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‘Self’ Awareness

We have all heard the philosophical refrain: “I think therefore I am”. This first principle of René Descartes’s philosophy was made in 1637. This concept has underpinned much of Western philosophy. It forms the basis of how we perceive ourselves, as a thinking being able to understand the world around us.

However, soon after Descartes came up with the phrase it drew criticism. Pierre Gassendi, realised that it presupposes that there is an “I” which must be doing the thinking. According to this line of criticism, the most that Descartes was entitled to say was that “thinking is occurring”, not that “I am thinking”. This is closer to the Buddhist perspective.

At the Buddhist Centre we recognise the importance of this ‘I’; or that which we might call the Self or our Ego. Much of the initial work that we do as Buddhists is working on this Self to make it a better version, to correct our old assumptions and positively change our conditions. We work on the Buddha’s Three Fold Way of Ethics, Meditation and Wisdom to improve ourselves and in this way we move closer to being a better person, even a more Enlightened person. This can be hard work, studying the Dharma and facing up to uncomfortable truths about who we are and how we act in the world. The teachings of Sangharakshita help, and occasionally we can rightly feel proud that we have improved who we are. Maybe we feel as though we have a perfect self, and all the hard work is done.

However, we also may want to have a look at the premise behind the notion of Self, even if we now have improved the version. We may want to take a close look at the ‘I Think’ part, that creates the ‘I’ part. By thinking, we form the notion of Self.

We may know that the Buddha talked about Anattā, that there is no unchanging Self, essence or soul. From our studies of Sangharakshita’s teachings we may know that working with and going beyond the notion of Self is an important Buddhist practice. But even knowing what the Buddha, Sangharakshita and other wise Buddhist teachers of the past and present said; I am still me. I feel like someone who does things, who does good things and bad things. I am my Self.

The Buddha uses the analogy of the House Builder, to help explain how the Self is created. The House Builder is my thoughts, each thought adds another brick to the wall of my house, that in its totality forms my Self.
I don’t have space to look at every brick, and those bricks will be different for each of us. But I will group my bricks together into five groups. So these five groups form five ways in which my thinking processes come to create that sense of a Self.

Firstly I feel like the inhabitant of this body. Whether I am standing, sitting or lying I feel that I am inside this body. I find myself at the centre of the world I am sensing around me. Each sense is sending me information and I think about that information and put it all in order. I make sense of it all. I combine what my senses are currently sensing with memories to make a complete picture of what is outside of me. When I move about the world around me re-forms from different perspectives. Try it for yourself, can you catch yourself out, can you see the edges of the world you are creating?

So this body is, or at least appears to me to be, the centre of the world. A world that moves around my body, is reconstructed around it constantly. So in this way I (my Self) become identified with this body, and this body sits (or stands) at the centre of the world as I perceive it. An example for me is when the Clocks change. The world around me has overnight changed. It is light when it should be dark. My senses are confused and I have to rebuild the relationship of my body to the world around it. In so doing I also, yet again rebuild my Self.

Secondly, I am the beneficiary of all that I sense. So whether the experience I have of that which is around me is pleasant or painful, I take that, I own that experience. I feel deeply every moment of my experience. When it is pleasant I enjoy the experience and want more, when it is painful I am the victim and try to stop that pain. If I stub my toe, I am the one who suffers, no one else can feel my pain. If it is too much then I can turn it off, put my feelings in neutral, and just coast. No sensory experience escapes, I feel them all.

Thirdly, I am the creative labeler. I give everything I experience a name, a label. Some labels I remember and some I create. I am the person who logically constructs and creates the world that I perceive and in which I express my self. I feel that I am enacting and composing something special most of the time. My creations may no be much but they are unique to me. I have a creative narrator that gives me a tangible sense that I am expressing my self. I pull together my perception of the current experience, add them to my memories from past experiences This confection, this piece of writing, could be seen as just a way of confirming my sense of self, believing that I have created these words, typed them into the keyboard in a special way, rearranged them and created something that expresses who I am. This thinking that I am doing now, to be able to write, this thinking is the I that can be identified as myself.

Fourth, I am the decision maker. I make choices and carry them out. I do the things that I have decided to do. I am also the heir of the consequences of those decisions. I do good things and I do bad things, but regardless I have a sense of that someone is doing these things. I am an actor in the play of my life. The consequences of my actions feedback into the next decisions that are made, and in this way shape the self that will make those decisions. If I make good choices then the self that is recreated will be more liable to make more good decisions. The opposite is also true. If I make bad decisions then I will be more likely to make more bad decisions in the future. If I don’t see this happening then I can do nothing about it. But if I see this happening then I can change my decision-making strategy, and move into making more positively skilful choices.

Fifthly, I cannot help having a view that I have some sort of essence. That I consist of the awareness of all the four other groups of bricks and probably many more besides.
When I look at what I am thinking, this constant stream of consciousness. With thoughts rising and falling, coming into focus and out again in rapid succession, a stream of experience. I appear to be able to do none other than posit a self.

I am that upon which the whole world that I see around me depends. The world has formed around me, I am its heart.

These five ways of thinking about who I am, these five groups, are all quite natural and arise as part of what it is to be human. But we must look a bit deeper into these five groups, these piles of bricks that make the walls of my House.

The Buddha never said that the Self does not exist, he just explained the self as an illusion. Like a magic trick, we can allow ourselves to be fooled by the magicians skill, or we can look deeper and see through the illusion.

Some of you may have noticed that my five groups above are just a personal way of looking at a very important Buddhist teaching, that of the Five Skandhas.

The Buddha gave five categories which form the totality of the human condition. These are collectively called, in Sanskrit, the Skandhas which just means collection, group or heap. Again in Sanskrit, the Five Skandhas consist of: Rupa, Vedana, Saṃjñā, Saṃskāra and Vijñāna. Often we see them translated as: Form, Sensation, Perception, Formations and Conciousness, we maybe come across different teachers translating them and talking about them in different ways. But however they are translated they form the basis for our understanding of the true nature of ourselves.

You may also have come across the Five Skandhas at the beginning of the Heart Sutra that we chant in the Seven Fold Puja:

The Bodhisattva of Compassion,
When he meditated deeply,
Saw the emptiness of all five skandhas
And sundered the bonds that caused him suffering.

Having a deep knowledge of the Skandhas is important and to drive that point home Sangharakshita says: “I must warn you that if you want to make anything of Buddhist metaphysics and philosophy, you must know these five Skandhas inside out: you must be able to reel them off and know what you are talking about” – Lecture: ‘The Awakening of the Bodhi Heart’ 1969.

The Skandhas are the basis for the construction of the self, as we experience it. This Self then takes on the apparent role of running the whole show, of being in charge.

The groups that I have talked about above are all happening all the time. However, these groups are happening without belonging to, happening for the sake of, or in any other way constituting a Self. So the Self that is constructed from our thoughts is just a view. And like any other view we can choose to accept it or not.
So Self is a projection of ownership onto all experience. So we say to ourselves; “this is my body, these are my feelings, this I have created, this is my agency, this must constitute Me.”

Now perhaps we can start to understand how automatic is the creation of the Self. But simply knowing this, we may still not be able to work with the creation of Self.

The Buddha says we just have to remember that: “this is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self” – Majjhima Nikkaya

But of course understanding how something works and actually doing something about it, can be poles apart. Changing knowledge into wisdom can take quite a bit of time, probably a life’s work.
This understanding about the creation of Self, this change of view, even if we can manage maybe just a slight tilt of that view, has a big effect on us and those around us. Much of the harm that we do to ourselves and others is triggered by the sense of ownership and identification.

When we begin our Buddhist exploration, much of our efforts goes into coming to understand ourselves. We bring awareness to the process of integration, the beginning of the Triratna system of Practice. After some time we have become integrated enough to be able to see who we are. We have brought together all the thoughts and ideas about who we are, that have been worked on over the years. We have to see the Self clearly if we are going to be able to see its constituent parts and the view that forms it. We, or should I say this Integrated Self, can then start to see that the Self springs from the five groups I have talked about above. You can give your own names to those groups if it helps you to understand the genesis of the Self.

As we meditate more and discuss the Dharma more, we begin to understand what thought is, and how our thoughts arise. We get to know when we are ‘Thinking’. Then we can come to see how on top of these thoughts, the ‘I am’ is constructed. With an understanding of ‘I think’ and of ‘I am’ we progress on the spiritual path, we progress towards Enlightenment.

By the time you read this the people we knew as Nick and Jamie will have new names, new labels. They will have been ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order. They will have new identities and they will have had to process the experience of Ordination and form around that event a new sense of who they now are, and face the world as their new Self’s. They have taken a big step on their journeys towards Enlightenment. We wont see these new beings back in the Centre for several months. They have more work to do up in the remote mountains of Spain to fully integrate their Ordinations.

However, to help us, back in Ipswich on our way towards Enlightenment, this month we celebrate the Buddha’s Enlightenment. So on 26th May we have our festival of Buddha Day. I look forward to seeing you there. And if I don’t, then take care and look after your self.