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In Search Of Non-Existent Self

January 9th, 2008 · 1 Comment · Filed under: Practice


In November 2007 the Austin Shambhala Meditation Center held a weekend class called “The Union of Shamatha and Vipashyana”, conducted by the senior acharya of our region, Acharya Moh Hardin . This was an event not to be missed.

The class relied on Jamgon Kongtrul for his definitive pronouncements, in the Treasury of Knowledge, on the nature of shamatha and vipashyana. Among the several areas covered by the class, one special study I was looking forward to was a meditation examination of the nature of self.

The Search Begins

I came to the weekend ready to explore this aspect of my experience, eager because of an earlier experience.

A few months earlier I had studied the four foundations of mindfulness. In a subsequent practice, setting the foundations, I found myself established in a very stable setting for a few moments. I decided this was the perfect time to establish finally for myself where my self actually was, so that I could know the way to it, after a lifetime of yearning.

In that moment of seeking I realized there was an issue with the very fact itself that I couldn’t locate the self: it seemed elusive by its nature somehow; I suddenly thought that I remembered some teaching saying that the self cannot be found, and in that moment I let go of the need for self.

I recalled Shantideva’s mentioning that all beings are driven by karma. Everything became sparkly, buoyant, vibrant in the shrine room as I looked out across the other meditators, and I saw that karma was driving all things perfectly, no need for self.

This moment passed, but left its mark on me. I didn’t quite know that day – it occurs to me now as I write – how special an event this was. I haven’t been able to reproduce it since, so far.

So I was ready, in the Union class, to learn more about the self, and what the truth of dharma says about this thing.

It happened then in the first day of the weekend that our teacher gave us the instruction for a new practice. First we readied ourselves in shamatha. When we were settled, he set us to the task of perceiving the dhatus. The first time, in the morning, I was a little unclear about perceiving the dhatus themselves – with each sense in turn, I could perceive the object, and I could perceive the sense organ, but I could do little more than make a placeholder for the consciousness of the sensation, the dhatu.

In the afternoon the practice was extended to include a further investigation, to whit: as you examine each dhatu in turn, inquire if the self is found in the dhatu, examine if the self is part of it.

It was here that the dawning of new knowledge came for me.

The Self Retreats

In the afternoon, then, the inquiry for the self began. In the morning I had been able to perceive the ayatanas, such as the eye, the ear, the nose, and so on. I could perceive the sense organ, and I could perceive its object, but I couldn’t quite perceive the dhatu, the consciousness of seeing, of hearing, of smelling, and so on.

In the afternoon we included the reference to the self, asking within this practice of perceiving, is the self part of this ayatana or dhatu? Now I found I could perceive the dhatus, the eye dhatu being the consciousness of seeing, and so on. This is where the surprises began.

I took into this inquiry the familiar sense of self. To my astonishment, as I started with the object of sight, and the eye, and the consciousness of the seeing activity, I found that I could clearly perceive the dhatu of seeing, and that it was completely separate from self. Self remained hovering somewhere in the background.

Self, I perceived, is not a part of the dhatu. The familiar self whose presence I have known all my life, is not a part of the dhatu of seeing, which operates independently of self. As I perceive the dhatu of seeing, I find that self is not even touching it. Self merely overshadows it.

I discovered this to be the case for each dhatu in turn, they were all operations happening without the need for my involvement, in the sense of being connected with the self in any way.

I perceived very clearly a claim of ownership being made by what I knew as the self.

I noted a sense of surprise, within the familiar action of self, to discover that the ownership didn’t exist. Something recoiled in confusion and surprise, away from the stainless object of perception, with the claim of ownership shown to be untrue.

I continued the inquiry to the mind dhatu. The mind was clear and knowing, as is its nature, as our teacher reminded us in the guided practice. As our teacher led us to the mind, I perceived it free also of the self. The self continued to exist, hovering always in the background, massively overshadowing each element of experience in turn, but not actually connected, not appearing in any place to be found. I began to suspect that the self was retreating, under the light of inquiry.

As the guided practice continued to its end, I explored my mind even as it functioned as the “switchboard”, filtering and balancing the appearance of the dhatus to my experience. I found that even in this role, the mind was still clear and knowing, and was not connected in any way to self, and operated perfectly, stainlessly, without the need for self.

So by now I was smelling a rat, and the rat was self itself, which seemed to be a gigantic action of ownership. I suspected that I would never find the self.

I don’t think anyone has ever taught me specifically that the self cannot be found, but I seem to have picked this concept up as dharma somewhere. Certainly in this class our teacher never made such a statement. He simply asked for our experiences, and we shared our variety, and he said nothing.

But in my experience then, this seems to be true. Self is a mass of assumptions. Self retreats from inquiry, self by its nature seems to elude discovery, seems to shift away from approach.

And yet the dhatus, including the mind itself, do not shift away from being perceived. The very mind itself, clear and knowing, presents no obstacle to being perceived, and can always be found readily as you turn to it in present time. Only the self hides from the moment.

First Conclusions

The self does not exist, in the sense that the other elements of consciousness exist – it merely obtrudes, and intrudes, into all the corners of our experience. In the investigation practice, I started to think of the self as almost sinister, furtive in its elusiveness, but it must be said that the act of ownership could also be an innocent thing. The self may only seem to be hiding, as if deliberately. In truth, the self may not have any choice but to act the way it does, and helplessly at that.

What is the self? What does it do? How does it come into being? As I bear witness here to my experience I offer very little opinion, simply the results of my investigations as they came to my perceptions, coupled with a night’s sleep and reflection.

As part of my subsequent reflection, I’m struck by the simple logic of the situation. We call it the self, we think ourselves as separate although the Buddha saw that we are not. We think of everything we experience as “mine”. How simple then to see that the self arises simply as the claim of ownership, and in the act and by the act of claiming ownership. No wonder it suffers. Good grief.

So this is the only time and place wherein the self exists: within the claim of ownership, during the act itself of assuming this proprietary nature that clings to our experience.

No wonder that it seems the self cannot be found, although I now see that I did in fact find the self yesterday. The dhatus and the mind itself can be approached and perceived, and found to be operating according to their nature – holding steady and always true to their nature. And so can the self, I now think. The self can be perceived in the discovery that what we assume to belong to us does not.

The dhatu operates whether I claim ownership of it or not. It doesn’t require to be possessed in order to operate. And through investigation the self is found, as the emptiness of the claim of ownership becomes apparent. The self is perceived operating according to its nature, and can be approached, and witnessed, and pitied, and released from toil

My self is not a faculty but an act, it is an active claim of ownership. This I perceive directly as my own experience during the practice of investigation, I perceive my self in operation, and this is what it does. My self assumes that everything happening belongs. Belongs to what? Conventional words would say, belongs to “me”, but this is outside my experience, I don’t know this is really true, and I suspect the case simply doesn’t extend this far. Nor does it need to.

The matter of the self lies in perceiving that it is unnecessary to the operation of existence in the reality that the Dharma portrays. Beyond this, the question becomes, what to do about it?

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 LazyBuddhist // Feb 12, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    Thank you for your well thought out posting. It’s such a deep subject, I’m not even sure how to respond. I have had glimpses of this emptiness of the self, and it is so liberating, so light. Yet, who is this that is experiencing this?

    I was recently prescribed by Anam Thubten Rimpoche, to include as part of my daily practice a recitation of the Heart Sutra. He said at first it may feel rote, forced, but if I persevere it will change.

    Again, thank you for your post.

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