When we look at the concept of the self in Buddhism, we need to analyze it from the points of view of the four schools of the Indian tenet systems. We’re going to refine our understanding further and further as we work our way through these schools. When we speak about the self, the word self here is going to be used as a synonym for a person and “me.” When I look in the mirror and I see myself, I see “me,” I see a person; so, it’s all referring to the same thing. So, we’re not talking about ego; we’re not talking about any of these psychological things; we’re just talking about the conventional "me."
In order to understand the self, like any other thing in Buddhism, we have to exclude what is not. That’s the only way that we can identify things; what’s left over after we exclude what is not. That’s how a doctor diagnoses a sickness, it’s been excluded; it’s not this, it’s not that. That way you can conclude what it is.
All four schools will assert in common that we lack a coarse impossible self or soul. In other words, the type of soul or atman that’s asserted by the non-Buddhist Indian systems; this is impossible. There’s no such thing; we don’t exist like that. We don’t exist as this type of soul, this type of atman. That’s not “me.” Okay?
Assertions about the Self Common to All Four Buddhist Schools
So, let’s go through the characteristics here that it is not and then we see what it is. The self is not something that is static, unaffected by causes and conditions, unchanging from moment to moment. It’s not as if there is something inside me that always stays the same, that’s “me.” It’s not that. But rather the self is nonstatic. It’s affected by causes and conditions and it’s changing from moment to moment. I’m changing all the time. I’m young, I’m old, I’m tired, I’m awake; changing all the time.
Then, the self is something that lacks having a beginning. It’s not something with a beginning. It’s not created by some creator god; but, like the mental continuum, individual mental continuums, it has no beginning. This self is not the type of self that is one entity with all other selves. We don’t have this idea in Buddhism, like in Advaita Vedanta, that with liberation all atmans merge and become one in Brahma, all one Brahma without qualities. It’s not that we’re all one. Self is always individual even when enlightened. So, it’s not like that, that we’re all absolutely one undifferentiated soup. We’re all individual, always individual.
Also, the self isn’t partless. It’s not like some Indian schools belief that the self is a partless monad, like a spark of life. It’s not like that. So, it’s not that we are one with the universe, or partless like some other Indian schools say; but, rather the self always has parts. For example, like we have this body and mind, and also parts in terms of moments of continuity.
The self lacks existence as something independent or separate from the body and mind. In many of the Indian systems it says that with liberation the self exists all alone by itself without a body and mind. Buddhism says that’s impossible. These schools are not talking about enlightenment; they’re talking about liberation, liberation from samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth. You have to understand that most of the Indian systems are talking about the same issues except for some very minor exceptions; they all accept rebirth and that the rebirth is generated by our compulsive karmic actions. Some say that there’s a creator god, some don’t say that. So, they all accept karma although their understanding of karma will be different. They all assert that this rebirth is uncontrollably recurring, and it’s called samsara, and it entails suffering and that suffering is coming from our unawareness of how we exist and how reality exists, and that with correct understanding you can gain liberation from it.
But, Buddha came along and said, well, your understanding of all of these things is not correct. I’ve understood the true suffering, the true cause of it, the true state of freedom from it, the true understanding that will bring it about; that’s the Four Noble Truths.
Remember, be careful; don’t just use this word “path.” That implies something that you walk on; we’re talking about the steps. We’re talking about the understanding, what is the correct understanding that serves as a path to bring about liberation. It is a way of understanding that brings about the attainment of a true stopping of suffering and the causes of suffering. Then that self can be liberated. It’s not something that is static and never changes, and it’s not something that is created. It’s not something which is one with everybody else. It’s not something that is partless. It’s not something that when it’s liberated can exist without a body and mind; it’s always associated with a body and mind. It’s called the five aggregates.
The Five Aggregates
Aggregates are just ways of grouping various things that change within our moment to moment experience. So, nothing exists like boxes; they are not boxes that exist somewhere as aggregates. This is just a conceptual framework for understanding our experiences. So, in every moment of our experience there’s some form of physical phenomenon: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations, and cognitive sensors, photosensitive cells of the eyes and the body in general. Then, each moment is going to have some type of primary consciousness which is just aware of the essential nature of something. It’s a sight, a sound, and so on. It’s very interesting if you think in terms of the computer where you just have code, zeros and ones etc. Similarly, there’s primary consciousness with an audio code, or a visual code etc.
Then, we have distinguishing; distinguishing is usually translated as ‘recognition’ but that’s very misleading. Distinguishing in a sensory field with pixels, we can distinguish one object from another. Some masters just speak in terms of pixels; some speak in terms of colored shapes. Regardless, distinguishing is that I’m able to distinguish the colored shapes that form your face from the colored shapes of what’s behind you, the background. Otherwise, we can’t deal with anything.
Then, everyone has some level of a feeling of happiness and unhappiness. When we speak about feeling in Buddhism, all that feeling is referring to is the variable of happy or unhappy, somewhere on that spectrum.
Then, there is the aggregate of everything else, all other affecting variables. All those that are congruent with consciousness share five things in common. There are the various emotions and the various types of factors that help us to cognize something like attention, concentration, interests. Also in this aggregate we have the affecting variables which are not congruent with consciousness, like for instance, age.
So, the self, “me,” can’t exist separate from these aggregates. I use the words body and mind as the most general thing that covers all of this. The self is not a form of physical phenomenon which one of the Indian schools asserts, and the self is not a way of being aware of something. The self it is a category of a noncongruent affecting variable – it changes form moment to moment, is not congruent with the consciousness (it doesn’t share five things in common with consciousness) and it is categorized within that aggregate of other affecting variables. It is not an unimputed phenomenon. It’s not that the self exists as a soul that comes into the body or comes into the mind and inhabits it, possesses it, and controls it. It does not control the body and the brain, as if pushing the buttons sitting inside my head, often talking with a voice in my head. It seems like that, doesn’t it, that there’s somebody sitting there in my head talking, deciding what a bunch of people think of “me?” Now what am I going to say? Press the buttons and the voice speaks. It’s not like that. But, rather the self is an imputation on the five aggregates.
The Basis for the Imputation “Me” and the Basis for Labeling “Me”
The self, “me,” is a nonstatic imputation on the aggregates as its basis for imputation. No one needs to impute it; it is objective: you can see me. There is also the static category “me” that is labeled onto the aggregates as its basis for labeling. It is only involved with conceptual cognition, like when I think about myself. There is also a word designated on the category “me,” like the word “me” or “mich” in German or “ya” in Russian.
The basis for the imputation “me” and the basis for labeling of the category “me” are the same, every moment of experience. Every moment of experience is changing all the time, and is made up of so many different parts. These parts can be organized and understood in terms of these five aggregates; and all these parts are changing at different rates from each other. I’m seeing nice things and I’m hearing nice things and it’s changing all the time; and what I distinguish and pay attention to, it changes all the time. How I feel, happy and unhappy, that’s changing constantly at some different rate. The various emotions are changing all the time, each of them at a different rate and a different blend in each moment. Other factors like how much attention I pay, and how much interest I have, all that’s changing all the time. So, that’s the basis for the imputation “me” and the basis for the label “me.” What is “me?” The only thing we can say is that “me” is what the category “me” refers to, labeled on each of these moments.
So, that is the referent object, “me.” The question that the four schools address is going to be is there a referent thing, a findable “me,” sitting inside somewhere that corresponds to what is labeled by the category “me?” That will be refined as we go through these schools. So, anyway, there is a “me” that is an imputation. It’s not something that is not imputed, just coming into the body and going out to another one, pressing the buttons. But, it’s not a static imputed phenomenon. It’s not static.
There are static phenomena that are also imputations, like space, the absence of anything preventing this “me” from occupying three dimensions. No matter where I go, nothing is stopping me from occupying three dimensions. We’re talking about a body and upon that body we can also impute space that is not preventing it from occupying three dimensions. That’s static; that’s a fact around it regardless of where I go, position of my body, and so on.
And the self, “me” or “you” – we’re not just talking about “me” – we’re talking about everybody, how the worm as well exists. When we talk about rebirth from a Buddhist point of view, you can be reborn as any so-called sentient being. Sentient being means that something has consciousness, it has a mind, and it has intention. It does things intentionally and experiences the mechanism of the karma, the results of its intentional behavior. It’s not just mechanical because of chemicals. It experiences the results in terms of feeling happy or unhappy. We’re not talking about experiencing physical thing like the physical sensations of pleasure or pain, we’re talking about happy or unhappy. So, it’s not “me” going into the body of a worm and then pressing the buttons of a worm. It’s not as if there’s some “me” that could exist separate from a body and mind and then goes off some place, or could be liberated and go off to some transcendent realm. It’s not like that.
The Self, an Agent of Activity, and Karma
So, “me,” the self, an agent of activity, actually does things. The self is what experiences the results – happiness or unhappiness – from compulsive karmic actions. We’re talking about compulsion; we’re not talking about actions. We are talking about compulsions. The Tibetan word with which karma is translated unfortunately is the colloquial word for action. Because of that, it’s normally translated as action because it’s the colloquial word for action. But, it does not mean action. If it meant action, then the absurd conclusion would follow that in order to gain liberation by overcoming karma all you have to do is stop doing anything and then you become liberated. Therefore, karma cannot possibly mean action; although everybody will translate it that way because that’s what the word means in Tibetan.
So, please always keep that in mind. We’re talking about the compulsiveness that drives us to act in certain ways compulsively; because of disturbing emotions we act in destructive ways. That compulsion leads us to act in a certain way; that’s karma. Disturbing attitudes in general drive compulsive behavior whether it is positive or negative. A disturbing attitude is about how we exist and then because we have this idea that I have to be perfect, for example, then likely you are driven to be a perfectionist. I always have to clean my house over and over, or I always have to clean my hands; or I always have to be the best. It’s positive; but, very neurotic isn’t it? That’s compulsive; that’s karma, that compulsiveness.
So, the self is the agent of activity. I do things and because I do things compulsively by intention, I experience the results of my actions in terms of happy or unhappy; and also compulsive behavior, I experience that. I cognitively take objects, although the self does not itself perform the action of cognition. It doesn’t perform the action of the cognition. I have to explain that. That’s a little bit solid. I see you, you note that. It’s not just that consciousness sees you; I see you. I see you – now, what does that mean? It’s not just that the eyes see you; it’s not just that the mind sees you; but I also see you. Now, what does that mean?
Manifest Cognition and Subliminal Cognition
The self and the consciousness do not share five things in common. Both take the same cognitive object. Eye consciousness sees you and I see you; but, only the consciousness gives rise to the mental hologram. The self does not give rise to the mental hologram. That’s a big difference. The self and the consciousness perceive simultaneously; they cognitively take the object is the technical term. They will do this harmoniously together. Let’s not go too deeply into these five things in common because different schools will assert them differently. The main difference, what’s of importance, is that the self doesn’t give rise to the mental hologram. Only consciousness does that.
So, there’s a difference between manifest cognition and subliminal cognition. Manifest cognition, using the example of seeing you, is when the mind sees you, the eye consciousness sees you, and I see you. Subliminal cognition occurs, for instance, when you’re asleep. There is the sound of the alarm clock ticking. That sound comes to ear consciousness and so the ear consciousness takes it as an object; but, “I” am not aware of it. So, ear consciousness in a sense hears it but I don’t hear it. If that were not the case, you could never hear the alarm when the alarm goes off in the morning. Ear consciousness is functioning all the time but I was asleep. But, when it’s loud enough, then it becomes manifest and I hear it as well. So, the self does cognitively take objects, but it’s not performing that function of being aware of something. It doesn’t give rise to the hologram.
The non-Buddhist Indian schools also discuss these same issues regarding the self, but have different assertions from these common Buddhist ones. Some will say that the self does things but does not cognize anything itself; some say the reverse. There are many variations.
Vaibhashika and Sautrantika Assertions Regarding the Characteristics of the Self
Now, let’s go to the four schools. Everybody asserts that “I” does not exist like this coarse impossible soul that the non-Buddhist schools assert. Vaibhashika is going to refine this, give some more characteristics to the self, what it’s not and what it is. Vaibhashika and Sautrantika in common – those are Hinayana schools – say that the self is not something that has no end. It does end when you become liberated or when you attain enlightenment. At the end of that lifetime in which you either become liberated or enlightened, the self goes out like a candle. That’s what the word “nirvana” literally means, blown out like a candle: extinguished. It’s not like in some of the Indian non-Buddhist schools where the self goes on forever after liberation in some transcendent realm all by itself. These two Hinayana schools also don’t agree with Mahayana either, which says that the self continues eternally, liberated or enlightened.
Further, these two schools say that when you search for the self, you can point to it as something self-established and findable. There I am; that’s me. You can point to yourself; you can find the “me” established from its own side. There I am; right? There you are. It’s you over there; it’s not just what the category “you” refers to. Furthermore, the self is substantially established, which means that the self is established as something that exists by the fact that it functions; I function, you function. But, what Vaibhashika asserts that is specific to Vaibhashika – nobody else agrees on this point – is that I can perceive myself and I can perceive “you” self-sufficiently. I don’t need to perceive anything else, like the body, directly at the same time.
Vaibhashika says we have direct cognition. Direct means the actual object – we would say, in the case of vision – light from the object directly hits the consciousness. Actually, Vaibhashika says that the consciousness goes out, but let’s just say, for our purposes, that consciousness and its object come in contact directly with each other; there is no mental hologram involved. So, although “me” or “you” is an imputation on the aggregates – the body and mind – Vaibhashika asserts that when you see me, your consciousness just comes in contact with the “me” directly and not the combination of “me” and its basis of imputation, one or more of the aggregates.
Sautrantika says that the self isn’t something that could be directly known without a mental hologram; but rather, it’s always known in the context of a mental hologram. So because “me” and its basis of imputation, the aggregates, always appear together in the mental hologram, the self is not self-sufficiently knowable. The self’s lack of being self-sufficiently knowable is the lack of a subtle impossible soul – the subtle selflessness or identitylessness of the self of a person. All Buddhist tenet systems other than Vaibhashika refute this subtle impossible self.
Doctrinally Based or Automatically Arising Misconceptions
Belief in the coarse impossible self, this atman of the non-Buddhists, is doctrinally based. You have to be taught that and believe it in order to think that you exist like that. The worm doesn’t think like that. You have to be taught it; you have to understand it; and you have to believe that I can be liberated and I’ll go to some transcendent realm and exist without a body and mind. How would a worm know that? A child wouldn’t think that either. You go to some religious school and they teach you that. But, that I am self-sufficiently knowable, this is something that automatically arises. It automatically arises or you could have been taught that by the Vaibhashikas.
When you have a mental hologram of “me,” when I see myself in the mirror, I see a body in the mirror and, on the basis of the body, I also see “me” as an imputation on the body. You can’t just see “me” without seeing the body; but, we don’t really think like that, do we? That’s “me” in the mirror, or that’s “me” in the photograph. It’s very interesting if you see a series of photographs spanning your life. You say, oh that’s “me” in each of them. Well, is that the same “me?” What is it? How do you know that’s “me?” So, how do you know it’s “me” when you see this infant; but, in any case, it automatically seems as though it is “me.”.
If you hear somebody on the phone, for example, I’m speaking to Patrick; that’s Patrick. Is that Patrick? No, that’s a vibration of some sort of electronic thing that I’m calling his voice and I’m calling it him and naming that it’s him. You can’t just hear Patrick or talk to Patrick. So, we’re not just hearing Patrick; we’re hearing Patrick imputed on the sound. You can’t just hear Patrick by itself. It’s not self-sufficiently knowable. My favorite example for this is I want you to love “me” for “me,” not for my body, not for my money, not for anything else. I want you to love just “me” for myself. How you can love a person without it being labeled onto something? You can’t just love “me” or “you.” There needs to be a body and everything else about them.
So, the hologram that arises when we see someone has in it a composite of a basis for imputation – the form of a body – and “me” as an imputation on the body as its basis. So, the self doesn’t exist as something that can be known all by its self. It can only be imputedly known; but, according to Sautrantika, it’s not something that has its existence established merely in terms of what the mental label “me” refers to in the conceptual cognition of “me.”
According to Sautrantika, the self is a deepest true phenomenon. It is objectively real. Objectively I’m here and you’re there. I’m truly established because I do things. I’m talking to you. I’m drinking water; so, my existence is established from my own side, from “me.” My existence is not established merely in terms of the concept “me.” Whether I conceive of “me” in terms of the category “me” or “you” in terms of the category “you,” it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because I’m still “me,” and you’re still “you.” Something on my side, a defining characteristic, is what establishes “me” as “me” – something like a barcode – and establishes “you” as “you.”
Where Is the Barcode?
Now, the real question comes up. Where is that barcode? Where is it found? Sautrantika would say that it is found in the basis for imputation, the continuum of mental consciousness. Mental consciousness like the self has no beginning, but has an end when you die at the end of the lifetime in which you attain liberation or enlightenment. It has an end with parinirvana. It changes from moment to moment and it’s affected by various things, sees different things, and has parts, many, many moments. So, like that, its defining characteristics – its barcode – is findable on the side of the mental continuum, since that’s what continues from lifetime to lifetime with different bodies and so on. The mental continuum has the defining characteristic features or the bar code not only of mental consciousness but also the bar code of “me.” It’s because of that, that I can label “me” on that mental continuum; and, because the barcode is there, whether one labels “me” or not doesn’t matter because objectively that individual mental continuum is “me.”
I’m not the same as the mental continuum, but on the basis of that continuum there is “me” as an imputed phenomenon. There is a “me.” Of course, I’m not identical to the mental consciousness, but it almost feels like that. It’s almost as if there’s an actual, solidly findable “me” inside the mental continuum that’s the referent thing that’s holding up the referent object, “me.” And even outside the context of conceptual thought, there’s “me.”
This becomes very interesting to visualize this. In the non-Buddhist Indian schools, it’s like there is a package that has the body and mind are something separate over here, and the self as a separate entity somehow also inside this whole package. You get the picture? That in the package there’s a body, there’s mind, and there’s a “me,” three separate things, and that “me” can go out and be by itself. But now, what Sautrantika is saying is that actually the “me” is inside the mind and is going along with the mental continuum with each lifetime and of course it has a barcode of a “me” inside the mental continuum, an individual “me,” that is not “you.”
I’m simplifying this very much but just get the idea of what we’re talking about and you can imagine that. We identify with our minds, don’t we? You weigh yourself on the scale – you weigh your body on the scale actually – and think while weighing yourself, that’s not “me.” I can’t weigh like that; so who am I? I’m the mind that’s saying that, the person sitting inside the mind talking, saying, Oh, no, that’s not “me.” We think there’s an actual “me” sitting inside the mind, inside the mental consciousness, talking. It automatically appears like that, doesn’t it? It feels like that and we believe it; but, it’s ridiculous. There’s no cartoon “me” sitting inside our head. Yet, we think that there’s an actual “me” sitting inside the mind, inside the mental consciousness talking. It automatically appears like that, doesn’t it? It feels like that and we believe it. But it’s ridiculous; there’s no cartoon “me” sitting inside our head.
Is there a self-reflecting function in the mind?
That is a huge topic of discussion in Buddhism and the various schools will have different opinions on that, whether that is a separate mental function or whether that is implicit in each moment. But, everybody says that there is such a thing. It’s very much connected with how each of the schools explains how memory works, how you remember what I experience.
Is this cartoon in our head, which is pushing the buttons or maybe not pushing the buttons or speaking through the microphone or not speaking through it, part of our self or not part of our self?
It’s a complete fiction. There is no such thing. That’s what Buddhism says; the self does not exist like that. It’s devoid of existing like that. To be more technical, it’s not established by there being something actually sitting inside and talking that can be known by itself. There is no little “me” sitting in our head as a self-sufficiently knowable, separable entity that could fly off and still exist by itself without a body or mind.
The implication is that there is a self-established findable “me” sitting inside the mind, pushing the buttons but, which can only be known simultaneously with its basis for imputation, the mind, also being known and which cannot exist separately from a body and mind. Prasangika refutes even that type of “me” pushing the buttons. There is nothing findable pushing the buttons.
How do we differentiate the self from the mental continuum?
That’s why we brought up the topic of subliminal cognition: ear consciousness actually does perceive the sound of the clock ticking while we’re asleep, but “I” don’t perceive it, “I” don’t hear it. What is the definition of when we’re knowing something? It has three parts; it’s usually translated as clarity, and awareness, and merely that, only that.
Clarity is referring to not being in focus and so on; that’s misleading. Clarity is giving rise to a mental hologram of some cognitive object, so, something arises; and awareness is referring to just a cognitive engagement with that same cognitive object – which, in Tibetan, is the same word as “enter.” And these two are just two ways of describing the same phenomenon. When we talk about mind we’re talking about mental activity. We’re not talking about the thing that does it. So, what is the mental activity in each moment? It’s the rise of a mental hologram and cognitive engagement; the same thing from two different points of view; the same activity.
You can understand this in terms of thinking. It’s not that a thought arises and then you think it. The arising of a thought and the thinking of a thought are the same thing, isn’t it? It’s not that there’s a mental hologram, a sight arises and then you see it. How can you see? A person arises – so the arising of that mental hologram is what seeing is. That is what seeing is and the really interesting thing is that this is happening without there being a separate “me” that is doing it, or that is observing it, or controlling it, or out of control because it can’t control it.
It happens without a mind being a thing that is a machine that is doing this. It’s not that there’s a “me” over here and a machine which is the mind and then “me” who presses the buttons and a hologram comes up. It’s not like that. The machine is the mind. Alright? You can describe this mental activity from a physical point of view; the brain, the brain waves and electric impulses and chemicals. That’s not being refuted; but, it’s just this mental activity. So, that mental activity, as we said, gives rise to a hologram and the engagement with it. That is a way of being aware of something. But self, the activity that the self does, is only the cognitive engagement. It is not giving rise to the thought, to the mental hologram.
Let’s use a simple example. A mind gives rise to a thought and thinks the thought. It both produces the thought and thinks the thought. I just think the thought; I don’t produce the thought. Thought comes from something on the side of the mind, not from the side of “me.” But both mind and I think. So, that characteristic of thinking it, that part of the barcode which is in common for both “me” and the mind is in the mental consciousness. But, the barcode for giving rise for the mental hologram, that’s not shared in common by “me.” That’s only in the mind. There’s a difference; it’s subtle, but there’s a difference.