Who are You?

Self and No Self

One of the Key Buddhist Teaching is that of ‘there is no self’.

I have been pondering this….

We walk into a room and see people and flowers. Some of the people are ‘friends’ some are ‘strangers’. Some of the flowers we like; some of them we do not.

We have made judgements based upon experience and preference.

Our reaction to those in the room may well be the result of prejudice, our emotional state and our particular point of view — our perspective.

More importantly, we are not necessarily conscious of how we came to these judgements since much of what we perceive is filtered by our unconscious — the self we do not know.

Free Will does not exist in this context since we are only conscious of the choices already made within the unconscious.

Since what we consciously perceive is determined by how we process sensory information then the influences of unconscious filters is largely ignored and the extent to which they ‘create a reality’ for us to interact with is rarely questioned. From the point of view of radical constructivism our reality is not only personal, but plastic.

We only have to look at the work of Ramachandran and other neuroscientists to realise that conditions like synaesthesia, phantom limb syndrome, prosopagnosia and Capgras delusion offer insights into how people ‘filter’ information from the ‘world out there’. Agreeing to share a consensus reality through language, culture and behaviour is part of the unconscious game played by people who consider themselves individual — and a necessary evolutionary gambit.

So when it comes the Buddha’s view on ‘no-self’ it should be no surprise that we try to ‘hold onto’ the self with as much determination as we hold onto ‘personal realities’.

There are moments when glimpses of this ‘truth’ become blindingly obvious and then there are moments when its apparent inconsistencies dull those thoughts — after all it is ME thinking and reflecting in order to write these words is it not?

And, moreover, if there is no-self who (or what) is the subject of Karma?

Who or what ‘feels’ the truth?

So we need to define the self.

The idea of the five-aggregates (The Five Skandhas) can be seen as how we connect with the world and by some, all that constitutes a sentient being.

“A human is a combination of five aggregates (khandhas), namely body or form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations or thought process, and consciousness, which is the fundamental factor of the previous three.” (Vimalakirti), 2010)

In this model is the unconscious mind within the khandha of mental formations?

“The aggregate of mental formation may be described as a conditioned response to the object of experience…. In short, mental formation or volition has a moral dimension; perception has a conceptual dimension; feeling has an emotional dimension.” (Buddhistdoor International, 2006)

Since within this formation there is volition, it is intimately linked to the idea of Karma and it would appear that ‘the unconscious’ is not necessarily one of the five aggregates.

As pointed out in the video lectures ‘the self’ in Buddhist teachings seems to be defined by two conditions …

Permanence — it exists through time — in terms of an ‘essence of self’

Control — the self is ‘under control’

It is important to recognise that in the lecture the properties of ‘self’ are inferred from a discussion of the five aggregates. (Wright, 2013)

This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am — and indeed the body is not me; nor are my emotions, nor are my perceptions nor are my ‘mental formations’ and even my consciousness is only a small part of ‘me’, albeit the ‘me’ which is aware of me within the world.

In this sense the self is the subject of personal (subjective) experience of phenomena: perception, emotions and thoughts.

“All our efforts to get beyond ourselves are nothing but projections of our consciousness” (Lusthaus, 2002) and so the difficulty of talking about no-self.

In accepting the idea of anicca (impermanence) of ‘self’ there is perhaps not as much resistance as first thought. That which is ‘self’ is ever changing in the light of experience, learning and living. The idea that ‘I’ am the ‘same person’ today as I was yesterday is counter intuitive since twenty four hours of life has gone by. Some of the changes myself as undergone may be minor, almost unnoticeable, but some may not have been. Self as an idea is shaped and moulded by its interactions with the world — or more correctly our edited perceptions of what is happening ‘out there’.

It serves a purpose for me to maintain the illusion of self since it is the structure around which I build the “me” I project into the world, but is not ‘real’ any more than are the personae adopted within and through social discourse.

It may have been Lao Tzu who said

“If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present” and an idea of ‘self’ projected through time is, perhaps, the one way to overcome attachment to the ‘persistence’ of a singular self.

Anatta — non-self — also speaks to the issue of ‘no control’. Since our unconscious mind is actually doing most of the sorting, pattern matching and perception filtering, then we cannot have conscious control over what is presented to our awareness.

“Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness.” (Bhikkhu), 1997)

If there is no permanent self and there is no conscious control of actions, then it is mind and the application of mind which serves perhaps to carry karma.

“There is no greater affliction than desire, no greater curse than discontent, no greater misfortune than wanting something for oneself. Therefore he who knows that enough is enough will always have enough” Lao Tzu (Lombardo), 1993)

In this, then, we find something of the nature of the call to be mindful particularly if

“A Buddhist is primarily a person in search of a satisfying life while pursuing enlightenment and practicing compassion and loving kindness” (Buddhistdoor International, 2006)

Could it be thought that the words ‘satisfying’, ‘compassion’ and ‘loving kindness’ are things to which we become attached?

Perhaps the emphasis on BEING rather than BECOMING and the PRESENT rather than PAST or FUTURE is a part of the solution to dukkha (suffering).

Alan /|\


Bhikkhu), B. (. (1997). Dvedhavitakka Sutta: Two Sorts of Thinking. Retrieved 4 16, 2014, from Access to Insight: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.019.than.html

Buddhistdoor International. (2006). The Five Aggregates. Retrieved 4 14, 2014, from http://www.buddhistdoor.com: http://www.buddhistdoor.com/OldWeb/bdoor/archive/nutshell/teach11.htm

Lombardo), L. T. (1993). Tao Te Ching.

Lusthaus, D. (2002). Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogacara Buddhism and the Ch’eng Wei-shih Lun. In Curzon Critical Studies in Buddhism Series. London: Routledge.

Vimalakirti), G. H. (2010). Buddhism Teacher — The Five Aggregates. Retrieved 4 16, 2014, from Buddhism Teacher: http://buddhismteacher.com/five_aggregates.php

Wright, R. (n.d.). Buddha’s Discourse on the Not Self — Part 3 Lecture 1.



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Dr Alan Jones PhD FRSA

Dr Alan Jones PhD FRSA


Writing about personal development, the mind and future histories. New articles every Monday. Website : www.dralanjones.com