The Subtle Impossible “Me”

The First of Three Layers of the Impossible “Me” to Be Refuted

There are three layers of impossible “me” that we need to refute. We can differentiate more layers, but here we’ll just deal with the main three. Each progressive layer is deeper than the one before it. We project all three layers simultaneously of what is impossible. If we remove the first layer by understanding that this is nonsense, we’re still left with the two layers underneath. We remove the second layer and then we’re still left with the underlying third layer. What we’re experiencing now is a combination of all three. 

Voidness is a total absence of these impossible ways of existing. That means there are no referent objects to any of them; they neither refer to nor correspond to anything. In other words, there is a total absence, or voidness, of referent objects for any of them. 

Tsongkhapa speaks about neither under-refuting nor over-refuting. Under-refuting means that we don’t go to the deepest level and so we still leave behind something impossible and over-refuting means we get rid of the deepest level, but think we are left with nothing at all. In terms of the self, that would mean that, literally, we don’t exist at all and nothing exists, not even cause and effect. But, in fact, we do exist, that’s very important to realize; otherwise, we go to the extreme of nihilism and think, “If I don’t exist and there is no cause and effect, then it doesn’t matter what I do.” There are serious ethical consequences that follow from thinking nihilistically like that. Clearly, we need to avoid these two extremes.

The Doctrinally-based Coarse Impossible “Me” and Its Three Qualities

The first layer of false projection is the coarse impossible self of a person, the coarse impossible “me.” The Sanskrit word for self or “me” is atman, which could be translated as “soul.” Mahayana Buddhism speaks of a soul of individuals and a soul of all phenomena. A soul is like something inside a person or object that powers it. For example, it would be that there’s a soul inside this table that makes it a table. They use that same word, atman, for a table or for a person. Likewise, there’s a soul inside of me that makes me “me.” For gaining liberation from the twelve links and thus from samsara, the non-Prasangika tenet systems assert that we just need to understand the lack of the first two layers of impossible souls of persons. Prasangika asserts that we need the understanding of the lack of the third layer, the deepest layer of impossible soul, which applies to not only persons, but also to all phenomena.  

The first layer, the coarse impossible “me,” is doctrinally-based, which means that it is an assertion of a non-Buddhist Indian school of philosophy that we need to have been taught and that we believe is true. We believe that this corresponds to reality. This kind of impossible “me” has three qualities. 

The first quality is that it is a static, unaffected phenomenon. Often this quality is translated as “permanent”; but the word “permanent” in English could mean two different things. The Tibetan and Sanskrit words for his quality could also mean two different things. One meaning of permanent is “eternal.” That’s not what we’re talking about here, because Buddhism also says the self is eternal, with no beginning and no end. The mental continuum has no beginning and no end; and therefore, the self, as an imputation on it, has no beginning and no end. That’s not what we’re talking about. 

What we’re talking about is the variable, while something exists, of does it change because it’s affected by causes and conditions, or does it not change? Is it static or non-static? That’s what we’re talking about: a permanent soul or “me” that is unaffected by anything, that is static and always remains the same. 

The second quality of this impossible soul, “me,” is that is partless. Usually this quality is translated as the word “one.” It means that it doesn’t have any parts. It’s monolithic. It’s a monad, a monolith. According to some Indian philosophies, it is the size of the universe, as in the Indian philosophies that assert atman as identical with Brahma. Some other Indian philosophies assert that the self is a tiny partless spark of life that goes from one body to another body. 

The third quality is that it exists as an entity independent of a body and mind and is not imputed on it. It can be separated and liberated to a state in which it continues to exist all by itself without a body or a mind. According to this assertion, the atman or self is an independently existing entity, “me,” that doesn’t have a body and mind, but in each lifetime goes into and lives in a body and mind, activates it, pulls the strings and presses the buttons. It goes from lifetime to lifetime, not affected by anything, partless, and could be liberated from that cycle of rebirths. In a state of liberation, moksha, it would be totally separate from all matter and mind.

We spoke a little bit about imputation, as in the case of tendencies that are imputed on repeated occurrences of something similar. Similarly, we have repeated occurrences of subjective, individual experiencing of things. They’re not random; they follow in a sequence based on cause and effect. We can refer to something that is part of each moment, pervading each moment and, in a sense, putting it all together as “me.” That “me” is an imputed phenomenon, an imputation on such a continuum of individual subjective experiencing of things. It is not some conception that someone needs to actively impute in order for it to be something validly knowable. We can all validly cognize a person non-conceptually, such as when we see someone. Such a “me” changes from moment to moment to moment as we are experiencing different things and affected by what we experience. 

But an atman, a soul, with these above three qualities is believed to exist not as an imputation. This is a doctrinally-based belief, meaning it is based on a doctrine, on a system of non-Buddhist Indian beliefs. We have to be taught this belief and we wouldn’t naturally think that way. When born as a dog, we wouldn’t still actively think that. Nevertheless, everyone needs to rid themselves of this doctrinally-based misbelief. 

This becomes very interesting because we might have objections. Westerners often object and say that they have never studied Indian philosophy and therefore how can they rid themselves of a misbelief in something they never even heard about? The commentaries, however, explain that everybody has this misconception about themselves because of beginningless mind. In some lifetime, we were taught that doctrine and whether we still actively think that or not is a variable depending on the circumstances of our present life. There are still the tendencies of that belief, even when we have been reborn as a dog. As Westerners, many of us clearly have parts of this belief that have been reinforced by various things that we’ve learned, such as conceiving of a soul, “me,” in the way that we have been taught in Christian Sunday school.

Incorrect Consideration

The different aspects of this doctrinally-based belief are referred to as incorrect consideration (tshul-min yid-la byed-pa). It is an incorrect consideration that we are not affected by anything. For example, “You can have my body, but you can’t have ‘me.’” It is this type of thing, of feeling that there’s some separate “me” that’s not affected by anything. For instance, “You don’t know the real me!” The real “me” is inside somewhere. Parts of that incorrect consideration can manifest this way in everyday life. But when we talk about this coarse impossible soul, we’re talking about the whole package.

Doctrinally-Based Disturbing Emotions Based on Grasping for a Coarse Impossible “Me”

When we believe that we are this coarse type of impossible “me,” we have what’s called “grasping for an impossible ‘me’” (bdag-’dzin, Skt. atmagraha). More specifically, we have doctrinally based grasping for a coarse impossible “me.” It feels as though that’s who we are, because we’ve been taught that’s who we are, and we believe it. That’s grasping. The mind projects it, we perceive it like that, it feels like that, and we believe that it corresponds to reality. We identify ourselves with this impossible “me” and regard our bodies as “mine,” the possession of that impossible “me.” We imagine that it is this impossible “me” that we identify with that experiences the four noble truths. We’re unaware that this is nonsense, but because of that ignorance, we have doctrinally-based disturbing emotions and we act compulsively. Think about that. 

We can understand this by analogy, I think, from our Western systems of thought, although the Western systems just bring in partial aspects of what we’re talking about here. Let’s say we have been taught by doctrines that not only are we each a soul created by God, but that because of original sin, we are all bad. Now, based on believing that, we could have all sorts of disturbing emotions. There’s self-hatred and insecurity, for example, from which we get compulsive behavior, “I have to compulsively be good.” We then become neurotically good, a perfectionist, and if we do anything wrong, we inflict self-punishment. 

We could also have further disturbing emotions from such a belief. For instance, we have could have guilt or a neurotic stiffness that, “I have to be good because I’m afraid that I’m going to go to hell,” and so on. These disturbing emotions are based on our doctrinally-based belief in this dogma that we’ve been taught and which we believe. That’s what we’re talking about here.

Refuting This First Layer, the Coarse Impossible “Me”

This doctrinally based belief is the first level that we have to get rid of. We need to realize that this type of impossible soul that we imagine, that we’ve been taught that we are, is nonsense. It doesn’t correspond to anything real. When we realize that it doesn’t correspond to anything real and we actually perceive that non-conceptually, not just through some category, then we don’t believe in it anymore. We rid ourselves of that doctrinally-based ignorance, the first layer if the first link of dependent arising Therefore, we don’t have the doctrinally-based disturbing emotions that arise that are based on that misbelief, or the compulsive behavior that’s based on that. In this way, we weaken the mechanism driving the uncontrollably recurring rebirth, samara, the twelve links of dependent arising. Digest that for a moment.

Refuting the Coarse Impossible Self: What Is Left?

In order to understand these three types of an impossible self more distinctly, we need to distinguish what we are left with when we have refuted this first level, the coarse level of an impossible self. After that, we examine what we’re left with in order to see what further refutation is needed. This is the only way to really understand the whole sequence of refutations and deconstruction that we need to do to gain liberation.

If the self is not something static and unaffected, where nothing whatsoever affects it, then we are left with a self that is affected by what it does, by what happens to it, and so on. Because the self is affected by causes and conditions, the self changes from moment to moment. Further, we’re left with a self that is not monolithic; it does have parts. To fully understand that it has parts, we need to understand that the third quality is also impossible. The third quality of the coarse impossible that it is an independent entity that can exist without a body and mind. There’s no such thing. The self is always dependent on a body and mind. A self always has to be dependent on a body and mind; it is an imputation on a body and mind. 

More fully, the self is an imputation on an ever-changing individual stream consisting of five aggregates. The five aggregates are the basis for imputation of the self. As an imputation, then, the self pervades the five aggregates. Since the five aggregates have parts, the self has parts. It is like the example of a whole and parts. Since the whole pervades all the parts, the whole has parts. There can’t be a whole that is not made up of parts. Similarly, there can’t be a self, as an imputation on a stream of continuity of ever-changing aggregates, that is a monad, a monolith without any parts.

So, after refuting the coarse impossible “me,” we are left with a “me” or self that changes from moment to moment as its basis, the five aggregates, change from moment to moment. Since the sequence of the aggregates – the contents of our moment-to-moment experience – follow according to cause and effect, the self is likewise affected by cause and effect. Since the aggregates have parts, the self has parts. And since the self is an imputation on the aggregates, the self cannot exist separately from the aggregates as its basis for imputation. A whole cannot exist independently and separately from parts. This, then, is what we are left with after the first level of refutation and deconstruction: a nonstatic, everchanging self that is an imputation on an everlasting, ever-changing stream of continuity of five aggregates and which therefore has parts. It lasts forever because the mental continuum lasts forever.

Digest that for a moment. [pause]

Imputation of a Self on Aggregates

Even though we may understand this, that the self is imputed, it’s non-static, it has parts and so on; nevertheless, what automatically arises is subtle grasping for an impossible self and subtle unawareness that it doesn’t correspond to reality. This subtle automatically-arising grasping is for a self that is self-sufficiently knowable (rang-rkya thub-pa’i rdzas-yod). This means a self that it can be known all by itself, without any aspect or part of the basis for imputation appearing and being known at the same time. 

For example, “I see myself in the mirror.” In fact, we can’t see ourselves in a mirror. We can see a body in a mirror and, on the basis of the body, we see “me” as an imputed phenomenon on the body as its basis. But, it doesn’t feel like that; it doesn’t seem like that. It seems as though we just see “myself.” Or when we meet a friend, it seems that “I see you, I know you.” But how can we know this friend separately from something about the friend that is the basis for the imputation of the person? That basis can be the appearance of the person’s body, the sound of his or her voice, or even just the thought of our friend’s name. 

We can’t know a person independently of a basis for imputation, but we never think like that. The classic example is, “I want you to love me for me, for myself. Not for my money, not for my looks, but for me.” It’s as if you could love “me.” How about, “I’m trying to find myself.” What in the world does that mean? “I was not myself yesterday when I was drunk.” Who were you, someone else? It seems as if there was a “me” that could be known, discussed or perceived, or anything like that, all on its own. This is the automatically arising subtle impossible “me.” A person, the self, “me,” appears like that automatically to everyone, even to a dog. No one has to teach us that.

Based on the unawareness that no one exists in that impossible way, or the misbelief that they do exist like that, then again we have all sorts of what are known as “automatically arising disturbing emotions and attitudes.” “I know you; I love you; I want you! Don’t ever leave me!” What does this mean when we say, “Don’t ever leave me?” Do we think it means, “Don’t ever leave my body on the basis of which you know me; don’t ever leave my mind; don’t ever leave my personality?” No, we think simply, “Don’t ever leave ‘me.’” That clearly is deluded, isn’t it? It’s impossible to leave “me” without also leaving my body, mind, etc. as the basis for imputation of “me.” But, to think in that deluded way is the automatically arising unawareness and subtle grasping for an impossible self. Let’s just digest that for a moment.


Could you explain more about the basis of imputation? Is the basis there and then we impute on it?

There is a simultaneous arising of a basis for imputation and an imputation on that basis. We can only cognize an imputation on a basis, when the basis itself also arises. For instance, when I see your body, I also see you. The body and you as a person are inseparable. I can see a body indistinctly far in the distance and not know what it is or who it is; nevertheless, when I see your body there in the distance, I am simultaneously seeing you. I can’t see you without seeing your body. I can only think of you if I think of what you look like, or something about you, or if I think of your name. I can’t just think of “you.” It’s radical, yes. But, it seems as though we can know someone all by himself or herself and that is deceptive because that doesn’t correspond to reality. There is no “me” that can be known by itself without some aspect of its basis for imputation: the body, the mind, whatever, simultaneously being knows.

When I think of myself, who am I addressing?

When we’re thinking of ourselves, it seems as if there were two “me’s” inside, so that’s even more deluded. There seems to be one who is the author of the voice and the one that we are scolding, like: “Why don’t you get yourself together? Why don’t you do this and that?” That’s a complete fiction, as if there were two independently existing “me’s,” the one who is the policeman and the one who is the criminal, the naughty one. 

All that is actually happening is that in a mental cognition there is the arising of a mental representation of a sound, with “me” as an imputation on it, that we misconceive to be some independently knowable “me” that’s talking, as if it were sitting there in our head with a microphone and talking. This is absurd, but we don’t even analyze it, do we? Without analysis, we can’t see the absurdity of it. “What should I do now?” It’s as if there’s a “me” sitting inside that has to plan and decide and push the buttons of what we should do now. “What do people think of ‘me?’” This is as if they could think of us without thinking about something about us. See how automatically-arising it is? It’s there most of the time. 

It seems there’s also a kind of knower. There’s kind of like a witness that never has a voice but is always there. That’s how I experience it. Is this what it means that the self has parts?

Our moment to moment experience is all that’s happening, right? There is moment to moment presently happening moment of experience and in that moment of experience, there is an arising of a mental representation of a sound, of language, of a voice. The conventional “me” is merely an imputation on all the aggregate components of this moment of experience. 

From what you have described, you are projecting three impossible “me’s” that exist independently of each other and independently of what’s going on. One is the speaker behind the microphone, the author of the voice. One is the “me” that is being spoken to, like being scolded, “Oh that was stupid what you just said.” Finally, you describe a third “me” who is a witness just recording all that is occurring. 

Is that this whole idea that the self has parts? No, this is something different. You are talking about parts of an impossible “me,” and that it seems like these exist independently. That’s not what we mean when we say the self has parts. While we are having this moment of thinking, this moment of experience has many parts, many components – the aggregates – and the conventional “me” is an imputation on all these parts. The parts even including our body as we are sitting there thinking. Because the basis for imputation has parts, the self as an imputation on them also has parts.

But, when we start multi-projecting impossible “me’s” on some of these parts and believe in the independent existence of all of them, this is impossible because those selves don’t exist. That’s a figment of our imagination, a projection. There isn’t a separate me and a naughty one being scolded and somebody standing on the sidelines recording it as a witness. The problem is that it feels like that and, because it feels like that, we believe that it corresponds to reality. Then we become a bit schizophrenic in a sense in that we are always scolding ourselves, and that’s a very unpleasant state of mind. We have to be the policeman to watch ourselves as if there is a good “me” and a bad “me.” This is a very dualistic, un-relaxed and unpleasant state of mind, isn’t it?

When I meditate on this topic and deconstruct the aggregates – the mind and the body – what I always feel is that I’m left with an awareness that’s watching the mind, witnessing what’s going on in the mind. That always feels like that’s “me.” That’s what I am, the awareness that watches.

Are you saying that you deconstruct the body and the mind and there’s awareness besides the mind?

Yes, it feels like there’s a separate awareness. 

In some of the Buddhist tenet systems, as part of the aggregates, we have something called reflexive awareness (rang-rig). It is a part of each moment of cognition. It focuses only on the primary consciousness of the moment and, like a recorder, experiences that consciousness so that later we can remember that moment. Thus reflexive awareness accounts for memory. Since reflexive awareness is part of the aggregates of each moment of experience, it is part of the basis for imputation of the self. Because the basis for imputation of the self has, as some of its parts, the mental consciousness, the mental sound of a voice, and reflexive awareness, the conventional self as an imputation on this basis also has parts. But just as the parts of that moment of cognition do not exist independently of each other, the parts of the self as an imputation on them also do not exist as independently established “me’s.” It may feel like they are independently existing “me’s,” but that does not correspond to reality.

The Prasangika school of tenets does not accept even the conventional existence of reflexive awareness. It says there are many logical contradictions in having that type of separate function or faculty. When we apprehend something, which means cognize something both accurately and decisively, we explicitly cognize the object of the cognition, which means the object appears to our consciousness. Implicitly, however, we know that the cognition occurred, without the consciousness needing to appear as the object of some separate feature within the cognition. Because we implicitly know that we experienced something, we are able to remember it.