Kiss your Self goodbye

It’s the buddhist way to look at ourselves and the universe: conditioned arising. Buddhist scholar Walpola Rahula calls it the buddhist theory of relativity. There’s no maths involved in what comes next:

When this is, that is.

This arising, that arises.

When this is not, that is not.

This ceases, that ceases.

Because of conditioned arising, nothing is absolute or independent. Not even consciousness itself. Conditioned arising is a circle, not a chain of events. In this theory, there’s no room for free will. There simply can’t be. Will cannot be on its own, free from it all. Will is just a thought, and as such it’s conditioned, like every other thought. Nothing can arise without conditions, away from cause and effect.

By YashiWong (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (]

By YashiWong (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (

Free will is just another idea, like all the other big words: god, the soul, justice, reward and freedom. Personally, I think the philosophers who posit free will have ulterior motives. They may be doing it to save their concept of self. Because when you’ve accepted conditioned arising and the fact that there’s nothing outside of it, buddhism goes just a little bit further. It asks:

“Who are you?”

There is no immortal substance in man or outside. No I, no self, no ego, no soul. All these are mental projections. Conditioned, and fleeting, like everything else. (This is why I’m always surprised when people think buddhism can be reconciled with some romantic thorougly westernised views on reincarnation.)

In the words of zen master Dainin Katagiri:

“Everything is constantly changing. No moment ever appears again in exactly the same way. None of the 6,400,099,180 moments of a day can be repeated, and nobody knows what will happen next.”

"Moments before sunrise" By Jessie Eastland aka Robert DeMeo (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (]

“Moments before sunrise” By Jessie Eastland aka Robert DeMeo (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (

In his view, at the bottom of human suffering is time. We have big brains, our awareness cannot keep up with the quick changes of conditioned arising, so we feel a gap between ourselves and time. Because of that, we see ourselves as completely separate from everything else in the universe. This delusion then makes us feel dissatisfied.

Buddha on Self

The buddha was often asked (if you believe these legends, but it doesn’t matter at all if you don’t) to comment on the Self. People seemed to have an inkling that buddhism would destroy their sense of self. And that worried them. Like when a monk respectfully asked Gautama:

“Sir, is there a case where one is tormented when something permanent within oneself is not found?”

Meaning: “Is it OK to be scared about all this?” And, according to legend, Gautama answered:

“A man hears the Tathagata (=buddha) preaching the doctrine aiming at the complete destruction of all speculative views…aiming at the extinction of “thirst” (we might say: desire), aiming at detachment, cessation, Nirvana. And then that man thinks: “I will be annihilated, I will be destroyed, I will be no more.” So there is a case when one is tormented when something permanent within oneself is not found.”

Meaning: “You can be as scared as you like, but that’s not going to change anything.”

Marco Bonavoglia Buddhas of Bamiyan. Creative Commons Attribution - Share Alike 3.0

Marco Bonavoglia Buddhas of Bamiyan. Creative Commons Attribution – Share Alike 3.0

According to the buddha, there was no self to be found. This was a radical departure from the brahman idea of atman, the soul. The buddha posits five aggregates (skandha’s in Sanskrit):




mental formations


Our notion of self comes from the combination of these five aggregates, apart from them, there is no self to be found. I once asked Stephen Batchelor and an expert on life in northern India in 2500 years ago, if anyone else mentioned these skandha’s before the buddha, but it appears they did not. As for the place of consciousness as one of the skandha’s I don’t think the buddha posits an individual consciousness at all, but that is my personal opinion.

Buddha’s instructions

When the buddha had said all this, his followers expressed a fear that he would die. They wanted him to leave instructions on how to carry on. The buddha felt for them, but based on his own teachings, he could not give them any. That is why he said: “Be your own refuge: be a light onto yourself”. I think this is expressed beautifully in the Diamond Sutra:

So you should view this fleeting world

A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream

A flash of lightning in a summer cloud

A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream

It’s possible that you have been reading this and are about to ask: “Where do the Four Noble Truths come in?” I must confess I’ve left them out on purpose. I heard Stephen Batchelor speak, almost two years ago, and I was tempted by his view that they might neither be Noble, nor True. If you would like to know more, please read his article: “A secular buddhism”. As he states, secular buddhism 2.0 is a way of life, not a metaphysical belief system. I tend to agree with him on that one.

This post was inspired by a post on bloggingisaresponsibility called “The Neglected Philosophies: Pyrrhonism.” I’m still working on that. It’s brilliant.

David Yerle’s poetic post “The war between mind and matter” also made me think. To be honest, I would love to say that I was influenced by what he’s going to tell us next…but I feel compelled to concede we cannot know the future.

If you were to tell me what you make of all this, dear reader, it would be much appreciated.


About Pipteinpteron

Catch a falling feather. Don't keep it.
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30 Responses to Kiss your Self goodbye

  1. David Yerle says:

    I’ve read the article you link to. It seems like a great idea and it summarizes many of my concerns with Buddhism. I never got reincarnation or the four noble truths, for example. To me, the really useful part is meditation: observe impartially, let go.
    Your article is extremely interesting from this perspective. I think there are many scientifically-minded people who are sympathetic to the idea of Buddhism but who do not necessarily see eye-to-eye with all of its tenets.
    I also really liked your “translation” of Buddhist dialogues (“you can be as scared as you like, but that’s not going to change anything.”) Maybe you should make a full post of those. It was both funny and enlightening.

  2. Thank you for your comment. My interest in buddhism stems from practising zen meditation. Like you, I consider that to be the most useful part. I do not call myself a buddhist, 2.0 or otherwise, but I do think buddhist philosophy can be reconciled with having a scientific mind.
    Writing this, I realised I still have many questions concerning time, consciousness and self. About the way the three might interact to form our experience. Does that make any sense to you?

    • David Yerle says:

      That makes perfect sense. How much of our consciousness is linked to having a self-concept? What role does time play? For example, I argue somewhere that we just need one instant of time to be aware, but what if I was wrong? What if we need two, because all we perceive are changes? What if what we are nothing but changes? Lots of questions, very few answers…

  3. Great post and thanks for the kind words and link back. I also only take a subset of Buddhism (the philosophy) and avoid the karma, reincarnation, and assorted religious and ritual trappings. In fact, even when I was “practicing” Buddhism, I studiously avoided calling myself a Buddhist because there was much I did not believe.

    I like that you too do not see room for free will in this view. I thought it was just me,

    As for the Four Noble Truths, there is a book presenting an alternate (and secularized) view of Buddhism called “Philosophy if the Buddha” by Archie Bahm, that I may blog about. In it, he not only presents a different view of Buddhism, but also argues that The Four Noble Truths and Eight Fold Path were never taught by him. He does argue that they are compatible with his formulation however.

    I also wonder if any of these aspects of Buddhism: conditioned arising, middle way, four noble truths, eightfold path, and even skhandas can be considered independent philosophies in their own right.

    Off to read the Batchelor article.

    • Thank you for your comment. I think you ask a very interesting question about the independent philosophies…As for the skandha’s I’ve also found them puzzling. I could not think of a reason to name these five, and not make any other possible list. I’ve never read anyone who can explain that, either.

      And I will look into the book you mentioned. May I ask what you think of Batchelor’s views?

      • Yes, some of Buddhism’s lists seem really odd. 12 fold chain of dependent origination? Why those items? Why those items in Skandas?

        Batchelor makes some good points in his paper, but I think he makes some serious mistakes. His claim that looking within is narcissistic is (IMO) the kind of mistake that only someone who doesn’t know about Buddhism would make. But maybe it’s just me; after all, there’s this whole field called “Engaged Buddhism”, so he’s not the only one… I think my biggest problem with what Batchelor describes is that there’s no point in doing it. Why would I want to get rid of craving if I’ll still experience suffering? I’m in it to reduce suffering, not craving!

        • Very interesting point. I am not sure, but I suspect this has to do with the ideas about karma. There is a possibility that Batchelor is pointing to this supposed division between actions that cause karma and actions that (magically?) do not. The actions that avoid causing karma would put an end to suffering, in this view. I can’t perceive of such an action. Supposedly, only enlightened beings could act in this way. But Batchelor hails from the Tibetan buddhist school. I don’t know much about them, but the one thing that strikes me are their magical (=metaphysical) beliefs.

          The article left me somewhat uncomfortable, and I’ve felt the same about all of Batchelor’s books. I just can’t put my finger on what it is, exactly.

          You mentioned this book by Archie Bahm. If you were to post on that, I would be really interested to see his take on all this.

          • Well, Batchelor seemed to be speaking directly about the tendency to look within for the source of suffering, so I don’t think he invoked Karma. It just seemed that he thought looking within meant spending the rest of one’s life in a cave and not helping others. Personally speaking, I can say that this is completely untrue. I only started volunteer work AFTER I did Buddhist practice; part of it was that the so-called “narcissistic” look within made me more selfless, part of it is that I regard part of my practice to be helping others.

            Good point on his coming from the Tibetan tradition; they seem more heavy into the ritual, supernaturalism, etc… and their practice is much more involved.

            I’m with you in that all of Batchelor’s writings have left me uncomfortable. My problem is that they lack a pay-off. I mean even if he were correct, what he presents is something that holds no interest for me. Buddhism is about engaging questions? Ok, to what end? As selfish as it sounds, at the end of the day, I want to know what’s in it for me. I don’t care about “engaging” with questions, I care about being happier. What he proposes does not do this. I get this sense that he’s got some personal, existential axe to grind and he’s trying to use Buddhism to do it. Maybe it’s meaningful for him to reduce craving (but keep suffering), to get things done while feeling pain and to engage in existential questions to no end, but for me, it’s utterly pointless.

            I will try to get the Bahm article out this week. It will likely have a title with “Middle Way” in it.

            • I’ll be looking out for that!

              When you say: “I get this sense that he’s got some personal, existential axe to grind and he’s trying to use Buddhism to do it.” it makes me think about one comment on Batchelor’s translation of Nagarjuna. This person said: “It’s not Nagarjuna. It’s Batchelor on Nagarjuna, which is not the same thing at all.” I seem to remember Batchelor conceded the point.

              On buddhism and helping others; that is another interesting aspect. In zen, people sometimes say that you cannot be of any help if you’re not enlightened. So you would have to work on that first. When working in healthcare, I certainly noticed that people may have selfish motivations to help. But I still don’t agree with that view. I can empathise with your way of looking at it. If that’s narcissism, let’s have more of it. 😉

              • Batchelor at least acknowledges that what he’s providing may not be Buddhism per se, or at least not traceable in any way to what the Buddha may have really meant, so I’ll give him that.

                To anyone who says one cannot help unless enlightened, I would ask how enlightenment helps people carry boxes at a food bank or answer phones at their local non-profit, or even distribute flyers about government services to the homeless…

                Besides, if by enlightenment they mean full blown Nirvana, well the odds of anyone achieving that are so low that this would effectively mean no one would help!

                • I agree with that observation 100%.

                  Still, I come across many people who think of Big Things when they think of helping. It’s important to see where I might be of help right now.

                  Someone went to Thich Nhat Hanh and commented on all the Vietnamese refugees, on the girl that was raped by pirates and jumped overboard. (Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a poem about that, on being the girl and the pirate. But that’s another story.) So this person mentioned feeling helpless in the face of human suffering. And Thich Nhat Hanh said: “Why don’t you check out your local food bank and see where you could help?” I thought that was a great way to look at it.

                  • Good point. Thinking Big is a barrier to action (IMO). Not only does it prevent people from acting by convincing them they won’t do any good, but it also puts down the individual who would have been helped. Yes, we won’t solve the problem of hunger, but the person who will be helped by what we do is a living, conscious being who is deserving of help. Thinking Big dehumanizes that individual. People who want to Think Big should be asked how they would feel if they were starving, but someone refused to help because “They can’t help everyone”.

                    I heard a story in a Buddhist Temple:

                    One day, thousands of fish washed up on shore, and were flopping around, dying. A little girl was rushing from fish to fish, throwing each back into the water.

                    A stranger saw her and ran up to her and asked “What are you doing? You can’t possibly help all those fish in time. What difference are you making?”.

                    The girl picked up another fish, threw it in the water, and as it swam away said “I made a difference to THAT one”.

                    • That’s a brilliant story. Thank you.

                      On a completely unrelated note: I’m still working on the Pyrrhonists and today I saw that consciousness becomes a problem when you want to look at the world the Pyrrhonist way. The buddhists seem to conveniently have made it one of the skandha’s, but the Pyrrhonists encountered the problem that it was not evident. And then they still wanted to say something about it. From the book you reccommended I gather that Sextus Empiricus saw “the soul (=consciousness) as a thing that was naturally nonevident, because its the soul’s nature that it never presents itself to our clear perception.”

                      I’d be hard pressed to call that elegant.

                      He goes on to say “that evident things necessarily imply or make evident to us as well what is non evident, though only as an absence, like a trace, a footprint in the sand.”

                      When I read that I thought this might as well be said of ether, or phlogiston. Is it just me, or is this a real problem?

                    • Yes, consciousness should be one of those non-evident things, unless they’re trying to claim it’s an obvious inference. I’m not too comfortable with their justification of obvious inferences.

                      I would think consciousness would be lumped under the non-evident and would be inclined to say that if they tried to maintain adherence to a soul, then they violated their own practice by doing so.

                    • Exactly. Thank you for your comment!

  4. Hi there, I just read this, and there are some pretty fascinating ideas at work here. I guess I just now realized how unaware I am of Buddhism. I love how you demystify the common western perception of it here. This is an idea I think that many could really benefit from. I think many people actually equate the teachings in Buddhism with the creation of their own reality, the realization of their own souls. That attaining oneness is somehow a conclusive acquisition of identity. From what you have said here, though, it sounds like this is not the case at all. I have to admit, I have very little background knowledge coming into this discussion.

    I connect with the idea of the unrepeatable moment. It is actually an idea that I have nurtured so much in my own mind that I fear it sometimes guides my thoughts with too much influence than is advisable.

    I think that the self is necessarily a momentary, fleeting concept –unattainable because of its dynamic nature –and constantly clouded by retrospective analysis regarding who we once were (thought we were). I think that the concept can be enlarged to encompass a collective identity as well. From the midst of things, the momentary present, the only hope for any harmonious identification arises out of projections onto the future (who we all will be, what will become of us) and projections into the past(who were we and what conditions caused our present one). The former being uncertain to its very core, the latter being artificially constructed by the privilege of looking upon it in a narrativized way –beginning, middle, and end. The truth is, we are in a constant middle. Our beginnings and our births are obscure and our endings are unknowable.
    I feel like I am ranting a bit here, but your post really got me thinking!

    Looking forward to more here!

  5. Thank you for your comment. I’ve come across your comments on other blogs and find them really interesting and well-written. One of my reasons to write this post is that I think there are many popular misconceptions about buddhism. And even though I by no means think that I could say anything definitive on the subject, I do think that buddhism is a philosophy that could actually be very relevant to everyday life.
    Our ideas about our Self seem, as you point out, very important in all this. I am amazed to see the many ways in which both ordinary people and professional philosophers put the idea of a stable Self back into the equation. I’m just as ‘attached’ to my sense of self, obviously, but when you really think about the nature of time there’s just no place left for it.
    I really hope to explore all this further, so I would like to meet again. Thank you for following my blog!

  6. reaver330 says:

    Hi there, liked your post. Thought you might be interested to know that Quantum Physics is suggesting that free will may be illusion too. 🙂

    • Thank you for mentioning that. 🙂

    • Argus says:

      Bugger~! That was my next post—series, actually. I scribbled it up over coffee this morning and was/still am going to post tonight. Yep. ‘Free Will’ is entirely an illusion (and I know diddley squat of Quantum physics).
      Damn. If I read my own post already published before I write it … just too much synchronicity for one day already.)

  7. Argus says:

    Hey! He got it right! It took me some effort and modern technology, but there ARE exactly 6,400,099,180 moments in a day! How ’bout that?!
    So everything else he says must be true too … a pity about them poor Mayas getting it wrong (or was it the hippies who got it wrong?) bugger … now even I’m confused.

    Sadly Buddhism and Zen are both formal religions. To me a formal religion is just a franchise in a money-spinning machine to milk people of wealth and power. If I met the Buddha on the road I’d bite him … (don’t like killing things)(but the sentiment rings true).

    • Thank you for making the calculations. I’m happy to know there are 6,400,099,180 moments in a day. Now I can add them up each night and see how many of them I wasted 😉

      I can see your point on formal religions and I know that in Asia buddhism is exactly the same household religion as christianity is in the West, with people using sticks to tell the future and getting a priest to bless their new car. I’ve never felt a need for such a religion. But I am really interested in zen and buddhism as philosophies and ultimately, I would like to find a philosophy that works in everyday life.

      • Argus says:

        The essence of Zen, Grasshopper, is simply to stop thinking about it and about (thanks again, Omar) and just … be …

        (failing that: everytime someone interacts with you, take your shoe off and bop him one).

  8. rose says:

    I’ve just been reading a book which argues that the self is that which we observe in us – so for instance if you’re talking to ‘yourself’, the self is the entity which hears the conversation. I don’t know, but we do as humans seem to be addicted to the idea of a soul or a little man/supercentre inside the brain which presides over thoughts, feelings and other more transient things.

  9. dimvisionary says:

    Fantastic post! And thanks for linking to outside sources and other interesting blogs.

    Rose’s comment above makes me think of a zen teacher (I forget which) that described our perception as two birds, one that eats the fruit and one that watches the eating. The next zen question, I suppose, is who watches the watcher?

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