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Buddhadharma : Winter 2011
T o know and experience the nature of self cor- rectly is to experience nirvana. To know the nature of self in a distorted manner is to experi- ence samsara. It is therefore imperative that we devote ourselves to establishing just what the nature of self is! In Dharmakirti’s Pramanavartika (Exposition of Valid Cognition), he states: When there is grasping at self, Discrimination between self and others arises; Emotions and afflictions then follow. If we observe our perceptions and thoughts we notice that a sense of self arises in us very naturally. We instinctively think, “I am getting up,” or “I am going out.” Is this sense of “I” mistaken? I don’t believe it is. The fact that we exist as individuals is undeniable. This is affirmed by our own experi- ence as we try to be happy and overcome difficulties, and— as Buddhists—work to attain buddhahood for the benefit of ourselves and others. Regardless of how difficult it may be to identify just what this self is, there is something to which the thought “I am” refers: There is a “me” who “is.” And it is from this “me” that our natural intuitive feelings of self arise. It is just such a self—an atman independent of the various components that make up the personality—that the ancient Indian philosophers proposed. They subscribed to the idea of rebirth, with some adherents able to remember experiences from past lives. How else, they argued, could the continuity of an individual self over lifetimes be explained, given that the physical aspects of this self only come into being at the conception of this life? They therefore proposed a self that could continue across lifetimes while remaining independent of physical existences during individual lives. The concept of self they put forward was singular, while the mental and physical parts we are composed of are numerous. The self was held to be permanent and unchanging, while these parts are impermanent and ever-changing. This core self was thought to be independent and autonomous, while its more exterior parts would depend on outside influences. Thus these ancient philosophers posited an atman that would be distinct from, and independent of, the mental and physical parts that make us up. Buddha offered a radical departure from this view, propos- ing that the self exists merely in dependence upon its mental and physical parts. Just as there can be no bullock cart free of the parts that make it up, Buddha explained, there can be no self that exists independently of the aggregates comprising a person. Buddha taught that to posit a unitary, unchanging, per- manent, autonomous self independent of the aggregates that make up a person would introduce something that doesn’t exist, and would thereby reinforce our instinctual sense of self. Buddha thus propounded the idea of selflessness—anatman. The Existent Self and the Nonexistent Self It is essential that we distinguish between the self that exists conventionally and the self that doesn’t exist at all, as it is our grasping at the nonexistent self that is the source of all suffering. Buddhist yogis—meditators—who are engaged in pro- found analytical meditation on the existence of self focus their analysis on their experience of “me” as an inherently real and independent self, the existence of which their meditative investigation will eventually negate. They thereby make a clear distinction between a conventional self that is the object of our reification, and the reified self that is to be negated. In our own normal day-to-day intuitions, we have a natu- ral and legitimate sense of self that thinks, “I’m cultivating bodhichitta,” or “I’m meditating on selflessness.” A problem arises when this sense of self is too extreme, and we start to think of it as independent and autonomous—as real. Once we cling to such a notion, we begin to feel justified in making a stark distinction between ourselves and others. As a result of this, there is a natural tendency to regard others as totally unrelated to us, almost as objects to be exploited by this real, concrete “me.” Out of this powerful attachment to a self that we falsely perceive as an identifiable, solid reality arise the equally strong attachments we develop to our belongings, our homes, our friends, and our family. Through meditative analytical investigation we can come to recognize that at the root of the afflictions we experience lies our strong but mistaken clinging to what we perceive to be our inherently real self. From a Buddhist point of view, ©2005MANUELBAUER/AGENTURFOCUSARCHIVENO.3889-12 35 WINTER 2 01 1 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY