Not-Self: Thought Experiment 2

Uposatha Day, January 19, Full Moon

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

But first, consider, where does a shadow come from? Well, as shadow arises with the presence of all of the following:

  • A light source.
  • A screen, or more or less flat surface illuminated by the light source.
  • An opaque object between the light source and the screen.

Some photons emitted by the light source will strike the opaque object and fail to reach the screen. Others will miss the opaque object and illuminate the screen. The result is that a region of the screen will be dark, a region suspiciously shaped like the opaque object, but maybe elongated or twisted.

This simple account of shadows illustrates probably the most important metaphysical assumption the Buddha ever made: conditionality, or Dependent Coarising (paticcasamuppada): things arise or happen because other things arise or happen, things cease because other things cease. In other words, things have causes and conditions. So, turn on the light source and the shadow arises, but only if the opaque object and the screen are present and correctly placed. Take away the opaque object and the shadow vanishes, as if into thin air. This is just like last week’s donut hole: Take away the donut and the hole is gone without a trace! Take away Arizona and the Grand Canyon is gone! This explains dependent arising, but not yet dependent co-arising. The importance of the “co-” (which is the “sam” in “paticcasamuppada”) will become clear as we understand emptiness better. This is also what Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh calls “Interbeing,” which is a very clever turn of a phrase.

So, does the shadow exist? Is it an object?

  • Don’t be silly, of course it doesn’t exist. We know, given the explanation above, why part of the screen is dark, and why the dark portion has a certain shape. This will be true whether or not there is an object “shadow.” Occam’s Razor tells us not to add more than we need to explain the observables. What observable would be the independent evidence that such an object exists? My worthy counterpart thinks that aside from the light source (and light), the opaque object, and the screen there is another object, the shadow. So, when you take away the first three, something should be left. Where is it? The phenomenon that makes my badly misled friend think there is a shadow is in fact dependently arisen, that is, it is completely explainable in terms of the things we do know exist.
  • Of course shadows exist. You can see them, you can measure their size. How can you have a sundial without a shadow? Or an eclipse of the moon? And shadows can cause other things to happen. The shadow in the sundial can cause me to know what time it is and the shadow of a tree can increase the comfort level of even my distinguished albeit foolishly misguided colleague, on a hot and sunny day. The explanation above just tells us why the object has to exist, not that it doesn’t exist. (Besides, Peter Pan lost his shadow and had to go back to get it. How would he explain that?)

So, it seems your shadow exists in a different way than you do. Or do you?

How about a reflection in a mirror? Is your reflection an object? Does it exist? Two answers suggest themselves, the same to answers that suggest themselves in the case of your shadow, for similar reasons, which I leave it to the reader to identify.

Your reflection looks a lot more like you than your shadow; it it appropriate to see you as so much more substantial than your reflection? Chinese Zen Master Dong Shan is said in his youth to have had an enlightenment experience upon seeing his reflection in a pool of water. Later he wrote a poem, The Song of the Jewell Mirror Samadhi, which includes the lines:

It is like facing a jewel mirror.
form and image behold each other
You are not it
It actually is you

The interesting thing about asking whether something is an object, whether it exists or not, at least in the simple cases of holes, canyons, shadows and reflections, is that the answer has nothing to do with our grasp of the suchness of the situation at hand. We might see directly, intuitively. exactly and perfectly what is going on, and yet still feel the need to add something extra which we, as silly humans, seem quite capable of arguing about endlessly, as if there were something substantial at stake. I imagine that this is what made the Buddha a phenomenologist, and made him critical of philosophical speculation as useless and worse, as leading to delusion. It is seldom noticed that the Kalama Sutta, often considered the license to free thinking in Buddhism, actually warns against excessive application of the intellect:

“Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’ — then you should enter and remain in them.” AN 3.65 (underlining mine)

Grasping at one answer or the other we might miss the critical value of shadows or holes in our daily planning on the one hand, or we might begin, on the other, to lament that one’s reflection has disappeared, or to worry that the hole is about to fall out of one’s bagel (and that there would then be a hole in the floor). People actually begin to think like this when the “objects” involved get just a bit more complex than holes and shadows. The message of Kalama quote above is, I think, echoed in wide-eyed Bodhidhama’s phrase,

“A teaching beyond words and letters, pointing directly to the human Mind”

Yet we cannot dispense with the intellect either; sometimes, when adopted and carried out, it may actually lead to welfare and to happiness. I‘m putting what words and letters I can muster into this blog post, for instance, in the hopes that it will lead to your welfare and happiness.

The very first of the fetters which tie us to the wheel of samsara is personality view (sakkaya ditthi), the view that we exist in a very substantial form, as beings with constant identities, distinguishable frrom the rest of the universe, beings that own these bodies and these experiences, beings that think these thoughts and make these decisions, beings that own all these heaps of stuff. This is the delusion that gives rise to greed and aversion as we seek personal advantage and eternal existence for our distinguished selves, thereby giving rise to all that ails us.

One Response to “Not-Self: Thought Experiment 2”

  1. JJ L. Says:

    In regards to personality view, does this mean that there is nothing that exists that experiences this body, these thoughts, that is reading and responding to your posting, or is it simply that my mind is substantial, constant, independent? Or, if we take it to the atomic and sub-atomic levels, obviously, each atom is made of sub-atomic material, thus the hydrogen atom is made of a single proton and a single electron. Further along, each of these are made of quarks, which are thought to be made of super-strings. Do these exist, understanding that they are compositions, non-permanent? I guess what I am asking, is if we accept that nothing can exist that is permanent and not composed from other ‘stuff’, can something exist if it is a composition and impermanent? In layman’s terms, my computer is resting on a table, which is impermanent and made of non-table elements. Is this an illusion?


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