By Zach, GGY 2019. See the full blog at https://mollyshaefox.wixsite.com/buddhism
One of the most difficult concepts for me to grasp since I began studying Buddhism more deeply is the idea of non-self. During the time of the Buddha, one of the major religious ideas making the rounds was the idea on an eternal Self, and that liberation could come only with the stripping away of the ego self and all other wants and desires until one was left with nothing but their purest Self. The Buddha adamantly disagreed with this belief, but rather was convinced that through examining the impermanence of our emotions, sensations, and thoughts, we would find ourselves unable to discover anything about ourselves that is unchanging or everlasting. Essentially, he believed that we have no underlying souls that remain in us and constitute our true essence from birth to death.
Consider the physical side of it. Each of our cells is replaced over time, and seven years from now we will be made up of completely different cells, just as we are now made up of complete different cells then we were seven years ago. The Buddha argues that our mind is essentially the same. Over the course of time, we change bit by bit until who we are is completely different from who we once were. Of course we organize our memories as a continuation of ourselves, but our memories and perceptions are inherently biased and colored by the way we have been conditioned to view ourselves as continuous selves.
I encourage you to think back through all of your memories and try to find constants throughout your entire life. Think of each of your values and trace them back. Have you always had those values or can you think of how and when they took root within you? With each thought that flits into your head, question where that thought came from and how the thought process you now view the world through has developed. I could go on, but you get the picture. The Buddha believed that by constantly examining form (body), feelings, perception, conditioning, and consciousness, one could grind down their idea of a concrete self until they had an authentic, experiential realization of non-self.
The Buddha took this idea even further, however, and made the claim that our grasping at a sense of identity and self is one of the major reasons we experience suffering (dukkha). This wanting is setting up the conditions in which it is impossible not to suffer as a result. Our suffering will cease only once we make peace with the reality of our ever changing-ness and impermanence. Once we end this suffering, nirvana or enlightenment is within our reach and we are able to escape the cycle of constant reincarnation, being bound to the earth by our own desperation to find an “I.”
This concept is one of the few in Buddhism that I didn’t feel I sure about and connected to right off the bat, and I am still debating and searching for my own belief on the matter. In fact, when I first read about the idea and origin of the Buddha’s thoughts about non-self, I actually immediately connected much more to the opposing religious philosophy of the Buddha’s time. In the Upanishads, a collection of philosophical literature in India, it was suggested that the Self was more than just a spirit, but something equal with the Supreme Being:
He who is in the fire, and He who is here in the heart, and He who is wonder in the sun – He is one
(Maitri Upanishad 6.17)
However, I’m still unsure whether my connection with that idea and passage is genuine, or a subconscious unwillingness to admit that I am not. I can work through the idea that I am impermanent and will not last forever, but perhaps my brain is simply unwilling to comprehend the fact I have never and will never exist as the complete being that I imagine myself to be. Either way, I absolutely intend on continuing to think about and discuss this concept. Hopefully I can use the experience of this gap year in order to track the ways I am changing and why, and what, if anything, I think is and will be an enduring part of who I am. I challenge each of you to question your own sense of self and examine each part of your existence with the intent to find out whether any parts of you have always existed unchanged. You may be surprised by what you find.