- What Is Dependent Origination?jh
- Everything Leansjh
- Nathan and Zohar's Events & Retreatsjh
We all have a sense of self. If there is some kind of experience then a reference point of self is present—viewing and experiencing. For this fact, we can say that the sense of self is dependent on an experience for its existence. If there were not an experience there could not be a self. For a sense of self is something experienced that appears to have experiences.
This is one clear and obvious meaning behind the term ‘emptiness of self’. If the sense of self is dependent on experience, then it is not independently existing.
Emptiness is the middle way between extremes. Emptiness is not saying that a self does not exist. Likewise emptiness is not saying it does exist. It is a razors edge. We all too easily will fall to one side or another; “it does exists”, or “it does not exist”.
Between essentialism (self-cherishing) and nihilism (self-abnegation) there is emptiness. Between (real) things and nothing, there is no-thingness.
When we open a door; “I open the door”, when we use a toilet; “I’m in the bathroom”, we are phrasing the functional self into existence. It is an illusionary phenomena, but it is a reference point for activity. There is very little dukkha involved here. It is temporary and light. Don’t waste too much time trying to eradicate this, spend it more wisely on watching for escalation into dukkha.
For there is the possibility for dukkha to start to enter as the sense of self, or belief in self, starts to feel more constricted and constant. A story can evolve from the simplest acts: “I open the door” can attach to “and let other people through first, and that makes me a good person.” If there is a lack of (perceived) expressions of gratitude for this, we can easily trip into a sense of being undervalued. Which we will either concur with, “I am worthless”, or fight, “I am a good person!” and “They are stupid, mean, ignorant”.
A typical two way extension has occurred with the arising of the sense of self and other; there is the illusion of an extension in time, and the illusion of importance. We have stagnated a process. This identity with passing moods or other phenomena is dukkha. As we become identified more and more with this process over here, we become less well attuned with the interconnected flowing nature of life.
We can adjust our inner speech, and we start to engender change. This is the power of verbal fabrication; the way we think affects the way we feel, the way we view the world, and how we experience life. Conceptual language creates conceptual worlds which we can inhabit without thinking if it would be wise to. A concept is not reality, yet we take them to be. If something is conceptual it is not real, and this unreal is empty.
Emptiness always implies skilful playfulness and creativity. So let’s play with verbal fabrication, because it is empty.
“I am worthless” can be tuned towards accuracy: “I feel worthless”. Each degree of lessening identification with passing moods is a lessening of ‘tanha’ (demand/craving) and thereby easing of ‘dukkha’ (stress/distress).
The process can continue “I feel worthless, right now”. This disrupts the illusion of constancy over time.
We may even inquire ‘what feels worthless?’ Which part of the body? Which thought?
Interestingly we are now doing something very worthwhile; we are approaching a sense of worthlessness with mettā (kindness and consideration). We are not rejecting it, but nor are we accepting it (as real or constant), we are relating to it (as an inconstant present phenomena).
We know in our own experience that we flow through a series of roles & identities and self-views. This is a flow over time, it can be years and it can be micro-seconds. Any sense of self is impermanent and inconstant.
“I am angry” will not last. Furthermore even in the moment of saying it there is bound to be someone towards whom we are not angry. Doesn’t this undermine the statement? Maybe I feel “I am a teacher” yet even as we express this identity there is someone we are not teaching anything to. Equally, within a few moments there will be an activity where being a teacher will be inappropriate and unhelpful. If in an act of creativity or love we are tied into the view “I am a teacher” I will not be free enough to create. So if we are sane we will immediately stop the identity, and no doubt change into another. Self sense is like clothing. Choose well and you can be anyone.
We are a sequence of heavily held impermanent and inconstant illusions of fixed-self views. It is important to encourage a lightness here, through the language we use, and through thorough exploration, to bring us back to the most helpful reality we can fabricate.
The sense of self is something we sense, but not something we can find. Believing in it as a reality is flawed and leads to dukkha and conflict. Seeing it is empty is liberating and leads towards harmony and wellbeing.
The sense of self is in some way tied to a sense of the body and mind. But it is not felt to be the same as the body and mind. Something existing cannot be the same as something else, or else it would be that other thing. Yet it also cannot be different to them. If the sense of self were other than the body and mind, what would it be?
Where is your sense of self now? Where does it exist? (Is it in the body or mind?) Where does it not exist? (Is it in your little finger?)
The body is inconstant. The mind even more so. The sense of self is something that seems or feels constant.
The Buddha described the made up nature of a sense of self as being composed from form (body), feelings, perception, mental activity (like intention & attention), and consciousness (knowing). If we did not have all of these we would not be a recognisable human. These are the aggregates and they are all inconstant (they come and go) and they are all dependent on other inconstant causes and conditions for their existence. Each aggregate aggregates a sense of self, and each aggregate is an aggregate itself, and each aggregate of each aggregate is aggregated. It goes on and on. Selves make up communities, which make up societies, which make up countries, which make up worlds. And it’s all made up like oceans of water particles, but particles are made up too. Selves are made up of bodies, which are made up of arms, legs, torso, which are made up of parts, like hands, which are made up of parts, like bones, which are made up… There is no end to the made up nature, in any direction. Despite this a sense of unique singular existence, and a feeling of remarkable continuity among constant change seems to apply to our sense of self. This doesn’t make sense.
Somehow we are balancing a delicate illusion which dissolves with exploration. We are believing that we are somehow the owner and possessor of body, intellect, mind & heart. Miraculously other than, but connected to them, like a conductor of an orchestra of aggregated parts. But like the conductor, the self is illusory in many ways; the conductor is empty, and so is the self.
The conductor comes into being in reference to a role, without that role the conductor is not. Equally conductors are dependent on an orchestra of gathered musicians, and their gathered skills, and gathered willingness to do what the conductor says. If the gathered disperse, or follow their own intentions, the conductor illusion is broken.
We do not have autonomy or control of the mind and body. It makes little sense to maintain an illusion of being in charge. As we look at our physical form. We know we did not make the body, we do not heal the body, we do not run the digestive system. Likewise with the intellect. We do not choose our thoughts, we can’t decide with 100% success to be in a good mood. If we sit and observe with a calm and clear mind we will see intentions arise into being, not consciously bidden by our self. If we are not calm and clear we will follow these intentions, identify with them, and do all we can to make them come into action.
We may feel like the self is the thinker of thoughts. But the thinker is dependent on the thought for existence. A thinker without thought is not a thinker. A thought without a thinker also cannot be. So neither thinker nor thought can come into being before the other. They are each empty of self, they do not exist independently. The same goes for feelings, physical sensations, and any and all phenomena.
The self sense is projected onto creative chaos it does not control. It is wise to see it as empty for great suffering will come if we project an identity onto or with any part of this inconstant flow.
The self is unfindable. Yet who is looking? Is this like the eye trying to see itself? Of course the eye cannot see itself? Can awareness, that which knows all known things, know itself? If it could it would be split, divided into knower and known. The knower cannot be the known, and yet we know we know. So does that require two awarenesses? No, it would appear that we have a sense of awareness and we have a process of awareness. The process of awareness knows things. But there is no actual knowing of awareness, for like a sense of self, awareness is not a thing but a process. What we are aware of then is the sense of awareness.
Just as we cannot see wind, but can see wind in a tree or in a flapping flag. Awareness and a sense of self is known in the appearance of change in experience. They are both unfindable, but throughly sensible. If there is experience there is a sense of knowing, which implies a sense of a knower, and thereby a sense of self. None of this is refutable, and nor is it problematic.
Dukkha arises with a sense of self, and eases with the sense of self, if there were no self, there would equally be no dukkha. Likewise if we accept the definition that dukkha is any degree of contraction, and that even the slightest degree of contraction is necessary for attention to remain with a phenomena, and that that is necessary for there to be an experience (and experiencer), then even the subtlest degree of dukkha is a necessary prerequisite for (a sense of) self.
If the self is dependent on dukkha, that is further expression of its empty nature.
With that said, for most of us this is mostly just a helpful aerial view of the territory, for it is the extremities (rather than the subtleties) of dukkha we must face first.
The teachings of not-self, and seeing the sense of self as empty are offered for liberation, not for mental stimulation. Although they can do both very well, it is the former we should lean into, support, and delve into. When there is a moment of calm we can inquire with this wisdom lens: The self is empty, yet to what degree is there ‘tanha’ combined with this sense of self? Is there a light hint of tanha or is it violently drenched in it?
If without wisdom we grasp onto the objects we are knowing, we draw ourselves into an embattled position. They will change, all things are inconstant. Clinging thus will be ‘dukkha’; rope burn. Furthermore drawing this object into a conceptual individuality of (even momentary, yet often far longer) constancy is dukkha. No thing exists in this fantastical way. No thing exists independently (from its own side), to conceive it to, and act like it does is dukkha. All things are dependent, they cannot also be independent, it is one or the other. All things are not-self, so no thing should be taken as self.
The Buddha found a middle way between extremes, it involves not taking any thing as the self, nor taking any thing as the possession of the self, and seeing how that no-thing perspective feels.
We can run through our 6 senses (skilful inclusion of the intellect as a sense door) and see them as completely empty of self. They are not to be taken as self, nor as the possession of a self. No form, no object, no faculty can really be my self: they change and don’t last, we don’t make them, and we can’t own them. Loosening our grip feels sweeter than holding on tight. Even if you’re not convinced, something that is curious about these teachings is that they are not an argument, they are an experiment. Try holding this view, rather than any other, and see what happens. If dukkha drops away it’s a useful view. This nose (I didn’t make it, or shape it, or fix it, or heal it) - This is not me, This is not mine. This aroma (I didn’t choose it, or compound it, or create it) - This is not me, This is not mine. This ability to smell (I have no idea where this came from, or how I’m doing this) - This is not me, This is not mine. Likewise with tongue, flavours, taste; eye, sights, seeing; ears, sounds, hearing.
This skin, this touch, this ability to feel - not me, not mine. This brain, this thought, this ability to think - not me, not mine.
Same with the mental fabrications; perception, intention, attention, vedana, views, and understandings - not me not mine.
Likewise with awareness knowing these, dependent on the objects to come into being for something to know. There is no knowing with known phenomena. This too, not me, not mine, not myself.
No concepts, no wisdom, no liberation, all are not me, not mine.
Written by Nathan Glyde