Non-Self and You.

Uposatha Day, First Quarter Moon, February 11, 2011

In the past four weeks we have conducted some thought experiments that raise questions about what exists or does not exist, or in what way things exist. We considered various kinds o things:

  • Holes, for which there really is nothing to observe outside of the context in which we talk about them as if they existed;
  • Clouds, shadows and reflections, whose observable manifestations are all accounted for entirely as dependently arisen other phenomena that are not clouds, shadows or reflections;
  • Cars and other compounded things, whose existence is independent of each of its parts, yet contains nothing that is not one of its parts.

These various considerations are intended to lead up to the question, In what sense do I, or You, exist? Last week I touched on this question by means of an existential dilemma raised in the way Scotty’s transporter messed with the identity of Captain Kirk in a life-and-death kind of way. This question of Non-Self or Emptiness, appears either academic or nonsensical to many beginning students of Buddhism, but it lies at the very heart of the Buddha’s teachings, it is the foundation of the entire Dharma. It is actually a question all of us have dealt with throughout our lives, though we seldom articulate it as well as the Buddha did; consider how we go through existential crises, and identity crises, how we wonder who we really are and how we feel like nobody but want to become somebody. According to the Buddha virtually all of us have come to the wrong answer to the question, including DesCartes, and that is the root of the human dilemma. In this post we will continue to try to develop an intellectual understanding of this question. In subsequent weeks we will look at non-intellectual ways to approach non-self.

The Questions of King Milinda is delightful ancient text (which can be googled on the Web and downloaded) that reports in dialectical form an early encounter of East meets West. King Milinda (aka Menander) was the historical King of the Greek kingdom of Bactria, soon to be established as an early Buddhist kingdom, around about what is now Afghanistan, about 400 years after the Buddha. Milinda’s questions are remarkably much the same as many Westerners pose today, and he is about as scrappy about them as many of today’s Westerners. He poses these to a Buddhist monk, Ven. Nagasena, and the ensuing debate is quite lively as they match wits. This excerpt is the very first encounter between Milinda and Nagasena, and deals with the very issue of Non-Self. The translation here is by Bhikkhu Pesala:

King Milinda went up to Nàgasena, exchanged polite and friendly greetings, and took his seat respectfully to one side. Then Milinda began by asking:

How is your reverence known, and what sir, is your name?”

O king, I am known as Nàgasena but that is only a designation in common use, for no permanent individual can be found.”

Then Milinda called upon the Bactrian Greeks and the monks to bear witness: “This Nàgasena says that no permanent individual is implied in his name. Is it possible to approve of that?” Then he turned to Nàgasena and said, “If, most venerable Nàgasena, that is true, who is it who gives you robes, food and shelter? Who lives the righteous life? Or again, who kills living beings, steals, commits adultery, tells lies or takes strong drink? If what you say is true then there is neither merit nor demerit, nor is there any doer of good or evil deeds and no result of kamma. If, venerable sir, a man were to kill you there would be no murder, and it follows that there are no masters or teachers

in your Order. You say that you are called Nàgasena; now what is that Nàgasena? Is it the hair?”

I don’t say that, great king.”

Is it then the nails, teeth, skin or other parts of the body?”

Certainly not.”

Or is it the body, or feelings, or perceptions, or formations, or consciousness? Is it all of these combined? Or is it something outside of them that is Nàgasena?”

Still Nàgasena answered: “It is none of these.”

Then, ask as I may, I can discover no Nàgasena. Nàgasena is an empty sound. Who is it we see before us? It is a falsehood that your reverence has spoken.”

You, sir, have been reared in great luxury as becomes your noble birth. How did you come here, by foot or in a chariot?”

In a chariot, venerable sir.”

Then, explain sir, what that is. Is it the axle? Or the wheels, or the chassis, or reins, or yoke that is the chariot? Is it all of these combined, or is it something apart from them?”

It is none of these things, venerable sir.”

Then, sir, this chariot is an empty sound. You spoke falsely when you said that you came here in a chariot. You are a great king of India. Who are you afraid of that you don’t speak the truth?” Then he called upon the Bactrian Greeks and the monks to bear witness: “This King Milinda has said that he came here in a chariot but when asked what it is, he is unable to show it. Is it possible to approve of that?”

Then the five hundred Bactrian Greeks shouted their approval and said to the king, “Get out of that if you can!”

Venerable sir, I have spoken the truth. It is because it has all these parts that it comes under the term chariot.”

Very good, sir, your majesty has rightly grasped the meaning. Even so it is because of the thirty-two kinds of organic matter in a human body and the five aggregates of being that I come under the term ‘Nàgasena’. As it was said by Sister Vajãra in the presence of the Blessed One, ‘Just as

it is by the existence of the various parts that the word “Chariot” is used, just so is it that when the aggregates of being are there we talk of a being’.”

Most wonderful, Nàgasena, most extraordinary that you have solved this puzzle, difficult though it was. If the Buddha himself were here he would approve of your reply.”

The exposition here is much like that of our thought experiment a couple weeks ago concerning the car — a modern chariot — in which over time each part is replaced, and yet it is conventionally, but only loosely, still called the same car. It is also similar to the Buddha’s best-known explanation of non-self, which relates to “… the thirty-two kinds of organic matter in a human body and the five aggregates of being …,” mentioned here. The thirty-two kinds of organic matter break the human body into lungs, liver, heart, sweat, urine, etc. The five aggregates (skandas or khandas) break the human personality into five parts, one of which is the body (or form), the other four of which constitute mind (feelings, perceptions, formations and consciousness).

The argument is that when you search for the essence of you, it cannot be identified with any one of these various components, nor can it be identified as a part of any of these components, nor can it be identified as something that has any of these components. It is just not there! Yet you sure feel that there is a constant you that sees, that makes decisions, that has these experiences, at least with the aid or through the mediation of these various components, a ghost within the machine, something that is the real you. By reduction, no such you can be found outside of the stubborn sense that such a you must exist.

The teaching of non-self or emptiness seems to most at first rather bitter medicine to swallow. We spend our lives dreading death; it is hardly comforting to learn that we have never been here in the first place! However recognition of our true nature releases us from the bonds that come with having a self. For one thing, death becomes no longer a problem.

Next week I would like to discuss why it is we think there is a self, and how the mind fabricates most of the world that we then live in, and how this causes problems for us. Then I will turn to Buddhist practice, how ethics, meditation and ultimately insight help release us from the bonds that come with having a self.

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