What Is Not Self as Self

Incorrect Consideration of the Self

We’ve been talking about incorrect consideration and, in the standard presentation, there are four types of incorrect consideration. They are to consider what is nonstatic and impermanent as being static and eternal, to consider what is suffering as happiness, to consider what is unclean as clean, and the fourth is usually translated as “to consider what is not self as self.” So, what does this mean? This refers to either us or others and to consider that there is a “me” or a “you” that is separate from the body, mind, feelings, and so on. It’s the belief that the self exists all by itself, despite the fact there is no such thing. In a situation in which there is no such thing, we imagine and consider that there is such a thing. Like with a body and a mind, there is no separate “me,” but we consider that there is a separate “me,” independent of these.

We can think of many examples of this. We might be a bit old or a bit overweight. We look at ourselves in the mirror and think, “That’s not ‘me.’ I can’t possibly look like that” or “I can’t weigh that much.” It’s as if there were a “me” that was independent of the body. In the same vein, here in the West we have all sorts of strange expressions that would be quite difficult to translate into Tibetan, like, “I am trying to find myself.” “Be yourself!” “I am trying to be myself.” “I am alienated from myself.” These are quite Western ways of looking at things. What are they based on? It’s as if there were a “me” that was separate from everything that we’re trying to find or be comfortable with. “I’m not myself today,” “You’re not acting like yourself today,” and these sorts of things. It’s quite strange, actually, if we analyze it.

We saw how this type of incorrect consideration can be related as well to what we were discussing in terms of the other three types. “I want to be loved by ‘you,’” “If it’s ‘your’ cup, it’s clean. If it’s somebody else’s, it’s not OK.” It’s as if there were some independent “you,” all by itself. There is no such thing as this type of “me” or “you.” 

Does that mean that we don’t exist at all? No, it doesn’t mean that. When we speak about a “me” in Buddhism, we have to differentiate between what’s called the “conventional me,” which does exist, and the “false me,” which doesn’t exist. We’re not talking about the idea that we have of ourselves, we’re talking about the actual self.

The Conventional Self

Now, what is a person, or a “me?” Buddhism says that it is an imputation on a body, a mind, feelings, and so on. We have to understand what this means. An imputation or imputational phenomenon is something that cannot exist separately from a basis for imputation. In the case of a person, a self, it is something that changes from moment to moment. But it’s not a form of some physical phenomenon. It’s not a sight, or a sound, or something like that. It’s also not a way of being aware of anything – it’s not seeing or thinking. It’s not anger, it’s not love. Nevertheless, it is an imputation on what are known as the “five aggregates.”

When we talk about the five aggregates, what we’re talking about are the nonstatic phenomena that make up each moment of our experience. The first is forms of physical phenomena, the so-called “aggregate of forms.” It doesn’t refer to just our body, which is obviously present in each moment, but also a sight that we’re seeing, a sound that we’re hearing, a smell that we’re smelling, a taste that we’re tasting, or a physical sensation that we’re sensing. These are forms of physical phenomena that are part of each moment of our experience. These forms appear as the mental holograms that we discussed before. They can also be nonmaterial forms that we experience in a dream. They’re not necessarily material, but physical in the sense that they have shape, color, etc. That’s one aspect of our experience.

Another aspect or aggregate would be “a primary consciousness” – seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching or mental consciousness. Primary consciousness is just aware of the essential nature of an object. In other words, with primary consciousness, we’re just aware of some object as being a sight, a sound, a mental object and so on. In a sense, it’s like, “What channel are we on?” Are we on the seeing channel, the hearing channel, the smelling channel, or the thinking channel?

We also have – what we were discussing before – the aggregate of “distinguishing.” Within a sense field, we’re able to distinguish one object from another, such as in the field of colored shapes that we see, for example. It doesn’t mean that we know what something is, or we give it a name. It’s just the ability to distinguish. Even a dog can distinguish the door from the wall. It doesn’t smash into the wall.

Then, we have the aggregate of “feeling a level of happiness” that’s part of each experience. We’ve also discussed that before. The feeling doesn’t have to be dramatic, but some level of happiness or unhappiness. When we’re looking at the wall, for instance, if we continue to look at the wall, that means we’re happy to continue looking at it. It doesn’t mean, “Ahaha, I’m so delighted!” but we’re happy to look at the wall. If we look away, that means that we were unhappy about looking at the wall and we look somewhere else. Like this, some level of happiness or unhappiness is there in each moment.

Then, there is the aggregate of everything else that changes and is part of our experience, the so-called “aggregate of other affecting variables.” Basically, we have all the emotions there, both positive and negative, and we have mental factors like concentration, interest, etc. – all these things are in this other big group of “everything else.”

[See: Basic Scheme of the Five Aggregates]


There are several imputational phenomenon that have as their basis an individual continuum of these five aggregates, not just a self, “me” – for instance, age and impermanence. Just as an age cannot exist separately from being the age of something, so too there’s not a “me” that can exist separately from an individual continuum of five aggregates. What is “me?” Well, a person, a “me,” is an integration of a whole, individual continuum as it changes from moment to moment to moment. No one needs to conceptually impute a person for there to be a person present. When I look at this colored shape over here to my side, what do I see? Well, I see a body. However, I also see “Massimo”; I see a person, non-conceptually. Is there a Massimo, or a person, separate from that body? No, is there? This person that I see is an imputation on a basis like a body, or it could be an imputation on the sound of a voice on the telephone. It could be an imputation on many different items within this particular continuum of five aggregates.

We’re not just talking about a name. Even if I don’t know his name – I don’t remember or know the names of everybody in this room – still, I see people, I see persons, and I see “you.” However, is there a “you” that I can see separately from these colored shapes and bodies that I see? And if we say, “I don’t really know you. I can see you, but I don’t really know you”; it’s as if there were a “you” that could somehow be known separately on its own.

There are other phenomena like this – maybe this makes it easier or maybe more complicated, I don’t know. What is age? If we ask, “How old are you? What’s your age?” I would answer, “Well, my age is 62.” Maybe your age is, whatever it might be. That’s also an imputation. Age doesn’t exist by itself, does it? Age is not just a number. It’s a measurement, in our Western concept, from when we were born until now. We put that interval all together, count it by some system and come up with a number. “What’s your age?” “My age is 62.” Does it exist all by itself, as in the disturbing thought, “I can’t relate to my age,” “I don’t feel my age?” The self or “me” is a similar type of phenomenon. Let’s think about that for a moment.


Basically, we have this incorrect consideration that there is some sort of separate “me,” like we say, “I hurt my finger,” as if there were a “me” separate from the finger, and then we say, “I hurt myself.” Does that make any sense? “I hurt myself,” as if there were a “me” separate from the body? Or you say something nasty to me, and I say, “You just hurt me by what you said.” What was hurt? Is there a separate “me” that was hurt here?

It’s funny when we start to analyze these types of things. It’s like, “I’m in love with you, and I would like to lie in bed with you on top of me.” Is there a “you” who we would like to lie on top of a “me” existing separately from our bodies? We tend to think, “Oh, this is what will really make ‘me’ happy.” However, is there a “you” that’s separate from the 70 or 80-kilogram body that is on top of me? If there were a 70 or 80-kilogram bag of sand on top of us, would that be the same? “No, it’s OK because it’s ‘you,’” but is it a “you” that’s separate from this weight? What is it that’s making us happy and what is it that is being made happy? Is it happy to have 70 kilograms on top of our body? It’s really strange when we start to analyze.

“This is clean.” We could be sweating and everything, but “it’s clean.” If someone else were sweating and on top of us, it wouldn’t be clean. This is an incorrect consideration that there is a separate “me,” or a separate “you,” a separate person from a basis, a body, a mind, etc.

“Me” or “you,” then, is an imputational phenomenon on each moment of its everchanging basis, an individual continuum of five aggregate factors. In each moment, each of the five aggregates is changing, and so the “me” that is an imputation on them as its basis is also constantly changing, just like our age is constantly changing. 

When we talk about “me” and “age” and these types of imputational phenomena, they always have a continuum, a continuity as their basis. However, as I said, this type of thing is not very easy to understand. Slowly we have to get into this way of thinking about imputations and bases for imputation, this way of understanding, because it seems as though there is a separately existing “me” that is not an imputational phenomenon, but this is incorrect.

We’re not questioning here being an individual. I am not “you.” I put food in my mouth and eat, and that doesn’t fill your stomach, does it? There is individuality, but – this becomes again something quite complex – what makes us an individual? What makes me “me” not “you?” An interesting question; nonetheless, that’s a question that we consider as we go further and further into this topic. 

First, we get a general idea of what we mean by “something being an imputation on the basis of something else” and that, as an imputation, it cannot exist or be known by itself. Like age, how can there be an age separate from something that’s aging? How can there be impermanence separate from something that’s changing? We see the glass fall and break; we see it’s impermanent, don’t we? We see it breaking: it’s impermanent. That impermanence that we see is not just a figment of our imagination. The impermanence of the glass is occurring. However, that breaking and that impermanence are not separate from the glass. I see a body and it’s you; I don’t see “you” separate from the body.

Now it starts to become a little bit more complicated when we say, “I want ‘you’ to love ‘me.’” What do I want to love “me?” A mind, a body? What do I want “you” to love? Do I want “you” to love my mind? Do I want “you” to love my body? No, “I want ‘you,’” as if there were a separate “you,” all by itself, “to love ‘me,’” as if there was a separate entity, “me,” all by itself. That’s this fourth type of incorrect consideration.

This is the issue that’s involved here. We incorrectly consider something that doesn’t exist like it appears to exist – namely, a self, a person – to actually exist like it appears. We consider something that doesn’t exist – a separately existing self – to exist, but actually there is no such a thing. Again, there is an absence of a self that exists in that impossible way. 

This gets us further in the direction of understanding what voidness is all about, “There is no such thing.” Is that a little bit clear? Mind you, we’re just starting the topic; we will go further. Do you have any questions, so far?


Isn’t it obvious that “me” is dependent on a body and mind and so on? Isn’t it a fact that we are all individuals? Even from a genetic point of view, we are all individuals.

Well, maybe so, but when we analyze a little bit more deeply, we find that, although it may be obvious, perhaps it’s not so obvious. First of all, we could have an incorrect consideration based on doctrine and propaganda. For instance, we are told, “Be yourself,” “Choose for yourself,” “Be an individual,” or “Stand up for your individuality.” We could be taught that this was something very positive. Then, we get very frustrated when we can’t do that. “I have to express my individuality!” That might also be something that we feel as if it were some sort of thing.

This misconception could arise just automatically, as it does with selfishness. What is selfishness all about? It’s thinking about “me,” and “I have to get ‘my’ way,” as if there were an independently existing separate “me.” We’re not thinking in terms of a body; we’re not thinking in terms of a mind; we’re not thinking in terms of anything else, just “me.” “I want ‘my’ way.” “This is ‘my’ way of doing things.” We’re speaking about something very basic here, like selfishness. What’s the misconception upon which selfishness is based? It’s thinking there is some concrete “me,” that exists all by itself.

Is this misconception obvious or not obvious? It’s not so obvious, as selfishness is quite deeply ingrained. Nobody has to teach us to be selfish. “This toy belongs to ‘me!’” A little child thinks that. “I don’t want ‘you’ to have it.” The child is not thinking in terms of a body, not thinking in terms of mind, not thinking in terms of anything like that, just “me” and “you.” We’re talking about something very fundamental here.

When we talk about this issue of genetics and so on, then we need to analyze what is genetics? What is the genome? Well, a genome is made up of this and that chemical compound and each compound is made up of atoms, and so on. If we start to deconstruct, we don’t find anything solid. There are many levels on which we can look at this.

Nevertheless, as I said, this gets into the whole topic of what establishes our individuality. We are individuals, sure, but what makes us an individual? Is it something solid, like a chemical formula, or what is it? For that, we need to go deeper and deeper into our understanding of what imputation and mental labeling actually mean. Now we’re just starting the topic.

What are the five aggregates themselves based upon?

They are based on their parts, their components as each of these components change from moment to moment. Each aggregate is an imputation on its parts, in the manner of a whole being an imputation on its parts. This is very clear in texts like Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. The hand is an imputation on the fingers, the fingers are imputations on the joints, the joints are imputations on its parts, and so on. It goes down and down and down, further and further.

The reason for them to go and on and on?

This becomes very interesting. Is there a findable basis that’s actually there all the time, but merely changing? These are our questions, aren’t they? For instance, if we think about it, everything physical is made of atoms. Furthermore, atoms are made up of protons, neutrons and electrons, and we go further and further and further and there is nothing solid there, energy fields, etc. It seems as though things are solid – this is like an illusion – but they aren’t really solid. This chair isn’t solid. My body isn’t solid; it’s made up of atoms. Both the chair and my body are made up of atoms – mostly empty space and energy fields. Now the important part is that nevertheless, despite this, we can sit on the chair and not fall to the floor.

That’s the important thing. If we can understand that it’s not solid, it only appears to be solid; but nevertheless, it holds me up, it functions, then we’re starting to really get into a correct understanding. Can we accept these two points – nothing is solid, yet everything functions – without them being contradictory? If we can do that, if we can accept and understand that, then we’re ready to go to deeper and deeper levels, because each deconstruction – here we’re just making the deconstruction of things being solid – still leaves us with things functioning. Despite that there is no solid “me” and no solid “you,” nevertheless, seeing you can make me happy or unhappy. Why not? There is no contradiction here, but that’s very difficult to understand.

“I want you to love me.” Is this incorrect to say?

No, but we have to understand what we mean by that.

What would be the correct way to say it?

Conventionally, it is correct to say or think, “I’d like you to love me.” However, if we think that there is a solid “me” and a solid “you” involved, then there’s a lot of difficulty there. We could have all sorts of troublesome thoughts, “I want you to love me, but you don’t love me. I’m not good enough; there’s something wrong with me. I’m a loser; nobody ever loves me. I can’t be loved; I’m unlovable…” Wow, we go into deep suffering, deep unhappiness there. Yes, conventionally, we say, “I love you and you love me”; there is no problem with that. It’s how we consider it. This is what we’re talking about, incorrect consideration.

The problem is when we start getting into the downward spiral of, “Why can’t somebody love ‘me?’ Why can’t I find someone who loves ‘me?’ Nobody loves ‘me.’ When can I find someone who will really love ‘me’ for myself?” It’s these types of thoughts that are troublemakers. The problem is when we make that “me” into something solid, existing all by itself.