Self and No self

When we divide our experience into self and world, we see ourselves as "here" (with a corresponding interior world) and the world "over there" - outside and around us. We see our lives as a series of interactions between the outside, "the objective world," and our interior subjective world.
In this view, our self and our subjective content are almost synonymous. We feel responsible for our inner world of thoughts, memories and emotions. Our relationship with the outer world is often expressed as reaching out and perceiving experience. This viewpoint is inherently centered on what we think our self does. We believe our self is an actor on the world's stage.
This is an admittedly simple, broad model. Even though it leaves many questions unanswered, it readily corresponds to our sense of everyday life. Many people go through life without ever questioning this basic scheme.
If the circumstances of life inspire us to investigate Buddhism, we will probably bring this distinction between self and world into our practice and be challenged to examine it. To find peace, clarity and satisfaction in our lives something must change. As a first step, accepting various Buddhist beliefs and practices can have a beneficial impact on our lives. For example, we can apply the teaching of the Eightfold Path; we can meditate on compassion and wisdom; we can practice generosity and the other paramitas. These are all worthy practices. However, until we examine our underlying assumptions about self, world and relationship, the strength and effectiveness of these practices will necessarily be limited. The more completely our understanding corresponds to Buddhist teaching, the more likely we are to realize the full benefits of Buddhist practice. Therefore, it is useful to examine our assumptions in the light of Buddhist teaching.
One of the cornerstones of Buddhist teaching is the teaching of "no self." There is no self in the sense of a permanent and independent substance within existence. This is true of all existence, not just the personal self. If we identify our self with our subjectivity, this teaching can seem terrifying. We may be afraid that if we let go of our identification with our thoughts, memories and emotions, we will cease to exist. But this is not what the teaching implies. It is important to realize how "no self" shows us a path out of suffering.
We all have experiences that we recognize as selfless. Perhaps when we were listening to music; perhaps when we watch our child growing; perhaps when we first look into a true lover's eyes. Any experience that is vital and penetrating is a moment of selflessness. This is not really an exotic activity, but our ideas of self keep us from recognizing its everyday occurrence.
We make a fist with our hands. With our fist we can do some useful things, knocking on a door for instance. But when we want to do other things, caressing our lover's face for example, a fist isn't very helpful. So we open our hands. Where did the fist go? "Fist" is simply a concept. It is a description of activity - bringing our fingers together in a certain way. "Fist" is not a fixed thing. When our hand comes together in a certain way, fist appears; when we open our hand, fist disappears. There is no essence of fist, no fist soul or self. It is only a concept that describes a certain activity. The real fist is no fist; what is perceptible, "real," is the activity of our hand coming together. When we confuse the concept with the activity, we become confused and worried when "something" that was present is no longer here. We open our hand, our fist disappears, but we are unconcerned because we understand the nature of "fist." When we do not understand the nature of self, we may be fearful when we hear Buddhism proclaim there is no self.
When Buddhism teaches that there is no self, it is just like saying there is no fist. Buddhism is asking us to look beyond the concepts and ideas of self and realize the activity from which self arises and disappears. "No self" opens a door for us to discover our nature through realizing our profound dynamic relationship with everything around us.
Imagine hiking in the mountains. We come around a ridge and suddenly, surprisingly, we see a magnificent vista. It "blows us away." The teaching of no self means that in the activity that we describe as "seeing the vista," the self that we are is the activity - seeing the vista. In the moment of seeing (or hearing, tasting, etc.) our self is pure activity. In this activity there is no "I am" self ("I am seeing the vista.") There is no self-consciousness; there is no recognition. In this moment the real self is no self; there is only selfless activity - "seeing the vista." Some religions posit a witness, an observer, independent from the activity. Buddhism rejects this idea - defines it as delusion.
The teaching of no self means that the activity of experiencing is selfless. In extraordinary experiences, such as seeing a magnificent vista, this may be apparent. But the teaching goes further. It tells us that the foundational activity of all experiencing is selfless. Whether tying our shoes, hugging our child, or driving our car - in all these experiences the underlying activity is selfless.
Within this selfless activity our personal self arises. After realizing the vista, in the next moment we arise, "Ah…beautiful." In the moment we say, "Ah…beautiful," suddenly there is self and world, space and time. This is the moment of recognition, consciousness; this is the human realm of subject and object.
In the instant of activity - seeing the vista - there is neither self nor world; there is only activity. In the next moment self and world arise together. Whatever the characteristics of this born self its appearance is transitory. In the next moment a bird calls, the wind stirs the trees, or a deer catches our eye; the self and world dissolve into activity, experiencing the new moment. Appearing, disappearing, appearing, disappearing - this is the fundamental pulse of personal self.
The realm of self and world is the realm of ordinary consciousness: subject, object, space and time. Most of our efforts to understand our situation work within this framework. But Buddhism insists on no self. In Buddhism the essential foundation is selfless activity. The instance of pure activity, pure experiencing, is prior to recognition. The subject and object polarity of conventional experience is secondary to the primacy of activity. In other words, the essential condition is relating. All living is relating. All experience of self and world arise from the foundation of relating.
Our lives are shaped by our sense of our self. Our perception of the world, how we cultivate relationships, what we think of our lives, all depend on how we see ourselves. If we believe in a substantive self, then self is our starting point for perceptions and interpretations of experience and relationship. If we believe in self, then we will attach to self. Standing within our self, we judge everything: good (to me), bad (to me), beautiful (to me), and ugly (to me). Direct experiencing gives way to the world of our interpreting.
Every moment we act from the standpoint of self perpetuates the belief in self. "I want this; I dislike that." The course of our lives is shaped by desire and attachment, fear and confusion. If we acquire what we currently desire, we are momentarily happy; if not, then we are disappointed. In the continuing struggle to maintain happiness or avoid disappointment there is no enduring peace of mind. We can exhaust ourselves upholding and defending our self-image, all the while bemoaning our sense of isolation. When our understanding is based on belief in a substantive self, then all relationship becomes problematical.
When we understand that self is selfless, then our ground, our starting point, is the activity of relating. We arise from the unity of relating, we dissolve into the unity of relating. We don't need to "figure things out." When we don't separate, we don't need to interpret. When we don't attach, we don't suffer. Peace of mind does not come from being clever or intelligent, merely awake. The simple path to clarity is to dissolve our self into relating.
Every moment self arises from and returns to selfless activity. The teaching of no self reminds us of our common origin and destination. When we practice the teaching of no self, we dissolve the barriers and distinctions that divide our lives. We reunite with the activity that is the source of our living. The apparent problems, conflicts, judgments, and interpretations that dominate our self's vision pale in the light of our origin and destination.
In the realm of fundamental activity there is no self; there is no world. Self and world arise from this foundation and return to this foundation. If we are clear in the arising and disappearing of self, then we can find our way home in any situation. When we willingly dissolve ourselves into relating, then the subsequent arising of self can be free from desire and attachment. Peace and completeness are not distant promises, but the natural condition from which we arise and to which we return.
The personal self that we identify with is an ephemeral appearance in the activity of life. Clinging to an "I am" self perpetuates the belief in a separate, objective world around us. It can create distance in our intimate relationships and diminish the vitality of experience. When we believe we are separate from our experience, alone in our relationships, then dropping our attachments is a long and difficult process. As we continue to learn that our foundation is relationship, that from the beginning self and separation are an illusion, we can step free in a heartbeat. Then the primacy of relationship is relating and the vividness of experience is experiencing. Many teachings emphasize that dissolving our illusion of an "I am" self is the essential practice of Buddhism. We will return to this insight again and again and again.
The critical work we must do is to develop insight into our nature. When we are empty sky, we are free from boundaries and restrictions. When we identify our self with subject, object or some idea, we bind ourselves. When we understand what a fist is, we are not afraid of losing it when we open our hands.