The following is the slightly modified script for a video essay on the SEEKER TO SEEKER YouTube channel. You can watch the full video here:
THE WORLD’S GREATEST PROBLEM
There is the story of а young reporter at an airport who spots a Buddhist monk and decides to interview him. He asks the monk ‘Sir, what would you say is the world’s greatest problem? Is it global warming? World hunger? Corruption?’
The monk smiles and replies ‘Let me ask you something first. Who are you?’
‘I’m a reporter,’ answers the young man.
‘No, that is your profession,’ says the monk. ‘Who are you?’
‘I’m John Smith,’ the reporter answers.
‘No, that is your name,’ says the monk, ‘Who are you?’
‘I’m… a human being,’ the young man hesitates.
‘No, that is your species,’ says the monk, ‘Who are you?’
This goes on for some time until, finally, the reporter gives in and says ‘Alright, alright… It appears I don’t know who I am!’
Then the monk says to him: ‘This is the world’s greatest problem.’
Here, we will look at how the Buddha answered that very same question. The question that eventually led him to enlightenment. The fundamental question that faces each one of us.
Who am I?
THE BUDDHIST TEACHING OF NO-SELF
It is on the nature of the self that Buddhism gives the most controversial theory, or rather, non-theory, in the history of religion. You are not your body, the Buddha said, and most other religions would agree. But he also claimed you are not an immortal soul. You are not consciousness, nor feeling, nor mind, nor will, nor some primal cosmic substance.
But, according to the Buddha, it is also not true to say that you are nothing, that you do not exist.
Things get even more complicated when you consider the doctrine of rebirth. I mean, if there is rebirth, there must be an ‘I’’ that passes from one life into another, inheriting the good and bad karma of past lives, right?
Throughout his life, the Buddha insisted that rebirth is a fact of life and yet no self, no ‘I’ gets reborn.
In Palī, this teaching came to be known as anattā, the teaching of no-self.
Anattā is a bizarre doctrine. And yet the Buddha maintained that to understand it means to become fully enlightened. To know what you are, the Buddha claimed, and to know what you are not – is the key to ending suffering once and for all.
(So, considering this essay might be your chance at enlightenment for the day, you might want to pay attention!)
THE BUDDHA’S PATH
To understand the Buddha’s no-self teaching, we need to get a bit technical for a minute. We need to talk about the five khandhas.
The Buddha’s path to awakening involved a punishing period of asceticism and harsh mental training. At one point during his search, he sustained himself on one grain of rice per day. The stories tell us he had become so thin he could feel his spine by putting his hand on his stomach. He went on to study under the greatest meditation teachers of his time and surpassed them one by one in their own game. However, he would always move on, disappointed he had not found what he was seeking.
The end of suffering.
The Buddha eventually went on to disapprove of extreme asceticism. Yet there is one great benefit he gained from his harsh training. And that is that he had gradually transformed his mind into a weapon. The immense powers of concentration and mental endurance he developed allowed him to study his mind in a way few of us would even consider possible.
After years of total dedication to observing his conscious experience, the Buddha discovered something that would literally change the course of history. We could argue he made one of the most radical discoveries ever made by a human being. He discovered that what he was used to calling his ‘self’, his ‘I’, is nothing but a combination of five components. Five aggregates.
The five khandhas.
THE FIVE AGGREGATES OF EXPERIENCE
The usual English translation of the Palī word khandha is ‘aggregate’. You can also think of it as meaning ‘part’ or ‘component’.
In simple terms, the five khandhas are the constituents of our conscious experience. They are the building blocks of reality as we experience it subjectively. The five khandhas are the following:
- mental formations,
- and consciousness.
To understand how these five work, we have to adopt a slightly different way of thinking than how we normally see reality. Let’s use a simple allegory for this purpose.
Think about a video playing on an RGB screen. Like this footage of Marilyn Monroe:
When you look at these images, they immediately mean something to you. They immerse you. You are looking at a person, a strikingly beautiful woman. You can see the colour and fabric of her clothes, her body language, her facial expressions, her aura of playful youthfulness. A part of you knows you are just watching a video, but another, more instinctual part, is immediately captured by the reality of what you’re seeing.
A part of you sees the person Marilyn Monroe.
However, think for a minute about the nature of these images. Think about the screen on which you are watching them. On the level of the screen, this video is simply a composition of frames, each frame is made up of pixels… and each pixel is a combination of three colours only.
Red, green, and blue.
We can say these are the three aggregates of the video.
All the complexity of the video, all the information it gives you and the emotions it gives rise to… These all arise from the careful orchestration of just three components. Red, blue, and green. There is, in fact, no Marilyn Monroe in front of you. This is literally a trick of the light. A clever pattern of reds, greens, and blues fools you into thinking you are seeing Marilyn Monroe. It fools you into admiring her beauty, into perhaps feeling attracted to her.
Well… you can probably see where this is going.
The Buddha’s argument is that subjective experience is like that Marilyn Monroe footage. The feeling of ‘I’ is like a magic trick that only appears real when you are not looking closely at it. If you do look closely, the Buddha claimed, you will see that there is nothing in your experience that can be a self. There is just a very, very elaborate symphony of five aggregates.
Like the illusion of Marilyn Monroe appears just from a pattern of reds, greens, and blues – so too the illusion ‘I am’ appears from the pattern of the five khandhas.
These five are, again – form, feeling, cognition, mental formations, and consciousness.
- Form covers everything physical and visual – shapes, colours, textures and so on.
- Feeling includes everything that feels pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Things like boredom, excitement, sadness, pleasure, pain, etc.
- Cognition covers all thoughts, memories, future plans. It also covers ideas. The idea of what a flower is, of what the colour pink is, of what a good life is. It also includes the idea of who and what you are.
- Mental formations include all desires and emotions. Likes and dislikes. Everything that moves you on an emotional level.
- Finally, consciousness accounts for the very fact of awareness. Thomas Nagel gives consciousness this clever definition: if there is something it is like to be you, then you are conscious.
THE NO-SELF TEACHING OF THE BUDDHA
Now, let’s see how these five aggregates apply to your sense of self. Ask yourself this. Can you really find anything within your experience that doesn’t fall into one of these five categories?
And more importantly, can you find your ‘self’ anywhere within the five aggregates?
The body, the feelings, the thoughts, the desires, and the consciousness you perceive you call your own. But if they are your own, then… who are you? Who is the owner of your body? Who is feeling your feelings? Who is the thinker of your thoughts? Who desires your desires? Who is aware of your consciousness?
The answer to all these questions seems so intuitive, so obvious, so clear: It is me, I myself am that one!
It is not even a rational conclusion, but a gut feeling that you exist, that you are somebody, a self.
Well, it is exactly when we reach this gut feeling that the Buddha says… hold on. You are not paying attention.
Here is how the Buddha saw the world.
When the five aggregates come together, the unenlightened say ‘a person is born’. When the aggregates fall apart, the unenlightened say ‘a person has died’. And when the aggregates disperse and then come back together in a different pattern, the unenlightened say ‘a person is reborn’.
However, the Buddha tells us, there is no person to be found anywhere.
The Buddha had no issue with using the word ‘person’ or ‘self’ as a conventional term. He knew we need such words in order to orient ourselves in the world. The Buddha would agree that, by convention, ten-year-old Marilyn Monroe is the same person as twenty-year-old Marilyn Monroe. However, on the level of ultimate truth, there is no Marilyn Monroe. There is no Buddha, no me, and there is no you too.
There are just different streams of the five aggregates flowing in time, falling apart, and then coming back together. I am one stream, you are another, but ultimately we are both just water flowing in slightly different ways. However, since the patterns of our five aggregates are so complex and since the ordinary human mind is so distracted – the aggregates fall into the terrible misconception that they are a person. That they are somehow one thing and that the world and everyone else are another.
GRASPING AT THE AGGREGATES
The Buddha claimed every model of the self you can have would be a mistaken view. And it would always end up being a form of grasping at one of the five aggregates.
- You say the self dies along with the physical body? You are grasping at form.
- You say the self is that inside you which feels either good or bad? You are grasping at feeling.
- You say ‘I think, therefore I am’? Well, sorry René, you are simply grasping at cognition.
- Those who say ‘I am my choices and free will’ grasp at mental formations.
- And those who see the self as pure awareness grasp at the aggregate of consciousness.
The Buddha claimed none of these can be the self.
He gave two key reasons.
First, none of the aggregates can be the self since you can control none of them. You cannot make your body healthy by simply wishing to, nor can you suddenly make yourself feel relaxed when you are actually feeling anxious. You can’t even choose what your next thought is. (Or rather, you can choose it, but you cannot choose what you choose.)
The five aggregates change according to conditions and causes which are external to them. Therefore, none of the aggregates can be our self.
Second, the aggregates come and go. They cannot be the self, because they are impermanent. One minute you think and feel one way and the next this changes completely. One day your body is young and agile, but before you know it, it hurts to bend down and tie your shoes.
If your self was one of the aggregates then it too must be changing all the time. But then it would mean one self must end one moment and another self must begin the next. This is clearly not what our gut feeling tells us our self is like. We feel we are individuals and that, though we may change and develop, we have some permanent core that persists through time. Clearly, none of the aggregates can be that core.
And here we come to the Big Bad Guy of Buddhism: dukkha. This Palī word is a very general term translated variously as “suffering”, “unhappiness”, or “unsatisfactoriness”. It is the feeling that something about your experience could be better – that something is not okay.
Well, the Buddha claimed that his whole teaching had just one purpose. Like how the whole ocean has just one taste, that of salt, so too the Buddha claimed his every teaching has the same taste of liberation. To be liberated means to be free from dukkha. It means that to you, everything has become completely, utterly, and irreducibly okay.
And what did the Buddha say is the number one reason for dukkha? It is the gut feeling which tells us ‘This is me, this is mine, this is myself’. It is the feeling of ‘I’, which the Buddha called grasping.
You see, the Buddha was not a philosopher. He never philosophized for philosophy’s sake. His every word, action, and teaching was laser focused on one goal. The end of dukkha. It is important to understand that the Buddha did not teach the no-self doctrine as a philosopher but as a doctor of the human spirit. We could even call him the first psychologist in history.
The Buddha saw that people live their lives in complete ignorance of ultimate reality. We observe our body, feelings, thoughts, desires, and consciousness and we call them our own. We grasp at them and become attached to them. We accumulate possessions, we chase after social rank, relationships, experiences, wealth. But fate inevitably takes from us all we have accumulated. Little by little, time and change take from us all we think belongs to us. Finally, they take from us our very lives.
How much pain, how much suffering is there in this life for one who says of the things she loses ‘This is me, this is mine, this is myself’? And not only does one suffer for a lifetime, but over thousands and hundreds of thousands of lifetimes.
In one terrifying quote from the Palī Canon, the Buddha tells his disciples the following words:
‘While, on this long journey, you wander aimlessly from birth to birth, there have been more tears shed for you than there is water in the four oceans (S.II, 180)’
The Buddha saw this as the sickness of the human spirit. He never wished to moralise us by pointing out our ignorance and grasping. On the contrary, he spoke of these things out of great compassion, out of a deep understanding of just how much each of us is fated to suffer in this world.
THE GOOD NEWS
And yet… there is good news! The Buddha knew from personal experience that if we see reality as it really is – if we see the self as an illusion created from a pattern of separate processes – if we are to internalize this understanding so that we know it not only in our heads but have it as a gut feeling – if we manage to truly, completely extinguish our feeling of ‘I’, our grasping at life… if we extinguish these like the Buddha did… well, then we will see everything as it truly is. We will know in our hearts that everything is okay. That there is nothing to gain and nothing to lose. This is the peace that passes understanding.
The Sanskrit word for this is nirvāṇa.
Of course, this is much easier said than done. But it is not impossible. Siddhartha Gautama did it and became known as the Buddha, literally meaning the one who awoke.
All of Buddhism sprang from this realization. There was a human being, just like you and me, who one day made the most radical discovery in human history. He cultivated his mind to its maximum capacity and then pointed it back on itself. What he found changed him forever and inspired millions of people throughout the world to bow to him in reverence.
THE NO-THEORY OF SELF
Ultimately, you cannot understand the doctrine of no-self intellectually. Certainly not from an online article. This is a teaching that will require your complete dedication if you wish to truly ‘get it’. If you wish to dissolve that gut feeling inside you which says ‘I am’.
In fact, many people mistake the Buddha’s message for saying that the self does not exist. The Buddha never said that. In fact, he claimed that to say ‘I do not exist’ is just as misleading as saying ‘I am’. Why?
Because then you are still thinking in terms of ‘I’.
Anatta, which many people translate as ‘the theory of no-self’ should more rightly be translated as ‘the no-theory of self’. To understand this teaching means to completely transform your outlook on the world in a way that is difficult to describe in words. In fact, there is no reason to believe that a person who understands anatta can explain it to the rest of us who do not.
Yet whatever the Buddha realized when he meditated on his self freed him from all suffering. The kind of person he became after his enlightenment must have truly been a sight to behold. Wherever he went and to whomever he spoke, he attracted followers and worshipers.
And whoever approached him, whoever wished to know what the root of all suffering is, the Buddha would guide them again and again to the same question.
He would ask them ‘Who are you?’