“Self – (noun); 1. A person or a thing referred to with respect to complete individuality: one’s own self; 2. A person’s character, etc.; 3. a. The ego; that which knows, remembers, desires, suffers, etc., as contrasted with that which is known, remembered, etc.; b. the uniting principle, as a soul, underlying all subjective experience. “
So says the dictionary sitting on my desk, reflecting our commonly held view of ‘self’ as separate, autonomous, and enduring. Shakyamuni Buddha described ‘three poisons’ that give rise to dukkha (sorrow, suffering, discontent): desire, anger, ignorance. By ignorance he didn’t mean stupidity, but a false and inaccurate view of both the world and our relationship with it. In another teaching, he noted ‘three marks of existence’: not-self, change, and dissatisfaction. The two teachings are related and help explain each other. A root cause of dukkha, he held, was the mistaken, though common-sense, view of ‘myself’ as separate, autonomous, and enduring. Because we hold this mistaken view and try to defend and provide enduring satisfaction for a ‘self’ that does not exist as we think it does, the result is endless frustration in trying to fulfill an impossible goal.
There is a ‘self’, but it is fluid, contingent, conditioned, interdependent upon the world rather than fixed, self-contained and enduring.
Buddhism is unusual among religious and philosophical systems in that it holds there is no enduring, entirely separate entity such as self, ego, soul, or spirit. Instead, Buddhist investigation, through study, meditation, and contemplation finds there is only a dynamic interactivity of various conditions that, together, give rise to the appearance of an individual self, an appearance, that while useful—even necessary—in the day-to-day world, is not absolutely true. Hence, the term I prefer is ‘not self’ rather than ‘no self’. The latter suggests we are figments of our imagination which is definitely not what Shakyamuni is saying. There is a ‘self’, but it is fluid, contingent, conditioned, interdependent upon the world rather than fixed, self-contained and enduring.
Buddhist teachings—and importantly, practice based upon those teachings—allow us to readily see this for ourselves, taking ‘not-self’ out of the realm of obscure, philosophical doctrine and making it our own empirical experience. One easy way to approach this is to observe our own body, our own form, and our own mind through the contemplation of the dynamic activity of the six elements: earth, water, fire, air, space, and consciousness.
The element of earth represents all the solid material. As I look out my window I do, literally, see earth—also known as ‘dirt’. I also see rocks and mountains, flowers, trees. I see rhubarb, cabbage, and carrots growing in the garden. Each is composed of various solid chemical elements: carbon, phosphorus, calcium, iron, copper, and so on. On this late summer day these elements are arranged as flowers and leaves, fruits and vegetables. I recall that six months ago these same chemical elements and molecules took the form of soil and dirt. Even the mountains are changing. The tallest in New York State, a few miles north of where I now sit, was once the bottom of a seabed; they were once over 7,000 feet high; they were once scraped away by glaciers. Some of those mountain particles landed in the soil that makes up my garden Now, these mountains are rising again. Now, when I stand on the summit of Mt. Marcy, the tallest of them, I am standing 3- 3/4” higher than when I first stood there almost fifty years ago. Observe the element of earth around you. How has as it changed in the past week, past season, past century, past geological age? Is there ever a time when it remained fixed, stable, unmoving?
Now consider the element of earth within your own body. It is made up of the very same chemical elements and molecules as the earth you see around you, the same carbon and calcium, iron and phosphorus. The skin, the muscles, hair and the bones are all akin to the soil and the rocks. And, like the mountains, the earth element of the body is always in flux. When you were born you weighted but a few pounds. Now, you weigh many more. The elements from the environment accumulated and added to the bulk your physical body. But, they didn’t accumulate all at once, or once and for all. Here is the interesting part. The elements within your body are, at various rates, being exchanged with those in the environment. With a few exceptions, nearly every cell in your body is replaced. Some live only days. Some last decades. Last week, I ate a mountain for lunch, as well as some Mexican dirt. Some of those elements now make up my organs. The mountains ground down to particles, coming to be the soil in which the carrot grew. This spring I planted a tiny seed. As the seed germinated and put on size it took up the elements from the soil and formed the carrot. The avocado, likewise, growing on a Mexican farm, took up the elements from the soil there and formed the fruit. Both the carrot and avocado provided the same atoms and molecules that now reside within my body. But of course, this is not a one-way flow of elements from environment to body. I’d be pretty fat by now! My body sends elements and the molecules back into the environment, too. Every day, I shed some hair and slough off some skin cells. I take a shit. All of this again becomes part of the world outside my body. At the end of my life, my entire body will, in time, decay, becoming part of the soil, supplying elements and molecules and nutrients to new lives of plants and animals. Even those who are pumped full of preservative, placed in a sealed coffin inside a concrete vault will eventually return to the soil. It just takes a lot longer. Examining the dynamic exchange of material, it becomes apparent that my body is always changing in interdependence upon the outer world. There is nothing there that I can claim as uniquely, permanently, my own.
Now, consider and examine each of the remaining elements of water, air, fire, space and consciousness in the same way. See how they are always in flux, always exchanging with the world. Consider all the many factors that give you a sense of individual identity: your age, your ethnicity, your name, occupation, gender identity, political or religious beliefs, your family, socio-economic status, and so on. Spend some time with this contemplation, spend some time looking for something, anything, that is a permanent, separate and self-contained “ME”, and you will come to experience that while there is a ‘self’, it is not a fixed object, a thing, an entity—a noun. Instead you will find the ‘self’ is dynamic activity—a verb. Do you still think your body and mind are permanent and unchangeable? Go to your fiftieth high school reunion and you’ll find the first thing you are given is a name tag. No one will recognize you without it, nor will you recognize those others you haven’t seen for five decades.