Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Who Am I Anyway

Who Am I Anyway?

One way to find out who you are is to understand who a bodhisattva isn’t. The Diamond Sutra says, in chapter after chapter, starting in chapter three, that a bodhisattva does not entertain the idea of “a self, a person, a being, a soul” (atman, pudgala, sattva, jiva).

The question that arises on reading that phrase, when one gets past the erroneous idea that the repetition is meant solely as a teaching strategy, is why did the monk who authored this important sutra use those four phrases to describe the Self?  And how can I use that understanding of Self to relieve me of some of my sense of Self?

Master Ji Ru, our Abbot, pointed out in a recent class that the monk, or perhaps monks, who authored the Diamond Sutra was enlightened. Learning that about the author changed the whole perspective and meaning of the sutra for me. It gave me a fresh way of understanding who I am, or more accurately, who I am not, or even more accurately, both and neither.

The monk who authored this important wisdom (prajnaparamita) sutra used the phrase “a self, a person, a being, a soul” to describe us, here in samsara, from his perspective on the other shore. Once having had a self and renounced it he was looking back at the Self in others and seeing it and seeing it without delusion. The author was not someone in samsara describing a self from within the delusion of self. This is not a word game. Neither is it a rhetorical devise. Neither is it a linguistic strategy of some sort. That’s samsaric thinking. It is, instead, a simple description of what really is. And what was seen is that a self has these four aspects: a self, a person, a being, a soul.

The answer to the question, “Why did the author of the Diamond use these four phrases?” will take us a long way toward understanding the “a Self” so that we can deconstruct our Self in a way that lessens dukkha. It is, in fact, like the Four Noble Truths and all the other teachings, just another raft to make our journey to the other shore possible.

The author was using this phrasing to help us to understand our own deluded sense of Self, the four wrong views by which we define ourselves. From a samsaric point of view, our deluded understandings of “us” make Us seem real, solid, substantive, and abiding. But from an enlightened point of view, “a self, a person, a being, a soul” are seen for what they really are––“illusions, shadows, bubbles, dew.” Regardless of how much it appears so to us in samsara, we are not objectively real. “We” are fabrications created out of elements that are themselves empty.

By using this phrasing, “a self, a person, a being, a soul”, the author of the Diamond is telling us that deluded individuals, living in samsara, construct their sense of self  in these four ways. These are, in fact, the very words we use to trick ourselves into believing we are permanent entities.  Now they are being used to show us that there can be no such thing. Let’s look at each of the four separately.

A Self, Atman, “Ego Entity”

Our “Self” is the delusion we form through the operation of the five skandhas. “Self” is meant to indicate the artificial construct we create when we appropriate and identify with our sensory contacts. In Buddhism there is no belief in a self outside of the five skandhas.

The skandhas work like this: (1. Form) when we see something (2. Form) we develop a physical and emotional response to it, positive or negative, (3. Perception) we then label it, next (4. Volitional Formations) we create a story about it from past memory fragments, called seeds, and finally, (5. Consciousness) we appropriate and identify ourselves as that sensory contact “I see…whatever”. This is the ownership element. Ownership is when we take possession of a sense contact and define it as “I, me, my or mine.” This is the part of us that says we are simply the sum total of all our past sensory experiences.

When we realize that the five skandhas are impermanent and shunyata, we see how foolish it is to say: “I am the kind of person who…. And that weakens our ability to cling and attach. Which ends the dukkha, at least for me in that moment. Actually, we can stop this creation of Self at any of the five skandhas. We can shut our sense doors; not develop feelings about sense objects; stop labeling and naming; stop creating new volitional formations and stop relying on old habitual patterns retrieved from our seed consciousness. And, as already mentioned, we can stop appropriating and identifying, stop saying “I am the kind of person who (gets upset when he sees a big dog)” or “I am the kind of person who (gets anxious when the phone rings),” or whatever.

For more about the five skandhas, start with Peter della Santina’s introduction to the five aggregates (skandha is the Sanskrit word for aggregate). If you want to delve more deeply, I suggest comtemplatively working your way through Mathieu Boisvert’s short but intense book, The Five Aggregates, Understanding Theravada Psychology and Soteriology
Both are also available in print editions.

A Person, Pudgala

A “Person” is “Us” as a social entity. It is the way we define ourselves relative to others and to the environment. A Person is our idea of Us as a permanent entity, separate and distinct from all other phenomena. Personhood is about establishing differences, the difference between self and other, the difference between me and a tree, and so on.

If we look at how we fabricate ourselves as a Self and as a Person, we can begin to see non-self and no-self––shunyata, for these fabrications of a Self and a Person are composites of elements that are themselves empty of any permanent and abiding nature. With this new right view, samsara’s grip on us is weakened, reducing the strength of our attachment to ourselves as a Person.

A Being, Sattva

A Being is the sense we have of ourselves as the same individual at all times. As a Being we believe that we must differentiate the us from the unity of the subject-object relationship, and segregate the experiencer from the experienced. Once we see how making ourselves into a Being causes us dukkha, we can stop differentiating ourselves in this way and move further along the path to the peace and tranquility of no-self and shunyata.

It takes enormous energy and attention in order to construct and maintain a Self, as a Person, and as a Being. That alone should alert us to its implausibility. But instead we work even harder to complete the illusion. And it seems we are not finished until we fabricate a “Soul and Lifespan”, a Jiva,  for our “selves.”

A Soul, A Lifespan, Jiva

A Jiva is generally thought of as a soul, that is, unifying life-giving force and spiritual entity, which persists in us, unchanged from conception (or at least birth) to death. It is this permanent, abiding aspect of ourselves, we generally think, which migrates from this life to the next. This is also how we identify with body and mind.
When the Buddha realized experientially that no phenomenon is permanent and abiding, he realized there can be no soul. Everything, after all, is conditioned. We too must learn to understand this, as the Buddha did, experientially, if we are to leave behind our jiva and its attendant dukkha and cross to the other shore.

 “Jiva” also has another meaning. It can be an entity that exists for a certain period of time. a Lifespan. My suspicion is that the author of the Diamond saw our Jivas as both a life-giving spiritual entity and a lifespan.


Clearly, in order to construct an “Us” we need to do a whole lot of work, First, we must develop a series of unexamined assumptions (atman). Then we must formulate a special use of the language to validate those assumptions (pudgala). Then we have to convert those assumptions into rigid beliefs (sattva). Finally, we give our rigid beliefs a new name. We call them a unifying, life-giving entity, which has a duration (jiva). And even after all this work, “We” are fragmented and fragile and dukkha.

Just look at all the mental and emotional contortions we need to go through in order to create this fictitious entity. For me, in my practice, anything that requires that much effort to create and maintain is suspect and problematic! Whether one views this from samsara, as we do, or from the other shore, as the author of the Diamond did, what other way is there to see all this than as nonsense?

That insight makes all clinging, attaching, protecting or defending, any attraction or aversion to anything conceived of as I or me or my or mine seem silly. It only serves to trap us in dukkha and keeps us in samsara.

The more clearly I see this trap, this delusion, the more difficult it is for it to arise in my mind, and, if it does arise, the more difficult it is for me to maintain the attachment. As soon as I realize that I am clinging or attaching to one of these senses of Me, the clinging and attaching weakens and then disappears. And as my “I” becomes weaker, the Buddha in me becomes stronger. Or put another way, my Buddhanature begins to shine where there was previously only fog.

This is the big Zen stick that the monk who wrote the Diamond Sutra is wielding for our benefit. Whappp!