our anxieties and difficulties come from our inability to see the true face, or true sign of things.’ Thich Nhat Hanh
If Buddhism denies a permanent self, then how do we deal with the issue of identity? Who are we really? What is the basis of our sense of being ‘a somebody’ that does indeed appear to exist in the world - to have relationships, work, eat, sleep, piss about on Facebook and read Buddhist books? In Wallace’s words we are informed that there is not a permanent, fixed self; yet a self of some kind does exist, even if it is simply seen at first as the process of moving and shifting reference points, preferences, relationships and roles.
Initial questions in response to the teachings of no-self tend to emerge from the insecurity, doubt and fear that arises in response to the idea that no-self =‘I don’t exist’, when you quite clearly do. You’re reading this, right? Underneath such potential insecurities is the existential fear of non-existence, of being nothing and therefore believing somehow that there is no meaning in our existence. This is a fear I have experimented personally and I am fully aware of how unnerving it can be. However, no-self does not mean that we are merely a mass of biological processes, a cog in the wheel of organic life. Such perspectives on existence constitute a form of Nihilism, which is one of the great mistaken views in Buddhism. So, we can relax knowing that at least in Buddhism, this is not the intended meaning of no-self.
The questions should perhaps be then, not whether you exist, but ‘How do I exist?’ and ‘If there is no permanent central core within me somewhere, then what am I really?’ Discovering that a solid, core self is non-existent should not lead us to deny what we do wake up to each day. Our lives stand before us each morning. A tangible world that starts with our bed, the walls of our bedroom, the home that we inhabit, the street below, the feelings and sensations of warmth and of cold, and so on. The Buddhist path is not about denying life and existence. I like to think of it as the establishing of new rules of engagement and enquiry outside of our conditioned, patterned, personal history and collective blindness in order to see and experience things as they are, unconditioned. We are usually so driven to find final, definite answers that we often lose a sense of what the real issue is. Does it matter what we believe? Sure. Does it matter which position we adopt? Certainly. But do we need to be so concerned with getting the ‘right’ philosophical, religious or psychological belief, the final answer, to define ultimate reality or the end game of existence and life? No. At least I don’t believe so. To do so might simply be another mental construct we use to define our sense of self and position ourselves against, or for, a particular side in the endless debates about the true and ultimate nature of things. It is much more useful and relevant to explore directly the mechanisms within you that shape the reality you experience and live. In this way your personal experience takes precedence over the adoption of particular philosophical stances and the idea of no-self becomes an open invitation to explore the ramifications of such a possibility on your life, not only on the meditation cushion, but also in the moments in-between.
Whatever arises becomes a support for your meditation by providing an object of awareness; relaxing with the natural arising and falling of all phenomena leads to a panoramic mindfulness – rest there.
Identity is fluid and positional and in part it is a story that emerges through the large collection of experiences we’ve had up until now. These are accompanied by and interwoven with the stories we’ve taken on from family members, friends, school, university, religion and society, as well as the myths both individually formed and absorbed from the collective of the particular moment of history we are living through. The human world is centred on the need of a fixed self; we are supposed to be somebody with a clear identity, fixed clear needs, wants and desires. In our relationships we are expected to conform to a stable and reliable form and to behave in fairly predictable ways. We are supposed to vote for the left or the right, get a job and identify ourselves with the roles we take on through work and the building of a family unit. These elements form the structure within which our supposed self is expected to thrive and within which we are to be happy and fulfilled as a ‘productive member of society’.
The self that we conventionally invest in though does not exist and the mores of society are a house of cards. Have a look for a core within you that defines you and you’ll find it is missing in action. By that I mean search within your body, feelings, and mind for some essential element that is the core of your being and unchanging, not dependent to some degree on circumstances, and you will likely be disappointed. How do we go about doing this? A traditional Buddhist tactic is to break down phenomena into five parts called aggregates, and then examine them each for the illusive self.
(Sopheap Pich - Buddha)
There is no existing independently. You arise in accordance with phenomena.
Investigating the Five aggregates involves looking intentfully at what makes up our experience of being in and of the world. It is an examining of how we personally define what is inside and outside the physical space that we occupy. Within the Five Aggregates, or Five Constituents, nothing is permanent or self-existing; nothing at all. This practice challenges our superficial and deeply held assumptions about how things are.
Many classical interpretations of these teachings feature a good degree of either excessively technical language, or an obsessive and renunciate approach to the Five Aggregates which defines them as literally ‘being suffering’. Both of which I find personally unhelpful and in the case of the latter, which is world-denying, dismissive of our humanity. I find the idea of our existence as being the base of suffering as unsophisticated and ignoble and also counter-intuitive. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t true in part. But, boy is it incomplete in giving value and understanding to our lot as human beings.
If we can accept that Buddhism as a whole does not invest in the essentialist fallacy, then perhaps we could mature our view of ourselves and life in general by seeing disparate perspectives on life as simply perspectives: Views of the human condition from different mountain peaks, that although seemingly incompatible at times, can be integrated into a looser, eclectic appreciation of the wonders of thought and human evolution. This is one of the great possibilities gifted to us through post-modern thought. It is a profound appreciation for individuality, but be careful, Chogyam Trungpas’ warning about Spiritual Materialism remains. New-Age wonders boys and girls are still to be found in abundance, actively seeking surrogate spiritual masters to show them the next fad and the easiest most effortless pill to swallow to guarantee ‘enlightenment’ and true happiness. Open your mind fully, explore, remain curious, but commit to a practice that works. Integration and inclusivity do not equal jumping from one easy answer to the next; they mean harnessing multiple perspectives and truths and placing them in right-relationship with the core practices and path that we choose to follow. It is an approach that is willing to entertain doubt and not maintain beliefs and tradition for belief’s and tradition’s sake.
Pierce through the idea of an ‘I’ by recognising the lack of an independent self. This leads into seeing the nature of the world from inside out. Perceiving the lack of an independent self in all phenomena.
The process of investigating the Five Aggregates is intriguing and rich with opportunity to see deeply into our lives. Gaining insight into the nature of these five parts of our world and our relationship to each of them can be fascinating, and liberating. We discover the freedom that can be felt as a result of not holding onto our world and our definitions so tightly. Life being the paradoxical thing that it is though, as we loosen our grip on needing to affirm our fixed sense of who we are, we find ourselves naturally more confident in being as we are more frequently and in more and more situations. We find that a fixed sense of self puts us in opposition to so much and that separation is the underlying element that feeds our multiple sources of suffering.
The Five Aggregates are;
1. Form; anything made of matter
2. Feeling; the registering of the quality and flavour of phenomena divided into the basic categories of pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. This is the basis for separating ourselves from experience.
3. Perception; means focus of awareness i.e. sensorial engagement with distinct facets of phenomena. It is identification and conceptualisation. This is where we establish the gap between perceiver and perceived.
4. Mental-formations; mental states, feelings in the way of states, emotions, will, desire, impulsive moving away or towards. The formation of a seemingly separate entity through attachment and aversion to particular states and experiences, concepts, beliefs, etc, etc.
5. Consciousness; means awareness experienced through the five senses.
Working with the five aggregates involves actively exploring them in order to identify an essential root, or permanent source. We invest a sense of individuality into these five that in truth is non-existent. In actively examining them and searching within each we are able to move towards taking the leap into an initial step of liberation, or awakening. This actually means a profound engagement with the reality that you are not separate from what you experience. For this change to occur, this perception must take place within the entirety of our being. A mere intellectual or intuitive grasp will not suffice. Because the matrix of interwoven habits, patterns, beliefs and ideas are complex, gross and subtle, it can take many years to make genuine progress in peeling off the layers of conditioning. For some it may come quickly, for most, it takes ongoing, dedicated practice.
This experience of breaking through is non-conceptual and arises in its own time. There are traditions that invite students to engage immediately with the awakened state of non-self. They often emerge from Hinduism and are generally categorised as Advaita. I have little experience of such traditions although I’ve no doubt that some of them are perfectly valid. There are many false starts though in meeting the dismantling of our phantom self and history is littered with cases of individuals claiming to be enlightened, awakened, and turning out to be rather dysfunctional and at times criminal individuals. The Buddhist path tends towards the gradual way although there are exceptions. Diving into an experience of no-self too quickly can actually be damaging and highly confusing and is best arrived at under the guidance of a competent teacher. It is perhaps healthiest also to consider it as a natural result of practice that emerges with the maturation of our development.
Seeking goals in Buddhism is often pointed out as a mistaken approach. In reality we are naturally goal orientated and modern life compounds this. Putting our goals into alignment with our practice and where we actually are at in our emotional, mental and spiritual development can help us counteract idealistic desires for quick attainments, or the opposite, an inferiority complex, where we wallow about in our current experience of limited living.
Actively engaging each as areas to search for our ‘essence’ leads to the direct recognition that there really is no fixed part within us that can be deemed to define our totality.
Even in consciousness there is no true self and in fact the possibility for such a thing to exist is illogical once you start to explore the interdependent nature of all phenomena. Since flux, decay, change, birth, evolution and death are the constant in life for all forms, how could an island exist within each and every individual as a refuge for some final essence? Consciousness is like a sea of awareness which we emerge into through releasing fully and openly into the present breath. What remains once this breakthrough has occurred is in part a real mystery and what becomes clearer and clearer is that we are essentially a being that is in process and in coexistent relationship with the world. We are in an ongoing experiment in playing at being human. Once we make the breakthrough our characteristics remain. Our preferences don’t disappear overnight, but they cease to become the anchors that bind us to fixed positions that once seemed so important. Playing our own individual experiment to the best of our ability becomes a play of sorts, an exercise in impeccability, in which new choices can be made, and which with time, begins to merge with a profound and lived realisation of the four noble truths as an extremely sane way of being in the world. This opens us to embracing the sacredness of this human existence. The depths of felt appreciation for simply being are best worded in the language of the sacred, and dare I say it, the mystical.
Boundless, all-luminous consciousness, Vs, ordinary, conceptually conditioned consciousness.
Gaining this insight is similar to going down the rabbit hole with Alice, or taking the red pill in the Matrix. It causes a major and permanent shift in our perceptions and experience. Life does go on, but with a different quality and less of a hidden agenda. It’s actually quite a challenging process at first that can lead to exhilarating moments of freedom and doubt. In many ways it is a metaphysical pulling out of the rug from underneath the rules we have established for how the world is supposed to be.
Consciousness aware of consciousness; open, non-dual, non-conceptual. Subject and object are no longer two.
What lies underneath is to be experienced firsthand. Part of a wise strategy in dealing with this new game of life, can be found in the seven factors of enlightenment. Because the game hasn’t finished once we’ve taken our first full view of the nature of things. Not at all. In many ways the real work begins. Making our liberation step worth a damn we commit to progressing through further stages of awakening where our long held sense of self-preservation and isolation from others gives way to a natural inclusivity that is traditionally termed compassion in Buddhism.
Enjoying all phenomena as purity and equality without accepting or rejecting = mindfulness of phenomena.
Approaching the experience of non-dual awareness is oft best arrived at through inspiration. This perhaps explains why so many mystics were poets, why so many definitions of the awakened state are visually and linguistically dramatic. Perhaps it is time though for a more rational and measured view of what signifies freedom within the process of awakening. Why should such important aspects of the human condition be preserved only in the realms and spheres of religion and spirituality? It is quite possible; highly likely, that we are moving towards an understanding of the inter-relationship between the brain and the evolutionary process that marks the path of concentration, insight and awakening. I wonder if will develop a sophisticated enough method for measuring such activity in usable terms at some point? For now though, we have Buddhism and its core teachings as one of the most sophisticated and complete systems for understanding the human condition and how to work with it.