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Buddhadharma : Winter 2011
39 WINTER 2 01 1 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY The Continuum of the Mere I Let us examine the elements upon which the self depends for its existence. When we identify ourselves as human beings, our identity is dependent upon our human body and our human mind. This continuum of “self,” made up of a series of moments of “me,” begins at birth or conception, and ends at death. Were we not to identify ourselves as humans but merely as “me,” or as the “mere I,” would this self have a beginning or an end? When we look back at our past and think, “when I was young, when I became an adult,” or “when I reached middle age,” we personally identify with each stage, while also identifying with the continuum that spans all of the stages of our life. We are very naturally able to shift our sense of self from the present to the past, and to the totality of stages that make up a lifetime. Is it possible that this “mere I” might also extend beyond the limits of this life? Between mind and body, it is particularly our mind or con- sciousness with which we identify as this “mere I.” Our mind is transient, existing momentarily, each moment of consciousness affecting the next. Thus our thoughts and ideas evolve over time, as do our emotions. Change exists as well in the world of solid things. The magnificent Himalayan range may seem to have a permanent solidity, but when we view those mountains over a period of millions of years we can detect changes. In order for those changes to take place, there must be change within a time frame of one hundred years. Such change would necessitate year-by-year change, which would in turn depend upon change occurring on a monthly basis, and this would depend on smaller and smaller increments of transformation taking place from minute to minute, second to second, and at even smaller slivers of time. It is these minuscule momentary changes that form the basis for more noticeable change. This nature of moment-by-moment change is a quality that occurs as a result of something being produced; no other cause is necessary to bring it about. There are certain causes that cease once their effect arises. Such causes turn into their effects, as a seed turns into a sprout. The seed is the substantial cause of the ensuing sprout. There are other causes and conditions that serve as contributory fac- tors in bringing about an effect, such as the water, fertilizer, and sunlight that contribute to the sprouting of a seed. Taking our human body as an example, we can trace the continuum of moments leading to our present human body back to the beginning of this life, the moment of conception. This moment is called “that which is becoming human.” Our present physical body’s continuum can be traced to that substantial cause—its moment of conception—which in turn can be traced back further, moment by moment, to the beginning of the universe and the subtle matter that existed at that time. From a Buddhist point of view, the continuum of substantial causes preceding our conception can be traced back to before the Big Bang, to when the universe was a void. Actually, if we follow the line of reasoning by which we trace our continuum back to before the Big Bang, we would have to acknowledge that there could not be a first moment to the continuum of substantial causes of any conditioned phenomenon. Just as material things possess their substantial causes and their contributory conditions, mental phenomena do as well. Our feelings, our thoughts and emotions, all of which make up our consciousness, have both substantial causes that turn into a particular moment of cognition, and contributory fac- tors that may be physical or mental. The primary characteristic of our consciousness is its clarity and knowing. This quality of pure luminous knowing cannot be a product of a physical condition alone. From the Buddhist understanding of causality, a substantial cause must be sub- stantially commensurate with its effect. A physical phenom- enon could therefore not serve as the substantial cause of a moment of consciousness, as the nature of clarity and know- ing is not physical. Let us examine the process of conscious perception. When we see a tree, we are experiencing a mental perception of the tree before us. The tree and our physical eye serve as the contributory conditions for our conscious experience of the tree. The substantial cause of that mental experience of the tree is our immediately preceding condition of clarity and knowing. It is this preceding moment of consciousness that It is essential that we penetrate the nature of phenomena by means of profound study and critical analysis. This will lead us to recognize the absence of any independent, identifiable self in all phenomena. ➤ continued page 91