Around 150 CE, the second Buddha: Nagarjuna, decided to undergo an empirical investigation on what it is for something to exist in the world.
And his most disturbing discovery?
There is no self.
The body you see in the mirror, the thoughts and feelings you have; are no more “ you” than the trees outside or the gentle flow of the ocean.
And worst of all: attaching yourself to these things is causing you suffering.
Because perceiving yourself as some distinct and enduring thing leads to desires. “You” start to feel entitled to things. And when those desires are left unattained, you are left feeling dissatisfied.
Worse still, you become hung up on the fact that your enduring self will one day end. “You” will one day die. And this spirals into existential suffering.
Such clinging is an illusion. “You” don’t exist.
At least not according to Adhidama and Madhyamaka Buddhism. These distinct schools, share this important key teaching.
Let’s explore how both came to such a conclusion.
“Some people say that Buddhist practice is to dissolve the self. They do not understand that there is no self to be dissolved. There is only the notion of self to be transcended.” — Thich Nhat Hanh.
What is the self?
Before we begin, it’s worth exploring what this “self” is.
Buddhists understand the idea of the “self” in it’s most intuitive sense.
For someone like “you” or “I” to exist in the way we think we do, we actually have to persist and endure.
For example, for the same “self” to exist from 6.30PM, to 6.31PM requires us to continue to exist through that time. Remaining unchanged in that frame (or at least, if changed: experiencing some physical continuity explaining such change — you feel full at 6.31PM, but hungry at 6.30PM because you chose to eat).
If such an enduring self existed, then we often assume that we contain some “essence” that makes us truly who we are.
Now let’s see why such a self doesn’t actually exist.
Interpreting the Buddha’s speech is always a difficult task. But after exploring his works, Adhidama Buddhists thought they had it all figured out.
During his lifetime, the Buddha neglected metaphysical questions of the self and universe — labelling them as uninteresting and meaningless. They seem to contribute suffering and do more bad than they do good.
In interpreting Buddha’s work, Abhidhamma scholars ignored such teaching — instead, looking outwardly into the world.
And what did they find?
On their account: everything is made up of one of five psychophysical aggregates (or “Skandha’s”).These make up both Nama (mental components) and Rupa (bodily components) of every person that exists.
That means that every part of you: from the thoughts you have to the body you see in the mirror: are made up of these constituents.
But Abhidhamma scholars made a shocking discovery.
Every single one of the five Skandha’s is impermanent and doesn’t persist from one moment to the next.
Such a claim is grounded firmly in empirical investigation of the universe, I won’t go bore you with the details; but it was such investigation that led Heraclitus to claim —
“You cannot step into the same river twice.”
Such a discovery led Abidhama scholars to conclude there is no self. Because if it were to exist, it would have to exist from one moment to the next. But nothing that makes up a person endures from one to the next, instead, it undergoes continuous change and impermanence.
Why do I think I have a self?
You may be thinking, if this is so — then why do I believe that I exist from one moment to the next? I am the same Jon who was sat in this chair 5 minutes ago, what are you talking about?
The 150 BCE Buddhist Sage: Nagasena had an answer.
Skandha’s that arise and fall are temporally connected — that is, at one moment a Skandha of pain was experienced, and the moment immediately after, the pain subsided and a Skandha of happiness was experienced.
What we take to be some enduring self, is just a result of us artificially joining numerous of these temporary Skandhas in our head. We perceive our body, thoughts and feelings as all connected. But in reality, each component is impermanent and has already gone out of existence, and a new one has entered.
Nagasena compared our understanding of the self to a chariot. A chariot doesn’t actually exist beyond us perceiving separate distinct items — such as the wheels, body, rope, as one connected whole. In a similar vein, all the self is, is a result of us misperceiving temporary parts as something conjoined and connected.
Abhidhamma Buddhist’s believe they have figured out the answer to all suffering. There is no self — to realise this and fully commit to it is the solution to all suffering.
“All that we are is the result of what we have thought.”
Madhyamaka Buddhists were left unimpressed by this discovery. For one reason — everything made up of Skandha’s looks to lack self. But Skandha’s themselves could persist, and contain some “essence.”
This was something that Nagarjuna — the second Buddha, found troubling.
Upon looking outward into the universe, he came to realise that not only did people lack some enduring and persisting self.
But everything (including Skandha’s) lacks an enduring and persisting self.
In the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (teachings of the Middle way) he proposed that everything is “empty” (without self, or “Svabhava”) because everything is caught in co-dependent arising.
Everything arises and is dependent on something else for it’s existence. But if you took this “something else” away, the object would cease to exist.
Madhyamaka Buddhist’s believe that everything is dependent on something — giving other objects existence, and receiving existence from something else — but the thing itself is empty.
This is analogous to the Net of Indra — a net that exists but is made up of hundreds of interconnected beads. These beads are clear and empty of self: but they give the net existence. But the net lacks any self if you were to take away the non-net entities (ie. the beads) it would cease to exist.
This, then is why Madhyamaka Buddhist’s reject the existence of a self. Because the person you are is dependent on hundreds of other, non-person entities for its existence. Such as memories, or my body. And if you took those away, I would no longer exist.
It seems that you or I lack any form of essence that endures from one moment to the next.
Lessons learnt from no-self doctrines.
Regardless of which interpretation you take to be correct — no-self doctrines form the basis for many significant Buddhist well-being and mindfulness practices.
The attainment of enlightenment, for example — requires the realisation of the true nature of reality: that there is no-self beyond surface-level appearances.
Such a realisation leads to the cessation of desires, suffering and worry. Because you realise there is ultimately nothing to be desired, and nobody to desire it. And existential fear of death soon passes — because you realise that there is no “self” that ever existed which has the potential to die.
Instead, all that exists is the passing of a continuous flow of impermanent Skandha’s.
“You only lose what you cling to.” — Gautama Buddha.
A change of perspective.
Few people actually make the discovery you have made today. To fully commit to no-self puts you into a powerful position.
Realising you don’t exist beyond the present moment in which you are experiencing it — enables you to cultivate a genuine appreciation for the now.
Stop worrying about desires that are left unfulfilled, or that deadline that is coming up. Instead, appreciate the Skandhas of thoughts, feelings and emotions that you are experiencing right now, and in the present moment.
Because the truth is, you won’t exist beyond this moment, right now. And if you acknowledge this, you will soon find that dissatisfaction and worry soon fade away. Why worry about something that won’t even be experienced by “you?” Instead, it will be experienced by some other impermanent and impersonal Skandha’s.
And don’t worry, the realisation of no-self won’t send you into an existential spiral — just take note that there’s nobody to die, because “you” weren’t existing in the first place.
“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”