Not-Self: Thought Experiment 1

Uposatha Day, January 12, First Quarter Moon

Are donut holes objects? Do they exist? Two answers suggest themselves immediately: yes and no. Let’s try to rationalize each.

  • Don’t be silly, holes don’t really exist. There is nothing there! Donuts happen to have a particular shape, they are hollow in the middle. But the donut is all that is really there. The donut exits; the “hole” is just a consequence of the donut.
  • Of course holes exist. How can donuts have holes if holes don’t exist? You can see them, they have a location in space, they have a size. Why, they are what makes a donut a donut! What more do you want?

It would seem that donuts exist in one way and donut holes exist in another way. Donuts seem to exist by themselves, but holes depend on something else being there which is not a hole, namely the donut. In which way do YOU exist? The Buddha’s answer surprises most people.

How about the Grand Canyon? Is the Grand Canyon and object? Does it exist? Two answers also suggest themselves, similar to those above. Isn’t the Grand Canyon just a big hole? However the answer seems to be more important than that for the donut whole. If the Grand Canyon doesn’t exist then a lot of tourists are going to be very disappointed and the Arizona economy is in big trouble. What are the tourists going to look at? If it does exist, shouldn’t it be possible for Utah send a humongous crane and a gigantic flat-bed truck to steal the Grand Canyon (well, theoretically)? It seems the Grand Canyon, like the donut whole, does not exist by itself, it depends on something else, the land mass of Arizona. But then how is it that the economy of the Arizona can depend on the Grand Canyon?

And does any of this matter? It matters because most of us have already answered similar questions for ourselves mistakenly, and it has gotten us into trouble.

A fundamental teaching of the Buddha is Not-self, anattā in Pāli. Closely related to this is the more general concept of Emptiness, suññatā in Pāli. Not-self is one of the Three Marks of Existence, tilakkhaa. Full comprehension of the Three Marks of Existence constitutes liberating insight, the highest Wisdom, in Buddhism. It is what we try to realize in our meditation. The Three Marks of Existence are:

  • Impermanence (anicca).
  • Suffering (dukkha).
  • Not-Self (anattā).

Whether Perfect Ones appear in the world, or whether Perfect Ones do not appear in the world, it still remains a firm condition, an immutable fact and fixed law: that all formations are impermanent, that all formations are subject to suffering, that everything is without a self. AN 3.134

Impermanence is the essential condition of the universe, the universe is in a state of flux, change is relentless, and as change happens in one part, it propagates as change to other parts, because of the radical interdependence of all the parts. However, we misunderstand this, we understand things as more fixed than the universe actually allows, we fabricate things that are not actually fully there the way we think they are. In particular we fabricate our selves. Once fabricated these things cannot keep pace with the unending flux of the universe and suffering fills the gap.

Now, full comprehension of the Three Marks of Existence is more than mere intellectual understanding, though that can be part of the process of gaining liberating insight. The problem is that we can gain an intellectual understanding of something and still not let it change our world view, our values, our behavior, and still not let it shake the earth underneath our feet. For instance, a quantum physicist has a deep intellectual understanding of the stuff of the universe that makes no common sense to the average fellow, but generally never fully inhabits that universe, but rather remains as a contented fellow-traveler firmly in the same universe with that naïve average fellow, with gravity underneath his feet, a car that goes fast when you step on the gas, a dog that slobbers all over his face. We might conceive of a day when suddenly he realizes where he really is, and it will frighten him. Likewise on the basis of a solid intellectual understanding of the Three Marks of Existence we might continue to inhabit in our quiet desperation the same universe as that average fellow, until one day we might realize where we really are, the car and the dog and our very selves disappearing into the flux of the universe. It probably will frighten us at first, but it will be worth it, because the quiet desperation will fade.

I thought that for a few weeks I might post every Uposatha Day a thought experiment that might serve to facilitate a deeper intellectual understanding of Non-Self or Emptiness in Buddhism. We will explore the ways in which things like clouds and shadows exist, then chairs and cars, and even discover what being “beamed” by Scottie in Star Trek tells us about our own existence. Each week I intend to supplement the thought experiment with some short study notes about the role of Not-Self in Buddhist practice and understanding. OK?

3 Responses to “Not-Self: Thought Experiment 1”

  1. Adrien Says:

    OK, fine with me Bhante ;). This is an entertaining approach to non-self…

    With Metta,


  2. Kevin Says:

    May be able to come out this Sunday .
    Thank you.
    Doughnuts ? Dunkin myself to the Middle Way.


  3. Branko Says:

    Hardly waiting… 🙂


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