What is This Thing?

Thursday September 21, 2006


In my previous post I attempted to suggest that there is a difference between looking the part when it comes to practising the dharma, and actually practising. Along the way, I found myself somewhat rashly quoting Sartre’s description of his waiter who is speeds round the tables of his Parisian café, but who somehow has something phoney about him, as if he is playing at being a waiter. My quoting Sartre was rash, I think, because although he points to something interesting about what we are as human beings, he does so in a way that is slightly misleading, at least in the Buddhist context.

For Sartre, the waiter is acting in bad faith. In defining himself by playing the part of a waiter, he is refusing his own freedom. He is acting inauthentically. I don’t want to get into the complexities of Sartre’s existentialist thinking here – partly because it is so complex, and partly because it’s beyond my competence – except to say that however interesting this example is, on further reflection I am not sure I agree with how Sartre uses it.

Generally speaking, for existentialists such as Sartre, the self is a kind of assertion in the face of the meaninglessness of the world. If we want to live meaningfully, we must simply be ourselves. Forget all of this posing and posturing, we need to return to our own resources and be authentic. But it is not as simple as all this. I don’t know if you have ever been in a nerve-wracking situations, and had a kind-hearted person say “Don’t worry! Just be yourself!” If you have, you may well have experienced a kind of panic in response to such well intentioned advice. After all, what is this self that I am supposed to be being?

This is the problem raised by Elee in one of the responses to my previous post: if there isn’t some kind of inner core that we identify as our authentic selves and that we can separate out from all of the other stuff, then the idea of being ourselves itself seems a bit phony.

And I have to agree. Try as I might, I have never tracked down my own authentic self. Indeed, the more I look, the more I see that I am a great bundle of habits and dispositions and thoughts and ideas that I have picked up from who knows where, and that have formed the thing that I think I am. For example, there are certain phrases I use that I can trace to friends of mine from a long time ago. There are ideas that I can have because somebody else has passed them on to me. Sometimes when I act in particular ways, I recognise that this is a way of acting that I owe to this or that person. It does not seem as if there is a “me” in here that somehow has taken on these phrases, thoughts and actions, and that – stripping these things away – I can get back to a more authentic me; instead, it seems to be the case that these things, taken together, are “me”, they are the constituent parts in the shifting thing that I refer to as myself.

The Buddha put this very clearly and beautifully. From the point of view of experience, he analyses the person into five such “heaps” or skandhas. There are lots of different ways of thinking about the skandhas, and lots of scholarly arguments about exactly what each of them refer to, but the following scheme, adapted from Francisco Varela’s book is one I find useful. The reflection the Buddha recommended is a useful antidote to the idea that there might be such a thing as an authentic self that can somehow be unearthed from all the dross. It proceeds by considering each of these “heaps” in turn, and asking if this is actually “me”, or my authentic self.

The first “heap” is form, which is to say that we have bodies that are immersed in the world, and related to the world through the medium of the senses. These relationships with the world are themselves ever shifting and groundless. There is nothing in form, from this point of view, that we can call ourselves.

The second “heap” is sensation. I am a bunch of shifting sensations: the numbness in my buttocks as I sit here, the itch on my forehead, the touch of my clothes against my skin, the sound of the wind in the poplar tree outside. These things, too, are both multiple and utterly contingent, they come and they go. I certainly don’t think of my sensations as me. If anything I think of them as something that I have.

The third heap is that of perceptions and impulses. Varela and co. refer to this as “the first moment of recognition, identification, or discernment in the arising of something distinct, coupled with the activation of a basic impulse for action towards the discerned object”, a long-winded, but useful gloss. This level is that of the basic responsiveness I have to my sensations – my hand reaches up to scratch the itch, I shift my weight to ease the numbness in my buttocks. Again, I don’t imagine that I am my impulses, I imagine that I have them. But impulses just come and go (apparently, I was told the other day, three minutes is enough for most impulses to subside – and this seems borne out in experience); and try as I might, I haven’t yet found the person who is doing the having.

Fourthly, then, there are my habits and dispositional formations. I’m made up of a whole load of habits, impulses that somehow become fixed by repetition. Some of these habits are probably good (my habit of being friendly to the cat), some of them less good (my habit of cleaning my plate after eating with my finger – really pretty reprehensible). Habit-formation often happens without our noticing. We pick up habits by being around folks and spending time with them. We further deepen our habits by our actions. Depending on what we do and who we hang around with, we continually remake ourselves. Still, however, I don’t really think of myself as just a load of habits. I think of myself as somehow apart from my habits, as somehow distinct, as – once again – the person who has my habits.

Finally, there is the level of consciousness. In the Buddhist analysis, consciousness is not a thing, a place where it all happens. Instead it is an event. We don’t have consciousness, but if we look at our own experience, we see that there are momentary consciousnesses of things. Now there is the consciousness of a rose. Now there is the consciousness of the cat needing feeding. Now there is the consciousness of a fly buzzing somewhere in the distance. And so on. But this bundle of consciousnesses does not seem to be me either. Individual moments of consciousness come and go. First there is the consciousness of this, then of that. It does not seem that I can find my authentic self in this collection of momentary consciousnesses.

So who the hell am I? In an everyday sense, I am simply the combination of these aggregates. Nothing has changed. I am still who I call myself. In an everyday sense, I am a self. But as for the idea of an authentic self, or a metaphysical self, well… that is something different.

There’s a wonderful story from the Zen tradition about the Sixth Patriarch, Hui-Neng. His future pupil Huai-jang, who was to be the Seventh Patriarch, travelled across China to receive teachings from Hui-neng. When he arrived, Hui-Neng greeted him. “Where have you come from?” he asked. Huai-jang replied that he had come from the mountain of Sung Shan. Hui-neng looked at him. “But what is this thing,” he asked, “and how did it get here?” Huai-jang was dumbfounded. He could find nothing to say. It took him eight years to get to the bottom of this question.

This question is an interesting one because it undercuts all of our stories and assumptions about who we are. It undoes all of our ideas about our authentic selves. It picks away at this sense of ourselves as separate and distinct and having the terrible burden of being authentic and original and so on and so forth. It gets beyond the everyday to see not that there is some kind of deeper, more authentic self, hidden in me, but that I am in a sense groundless, I am nothing other than these five aggregates, this bundle of processes within the processes of the world.

The distinction to be made, then, is not between Sartre’s waiter and a kind of return to an authentic self; it is between the stories we tell about being selves, and a kind of naturalness in which we no longer cling to these stories. Such naturalness is hard-won. Huai-jang, after eight years of asking himself again and again, “What is this thing and how did it get here?”, came back to Hui-neng. He had his answer to the question.

To say that it is this or that, he concluded, is not the point.

# · John Lockwood

Thanks, very nicely done. At the risk of being a naive idealist, this fits in with some things I’ve been thinking about lately about how our minds shape our reality. I’ve done less thinking about existentialism and Buddhism than about cognitive psychology and Buddhism. David Burns on depression, for example, has lots of material on how our thinking impacts our moods. One might see this as an application of mindfulness to feelings and how feelings are conditioned.

You’ve inspired me to start learning about the skandhas. It seems that every time I turn around in Buddhism there’s a five somethings or a twelve somethings to learn. :)


# · Sam

In saying “just be yourself” in my responce to “What do Buddhists Look Like?”, what I was trying to get at was: be comfortable with acting spontaneously and instinctively in the moment. Act naturally, without pretence.

# · Will

Agreed, Sam!
And you are right, John, that Buddhists have an inordinate fondness for lists. The six paramitas, the four noble truths, the three hundred and seventy nine dingle-dangles of profound awareness…

W :-)

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