How the universe began and what happens after death are difficult to ascertain. But what about the self? I am a person, you are a person, there are people all around us, so surely it must be easy to find the answer to the question, What am I?
You may say, “Who cares? I know I exist because I eat, I sleep, I make love, I can function perfectly well without knowing exactly what I am, just like a dog.”
You probably would not have added “just like a dog.” I put that in to emphasise that the attitude of blindly following our instincts is no different to that of animals, who pursue pleasure and avoid pain regardless of what they are as individuals. Further, do we really function perfectly well? We humans, not to mention dogs, are not so clever at finding and maintaining the pleasure we seek, or at avoiding the pain we fear. Animals do not have the intellectual capacity to understand what they are as individuals, but we do, and it is extremely important that we exercise our intellects and discover exactly what our self is. Only then can we break through the fog of confusion about what we are and see clearly what we have to do to attain the happiness we seek and freedom from the suffering we wish to avoid.
I stress the need to understand the real nature of self because Buddha pointed out that confusion and misconception about our self-identity is the very source of our problems and our difficulty in finding and maintaining happiness. If we do not remove these misconceptions by discovering how we exist in reality, we will go on forever pushing away happiness and attracting suffering in our lives.
Self-consciousness, or awareness of self, is innate in all beings, animals included; but what we think we are — our self-image — does not accord with reality. We do not know how we actually exist as people, so our minds fabricate a false self-image that appears to be real. We then live our lives as if this apparent self were our true self. For example, if we mistakenly think a person we employ has stolen our watch, they will appear to us as an actual thief. Our mistaken mind sees their innocent behaviour as the guile of a thief, we then become angry and this causes us to end that person’s employment. Just as our behaviour and emotions are inappropriate in this example, our behaviour and emotions in life are adversely affected by
mistaken belief in the false images that we project onto self and others. We compound our original mistakes by exaggerating good or bad qualities on these false self-images and thinking that these projections are self-existing as well.
When I wanted to major in science at high school, my father pressured me to do humanities as he had done. He said to me, “I was never any good at mathematics, so how can you do science?” Apart from my father’s reasoning being a bit iffy, as he had brought me up to rebel against authority (either inadvertently or deliberately, I’m not sure), I took science. Later, when I did find trouble with calculus, I thought that maybe I had inherited a psychological obstacle to understanding mathematics. My wrong conception, however, was that my “self” had an inherent weakness in mathematics. If this idea had turned into a belief, it would have
become a major obstacle to my following a scientific career. With this story as an illustration, we should all investigate the beliefs we hold about our own selves. We need to analyse our self-image to see if we have any fixed, false beliefs of inferiority or superiority and so on that are harming our ability to cope with and enjoy this ever-changing world.
The basic mistake in our self-image is that we think our self is something that stands alone, independent of everything else. We think there is a real, concrete, findable “me” existing in our body and mind. We can hardly be blamed for this misconception because, whenever we think “I,” this is exactly how our self appears to the mind. If there were such a self, however,
it should be findable under analysis, but nobody has ever discovered an independent self that can be held up and pointed to. Through cherishing this mistaken self-image, we become acutely sensitive to whatever may refer to us. We react with hostility towards things that cause us pain or harm our pride, and we have longing desire for things that give us pleasure or enhance our pride. Hostility and desire, and their cause — cherishing the mistaken selfimage — are the three fundamental disturbances in our lives.
If the self that we think we are is a figment of our imagination, what is the self that does exist? The self that eats, sleeps, and makes love is a mere convention established by the thought “I” directed towards our body and mind. This conventional self has no existence from its
own side; neither the combination of our body and mind nor the label “I” is the self. The self exists, yet it is a mere convention because it cannot be located anywhere. In other words, it does not ultimately exist. “Ultimate existence” means being findable when looked for by ultimate analysis. The same can be said for everything else in the entire universe. The Earth
is a mere convention, your lover is a mere convention, Buddha is a mere convention. Nothing exists in its own right. Everything merely exists in dependence upon a name applied to a suitable base for that name.
Even though you and I are mere conventions, we still exist. We can be happy or sad and we can function as individuals because we have different bodies and minds. Giving a name to our combination of body and mind is sufficient to establish our existence as individuals and to distinguish us from our brothers and sisters. Our self is merely designated upon our body and mind; there is nothing else that is ‘truly me.” Wherever our body and mind are, we are; whatever our body and mind do, we do. The problem is that, in our ignorance, we think we are something more substantial than a mere imputation. Terrified by the prospect of our self not existing in its own nature, we cling to the phantom of a substantial, independent self
with pride; we feed it with desire and greed; we protect it with hostility, jealousy, and spitefulness; we sink into the mire of paranoia or float on a bubble of megalomania, always obsessed with ME, ME, ME!
The solution to these personally-created miseries, and the pain we inflict upon others through them, is to realise that our self is empty of the projections we imagine it to be. Only then can our minds be free of hostility and desire, and be at peace. Just as a mother soothes her crying child who has awoken from a bad dream, the wisdom understanding our ultimate
nature, the emptiness of existing as an independent self, soothes our disturbing emotions of anger, attachment, pride, and so on, and enables unhindered practice of the source of all happiness: loving-kindness.