The busy schedules of our daily lives leave us little time to ponder the mysteries of our personal identity, but when we do stop to ask ourselves who we truly are, we run up against a baffling paradox.
On the one hand, we routinely assume that behind the shifting kaleidoscope of our thoughts, dispositions and feelings there lurks a self that remains essentially the same, the “I” as I truly am, solid and substantial as a ball of steel. On the other hand, this self remains perpetually elusive. It seems to be hiding in the deep closets of the mind, beckoning us with the traces it leaves of memories, wishes, personality traits and plans. We sometimes feel we’re on the verge of catching it, but when we try to pull away the curtain that conceals the self, all we find is an infinite regression of silhouettes, each one leading to the next, none ever reaching an endpoint, an incontestable foundation for our identity.
According to the Buddha, the notion of a unique self at the core of our being is a fiction, a mental construct that we clasp as a pillar of stability amidst the unceasing flux of events. This fiction, the Buddha says, is fabricated by ignorance and craving. We fail to penetrate the coreless, insubstantial nature of phenomena, and therefore we construct the image of a self. We crave security, and therefore we instinctively cling to the mind’s delusions like a baby monkey clinging to its mother. But these frenzied attempts to secure a solid identity are loaded with risk. We misperceive, we worry, we cling, and then fall back, again and again, through the channel of birth into the multiple dimensions of sentient existence. We oscillate between attachment and aversion, and thereby build up “the great mass of suffering: sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection and anguish.” To reach the end of suffering, the Buddha says, clinging must be severed, and this can only be done through wisdom: by discerning all the factors of our being as “not-self” and thus not worth holding to in vain hopes and expectations.
Contrary to a common misunderstanding, the Buddha does not totally reject the notion of a self but allows its use as a convention of discourse. Linguistic expressions for a self can be employed reflexively, as when we refer to our past achievements and present personality. They can also be used to distinguish one person from another. What the Buddha rejects is the notion of an autonomous self, the self as a sovereign subject of experience who knows and feels, an agent who acts and controls. Cast in such a role, the self becomes a cognitive ghost, a phantom that must be dissolved if we are to pass through the doors to the deathless.
To expose the delusive nature of the self, the Buddha dissects experience into five classes of phenomena called the “five aggregates.” These are the final objects of clinging, the things that we persistently take to be “I” and “mine”: bodily form, feeling, perception, volitional activities and consciousness. The aggregate of form comprises the physical side of experience. The intermediate three aggregates—feeling, perception and volitional activities—represent the mind’s affective, cognitive and volitional functions. And consciousness is the light of awareness that illuminates the objective fields of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mental faculty.
The Discourse on Non-Self (Samyutta Nikaya 22:59), the Buddha’s most prominent teaching on the nature of personal identity, rigorously examines the five aggregates to see whether they bear the marks of selfhood. He pursues this investigation through two lines of argument. The first is founded on the observation that the five aggregates all “lead to affliction.” The second proceeds from the evident facts of impermanence and suffering to the more subtle dimension of selflessness. These arguments, it must be stressed, are not proposed merely to win intellectual assent. Their purpose is to serve as spurs to contemplation and insight. Though they rely on reasoning, their final appeal is to intuition.
The investigation of the aggregates can be a startling process of discovery. It’s as if we are driving along a highway on a bright sunny day and see a pool of water shimmering on the road before us. As we approach the place where we’ve seen it, the pool suddenly vanishes, leaving only the road, with no water at all. Similarly, in our ordinary lives, the five aggregates seem solid and impregnable, but when we examine them closely, they turn out to be fragile, coreless, and hollow: “Form is like a lump of foam, feeling like bubbles in water, perception like a mirage, volitional activities like a pithless banana tree, and consciousness like a magical illusion” (Samyutta Nikaya 22:95).
The first argument in the Discourse on Non-Self unfolds from the premise that the idea of a self implies that we can exercise complete control over the things we identify with, the things we take to be “I” and “mine.” Thus if we take the body and mind to be our self, to be truly “mine,” we presuppose that we have mastery over them in the way a feudal lord has mastery over his servants. This presupposition, however, sets us up for profound disappointment; for far from obeying us like servants, the five aggregates behave like rebels, stubbornly resisting our desires and defying our demands.
If bodily form were my self, I would always be youthful, beautiful, healthy, able to live forever. If feeling were my self, I could experience the cold winter wind as if it were an April breeze. If perception were my self, I would be able to master Mandarin in a week. If volition were my self, I would be able to subdue rising anger with a gentle mental command. And if consciousness were my self, I would be able to enter samadhi merely by crossing my legs and closing my eyes.
By demonstrating that each of the five aggregates leads to affliction, the Buddha has stripped them of their claim to selfhood. And since there is no sphere of reference outside the five aggregates, the idea of a self is reduced to a convenient designation. The idea is contingent on the aggregates, but a distinct entity corresponding to the idea cannot be found among them. The aggregates are empty (suñña) of anything that meets the criterion of a self.
The second argument the Buddha uses to demonstrate the selfless nature of the five aggregates draws upon all three marks of being: impermanence, dukkha and non-self. Since non-self is the most subtle of the three, he approaches it indirectly, proceeding from the first two marks to the third. The Buddha first establishes that the five aggregates are impermanent. They’re impermanent not only because they all vanish at death but because at every moment they are undergoing change. Incessantly, body, feelings, perceptions, volitions and consciousness arise and disintegrate. They flow in a stream, a process in constant flux, a mass of bubbles that at each moment are breaking up and vanishing.
“What is impermanent, that is dukkha.” In this context the second mark, dukkha, does not mean experiential suffering—pain and sorrow—but the inability to give ultimate security and satisfaction. The five aggregates are dukkha because they can never fulfill our expectations. Even at the height of enjoyment, our pleasures are unstable, bound to fade away, and to the degree that we hold to them we undergo anguish and distress. Throughout our lives we are ever exposed to the danger of change and deterioration. We may flourish in youth, but we may be struck down by disabling illness or early death. And over time the body grows feeble, the senses lose their acuity, memories fade, our vigor declines, and our judgment grows clouded.
Since the five aggregates are all impermanent, unstable and prone to suffering, they fail to measure up to the benchmark of selfhood. Seen with correct wisdom, they turn out to be: “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.” At a purely conceptual level, the teaching of non-self may seem disheartening, a shadow cast over our brightest hopes, an attack on our most cherished possession. But when experienced with direct insight, the truth of selflessness is quite the opposite: a trumpet blast of victory, the exit from a burning building, an island secure above a raging flood.
The Buddha continues: “Seeing the selfless nature of the aggregates, the instructed noble disciple becomes disenchanted with bodily form, feeling, perception, volitional activities and consciousness. Being disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion the mind is liberated. When it is liberated there comes the knowledge: ‘It’s liberated.’ He understands: ‘Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more return to this state of being.’”