Article: Five Uses of the Term Self in Buddhism

Based on a teaching from Rigdzin Shikpo

The question is whether ‘self’ has any meaning in Buddhism, since it speaks so much of ‘not-self’, which is a realization of the emptiness of the notion of self as we normally understand it.

Normally speaking, our sense of self has two main meanings. On the one hand, it is the personality, which is one’s picture of oneself, perhaps described in terms of astrology, which is a complex and dynamic constellation of elements that constitute the person and works as a whole. It has continuity and is relatively stable. This mandala of the personality has coherence, boundaries, an inside and outside and thrusts out of itself what is deemed to not belong to it and incorporates into itself what does.

On the other hand, there is a person’s sense of self that is a bit different from that. It is more like an entity that knows, thinks, feels, suffers, acts and so on. This is the object of strongly held beliefs and becomes the object of insight into not self. In other words, when focused on in the right way, it collapses under scrutiny.

So the training is to first establish right action (shila) as a basis for samadhi (concentration) and then this is the basis for prajna (insight). Shila, samadhi and prajna inter-relate in various ways, but for convenience are taught as a serial progression like this.

Rigdzin Shikpo always felt sure that he had such a sense of self and that it was empty, so was surprised to find quite a few Westerners who doubted it, claiming to have no sense of self in this way, even though their behaviour clearly showed they did. This became obvious when that self was threatened. There is always this ‘someone’ who does or doesn’t want certain things to happen to it and this is a coherent and definite entity. However, insight into impermanence shows that this entity is not a coherent entity in the way it was supposed. Recognising this through insight meditation can produce terror as that sense of self collapses. If this collapse were complete, terror like this would not be possible, so obviously there must be layers to this sense of a self-entity. It can collapse by degrees.

As the coarse layers of it collapse, deeper, more subtle layers are exposed and are held onto more strongly than the coarser layers. There could be an infinite number of layers to our sense of self, each of which would be a different kind of self. The coherent self that is the knower, the actor, the controller of a being is like the kernel of its associated personality, which supports and is supported by it. It is like a hard central core, which changes, depending on how deep into its nature one has gone.

Each level of insight causes a collapse into a deeper, subtler, and more strongly held sense of self. Each level of insight brings one closer to what that self is in itself. There are two versions of the personality and this central core, the confused version and unconfused version. So that makes four kinds of self.

The fifth kind of self is what happens to both senses of self as you follow the path to Awakening, the process of collapsing projections. It would be an extremely unlikely event for all the projections to collapse at once, in other words, for one to go directly from being unenlightened to enlightened in an instant. It is typically a slow process in all traditions of Buddhism. In stories of sudden Enlightenment, there have always been countless lives leading up to that right moment when all projections could collapse. So there is this fifth sense of self that seems to move from the un-Enlightened to the Enlightened state, perhaps over countless lives. It is a mixture of the confused and unconfused versions of the two senses of self that we have mentioned already (i.e. the core and its surrounding personality).

The confused version is like an entity supported by and supporting a confused personality and you need to see through the falseness of both the core and what surrounds it.

But that is not the whole story. In Mahamudra, Great Madhyamaka and Maha Ati (Dzogchen), the sense of self that is that core entity is looked on as having a reality to it. The false sense of self is projected from a fundamental essence of being that is ultimately real.

We grasp at the projection as our self and this is the false self that we have to see through by means of insight into impermanence and not self and so on.

What is the true self then? It is the fundamental nature of awareness and the place from which it arises and dissolves, the place where volitions arise and dissolve and the point about it is that it can never be seen. It can only be spoken of in riddling language, because it is beyond what can be the object of thought and so on. It is the nature of true awareness, which is like a light source that illuminates, but which is not itself illuminated. It is like the sword that doesn’t cut itself, the eye that doesn’t see itself. The eye simply rests in the eye, just as the hand rests in the hand; knowing can never know itself. So we can never realize Enlightenment. It is the nature of Awareness and not something that can be attained. It is our nature or being just as much as emptiness is. You look, but you don’t see it, even so, you cannot say it is non-existent. You can name it, but it’s not anything that you can focus or fixate on.

It is the Primordial Awareness, and at the same time it is the place of the arising of volitions. So in a sense it’s not really awareness in the ordinary sense. It is not something that can be cultivated. It is a mistake to think that you know what it is. It has no characteristics, but is closer to you than anything else. It is the source of all things good. Only good comes from it. Negative things are a twisted version of what is Primordially good. How could something primordial ever be negative or bad?

We know this nature as the basis of our being, our heart. We can rest in it somehow, without it mattering that we don’t know what it is. If we try to pin down what it is, we just get into an infinite regression; there is always something before it or beyond it.

It is not realised, because it is too good, too easy and too close. It is what we are. You don’t have to do anything in order to be it.

Trungpa Rinpoche once said to me, many years ago, when I first met him, ‘Why go to India? It’s here. It’s me. It’s you’.

So what is the problem? Why are we here making such a fuss?

The Maha Ati teachings go into this, explaining that we have a nasty habit of dissatisfaction that leads us to look outside ourselves for satisfaction – like looking at our own face in a mirror. The entity at the core of our being and the personality that surrounds it are projected ‘out there’. So there is the way we naturally are and a habit of projection. All we have to do is to stop the projections. There is no need to realise the truth. We are the truth. But we cannot recognise this if we are fixated on our projections.

Trungpa Rinpoche used to say that we didn’t need a heart transplant. But just to stop projecting.

That self beyond concepts, that primordial awareness or source of volitions is what the universe is. It is the Primordial basis of being. It is the only thing that is ‘self’ and it cannot be known. Perhaps one could say that it can be rested in or perhaps it is better to not say anything about it. Trungpa Rinpoche thought that simply to say nothing about it would be a kind of nihilism and that fortunately Maha Ati Masters had been more compassionate than that and had talked about it for us. For after all, it is us, so why not talk about it? There could be inspiration in that and centuries of practitioners have thought this to be the case.

This self is sometimes referred to as the mind, the essence or nature of mind or the Ground of Being ( a phrase Trungpa Rinpoche liked). Mysteriously arising from this Ground of Being is a dynamic of many different persons. In Maha Ati, the essence of being that lies beyond confusion is thought to project out and we each think we are the projection, rather than the source which projected it. So we lose contact with the Primordial Ground.

Longchenpa (a great Maha Ati master of the 14th century) used the image of the Indestructible Being, Vajrasattva, who wanders from his palace, which is his own being. He thinks everything around him is somehow separate and it becomes for him a hovel in a forest and he thinks that he himself is a humble woodcutter. All he has to do is to realise that all this is actually his palace beyond concepts.

Like Vajrasattva, we need someone to remind us of who we are and to cut through the projections that make us think we are not interesting. We need to look at the projections of the senses and our present idea of the external world, time and space. Meditation cuts through and collapses the projections and we revert to what we always were.

There is both the projection of the essence of being as our confused sense of self and the essence of being which is beyond being a Buddha or an ordinary confused being. Each of these projects a personality, either in an ordinary confused sense or as an Awakened personality. This projected personality includes not only the person, but the whole world in which it lives. Projecting in this way is natural. Awakening is just a matter of being able to see through the confusion.

Trungpa Rinpoche once said to Rigdzin Shikpo that we had to cut through the complications of existence. Rigdzin Shikpo thought ‘Oh yes, that means my wrong ways of thinking’. Then Rinpoche said, ‘Complications of existence like the sense of sight, smell, hearing etc., the whole world around you, the mind….’. Rigdzin Shikpo says his jaw dropped at that. He realised that Trungpa Rinpoche was talking about all that one thinks exists!

For us this would seem to be like going into a universal black hole. It seems we have a primordial fear of this, but primordial goes even further back than everything we think that exists.

So even though that primordial self and personality is us, the confused version of that which mistakes the projection for the real thing is also us and, furthermore, the one who is moving from the confused version back to its primordial source is also us. When we talk about ourselves on the path to Awakening, we might be referring to any one of these selves and we only know by context, which one we are referring to, at any particular time.

As I reflect on this account of the five selves given by Rigdzin Shikpo, my conclusion is that it is not a matter of having a complicated theory of five selves and trying to work out what they each are and how they relate to each other. We need to understand that words are a rather imprecise and clumsy tool when talking about such subtle things. However, when talking about self in Buddhism, various points are being made and if we do not distinguish between these five different ways of talking about self, we might end up applying any particular point to the wrong phenomena, giving reality to aspects of self which do not exist or denying reality to aspects of self that do.

Rigdzin Shikpo ended his talk with some practical advice about how to relax into the vastness of the Mahayana Vision, not worrying about trying to attain anything, but at the same time following the path with total commitment, with no sense of ever taking time off. If we practise mindfulness in an effortful way, we keep feeling a need to take time off, but time off is just getting lost. The only way to practise continuously is to be completely relaxed, without any hope of attainment.

The first instruction that Trungpa Rinpoche gave Rigdzin Shikpo was the instruction to ‘Not do anything’. Rigdzin Shikpo remembers that even though he heard this, he couldn’t believe he meant it literally. However, he gradually came to realise that he did! Practice requires the gentlest of touches. If you hold your sword too tightly, it’s wrong. If you hold it too loosely it flies out of your hand. The path is all about finding the right touch.

Lama Shenpen Hookham

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