In reading a book recently by the Dalai Lama, he relates a discussion he had with a geshe who said that someone, something, has to experience life otherwise there would be no suffering. That caused a light bulb to be turned on in my brain regarding the elusive concept of self.
The problem with much writing regarding self is that the argument against its existence is that it is not permanent and inherent. The assumption is that if there were a self, it would be permanent and inherent. Why? According to Buddhist thinking, nothing is permanent and inherent, all things are of dependent origination. So the answer normally given to whether there is a self is itself dependent on a question or assumption and thus invalid.
NOTE: The Buddha never said there is no self. He did describe what is “not self” … basically anything that causes you to suffer is not self, meaning not your true self. (See my post, “The Misleading Teaching of No Self.”)
And that note brings up a problem in Buddhist discussions of self. Self is defined as being your true self. There is no other self. Ah, but there is. In thinking further about the geshe’s statement it became clear to me that there are several selfs.
First there is the self that we know intimately, our ego-mind. That is the self that throughout our lifetime experiences life, reacts to it out of insecurity, and suffers, until if and when we absorb the Buddha dharma. That self is indeed of dependent origination, there is nothing inherent about it, and it is not permanent.
It is not our true self and yet it most definitely exists. It is the most concrete expression of ourselves that most people know. To say that it is not real or reality is playing with words and confuses those who approach the path. It’s true that your emotions and cravings are a product of the ego-mind, and thus have no inherent existence, and yet regardless they are very real to the individual. To acknowledge that does not change the lesson of “Not me!” (See my post, “Not Me! Peeling Off the Layers of Our Ego-Mind.”)
The next two selfs are attributes that we are born with. The second self is composed of our Four Basic Needs as related in my book, The Self in No Self; needs express loudly as babies and that we continue to have throughout life: food, freedom from pain, warmth/nurturing, and physical security. Although we learn as Buddhists that we have everything we need inside us to be at peace and happy, and so we don’t deal with the lack of these needs through emotion, we are still aware when we are hungry, in pain, etc. The needs do not go away with spirituality, the response just changes.
These needs are also of dependent origination, although in a different sense. They are not a product of the ego-mind or our life experience. But they are a function of the human body and the human mind. And while permanent during one’s life, they cease when the body dies.
The third self is the one that I discussed in The Self in No Self, and in my post, “The Misleading Teaching of No Self.” That self is our unborn spirit, our elemental nature, the temperament that we are each born with. In my book, I used the example of the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, both one spiritually, but clearly having different natures, different personalities; they have there own individuality. They are one yet individual, granted not at all in the sense that Western philosophy uses that term.
This self is also of dependent origination, in that it is a continuation of our past lives. But it is not karmic; it is not a function of what we did or what we do. It is instead permanent. Note, this is distinguished from our personality that develops from life experience and is a product of the ego-mind. That personality is impermanent; for example, it may be angry but through spiritual work can become loving.
The fourth and ultimate self is our true self, our Buddha nature, our unborn Buddha mind … or as the mystical traditions of the three Abrahamic faiths put it, our divine essence. We are all born with the Buddha nature inside us, in tact, alive, and well.
This self is not of dependent origination, except perhaps in a cosmic sense. It just is. And it is permanent. It is present in all of our lives … past, present, and future, Most schools of Buddhist thought maintain that nothing can be permanent. Yet I would argue that Buddha nature, since it is not of dependent origination in any normal sense of the word, is permanent, unchanging; it has no beginning and has no end.
NOTE: As I explain in my post, “Reincarnation - An Unorthodox Take,” if you are not born with an old soul, if you are not a reincarnation because there are 19 births for every 8 deaths, then your Buddha nature, as well as your unborn spirit, is freshly minted by the cosmos.
But this is the self that tragically most people never come to know or be aware of except in the most indirect way. It is the self that even for those who walk the path is difficult to grasp or connect with. Because of our ego-mind’s reactions to our life experiences, our true self over the years becomes buried so deep, under so much weight, that we become separated from it; and so it is mostly unknown to us.
Yet it is there. It is our task to rediscover it, to reconnect with it, to disassociate from our ego-mind, and experience life through the eyes of our true Buddha self, our unwounded heart, filled with joy and positive energy, and through the equanimity of our Third Eye.