In this series of columns, I am exploring Buddhist perspectives on "self" and "not-self." The previous column examined the nature of the "self" as a conceptual entity, the erroneous assumption of continuity and substantiality that we superimpose on our discontinuous experience out of a desire for comfort and security. This leads to the question, "If the 'self' is ultimately a fictitious superimposition, how and why does it come to be at all?"
If we remain strictly within the logic and viewpoint of the "self," we will be unable to see or understand it properly. Thus, at the very outset, Buddhism points us to that which is beyond or outside of the self, providing a vantage point from which to view its source. In Mahayana Buddhism, this source is known as buddhanature, and in the Vajrayana, as Mahamudra, "great symbol," or rikpa, "innate awareness."
According to the Mahamudra tradition, the self originates from empty, open awareness, the basic space of non-existence that underlies and runs throughout our ordinary experience. Prior to the birth of the "self," there is space and nothing but space. This is not a cosmological description, but rather a statement of our most fundamental, moment-to-moment life as human beings. Each instant of our conscious existence is initiated with the abrupt experience of open space, free of subject and object, and without any referent whatsoever. This space, in which there is openness and awareness but no "self" of any sort, is our most elemental being, what we most fundamentally are and have always been.
This space of "non-self," though, is not completely vacant. Within it there is a constant play that occurs: the flashing forth and disappearing of bolts of energy, sparks of duality, all kinds of sharpness and intensity, insights, images and momentary thoughts. Our open awareness continually "perceives" these suddenly arising and abruptly disappearing manifestations of energy, life and dynamism, but this perception is quite out of the ordinary, for it is without any boundaries, self-consciousness, familiarity or recognition of any kind.
How does the apparently continuous "self" arise within such a context? If, using the tool of meditation, we look very closely into our moment-to-moment experience, the origin of "self" becomes evident. As described in the abhidharma, all the phenomena of our conscious life are impermanent and unstable. Each thought, each label we attach to things, each feeling or perception, bursts into consciousness out of the primordial space of unconditioned awareness, and then abruptly disappears, only to be followed by another. The idea of the self, like all our other ideas, concepts, feelings and perceptions, is subject to this law of appearance and disappearance. This is what Buddhism means by "egolessness": our "self," while making a certain kind of appearance, has no substantial existence and no inherent continuity. It is nothing more than a thought, no different from any other, that is abruptly born and abruptly disappears.
But if this is true, then how do we have the experience of a continuous, solid "self"? Actually, we only think we have this experience. The "self" is a basically mistaken idea, but we repeatedly call this idea up and cling to it stubbornly because the experience of open space, of non-existence, is intolerable for us. When we lose our ground at the end of each moment of experience, when we fall back into the primordial, boundless awareness of our own nature, when we lose "ourselves" in this way, we panic. We cannot bear to lose track of ourselves in this way.
Therefore we seek familiar ground. We step back from the experience of space and freeze it into a concept of "other." This "other," which is "over there," then confirms our sense of a substantial self "over here." In fact, we step back from each and every experience of space and energy as too threatening, and affix to it some familiar conceptual reference point. Thus we seek to tame the wild, boundless emptiness and energy of our primordial nature by applying labels to it, applying some kind of logic to it, and setting it within the storyline of our "self."
Our "self," then, is not a continuous entity but rather a vagrant and inconsistent visitor to our field of awareness. It is, in essence, an impermanent idea that we must continually reinvent and reaffirm in order to be able to maintain the fiction of a substantial "I." And thus it gives the impression of being a safe haven to which we may retreat from the unpredictability and limitlessness of experience.
The birth of the self occurs amidst much fear and pain. When, through meditation, we look closely and deeply into this process, we uncover a basic terror that is at the basis of our "self." We glimpse it and then return quickly to the security of our familiar thinking-our "self" in Buddhist terms.
This is not necessarily an esoteric or inaccessible experience. We can touch it through the simple practice of paying attention to the breath. Sit and rest your attention on your breath. As you breathe in and breathe out, simply let your attention rest on your breath at the tip of your nostrils: cool on the in-breath, slightly warm on the out-breath.
When we attempt to do this, we find we cannot do it for any amount of time. Even as we train and are better able to stay in the general vicinity of the breath, we notice that we are not really with it: we are thinking in some subtle way, thinking that we are meditating or even that we are not thinking. We may momentarily glimpse an instant when we are with the breath, but we cannot stay with it.
Why not? What is going on?
The breath itself is not a conceptual item. The familiarity that we attribute to it does not inhere in it. To experience the breath is to experience the very space and energy we are talking about. To really experience the breath as it is, in itself, is a frightening experience and one that we cannot abide. To see this is extremely useful, for it reveals the way in which the "self" is a response to naked fear.
Not only is there terror at the point of origin of the "self," there is tremendous pain at its actual formation. When we reduce our awareness from the totality to this little concept of "me," we are subliminally aware of how much we have lost. We retreat from the boundlessness and intensity of the visual field before us and narrow it down to something with which we are thoroughly familiar-tree, bowl, bedside lamp. Knowing what it is, we no longer need to pay attention to it, to open to its display, to see how it is presenting itself within our awareness, at this precise instant, as true reality.
In this retreat, we are losing the freshness, immediacy and sacredness of the world. For the meditator, this contraction of awareness-this loss of the preconceptual world-can be experienced as excruciatingly painful, leaving one overwhelmed by regret and remorse at what has been lost. Perhaps it is such an awareness, existing on a subliminal level, that lies behind the stories of a golden age and a "fall" found in the myths of origin of so many of the world's cultures.
The process of the genesis of the idea of "self" described here applies to all kinds of "self," including those that are unwholesome and those that are wholesome. However, as we shall see later, the quality and dynamics are slightly different depending on whether it is an unwholesome, unvirtuous self that we are giving rise to, or a wholesome, virtuous self. In future columns, I plan to examine these two different sorts of self, how the unvirtuous is transformed into the virtuous self, and how even the latter is eventually dismantled on the path to liberation.
Reginald A. Ray, Ph.D., is professor of Buddhist studies at Naropa University and teacher-in-residence at Shambhala Mountain Center. His most recent book is Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet.