Liberating the Conventional Me from Insecurity

Review of the Lam-rim Initial Scope Teachings

We’ve been discussing how to develop the self in a healthy way through the lam-rim graded stages. We have determined that there is a conventional self, and that it exists, moment to moment, as an imputational phenomenon on the basis of whatever we are experiencing in each moment. In order to think about “me,” something from that moment needs to arise in our thoughts representing “me,” even if it is just the mental sound of the word “I.” Additionally, we can understand how we exist in a correct or an incorrect way. When we think of our conventional self as existing in an incorrect, impossible way, then we’re thinking of the false “me.” This is the self that is to be refuted. To do anything about our situation in life, to try to improve the quality of our lives and overcome suffering and problems, we need a healthy sense of a conventional “me.” Without this healthy sense of self, we wouldn’t care about what we experience or make any effort to take care of our lives.

The lam-rim progression of understanding and insight that forms the graded path begins with appreciating the precious human life that we have. We begin to appreciate our freedom, at least this temporary respite, from worse conditions that would prevent us from doing anything constructive with our lives, and we realize how our lives are enriched with opportunities to do something constructive. When we appreciate the situation that we have, it leads us to having a more positive attitude toward ourselves and wanting to take advantage of this great opportunity. Rather than thinking “poor me” and complaining about our circumstances in life, we are, instead, very grateful for what we have. In other words, we focus on the good aspects rather than the negative ones. We don’t deny, though, that there are shortcomings in our life. We all have these shortcomings, but it doesn’t benefit us to complain about them or dwell on them.

That guideline comes from the teaching on how to relate in a healthy manner to a spiritual teacher. No teacher is perfect, just as no situation in life is perfect. Realizing that, we don’t deny our teacher’s shortcomings, but there’s no benefit from focusing on them. Instead, we look at the good qualities, because these are inspiring. Likewise, when we look at the good qualities of our situation in life with this precious human rebirth, we are inspired to have a more positive attitude about ourselves and take best advantage of what we enjoy.

We also realize that although we have this situation of a precious human life now, it’s not going to last. Death will come for sure and, before it, if we live that long, old age, perhaps sickness, etc. Realizing that and, because of having a warm feeling about ourselves, really wanting ourselves to be happy, then we don’t want that happiness to end when we die. We want that happiness to continue, because we saw that whether we consciously believe in rebirth, an afterlife, or whatever type of belief system we might have, we think that we’re going to go on forever – even if it’s in terms of “now I am dead.” In this sense, we will be dead forever and there’s a “me” who experiences being dead forever or being a Big Nothing forever. But even so, we would still like to be happy, even in that Big Nothing, obviously.

We don’t want to be unhappy, which means we don’t want to have worse future lives. The best way to take advantage of our precious human rebirth while it lasts, then, is to ensure that we continue having further happiness in the future. We’ve started to take care of ourselves, and care not just in terms of right at this moment, but also looking toward the future. By considering future lives, we adopt a very constructive and healthy attitude toward taking care of ourselves. In fact, the healthiest attitude that we could develop is finding ways to avoid problems, suffering and unhappiness.

With all of this in mind, we seek a safe direction, a way to avoid future suffering because we think, “I’m afraid of suffering, I really don’t want it to be part of my future.” Then, after deciding this, we actually put that safe direction, that refuge, in our lives. That direction is indicated by Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha; and on the deepest level that direction would be to attain a true stopping of the causes of problems and therefore the true stopping of suffering, and to gain the understanding, the true path that will lead to that, the way that the Buddhas have done in full and the Arya Sangha has done in part.

To continue this brief review, we saw that the first thing that we need to do when taking that safe direction is to avoid the causes for unhappiness, the so-called “suffering of suffering,” meaning gross unhappiness and pain. That is what we focus on when we think of the worst rebirths that we could experience and how we really don’t want to experience any of them. First, we try to get rid of the causes for worst rebirths, because when we really care about ourselves, we take our future lives and what we might experience seriously. 

Furthermore, we need to understand that if we’re experiencing unhappiness, it’s the result of destructive behavior. On the other hand, if we experience happiness, it’s the result of constructive behavior, refraining from acting destructively whenever we feel like acting in that manner. Examples of destructive behavior are killing, stealing, lying, forcing ourselves sexually on others, and so on. This kind of behavior usually happens when we’re under the influence of the disturbing emotions of lust, greed, anger or naivety. When we experience these types of disturbing emotions that cause us to act compulsively in a destructive way, then we can notice, from the definition of a disturbing emotion, that it’s a state of mind that makes us lose peace of mind and self-control. We’re uneasy and basically unhappy. Because we lose self-control, we act compulsively. 

If we act destructively with a state of mind that is disturbed, unhappy and not at peace, then, to use an example that my translator shared with me on our way here – our action is like lifting up a rock and putting it on a pole. We do an action and then it produces, from the kinetic energy of that action, the present potential energy of the rock up on top of the pole. There’s potential energy there. As in physics with the law of conservation of matter and energy, kinetic energy is now potential energy. With various circumstances, the pole may get knocked down and that potential energy will change once again into kinetic energy when the rock falls. It produces heat or whatever when it hits the ground.

So that kinetic energy, corresponding to how the karmic potential ripens, will be in further destructive behavior. If we think of the whole flavor of this process of the kinetic energy going into potential and then back into kinetic, then in this case, the entire sequence is destructive, driven by disturbing emotions and filled with unhappiness. It starts to make sense that we experience unhappiness as a result of destructive behavior, because destructive behavior is done in a state of mind that is not happy.

Basically, in this initial scope, we exercise self-control. When we feel like acting in a destructive way, feeling that tension of wanting to lie, hurt somebody or say something nasty and so on, we refrain because we realize that it will just produce more unhappiness or suffering.

Provisionally, with this restraint, we can at least avoid in our immediate future lives worse rebirth states and gross unhappiness. We haven’t, though, gotten rid of the cause of suffering completely. Primarily, what we’re avoiding at this level is worse rebirth states in our next lifetimes. We’re still going to have times of being unhappy, even if we’re reborn with a precious human life. It isn’t that we’ve gotten rid of the suffering of suffering completely, but at least we can strive and attain a precious human rebirth again. Overall, this is really what we want, to be able to continue on this spiritual path.

Unsatisfying Ordinary Happiness

In the intermediate scope, we further examine our situation when we have a happy rebirth state. Remember that, in the initial scope, acting constructively meant refraining from acting compulsively in a destructive way. Clearly, that required willpower and self-control, leading to a healthy development of the self. Like the simple example of getting up in the morning, going to work and taking care of the children, it requires self-control not to just lie in bed and the willpower to get up. When we take responsibility for our lives, it’s an example of a healthy sense of self. 

However, what is going on underneath this self-control and willpower is a very strong sense of a solid “me.” We feel that “I have to be in control, and I have to do this.” There is also a very strong sense of “me” when, feeling guilty, we think, “I should have been able to control myself, but I didn’t.” This kind of thinking goes into the direction of identifying with the false “self.”

This thinking entails belief in a false “self” that needs to be and can be in control regardless of conditions and causes, and so is able to act independently of causes and conditions. However, that’s impossible. The state of mind that believes like this is under the control of what we would call a “disturbing attitude,” a disturbing attitude regarding ourselves. It’s the attitude that we can be in control no matter what and so we should always be in control. Although in that state of mind we are basically more at peace, thinking, “I’m in control,” as we’re not under the influence of a disturbing emotion like anger, lust and so on; nevertheless, our behavior becomes compulsive. We become what we call in English a “control freak.” There’s still karma involved with the compulsive behavior that is based on such a disturbing attitude. This syndrome is similar to the example we used about being a compulsive perfectionist, such as compulsively cleaning the house or being compulsive in terms of ethics and thereby being very stiff.

What type of happiness do we experience as a result of being compulsive in these more constructive types of behavior? It’s happiness that doesn’t last. For instance, as a perfectionist cleaning the house, we clean it, but we’re never quite satisfied with the result because it never is clean enough. Even if we consider it clean, it doesn’t last. Then, we just have to clean it again and again and again. Another example of perfectionism might be correcting a manuscript and never being satisfied or knowing when to stop editing. So, this type of happiness is called the “suffering of change,” referring to our ordinary happiness, and this extends to all other areas of our experience. Basically, any sort of happiness that we experience doesn’t last. It changes. We eat a meal and we really enjoy it, but if we kept on eating and eating without stopping, we would make ourselves sick. 

Deconstructing Misconceptions about the Self

At this point, we have built up a healthy sense of self in terms of the conventional “me.” We understand that we are responsible for our actions and what we experience. In order to eliminate the causes for unhappiness, we feel the need to do something. We even want to eliminate the causes for the unsatisfying type of happiness, the suffering of change, as well. What is the problem here? What is the cause of the problem? What we find is that we have to first start by deconstructing the misconceptions with which we conceive of ourselves, in terms of the false “me.”

To explain this false “me” in a simple way, we conceive and experience that the conventional “me,” as in “I’m doing this and I’m doing that,” is some sort of a solid entity “me” that lives inside our heads; it is the author of the voice going on in our heads. It’s the one that’s wondering, “What should I do now and what do people think of me?” It’s the one that is worrying about “myself.” It’s the one that’s sitting there almost like operating a machine, the body, as in, “What should I do now? Well I’ll do that.” Then, it’s the one that sort of presses the buttons on the control board and gets the body to do this or say that. It’s getting in all the information from the video screens and the loudspeakers of the senses. It is the one that is sitting in central control inside the brain and talking into the microphone inside our head so that only we hear it.

Now, all of this is total fantasy, a fiction. There is no such thing that happens. We don’t exist like that. Nevertheless, that’s who we believe we are, because it feels like that, it seems like that. We believe that there really is this “me” sitting there inside our heads. How do we experience this? We experience this as insecurity. Of course, it’s insecure because this “me” doesn’t exist at all. How, then, can we feel secure about it? Consequently, we have all these strategies to try to make that little false “me” secure.

What kind of strategies? For example, the belief that if only this “me” could get certain things around it, they would somehow make “me” secure. This is what is meant by having a longing desire. Then, if we get what we want, we don’t want to let go; thus, we develop attachment. Further, even if we have something, we want even more, and this leads to greed, “If I could only have enough money,” “If I could only have enough likes on my Facebook page,” or whatever it is, that will make “me” secure. However, it doesn’t, of course. It never does.

Basically, with each of these strategies we’re basing it on the disturbing emotional syndrome of longing desire, attachment and greed. Another strategy is to push things away from “me,” anything that somehow threatens our security. Therefore, we experience anger, aversion, hostility, and all such types of disturbing emotions. We can also have naivety and denial, with which we just don’t want to think about anything that would be threatening; as a result, we put up walls. Somehow behind the wall of denial and naivety we imagine that we will be safe. Of course, we always feel insecure behind the wall and fear that something is going to get through. 

Further, because of our insecurity, we use these mechanisms and they lead to the compulsive destructive behavior of stealing to get what we want, or killing anything that we don’t like, or just avoiding dealing with things out of naivety and the wish that they will go away by themselves. These types of destructive behaviors are all based on this misconception about the self and thinking that we exist as this false “me.”

This belief in the false “me” is also behind our compulsive constructive behavior. Although, there can be constructive behavior that is not compulsive – not based on the belief in the false “me” – here we’re talking about the karmic one. It’s what’s behind this compulsive constructive behavior. Using our earlier example of perfectionism, this type of behavior reflects a strong belief in the false “me.”

Disturbing Attitudes

We don’t necessarily only have disturbing emotions. We also have disturbing attitudes, which can be underlying the disturbing emotions, or existing without them. The most prominent of these disturbing attitudes has a difficult technical name. It’s called a “deluded outlook toward a transitory network.” This means the following:

  • “Network” is our aggregates, simply put, all the things that make up each moment of our experience.
  • It’s “transitory,” which means each of the components of this network are continually changing.
  • We have a “deluded outlook” toward that network or an incorrect view toward what we’re experiencing. 

What actually is this attitude? To explain the definitions and the descriptions of it in the abhidharma texts, I like to use the analogy of a fisherman with a net. With this disturbing attitude, it is like we’re a fisherman mentally throwing out a net onto something in that network of our aggregates, and that net is the concept of either simply “me” – which would be the false “me” – or “me, as the possessor of this something” or, alternatively the concept of that something as being “mine.’”

For example, in terms of a youthful body, we throw out this net of “me” on our body and identify with it, “That’s ‘me.’” Then, we hold onto that belief with further deluded disturbing attitudes such as “this is permanent.” We look at ourselves in the mirror and we see white hair and feel, “That’s not me.” With this disturbing attitude, we have a fixed image of “me.” Another example is when we throw out that net of “me” onto a quality of something in the aggregates, again let’s say of our body, and identify with it. For instance, identifying with “I’m fat” – whether or not that corresponds to reality – leads to compulsively being on a diet, trying to lose weight. When, for example, we lose one kilo, we’re a little bit happy. However, that happiness doesn’t last because we’re not satisfied and feel we have to lose another kilo. There can be this type of attitude with compulsively eating a healthy lean diet. There’s nothing wrong with eating carefully, but when it becomes compulsive, based on the idea that “I have to be thin,” then in the West we’d say that’s a bit neurotic.

Another disturbing attitude is the concept of “mine.” We think, “I’m the possessor of things, the controller of things. They’re mine.” This is relevant to the example of feeling that we should be able to control everything. We throw out the net of “mine” onto a situation that we experience – “this situation is mine to control” – and think, “I should be able to control it.” This solid “me” that is the boss inside the head says, “If I don’t control it, I’m no good; I’m guilty.” This throwing out the net of “me” or “mine” is the disturbing attitude that’s behind whatever we’re experiencing.

Further, we imagine, “If I can get everything under control, then I’ll feel secure.” We might feel secure for a few moments and have a little bit of happiness, but that doesn’t last, does it? This is because it’s impossible to get everything under control. We throw out this net of “me,” thinking, “I’m going to correct everybody’s mistakes.” Okay, that can be constructive and positive. However, it’s a bit too much, isn’t it? It’s impossible that there will never be any more mistakes. Because mistakes arising or things degenerating into chaos and so on are all affected by so many causes and conditions. The belief that we’re an almighty God is a fantasy.

These disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes, then, are behind our compulsive destructive behavior; and not only that, they’re also behind our compulsive constructive behavior. Both the disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes are based on this belief, this misconception about ourselves that we exist as this false “me.” To put it simply, we believe that there is a solid little controller inside our heads, which also causes us to feel insecure. Therefore, we try to get things for it, push things away from it, put walls around it, or throw out its net to control everything. None of these strategies work and all they create is the uncontrollably recurring ups and downs of samsara – unhappiness, happiness, unhappiness, happiness – in this and future lifetimes. 

For a few moments, think about what we’ve been calling the “false self,” the self to be refuted. It’s based on a misconception and projection of a complete fantasy onto the conventional self, in terms of how that self actually exists. There is a self, but it’s not this little controller sitting in our heads behind the control board. There is still a conventional “me” that we have built up through the previous stages. If we just go to this stage of deconstructing our fantasies about it without going through the previous stages, we might get rid of the controller in our heads, but then there’s nothing. That can lead to thinking why bother to do anything if we don’t exist. This is incorrect. Therefore, it’s very important to have gone through these stages beforehand to have built up a healthy sense of “me” that takes responsibility for our lives and what we experience.

How Karma and Rebirth Operate

Based on all of this, we can start to develop what’s called “renunciation,” which is the determination to be free from the ups and downs of samsara. In order to break this syndrome of uncontrollably recurring samsara and the repeated rebirths that will support it, we need to overcome the basis for it continuing seemingly without an end. Why is it continuing? If we think in terms of lam-rim, why do we have these types of rebirths that will continue to be the basis for experiencing the ups and downs of unhappiness and unsatisfying happiness? To answer this, we need to look at the mechanism of how this recurring syndrome of rebirth operates, which is described within the teachings on the “twelve links of dependent arising.

There’s no need on this occasion to go through all of these twelve links, but what is really quite significant are the two links that will activate the karmic potentials for further rebirth, usually translated as the links of “craving” and “grasping.” However, if we look at the Sanskrit word translated as “craving,” tṛṣṇā, it’s actually the word “to be thirsty.” What’s happening in our daily life, as well as in our rebirths, is that we’re experiencing this constantly recurring cycle of unhappiness and unsatisfying happiness, while conceiving of ourselves as this solid “me” in our heads experiencing them. And while experiencing them, we’re dying of thirst. That’s an expression in English and it means we’re really thirsty. 

When we’re experiencing unhappiness, it’s like being really thirsty: we want to get rid of it so, so strongly. Obviously, there can be grades of how intensely thirsty we are and how much we want to get rid of the unhappiness, or the unpleasant feeling of the thirst. However, this is the mentality present when we are unhappy. It follows from the axiom in Buddhism that everybody wants to be happy and nobody wants to be unhappy.

And when we are really, really thirsty, if we have just a tiny little sip of water, that’s not enough, is it? We don’t want to be parted from that little sip of water and we want more. This is the state of the mind that we have in regard to the little taste of happiness that we have. So, no matter whether we’re unhappy or happy, we’re constantly thirsty.

The second link that activates our karmic potentials for further rebirth is usually translated as “grasping.” Literally translated, however, it is an “obtainer.” It is the disturbing emotion or attitude that obtains for us a further rebirth. There’s a whole list of these, but the main one is that we throw out this net of “me” onto this unhappiness or unsatisfying happiness that we are experiencing. If we’re unhappy, we think, “I’ve got to somehow control and deal with this situation. I have to get rid of this unhappiness.” We identify with it. It’s “me,” as in “I’m so unhappy and so miserable,” which leads to “poor me” and depression and all the suffering that follows. We can feel that we’re so deprived of happiness, “It’s always eluding me.” There are all ways of throwing out this net of “me” and “me, the possessor, the experiencer, and controller” of this happiness or unhappiness.

Those two, the thirsting and the obtainer attitude of throwing out this net of “me” onto everything, are what activate the karmic potentials. As a result of that activation process, then as described through the mechanism of the twelve links, we compulsively take rebirth. Nevertheless, we can think in terms of this lifetime as well. We compulsively act to get rid of that thirst. In one way or another we try to satisfy it, which we never can. 

The root of all this is of course our unawareness, or the first link of dependent arising. It is our unawareness about ourselves and about how we exist that is behind the uncontrollably recurring samsaric cycle of unhappiness, unsatisfying happiness, unhappiness, and so on. Therefore, we have to somehow get rid of this belief that we exist as this false self, this little “me” sitting in the head that’s so thirsty and insecure. Think about this.


It’s very interesting to analyze what kind of attitude we have toward unhappiness and happiness. It’s very interesting, really. How do we deal with these feelings? Are we like this thirsty person in the desert? Obviously, first we have to be aware of what we’re feeling, especially if it seems as though we don’t feel anything. But if we examine more closely, we realize that this numbness is an unhappy state of mind. Then, most importantly, we need to care about what we’re feeling. If we don’t care, then we wouldn’t do anything. However, the starting point is that we have developed a healthy sense of self, with which we do care about what we experience. 

But, do we care too much like this person in the desert who’s unbelievably thirsty? That’s the issue here, this desperate person is so thirsty that he or she will just grab anything to drink, with the hope that it will make them happy. It’s very interesting, the more you explore the image. Dying of thirst, we grab out, “Maybe this movie will make me happy. Maybe this website will make me happy, or maybe this person, or maybe this meal.” We’re always thirsty and nothing ever quenches that thirst.

Alternatively, maybe we put up the wall of having constant music on so that we don’t have to think about anything. It’s like extreme naivety, putting the big wall around ourselves so that we don’t have to deal with the issues of our lives. Maybe doing so will make us happy so that we never really have to think about our situation and maybe, if we deny everything and drown it out with constant music, that will also make us happy. But of course, it doesn’t. We always have to listen to another song. One is never enough.


Negating Only the False “Me”

If we take this term “thirst” quite literally, then, we do get thirsty. We’re human beings and it is necessary to drink. So what are we talking about, some obsessive neurotic attitude about it or what?

Yes, we’re talking about an obsessive neurotic attitude about our thirst. This is why it’s so important to not negate the conventional “me,” but only to negate the false “me.” The provisional way of dealing with this whole syndrome of happy/unhappy, thirst and so on, is with this helpful attitude of “nothing special.” “I’m unhappy,” and that is nothing special. What do we expect out of life? “I’m happy now, my unhappiness went away?” Again, we use the attitude of nothing special. Things change, what did we expect?

We don’t make a big deal out of either being unhappy or being happy. Don’t make a big deal out of being thirsty. If we are thirsty and there’s something available to drink, fine, drink it. We can’t expect that we will never be thirsty again. Of course, we’re going to be thirsty again. In this way, there’s nothing special about drinking or about being thirsty, in terms of the conventional “me.” We just deal with it. However, not with this false “me” of “Oh, if I have this perfect drink, then everything will be wonderful. And don’t take it away from me!” This is like a dog at the bowl of food, looking around as if somebody’s going to take it away. Don’t get fooled by the TV commercials in which they hold up this bottle of soft drink or whatever and claim, “Thirst buster will get rid of all your thirst!” That’s absurd. 

Gaining a Deeper Understanding

You said we need to know how the conventional self exists. But I think knowledge is not enough. How do we actually get some deeper understanding, a transformational type of understanding? How can we really make it work?

The problem may be our whole way of conceptualizing about this. There’s an intellectual understanding and there is a deeper emotional understanding. We really need to consider the parameters involved here. One of the parameters is “certainty.” How certain are we? How convinced are we that this is the conventional “me” and this is how it exists and this is how it doesn’t exist. First, we need to be really convinced that our understanding is correct.

There’s a whole progression of mental factors that are involved in developing a transformative understanding. Regarding the conventional self, for instance, we need to distinguish between the way it actually exists and the way it doesn’t and then develop discriminating awareness about that, which provides certainty to that distinguishing. Once we’re really certain, then with further familiarity with that certainty, our certainty evolves into a firm conviction where there’s nothing that will sway us. So, there’s a progression:

  • We distinguish between the way the conventional “me” exists and the way it doesn’t.
  • With discriminating awareness, we gain certainty about that.
  • We develop firm conviction, so that nothing is going to change our mind. We’re really convinced. 

If we say that this is still intellectual, then examine what’s missing? We need to actually act with this understanding, and this is a crucial part of the whole “becoming convinced” issue. Part of this whole discussion is becoming convinced that if we act with the belief that we are this false self, it produces unhappiness and suffering. If we get rid of that belief and just act on the basis of the conventional “me,” we will not produce this type of suffering. To really become convinced of that, we need to actually put it into practice. Then, we see that the results come in accord with the teachings; then, we’re really convinced.

If we really understand this difference correctly between acting on the basis of a false “me” and a conventional “me,” then why is it that we don’t try it out – acting on the basis of a conventional “me?” Why don’t we put it into practice? Then we need to analyze. Perhaps, we still have indecisive wavering. We’re not quite sure and have doubts. We’re not really convinced. Now, we could try out acting in this way on the basis of presumption, thinking, “I presume that it’s true, so I’ll try it and see.” Why don’t we do that? Perhaps this is because of laziness. Then we examine further and look at all forms of laziness and the reasons for being lazy. It might be fear, or the influence of others around us saying, “This is stupid,” and so on.

Gaining this more transformative type of understanding arises from many causes and conditions. Don’t make it mystical, as in “Ooh, now I have a deep emotional transformation.” It’s not some sort of mystical experience. Getting to that point is a very rational progression, and the main parameter here is our level of certainty and conviction that our understanding is correct.  

Renunciation, Discriminating Awareness and Ethical Self-Discipline

Gaining this transformative type of understanding leads to developing renunciation. We understand the whole mechanism of uncontrollably recurring rebirth and even of the uncontrollably recurring ups and downs within a rebirth of being “happy” and “unhappy.” Renunciation means that “I’m sick and tired of this.” We’re basically bored with it and want to stop. We want to get out. This requires a very strong sense of the conventional “me” that has this willpower and determination to actually do something to gain liberation. Without that strong healthy sense of a conventional “me,” we’re not going to do anything. Please appreciate that point. It takes a tremendous amount of willpower to work toward liberation. “I’m going to do it!” It is this type of certainty and, in addition, the confidence that it is possible and “I can do it.”

In order to gain that liberation, we understand that we need to have the discriminating awareness with which we gain conviction that this false self, this false manner of existing of the self, or of “me,” doesn’t correspond to anything real. There’s the conventional “me.” It exists as an imputation on the basis of an individual continuum of ever-changing moments of aggregates and cannot be known separately from simultaneously also knowing some part of those aggregates. It goes on eternally. That’s not a problem. However, it doesn’t exist in an impossible way. We have to refute that impossible way of its existing. We have to get rid of that belief.

We need to have higher concentration in order to stay focused on that discrimination and understanding. And to gain concentration, we need to have the ethical self-discipline with which we develop mindfulness. Mindfulness is the mental glue needed to hold onto this discrimination and understanding. We also need the alertness to check if we are deviating or not. We develop those skills with ethical self-discipline directed at the grosser behavior of our body and speech. Then, with the strength that we gain, we can use it to direct that self-discipline to the actions of our mind in order to develop concentration. We then apply this concentration to stay focused on how we actually exist, or more precisely, we focus on voidness, the absence of impossible ways of existing. So, for higher ethical self-discipline, higher concentration and higher discriminating awareness, we need to have a strong healthy sense of “me.”

What Kind of “Me” Are We Trying to Liberate?

The central issue really is what kind of “me” are we trying to liberate? We have to understand how that “me” exists that we want to liberate. It’s not that we want to liberate the false “me” and now the false “me” is liberated. We want to liberate the conventional “me.” This is why the first level of understanding that we need to have, the refutation that we need to make, is of the self that is asserted in the other non-Buddhist Indian traditions. They also teach methods for attaining liberation. However, what they’re aiming to liberate is the false “me,” a “me” or a self that can exist separably without a body or even without a mind and that can be in control to liberate itself. That’s very interesting if we think about it. There’s a “me” who’s going to be in control of everything and is now going to liberate itself from this unhappiness and unsatisfying happiness, and then will be free. This “me” will finally be freed from having to sit at central control inside a head, because who wants to sit at a stupid control board anyway? In that way, the “me” will be liberated.

It’s not so funny because actually if we examine ourselves, usually that is the concept that we have of who it is that we’re trying to liberate. We’re trying to liberate the false “me,” the false self.

Let’s examine the characteristics of that false self. We want to have a self that will not be affected by these disturbing emotions and compulsiveness of karma. That’s okay. However, if we think in terms of the false “me,” what we want to attain then is a “me” that is not affected by anything.

This introduces the three characteristics of the doctrinally based incorrect view of the self – a self as asserted by the doctrines of the Indian non-Buddhist traditions. The first is that it is static. Some translate the term here as “permanent,” but we’ve discussed how even in Buddhism we think in terms of an eternal self. “Permanent” doesn’t mean eternal here. It means static, unaffected by anything. It’s an unconditioned phenomenon.

This point can cause confusion. It’s not that we have to realize that the self is not affected by anything. What we want is for that self not to be affected by the disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes. Of course, we’re still going to be affected by compassion and concern for others. There are many things that we’ll still be affected by. One misconception is that, in itself, the false self can be unaffected by anything. This is the type of self that the non-Buddhist systems believe that they are liberating. Further, that once liberated, it will still continue as a self that is not affected by anything, and totally separate from the whole system of a body and mind, separate from everything.

Let’s take it more slowly. In this initial refutation, what we’re investigating is threefold. As it’s usually translated, we are looking at a self that is considered (1) “permanent,” (2) “one,” and (3) “independent.” We need to look more closely at these different characteristics of a self.

(1) “Permanent” actually means static, that the self is not affected by anything. However, in Buddhism we basically just want it to be not affected by ignorance or unawareness, as well as by the disturbing emotions. However, as we discussed, it can’t be something that cannot be affected by anything.

(2) The second characteristic is “one.” What does that mean? “One” means something that is partless; in other words, an indivisible monad. The main non-Buddhist systems that are being refuted here are the Samkhya, the Nyaya and the Vaisheshika. The first two systems assert that the self is a partless monad that is all-pervasive with the universe. This means it is the size of the whole universe. The Vaisheshika say that the self is a partless monad, but one that is the size of a tiny particle, like a spark of life. Now we need to examine what in the world is the connotation of partless, of being a monad? What is the relevance here?

To find this answer, we enter “partless” into our internal search engine of the Buddhist tenet systems and we come up with the Vaibhashika assertion about the two types of true phenomena. This Buddhist tenet system discusses the term “partless” and, through this, we can gain some understanding of its connotation in Buddhism. 

  • One type of phenomenon, when dissected by physical means or analyzed by mental scrutiny, no longer retains its conventional identity. For example, here’s the table and it has parts. When we take it apart, there is no longer a table. 
  • The other type of phenomenon, when dissected or analyzed, does retain its conventional identity. For example, even the tiniest moment of love is still love.

Included among this second type of phenomenon, according to Vaibhashika, are the ultimate smallest particles, those that cannot be divided further. No matter what we try to do to analyze or break down such a particle further, it still retains its identity as this particle simply because it has no parts. It is a partless monad. 

Now, if we apply this connotation of “partless” to the self, the liberated self, then what’s the fault? The mistake is that it implies that the self is not an imputation on a basis that has parts. According to Buddhism, the self, the conventional self, is an imputation on an individual continuum of five aggregates – a body, mind, emotions, and so on, all which are changing all the time. Consequently, being an imputation on all these components, we as persons have parts, just as a table does, being also an imputation on its parts. When we analyze ourselves into a body, a mind, a personality, various emotions, different experiences and so on, and look at them separately, like looking at all the pieces of a disassembled table, we no longer retain our conventional identity. Is it still “me” if we separated out our mind from our body?

If the self were this one, partless thing, it couldn’t have a basis of imputation that has parts. There couldn’t be “me” as a six-year old, as a sixteen-year old, as a twenty-five-year old, etc. There couldn’t be “me” in terms of body, mind, emotions, or what we’re feeling and so on. It would have to be a partless monad; and that’s impossible. 

The Non-Buddhist Indian Assertions of a Self That Buddhism Refutes

What these non-Buddhist Indian systems are trying to do is to liberate something that doesn’t have parts. In the Samkhya system, for instance, the self is unlike primal matter, which is made up of the three constituents, the three gunas: rajas, tamas, and sattva; therefore, lacking these constituents, it is partless. In the Buddhist system, we would say that the “me” is not an imputation on the three gunas, but that doesn’t mean it is partless. It is an imputation on the five aggregates, and so it has parts. 

If we put it in simple language, these other systems say that the self is not made up of anything and so it’s partless. Don’t think that the self that we’re trying to liberate isn’t made up of parts. The self is made up of a body, mind, emotions and so on, and those are all changing with age. The self certainly has parts. 

To analyze it further, we must ask questions. Is the body the self? Is the mind the self? No. If we look at just the parts by themselves, we see there is no longer a self. It has lost its identity as a self, so that fits the definition of something that has parts and loses its identity when take apart. 

(3) The third quality that we want to refute is a self that is independent of any body or mind. This means a self that can exist separately from a body and a mind, or from a basis of imputation. That’s what the Samkhya, Nyaya and Vaisheshika want to liberate. Then we would have a self that is totally separate from a body and mind, separate from anything, with no basis for imputation. Just to clarify, the second part of the definition of this false self was a denial that the self has any basis for imputation. With this third aspect, it’s asserting that the self can still exist separately from a basis for imputation. 

It becomes very interesting to delve into what these non-Buddhist systems say. Samkhya, for example, asserts that the self is a passive consciousness not made up of matter, which is the primal matter that they talk about. The self, then, is not the same as the physical faculty for sentience, which in our Western terms would be the brain. This passive consciousness, then, is not the same as the brain. It’s the brain, this material thing, that experiences the samsara of happiness and unhappiness, and the self merely experiences it through the brain as the result of karmic actions, but the self doesn’t actively cognize anything. Also, the self is not the agent of karmic actions; it’s the body that is the agent. The self cannot do anything or know anything, because if it did, that would mean it changes. So, if we can liberate the self from this physical basis, the brain, then it will just remain as passive consciousness, not experiencing anything.

That’s the Samkhya assertion of how we will become liberated from suffering and unsatisfying happiness. Just realize that we are separate from the brain. It’s the brain and its ignorance that is responsible for our experience of samsara, so who wants that? If we understand that we are separate from any physical basis, that understanding will bring us liberation. As a liberated self, we won’t feel anything, we won’t experience anything. As passive consciousness, we’ll just exist forever, all-pervasive with the universe.

Does this mean blissed out?

Not blissed out, as bliss is a feeling. There is no feeling. It’s the brain that has feelings, not us, which is interesting because in fact many of us would like not to have feelings, because they’re so hurtful. From the Samkhya point of view, feeling happy or unhappy is merely the firing of neurons and so on. It’s just some electrochemical process going on in the brain. It’s purely a physical phenomenon. But the self is not physical, so it’s totally separate from all that.

The Nyaya and Vaisheshika point of view is that the self doesn’t have consciousness. Samkhya says it has passive consciousness and Nyaya argues that it has no consciousness at all and no other qualities such as feelings of happiness, emotions, and certainly no physical qualities either. Nyaya asserts that actually what has consciousness is something called a “mind particle.” The self has consciousness only contingently, or provisionally, on being connected with a mind particle by a relationship that is also contingent. 

I always think of the Nyaya system as being like a toy we had in America when I was a kid. It was called “Tinkertoy” and it consisted of a set of wooden sticks and balls. The balls had little holes in them through which many sticks and more balls could be connected to create different shaped objects. This is sort of the way in which the Nyaya and Vaisheshika systems present things, with just a few variants between them. 

There’s a self, a mind particle, a body and feelings. These things are just like these little balls that are connected by sticks, and the sticks are different types of relationships, acquisitions or whatever. 

This is a very physical view of how things are connected. It explains the self as something that is provisionally connected to various things, like a mind particle, not inherently connected. All we have to do is disconnect the self from a mind particle, a body and so on. It’s like we pull out all the sticks and there it is, a liberated self. We disconnect all the sticks so there’s no consciousness. That’s how we stop feeling unhappiness or this unsatisfying happiness. Just pull out the connector sticks.

To make it very clear, this is not the self that we want to liberate. What we want to liberate is the conventional self, the one that is affected by things. It’s no longer to be affected by disturbing emotions, but even when liberated it is still affected by positive ones, and can interact with others. It’s not partless, meaning it’s not without a body and mind and so on. It’s still going to have a body, mind, and positive feelings and emotions. It won’t experience unhappiness or unsatisfying happiness, but it will experience a pure type of happiness or a neutral type of feeling when deeply absorbed in meditation. There still will be feelings, these pure feelings. It’s very important, then, to strive to liberate the conventional “me,” not the false “me” that doesn’t exist at all.

There Is No Such Thing as a Self-Sufficiently Knowable Self

The deeper level that we have to refute is that there is a self that can be known by itself without some sort of a basis also appearing at the same time. The technical term for this is a “self-sufficiently knowable self.” There is no such thing.

The example that I always use is, “I want people to love me for ‘me,’ just for ‘myself’ and not for my body or my money.” We want someone just to love me for “me,” as if that “me” could be an object that could be loved just by itself. However, it can’t be known by itself and so it can’t be loved by itself. The self, “me,” always has a basis that appears simultaneously with it when it is known or when loved.

When we work with “I want to know myself,” how can we know ourselves just on its own? We know ourselves in terms of a mind, knowledge, experiences, a body and so on. That’s how we know ourselves. The self is an imputation on all these things. Similarly, how do we liberate ourselves? It’s impossible to work on ourselves without working, for instance, on our minds and emotions. A self that can be worked on independently of all these other things. As I said, it always has a basis. 

Remember, we started this series of lectures by asking everyone to think of “me” or the self. The only way that we could think of ourselves was either with the mental sound of the word “me,” a mental image, or a feeling or something. We can’t just think “me” without something as the basis also appearing. Similarly, we can’t liberate “me” just by itself without working on a “me” as an imputation on a basis and known at the same time as its basis. Even when liberated, the self will still be an imputation on a basis, but now on a pure basis.

What are the ramifications of this? When we’re working to try to attain liberation, we have to think in terms of our everyday experience, with all the problems and disturbing emotions that we’re actually facing, and the “me” as an imputation on them. That is how we work on gaining liberation of the self. It’s not that we just think of an abstract self without anything else appearing and think that we’re liberating that. This is impossible. If this were the case, then, we wouldn’t connect our meditations with our daily lives and so they would have little effect. 


Therefore, although we need this conventional sense of self that has willpower and the determination to be free, it’s very important that when we practice these three higher trainings to gain liberation – ethical self-discipline, concentration and discriminating awareness – we’re careful not to think that we’re this solid “me” that’s liberating itself. We need to be cautious not to approach these higher trainings with the attitude, “I’m going to control my mind,” “I’m going to control my behavior,” and “I’m going to liberate myself,” as if we were a solid separate “me.”

Let us digest this for a moment. Of course, it’s an awful lot to digest. We can just sum it up in one little sentence: don’t try to liberate a false self, because such a self doesn’t exist at all. Instead, we work to liberate the conventional “me.” Please reflect on that before we end.