The Self and Karma: Guilt versus Responsibility

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The Self in Relationship to Our Discussion of Karma

Defining the Self or “Me”

Now, we can begin our discussion of the self, “me,” and the relation of the self with what we have been discussing. We’ve seen that all the various components of karmic cause and effect during an action, after the action and at the time of the result can be classified under the five aggregates. An aggregate is a composite of many factors, and these make up each moment of our experience. The five aggregates include all nonstatic phenomena. Static phenomena such as categories and voidness are not included in the scheme of the five aggregates.

The self, “me,” being nonstatic, is part of the five aggregates and is classified in the aggregate of other affecting variables. It’s not separate from the five aggregates but is part of the five. It is a nonstatic imputation phenomenon on the basis of all the other components of all five aggregates. As such, it is neither a form of physical phenomenon nor a way of being aware of something.

We have seen that there are many types of nonstatic imputation phenomena that are neither a form of physical phenomena nor a way of being aware of something and which change from moment to moment. Other examples besides a person, “me,” are age, time, and speed. From the Sautrantika point of view as explained in the Gelug traditions, these imputations phenomena are objective entities and can be cognized non-conceptually. We can see, for example, a person. We don’t just see pixels, colored shapes and a body. We also see a person. 

Imputation, Designation, and Mental Labeling

There’s a big difference between what I call imputation, designation and mental labeling, although all three are the same word in Tibetan and so I use “imputation phenomenon” as a general term for all three. Since there can be confusion if we don’t make this differentiation, let me explain it briefly. 

I use imputation for the imputation phenomena that are nonstatic. They are objective entities, and they can be known non-conceptually. Although some imputation phenomena can be forms of physical phenomena, like a whole object, and some can be ways of knowing something, like a mood, others, like a person are neither a form of physical phenomenon nor a way of being aware of something. Let’s restrict our discussion just to them. 

We can see a person or see that a moving object has a certain speed, these sorts of things. We can hear a sentence. Do we ever think about that? We only hear one tiny little syllable of a sound at a time. We don’t hear the whole sentence in one instant simultaneously; nevertheless, it would be nonsense to say that we don’t hear the sentence or what people are saying. A sentence is an objective entity and can be known with hearing, non-conceptually. 

Whether someone hears a sentence or not doesn’t matter. We are still saying a sentence when we speak. Whether someone thinks that there is a person here or not, we are still a person. These are objective entities, and it doesn’t matter whether someone else sees or knows them. This is objective reality. Okay?

When we talk about mental labeling, it has to do with static categories. Designation has to do with words that are ascribed to categories. Categories can only be known conceptually, not non-conceptually. Whether anybody sees us, whether anybody thinks of us doesn’t matter. We are still a person. However, a concept, a category, only occurs when somebody thinks it. This is the same as the name of something or the word for something. It only occurs when we are actually thinking of some item as belonging to a category with that name. Both categories and their names, the words for them, are involved only with conceptual cognition. We’re not talking about hearing the sound of someone saying a word – hearing it is non-conceptual.

Conceptual cognition is through the use of a category, while non-conceptual cognition contains no categories. A category is like a mental box. For example, we have the category of a “dog,” and therefore any animal that has certain characteristics, we perceive it as fitting into this category of a “dog.” We don’t have to have the word “dog” associated with it. Dogs don’t have words associated with that category, but as a human, we have a word associated with it. We call it “dog” in English. Others call it something else in Russian. Those are conceptual processes and have to do with what category “an animal” fits into. Objectively it is a dog; it’s not a cat. However, how we know or perceive that this animal is a dog is by fitting it into the category of “dog.” 

When we see that thing over there with four legs, it’s not nothing. It’s not a chair. It’s a dog, isn’t it? We are seeing a dog; whether we know if it is a dog or not doesn’t matter. It’s still a dog and not a chair, and it’s not a nothing. This is conventional or commonsense reality. So, in short, to know that it is a dog, to fit it into a category, is mental labeling and to know what it is called is designation and that is with a word. 

There are object categories, like a dog, and there are also what are called audio categories. When someone utters the sound “dog,” it doesn’t matter what the volume, voice quality, or pronunciation, we can understand it as fitting into the audio category of it being the sound of the same word. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to understand different people speaking a language. 

There is also a meaning category that we associate with the audio category. That’s how language works. It’s conceptual. It’s the same thing with reading a written word. How is this possible? Take for example the written word “dog.” It doesn’t matter the font, the size, the color, or handwriting with which the word appears, we put them all into the category of all being the word “dog” and we assign to it a meaning category. 

The same thing applies to the self, “me,” as does to a dog. A self is a nonstatic imputation. We have to differentiate the objective imputation “me” from the conceptual mental label “me,” and the conceptual word “me” or our own name. They are quite different types of phenomena.

An Experiment for Analysis of the Self as an Imputation 

A very interesting experiment is to lay out a series of photographs of us spanning various phases of our life, starting with when we were an infant all the way to the present time. Who are these photographs of? They are all of “me” as an imputation on these photographs. It’s objectively “me” and not somebody else. 

How do we know that they are all “me”? They all look quite different. We have a conceptual category of “me” and we fit all of these photographs into this category. They are all “me” fitting into this box of “me” and not the box of “you.” We know our name, so we can give the category “me” a name and then apply the name to all the photos. However, if it’s a series of photos of somebody else, we might be able to recognize that they are all photographs of the same person by seeing that they all fit into the category of some individual person, but we might not know their name. Designating the category with a name is optional.

The distinction between these three terms is very fundamental and very important to understand. All three are the same word in Tibetan because they all share a certain characteristic. They all can only exist on the basis of some basis for imputation and cannot be known separately from also cognizing that basis both first and then together with them. This is quite complex to understand. Nevertheless, imputation, mental label and designation are quite distinct things.

The Difference between the Conventional Self and the False Self

With these distinctions in mind, we need to examine the characteristics of the self. There is the conventional self, which is the self that is not to be refuted and there is the false self, the self to be refuted. This false self is one that we imagine to be a solid entity, isolated from everybody and everything else, but in fact it doesn’t correspond to anything real. There is a total absence of anything that it corresponds to. This absence is called voidness, a total absence – it doesn’t exist, it never existed and never will exist.

At Christmas time, there are people in Moscow that dress like Santa Claus or Father Christmas and this is a good example. There is a person who is dressed like Santa Claus. They look like Santa Claus, but they aren’t really Santa Claus because there is no such thing as Santa Claus. Nevertheless, they still are a person, a person who looks like something impossible, Santa Claus. It doesn’t correspond to reality. That’s the difference between the conventional self, the person, who looks like Santa Claus, and the false self who actually is Santa Claus. 

This is actually the Svatantrika Madhyamaka understanding, but it is a good place to start for understanding voidness. The Prasangika example would be a cartoon of Santa Claus. The cartoon looks like Santa Claus, but it isn’t Santa Claus because there is no such person. But when we stop examining about Santa Claus, there are nevertheless persons. But let’s stick with the Svatantrika example since it is easier to understand.

The Self that Experiences Karma Verses the False Self

There is the conventional “me” who experiences karma – that’s equivalent to the person dressed like Santa Claus. And then there is the false “me” who is a horrible person who is guilty and to blame for everything that they experience. That horrible person is equivalent to Santa Claus himself. The conventional “me” is the one that is responsible and has to deal with what is going on and with how they respond. The false one, Santa Claus, the horrible one, is the one that is guilty and to blame for what they’re experiencing. But, in fact, there’s nobody who is guilty because the one that we imagine is guilty doesn’t correspond to reality. There is no one who is the one cause of everything that happens to them or that they experience, the sole cause as in the example of the person who thought, “My team lost the football game because I was there.”

Characteristics of the Five Aggregates: The Basis of Imputation of the Self

We need to understand, then, just what the self, “me,” is. The self is an imputation on the continuum of the five aggregates. The five aggregates are known as the basis of imputation. Their characteristics are that they are nonstatic – they change from moment to moment – and they are non-monolithic. They are made up of many parts that are all changing at different rates. A body, even a dead body, does not exist separately from and independently of being the body of a person. The same is the case with the other aggregates. A mind, anger, happiness and so on cannot exist separately from and independently of being the mind, anger or happiness of a person.

The self that is an imputation on the aggregates having these characteristics as its basis also has the same characteristics. Like the aggregates that are nonstatic and changing all the time, the self is changing all the time. If it were not changing all the time, it couldn’t be affected by anything that is happening and wouldn’t be able to do anything in response. It couldn’t be the agent of karmic impulses, couldn’t build up karmic aftermath and couldn’t experience anything as its result if it didn’t change from moment to moment. 

Like the aggregates, the self isn’t monolithic or partless, because if the self were partless, then it couldn’t have the two distinct aspects of the “me” that commits the action and the “me” that experiences results. These are parts over time. 

If a self were independent and could exist separately from and independently of a body and a mind, then it should be able to do things without a body. It should be able to think things without a mind. The body should be able to do things without any intention by itself. It doesn’t. Furthermore, the self, “me,” would be able to do destructive things and not experience the results of its actions.

Therefore, there is no static, partless and independent self, separate from the five aggregates – a self that lives inside the body and mind and operates them as if they were its possession. Such a self is what I have been referring to as a solid “me,” the false “me.” It’s just an easy way of describing such a self: a solid “me” is one that never changes and doesn’t have any parts. It’s just one solid, monolithic thing that is independent. It comes into the body and mind and operates them like a machine to do things and so to commit karmic actions without being responsible for experiencing its consequences. That’s nonsense and doesn’t correspond to reality. However, that’s what it feels like. It feels like there is a “me,” a thing inside our heads that is talking, that is the author of the voice going on in our minds: “That shouldn’t happen to me. That’s not fair. I’m no good.” It complains and says all these sorts of things. 

Coarse Selflessness: The Coarse Voidness of a Person

The total nonexistence and absence of anything that corresponds to this false conceptual construct of a static, partless, independent self is what is known as the coarse selflessness or identitylessness of a person – basically, the coarse voidness of a person.

The process for understanding the coarse voidness of ourselves as a person in the context of karma is that first we need to know all the components of karma, its aftermath and its results. Then, we deconstruct the moments of our experience into the five aggregates and fit these aspects of karma into them. We then examine the “me” that is an imputation on the basis of the five aggregates that contain all these aspects of karma. We try to see that just as the five aggregates as the basis for the self are nonstatic, have parts and cannot exist independently of a self, so too the self, “me,” as an imputation on the basis of all of them in each moment also is nonstatic, has parts and cannot exist independently of and separately from these aggregates. A self, a person, cannot exist apart from a body, mind and emotions, etc. This is the type of self that experiences karma.

That’s the first level, the grossest level of understanding the voidness of the conventional “me” as an imputation and what it actually means as a nonstatic imputation on a multipart, everchanging basis. This is the first step of deconstructed the false “me.”

The next level that we have to deconstruct is that it feels like the self can be known all on its own. It seems self-sufficiently knowable, that we can cognize and know it without knowing first some of the aggregates that are the basis of imputation in a given moment and then that basis and the self at the same time. If a person could be known just by itself – for example, “me” – and I had hurt someone, then I could exist and be known dissociated from what I had done. I could think of myself as someone who never did anything wrong, and I would be right. But that would be fooling myself and not facing up to reality and taking responsibility for my actions. The absence of a self-sufficiently knowable “me” is the subtle selflessness of a person or the subtle identitylessness of a person.

The third level to deconstruct is the misconception that the self, “me,” has self-established, so-called “inherent” existence, and that it has a self-established identity as “the guilty one who is to blame.” How do we establish that there is a self and that we exist? When we examine our aggregates – our body, our mind, our emotions, etc. – we cannot find anything in any of them that makes me “me.” Even if we consider our unique genome, is there anything findable inside any of the chromosomes of DNA that makes it “me”? No. The self is merely what the concept and word “me” refer to when labeled onto the multipart everchanging aggregates. 

When we deconstruct this whole conceptual construct that we are some horrible, guilty person, we see that this belief is not referring to anything real. It’s not that anybody who sees us knows that we are bad and guilty without even knowing anything that we had done. That’s clearly absurd, isn’t it?

Application of Deconstructing the Self in Daily Life

Let’s apply this analysis to a practical example. For example, I killed a lot of flies on our back porch near the garbage shed when I was very young. By the way, I did do that when I was a young child. However, I’m not a static, fixed phenomenon; I can change my behavior. If I were static, I could never change my behavior and would remain unaffected by what I did. But I’m not unaffected. I am moved to regret what I did.

I’m also not partless. It isn’t that the only thing I’ve ever done was kill flies. I’ve done many other things, some nice. I’m not just one thing, one partless killer of flies. It’s also not as though there was a “me” that came into my body as an independent entity and, after coming into the body, used it as a fly swatter to kill flies. That is also silly. Then again, I couldn’t kill flies as some entity existing independently of a body. The body is smacking the flies. This shows how the self doesn’t exist independently of the body. It’s not coming in and using the body as in using the arm as a fly swatter.

I can’t be known to myself as a guilty, horrible person independently from what I did, kill flies. That whole idea that I can be known self-sufficiently by myself independent of knowing anything else and have that characteristic of being guilty doesn’t work, does it? And if being guilty were my true identity, established inside me, then everyone who meets me would immediately see me as a horrible, bad person.

Blame versus Responsibility for Karmic Actions

“Guilty Person” as a Category

At the next level, we start to examine what is a guilty person? A guilty person is a category, designated by the words “guilty person.” We can only establish someone as a guilty person in terms of that category, concept, word and mental label. There’s a person – that’s objective – and the person is always changing moment to moment, with all the parts changing and changing; there are also karmic causes, aftermath and karmic results. 

We are responsible and have to deal with what we have done and try to change. We are nonstatic, so we can change. We can regret and alter our behavior. Nonetheless, there is this category of “guilty person,” this convention and there are words associated with that. We are established as a guilty, bad person only in terms of what that concept and word refers to on the basis of certain behavior.

There is a convention that society accepts of a “guilty person,” but what is a guilty person? It is somebody that the term refers to on the basis of certain behavior. There’s nothing truly established as a guilty person independently of that concept of a guilty person. If someone were established from their own side as a guilty person, then anybody who sees me, including the dog, or anyone from a society that thinks that killing flies is a great thing to do, they would all see a guilty person. Anyone would see us that way; however, we are only a guilty person in relation to that concept and what it refers to. 

Another Example of an Imputation Phenomenon

Other examples may help to make it a bit easier. I mentioned that I went to the Bolshoi Ballet last night. There were a lot of people in strange clothes that were jumping up and down and turning round and round on the stage. That’s what I saw. What establishes that as being a ballet? I have a concept of a ballet and I know the word “ballet” that is in relation to that. What I saw was a ballet; otherwise, it would just be people jumping around on the stage – how nice. Why are they jumping?

Conventionally, it is a ballet. Everybody that comes from a society that accepts that there is such a thing as a ballet would agree. That’s a ballet and not a football match. However, we can only establish, prove or demonstrate that it is a ballet in relation to the category “ballet” and the designation of it with the word “ballet.” 

Ballet is an imputation phenomenon, a synthesis of the whole thing. What is a life? It is a synthesis of all these moments. Whether or not we call it a life is conceptual. Nonetheless, it is a life or a ballet conventionally. 

The Self as a Synthesis of Conceptually Isolatable Components

What we understand therefore, is that each moment seems like a solid thing, doesn’t it? However, it’s made up of all these different parts that we can classify in terms of the five aggregates. Within the five aggregates are the karmic factors, and “me” is part of the whole thing. None of these exist like a collection of ping pong balls, all separate, individual, and solid. That’s not what is making up each moment. It’s not like that.

Conceptually, we can isolate each of these parts. We can isolate, conceptually, the intention, the emotion, the urge, and “me.” And what are these? They are what the concepts refer to. However, how we experience them is as a whole. Although we can conceptually isolate all these things in order to be able to understand, analyze and investigate the problem, etc., that doesn’t mean that each of them exists isolated from each other. There is a whole network of everything interacting. Conventionally they do occur; but to work with them, they are established by conceptually isolating them. 

Who Is to Blame?

There is a big difference, then, between this false solid “me” – a ping pong ball that is to blame and guilty independent of anything we did – and the conventional “me” with the ability to change. That solid “me” is false. It doesn’t correspond to reality.

Therefore, who is to blame? Nobody is to blame, because the whole concept of the “me” that could be blamed and the concept of blame are false. Nevertheless, the conventional “me” is the one responsible. The conventional “me,” as an imputation, is the one who experiences all the various things that we did as their agent, is the one who experiences the results, and is the one responsible for changing.

Responsibility is based on the conventional “me” with the understanding of how it exists and all the things that it is an imputation on; whereas the “me” who is guilty and to blame is based on the false “me.” 

Therefore, the more we familiarize ourselves with this whole deconstruction process and the more that we repeat it so as to become even more and more familiar with it, we will become more and more able to apply it when we start to feel guilty, blame or think, “Why is this happening to me, me, me?” We will be able to observe this whole train of very unhappy thinking and know that it is based on nonsense. We will understand that although we can be labeled as “the guilty, horrible person,” we don’t need to cling onto that as our permanent identity. We can equally label ourselves as “someone responsible for their actions” and, on that basis, take steps to prevent repeating any destructive actions we have committed and to purify away the negative potential we have built up.

In that way, the more that we can focus on the fact that our self-deprecation is nonsense and doesn’t correspond to reality, the more we can break the inertia of that negative way of thinking. Even if we start thinking negatively like that again, the energy behind it, the urge to think that way that is behind it will be weaker. Slowly it gets weaker and weaker, and we get rid of it.


We end with a dedication. We think that whatever understanding and positive force that have come from this discussion, may they go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for everyone to attain the enlightened state of a Buddha for the benefit of us all.