Who Are You? Understanding Nonself in Buddhism

Novice monk with umbrella (CC0 via Pixbay)
Welcome to my “Basics in Buddhism” Series:  This article is part of a series of articles on the basics of Buddhism.  Find all other articles in the series by clicking here

Nothing has a separate existence or a separate self.  Everything has to inter-be with everything else.  ~ Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh

Whenever I think about nonself (“no-self” / “non-self”) in Buddhism, I can’t keep but thinking of the song “Who Are You?” by The Who.  They sure had the right question!

Sealing Off the Illusion

We learned from the Three Dharma Seals that the second seal states that nothing has an independent self (“Nonself”, “No-self”, “No Permanent Self” / Anātman or Anattā), which includes “you”.  Compared to other religions of the world where “you” are a permanent thing, Buddhism says the opposite because nothing is permanent, and nothing has an independent self.  The only thing that continues in the cycle of rebirth is the alaya-vijnana (“alayavijnana” / “store consciousness”), which (as Ven. Dr. Walpola explains) are the traces and impressions of past actions (Karma), and the future potentials of them.

Why is this such an important concept in Buddhism?  Ven. Master Hsing Yun explained:

The reason Buddhists emphasize the lack of an independent self is to help each one of us get past the narcissistic devotion we normally feel toward our body and the deluded belief that the body “proves” that there is some absolute “self”.  Attachment to the self is the root source of all delusion.  It produces anger and greed, and keeps us bound firmly to ignorance.  Contemplation of the second Dharma seal will teach us how to break the bonds of self-love.

Sentient beings (such as people) do not have an independent self that is unchanging.  The Buddha said that what we call “I” or “you” is a temporary condition caused by the combination of both physical and mental components of existence.  When causes and conditions bring these two components together, your body is formed.  And when conditions cease, your body will also cease (for example, if one of your body organs ceases to function, you have no air, no food, etc.).  There is nothing permanent in you thanks to the Buddhist concept of Impermanence (the 1st Dharma seal).  But this is not something to be sad about, in-fact it something to be happy about because it helps lead us towards understanding our true nature, Nirvana.

To help explain this more, let us take a closer look at what makes you “you”:

  • You are not independent of causes and conditions (you were created due to your parents, alive due to air, food, water, etc., and without any of these things you no longer exist either immediately or very quickly).  You also exist thanks to the interdependence of everything around you.  From the protection our Earth gives you from harmful radiation, to the farmer who plants the crops you eat, to the water that nourishes those plants and you, to the changing weather conditions which results in rain and snow that eventually water the plants and you, to the tiny microbes in your gut which ensure your immune system is able to keep you alive.  You cannot exist without other things.
  • You are not unchanging because, as the Buddhist concept of Impermanence explains, everything changes (your thoughts, body, beliefs, skin cells, etc.) at various times and degrees.  You were born, grow old(er), and will eventually get sick and die.  For example, due to causes and conditions, nobody can escape getting sick and dying.  All that continues on is your actions (Karma) through the store consciousness (alayavijnana).
  • We combine the teachings of “impermanence” and “causes and conditions” this way:  Everything arises (including you) because of various causes and conditions.  Because things arise (including you) from these causes and conditions, things are impermanent (if things were permanent, causes and conditions would not factor in…but it does).  When we think on this deeply, we understand there cannot be an eternal essence because things arise and cease due to causes and conditions (thus, impermanence).
  • Humans are make up of five collections of things known as “skandhas” which make up our physical and mental existence.  They are (1) the physical body, (2), sensations and feelings, (3) perceptions, (4) mental formations, and (5) consciousness.  Each of these things are also continually changing.  The only thing that continues on are the traces and impressions of past actions that are planted like seeds in the alayavijnana (“store consciousness”).

When we combine both of these teachings, we understand that there is no way you can ever be independent of other people, other things, causes and conditions, and that you are constantly changing (even when you are unable to tell this is happening).  You will cease to be if you are truly “independent”, and that your physical body will eventually get sick and you will die.  These are both Buddhists truths, and scientific truths.  We have yet to find any human who has never changed, and who has never gotten sick and died!  Well, maybe Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator movie…

Do “You” Exist?

Because we are very much attached to the concept of “me”, these are hard concepts to grasp which is why meditation is often a major practice in Buddhism.  Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh helped to explain the frustration over understanding nonself this way and why practice is important in understanding these concepts:

From the point of view of time, we say “impermanence,” and from the point of view of space, we say “nonself.”  Things cannot remain themselves for two consecutive moments, therefore, there is nothing that can be called a permanent “self.”  Before you entered this room, you were different physically and mentally.  Looking deeply at impermanence, you see nonself.  Looking deeply at nonself, you see impermanence.  We cannot say, “I can accept impermanence, but nonself is too difficult.” They are the same.

A note of caution that this does not mean “you” are not here at this moment and don’t exist!  Ven. Master Hsing Yun explained that “No-self” does not mean life is not existing:

“No-self” does not mean there is a lack of life.  Rather, it means that our physical bodies are the illusive and impermanent combination of the five aggregates (form, feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness) and the four great elements (earth, water, fire, and wind).  This combination exists provided that the right causes and conditions are present.  Thus, or physical bodies do not have a substantial self; that is what is meant by no-self.

So what travels through the wheel of rebirth?  Ven. Master Hsing Yun explained:

What actually travels through the wheel of rebirth is not the physical body, but rather what Buddhism calls alaya-vijnana (storehouse of consciousness) that is within every one of us.¹

The Alayavijnana is not just something that impacts rebirth “after” your physical body ceases, but it also happens right now in your current life.  Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh liked to explain the Store Consciousness like a field where you can plant seeds (either wholesome or unwholesome karmaic actions) that can sprout at any given time when the causes and conditions are right for them.  Just like seeds in a garden, as soon as you start watering particular seed(s) and nurturing them, they keep growing.  When this happens, they go from this field (Store Consciousness) to the “Mind Consciousness” which is where we act upon them and they have their “power”, so to speak.  So if you are watering unwholesome seeds, they will grow and overwhelm your “garden”.  But just like a garden, you have complete control over not watering these seeds anymore, and instead watering the wholesome seeds.

After our physical body ceases to exist, this Alayavijanana continues on.  Likened to a “stream” of consciousness, our delusion is thinking we are separate and not connected to anything else.  What is the illusion is believing this frail physical body, which will cease to exist, is not a “you”.  Your seeds which are planted in the Alayavijanana continue on.  This field where the seeds are planted does not go away.  If you need a physical example, simply go outside to where you have dirt (plants not necessary), look at it, and then walk away.  That dirt will exist long after you leave.  Seeds last a long time also…they stay in their hardened little cocoons until the right causes and conditions (water, nutritious soil, sunlight) come to make them sprout and grow.  Your actions are the same.

Ven. Walpola Rahula explained what happens when you die:

What we call death is the total non-functioning of the physical body.  Do all these forces and energies stop altogether with the non-functioning of the body?  Buddhism says ‘No’.

He later goes on to say:

According to Buddhism, this force does not stop with the non-functioning of the body, which is death; but it continues manifesting itself in another form, producing re-existence which is called rebirth.  … when this physical body is no more capable of functioning, energies do not die with it, but continue to take some other shape or form, which we call another life.

Here are two examples to help explain these concepts:

  • Clouds:  They are formed due to causes and conditions and can be small or massive, but that is not their true self (nonself).  Yet they all cease (impermanence) due to causes and conditions (through rain, snow, evaporating, etc.).  But that does not mean they are gone, they are simply something else now (perhaps snow on the ground, or have went back to the elements of our atmosphere, humidity, etc.).  Yet if the cloud falls to the ground as rain into a lake, and then later evaporates and eventually becomes a cloud again, is it the same or different “cloud”? This is rebirth of the cloud, and the truth that there is no such thing as an unchanging independent self is the answer.
  • Candle:  A popular example is that of the flame of a candle.  It exists thanks to causes and conditions, and despite the candle itself melting over time, the flame looks pretty much the same the entire time.  Yet blowing air can change its size and shape, reductions or increases in oxygen levels change it, etc.  The flame is not the true self (nonself).  The flame exists due to causes and conditions (something had to light it, oxygen is needed to feed it, candle needs to be there to support it like a body, etc.), and will cease (impermanence) due to causes and conditions.  Yet if the flame is used to light another candle wick, is it the same or different “flame”? This is rebirth of the flame, and the truth that there is no such thing as an unchanging independent self is the answer.

What about a “soul” or “spirit”, you may be asking.  As Ven. Walpola Rahula said in What the Buddha Taught:

It must be repeated here that according to Buddhist philosophy there is no permanent, unchanging spirit which can be considered ‘Self’, or ‘Soul’, or ‘Ego’, as opposed to matter, and that consciousness (viññāṇa) should not be taken as ‘spirit’ in opposition to matter. This point has to be particularly emphasized, because a wrong notion that consciousness is sort of Self or Soul that continues as a permanent substance through life, has persisted from the earliest time to the present day.

We are so attached to our physical body, and the temporary conditions that we believe make you “you”, that the concept of nonself and impermanence is challenging at first.  Through practice and understanding, we begin to see our world and lives as truly is!

Hello, is there anyone up there?! (CC0 Photo via Comfreak on Pixbay)

“Who” Cares?

This all sounds very depressing of course.  If “you” are not permanent, then “who” is experiencing rebirth?  “Who” continues on?  And maybe more importantly, if “you” are not permanent, what does it matter what you do in this life?  As explained earlier, the “store consciousness” is what continues on in the cycle of rebirth which has all your seeds (actions) that are ripe to manifest in this “life” you are in now, or in the future through rebirth.

But if the physical body you have now is “gone”, and thus all your money and possessions are gone, then who “cares”?  Ah!  That is the right question.  Your body, money, possessions, and other attachments are impermanent…even in your current “life” and do not bring you real happiness (do you worry about losing them, them changing, or what happened if you did lose them?).

Understanding that everything is interconnected, nothing is permanent (impermanence), and that things like you do not have an independent self (nonself), you begin to look beyond this illusion of an “independent you”.  In Buddhism, those who abandon this “fetter” of the identity view (Anātman), enter the “Four Planes of Liberation”.  For those who have abandoned this fetter (and two others) are either known as a  “stream-enterer” or “once-returner” (other levels are non-returner, and arahant), which means you may have up to seven rebirths before ending Dukkha (suffering).

Let us take a more worldly example.  That little baby born halfway around the world in a poor family with horrible living conditions?  Perhaps your store consciousness made it to that baby, and through your actions (Karma) in this life you have not only allowed positive seeds to be within this little baby, but also you donated to a non-profit organization that brings healthcare and education to rural villages which thus gives this baby a chance at a better life.

Did that save or benefit the next “you”?  There is no “you” to benefit!  And that is the point…we are all connected and not independent of each other (no matter how much we try).  If a wave appears on the ocean and we call it “Bob” (since it “looks” different from the rest of the ocean and has a “body”), and then it ends on the beach and flows back into the ocean again, did “Bob” ever exist as an independent and unchanging thing?  Nope.  You also are part of a large ocean my friend.

We are all interconnected and do not have an independent self. Our actions affect ourselves and others throughout the world, and our store consciousness has seeds which continue on in the cycle of rebirth. (Novice Monks – CC0 via Pixbay)

Doctor?  Doctor “Who”?!

If you are a fan of the long-running British BBC series “Doctor Who“, you’re very familiar with how the “Doctor” has changed throughout the years into a different physical form and acts differently, but is still the same stream of ‘consciousness’.

He is a completely different person each time shaped by new actions, thoughts, and impressions, but has a somewhat greater understanding of his past “lives”.  While he is a fictional alien in the TV series, we can gleam from this story that he encounters a fictional form of ‘rebirth’ where he transforms into a new, and different person.  Yet the actions of his prior “lives” are part of who he is, and follow him wherever he goes (and like Karma, these seeds grow and bloom dependent on causes and conditions he encounters).  Please take this example simply as fun or with a grain of salt, since the Dr. Who series is pure fiction, and is not intended to be rooted in reality or even Buddhism.

The different "Doctors" who played on the TV show "Doctor Who"

Some of the different “Doctors” who played on the TV show “Doctor Who”

Even the Daleks could not understand “who” he was in one episode 😉  Good for them!

Stop Thinking of Yourself!

Of all the teachings of the Buddha, he attempted to steer clear of talking about “nonself” as much as possible (even staying completely quiet when he was asked questions in one story).  Why?  While he did teach about nonself, he also did not want his monks speculating about self because then they would get all caught up in it, and lose focus.

Ven. Dōgen Zenji explained that “self” plays an important part in our practice of Buddhism, because it helps us to forget self:

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 enlightened by the 10,000 things.

Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu explained through the story of the Buddha that you cannot answer the question of “self”:

In fact, the one place where the Buddha was asked point-blank whether or not there was a self, he refused to answer. When later asked why, he said that to hold either that there is a self or that there is no self is to fall into extreme forms of wrong view that make the path of Buddhist practice impossible.

Barbara O’Brien explained in her article about no-self, that this we are not engaging in a nihilistic approach with nonself in Buddhism:

Once we thoroughly investigate self, self is forgotten. However, I am told, this doesnt mean that the person you are disappears when enlightenment is realized. The difference, as I understand it, is that we no longer perceive the world through a self-referential filter.

I think that is a great explanation of what the Buddhist practitioner is hoping to achieve.  We are (obviously) flesh and blood creatures and very much alive.  However, we gravitate to a sense of “self” that is independent and unchanging because it feels safe and secure in a world where we do not feel safe in.  When we truly understand things as they really are, our perception of “self” disappears which allows us to stop clinging to attachments and delusions (which stop us from realizing Nirvana, our true state).  You are still “you”, but now you realize that the “you” you thought of before, is nothing but an illusion.  There is a reason the Buddha and other monastics who achieved enlightenment are always smiling…they have transcended this idea of “self”, and that is truly liberating!

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This article was originally published on 08 Jul 2017, and last updated on 16 Jul 2017.


Copyright © 2017 by Alan Peto, all rights reserved.