Non-Self: What is It?

Uposatha Day, Full Moon, February 18, 2011

Monks, suppose that a large glob of foam were floating down this Ganges River, and a man with good eyesight were to see it, observe it, & appropriately examine it. To him — seeing it, observing it, & appropriately examining it — it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in a glob of foam? In the same way, a monk sees, observes, & appropriately examines any form that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near. To him — seeing it, observing it, & appropriately examining it — it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in form? Phena (Foam) Sutta, SN 22.95

The things we think are substantial, including the self, are not, they are like foam. They are called Formations or Fabrications or Compounded Things. The Pali word is sankhara. Behind them is Suchness, also called Things as They Are, and sometimes Emptiness. Suchness is a vast and fluid, thick and ineffable network of cause and effect, all in relentless rippling flux, much like a raging storm at sea.

Formations arise always dependent at least partly on mind, they are the minds attempt to make sense of Suchness. Formations are conceptual in nature and bound to language. Formations have three properties and insight into these three properties constitutes the basis of Buddhist Wisdom: Impermanence, Suffering and Non-Self, what the Buddha called the Three Marks of Existence.

Impermanence. Formations are impermanent because they also arise dependent on the wiles of the fluid mass of Suchness in constant flux. Things arise, they linger and they pass away. Living things are born, they live and then they die. Formations are the things that change; Formations are the mind’s pinpointers, whereby the fluid flux has no coordinates prior to Formations against which change could be measured. Even dependency and arising and therefore Dependent Co-arising can only be described in terms of Formations. Emptiness itself is a Formation. Our language and concepts simply do not fully reach Suchness, only our Insight can.

Suffering. We live our lives in a world of Formations, that is of our own Fabrication. But since those Fabrications have a basis in the fluid flux of Suchness as well as on Mind they are undependable, they are born only to decay then die. Suffering measures that gap between Formations and suchness, it rests in the minds inability to keep pace with Things as They Are. Having fabricated formations, they are still subject to the wiles of Suchness. They disappoint us over and over. We will look at Suffering in more detail next week.

Non-Self. speaks of the fabricated nature of Formations. Often the Buddha is thought to have taught that nothing exists, that there is really nothing there. The word emptiness or void (sunyata), used by the Buddha alongside ‘non-self’ tends to imply this. Rather he claimed nothing can be pinpointed on close examination that is a self, that things do not exist on their own. Their thingness, their status as objects, leans on the capacity of the mind for fabrication. While they may be grounded more or less in Suchness their full nature is made up. Formations arise dependent on mind. The cloud exists not because temperature, vapor and all the environmental factors make it exist, but because the mind also perceives it as existing, it exists not on its own side but as a fabrication.

In sum, it is Formations that are impermanent, it is Formations that are not self, it is also Formations that suffer! There are no Formations without mind, there is no impermanence, nor birth, nor death, nor suffering without Formations. So Formations are a kind of problem for humans, but luckily a problem dependent our own minds.

I should point out, lest things become too clear, that mind is not something apart from Suchness either. This point is prominent in Dogen’s thought in his subversion of the Zen tradition “Apart from Words and Letters.” Since mind is a part of the flux of Suchness, Formations arise entirely from the Suchness, they are in effect Suchness trying to comprehend itself. Suchness itself is just a Formation as soon as we think there is such a “thing,” or as Nagarjuna said, Emptiness itself is empty. For convenience of exposition, however, I will pretend that Mind and Suchness are distinct.

Why Formations? From a Buddhist perspective the tendency of the mind for fabrication is unskillful, it is a defilement, at root a delusion, that brings woe beyond measure. I want for a time, however, to write about this not as the present Buddhist monk but as the former cognitive scientist, to reveal the positive side of Formations, not as an unfortunate accidental defect of human cognition but as a necessary and integral part of it. I think this might help the reader make sense of all of this.

Formations are anticipated by the existence of certain statistical patterns, consistencies and relative stabilities in the fluid flux of suchness. For instance in a rushing river eddies can be perceived. Water molecules under the force of gravity tend to seek the lowest point in a terrain and pool into rivers or ponds, and those are perceived. Moreover initially chaotic systems tend to organize themselves into communities of elements interrelated as functional systems sometimes with the capacity to maintain certain behaviors or relations over time, such as two objects initially flying through space might come to orbit around each other to form a kind of localized system. Sometimes these communities develop complex adaptive and self-regulating behaviors as in the case of living cells. Clusters of such systems then organize themselves into larger systems, and these larger systems exhibit characteristic behaviors and functions. The mind comes along, recognizing such patterns and consistencies and Formations are born. It sounds a bit in my description like the Formations exist prior to the mind, but that is because I already need to invoke Formations like “communities” and “systems of elements” to describe what happens prior to the mind; language requires it.

Why do minds do this? Well, minds are themselves parts of such complex self-regulating systems. In particular, humans are systems adapted evolutionarily to sustain a certain system dynamics under a wide variety of environmental circumstances, and to replicate themselves. They require a high degree of self-regulation and adaptability in very fragile complex systems functioning in a very hostile environment. If somewhere internal to the system predictions can arise concerning what the environment will throw at it next, the system is in a better position to adapt, but this requires tracking a very complex fluid reality with its rich network of ineffable interdependencies to arrive at some understanding of reality. This understanding will always be a simplification, a crude model of what are in fact vast complexities of Suchness. This understanding develops first by fixing pointers to the most predictable, consistent, stable parts of that reality, first by recognizing patterns as things then by building up the relationships, properties and structures of these things. The recognition part is Perception, the building up part is Formation, two of the five skandhas/khandhas or aggregates of the personality in Buddhism.

So, instead of blissfully enjoying a low-pitched audio impression of increasing volume, several glints of white, the movement of orange and the whiff of dead meat, all in the flux of interdependent Suchness, we quickly perceive and build up a Formation of a Tiger and this enables us to respond, taking spear quickly in hand, to an impending attack that would otherwise compromise the integrity of this superbly self-regulating system. Pretty cool.

Are Formations in Here or Out There?

Question: “So, let me get this straight, Swami What’s-Your-Name, you are saying that the tiger is a Formation fabricated in dependence on my own mind, so that I can make the tiger disappear just by thinking differently?” Yes, that is exactly right. … But don’t try it. You will get eaten anyway.

The question is, Do Formations ever exist from their own side? Granted that we as reasoning creatures require mental representations of things, aren’t there also things that exist in Suchness, that is not dependent on mind, such as these superbly self-regulating systems? The various thought experiments we have conducted during the last few weeks are a means of helping get out minds around this question. I consider four basic reasons for saying things Formations always depend on mind:

First, what we think exists or does not exist changes radically upon reflection. A Formation is a kind of story but stories can have alternative plots. Our thought experiments with clouds and shadows are illustrative of this; we easily waffle as to their existential status. Cumulus clouds tend to exist more consistently than cirrus, for instance and shadows produced by a single well-defined light source exist more certainly than those produced from multiple light sources. Recall that each of the thought experiments involves a shift in existential commitment. The tendency for objects to shift or to appear or disappear depending on what the mind adds is reminiscent of the Necker’s Cube, in which one alternatively sees a box from above or from below as the mind shifts its interpretation. Sometimes the mind locks into one interpretation making the alternative difficult to recover, just as we lock into certainty about the existence of some thing.

In the adventure of two weeks ago Captain Kirk and Scotty came into conflict over their differing interpretations of the captains existence, tracing it through alternative branching continuities: As far as Scotty was concerned the physical Captain he zapped with the paralyzer ray was a mere remnant, something like a ghost, of the real captain that had been successfully beamed to continue his existence on the Planet Flubobo. As far as the captain was concerned he was the captain himself continuing to live his life, without a clear idea of who that guy was walking around on Flubobo. It is revealing that we often trace an object through its pragmatic role, rather than concrete physical existence, while other traceable objects come and go to fill that role. Philosophers of language have pointed out some examples thay call intensional objects. For instance, we can say things like, “Three years ago the President was a Republican but now he is a Democrat,” or “The age of the President has fluctuated from the forties to the seventies,” treating Bush and Obama as different stages of one continuity, of one Formation, allowing a certain function to define a rather long-lived object.

Second, as we examine suchness more closely, in particular to consider how things are dependently coarisen, the Formations are harder and harder to recognize. We have seen that when we examine clouds, shadows, reflections, even cars and people, as dependently co-arisen, they lose their substantiality. In Suchness the interdependencies are so extensive it does not entirely make sense to try to carve it into discrete objects. Such objects turn out to be much more porous than we expect of our Formations. Nagarjuna, the Second Century Buddhist philosopher, stated that “Emptiness is Dependent Co-Arising!” In short, as we approach Emptiness, Formations disappear, as we recede from Emptiness they assert themselves.

Third, formations depend on mind, but do not always seem to depend strongly on Suchness. Consider the second variation of the Necker’s Cube pictured here, which is really just an arrangement of pie slices. Actually it is really just an arrangement of pixels, dots of black or white on your computer screen or printed page from which we fabricate pie slices from which we fabricate the lines of the Necker’s Cube. Notice that the lines even seem to continue between the pies, until you blink a couple of times. The mind is doing a lot of fabricating on the basis of little suchness. Humans have been very creative in fabricating very abstract objects out of nothing discernable and then even agreeing among themselves that they are there. Money, for instance, the kind you think is in the bank and belongs to you, is an example. God is another.

Fourth, formations out there in Suchness are never experienced separately from Formations in here, in mind. We often think our mental formations, our thoughts, or feelings, exist in a different realm then what we think of objective reality. Sometimes we even picture the former realm as located in the space between out ears, or picture ourselves with our thoughts in a fortress Self with an often hostile, sometimes alluring, world outside. But we never experience things that way. Rather the mind seems expansive and encompasses all things. In our experience some pattern in the suchness, such as a combination of colors and an odor, appears and begins to acrete features, first perception or recognition as familiar, then objecthood, then it grows like a crystal to acquire properties like beauty, and relationships to other objects like kinship, and even longings or aversions, a degree of tension, a role in some grand plan, and so on. The object crystallizes in dependence on both suchness and mind. Sometimes we try to sort out what is out there and what it in here, for instance reminding ourselves that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but the fact that we find such reminders profound is precisely because that is not we experience things.

We live in a world of our own fabrication. The Formations arise dependent on mind, then the details that might be perceived in suchness tend to recede, and as they do so the Formations become even more tangible and convincing. The world thereby becomes easier to track (as Ronald Reagan once said, “If you’ve seen one tree you’ve seen them all”), but also much more frozen and brittle. The wondrous richness and variety of Emptiness is replaced a hidden danger to our very mortal Formations. Next week we will consider the suffering and harm Formations, and particularly our Selves, bring with them. The following week we will learn of the various Buddhist practices that work with loosening the grip of the Self.

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