Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Can Wabi-Sabi Save the World?

Illustration by Ed Young
Can what save the world? Wabi-sabi. You know…, that Japanese aesthetic sense kind of thing. Actually, I don’t believe I’d ever even heard of wabi-sabi until a couple of years ago when I was introduced to the concept by a children’s story about a cat named Wabi Sabi who was trying like the dickens to figure out the meaning of his name. Of course, the premise of the story relates precisely to the fact that the wabi-sabi aesthetic is quite difficult to define. We just sort of know it when we see it – as soon as we know what we’re looking for, that is! Ah, but are we going to let the difficulty of defining a concept stand in the way of us utilizing it to save the world? For the children, for the kittens, for Wabi Sabi’s sake we must try! Let’s begin with a few recent definitions put forth by various authors:

“Wabi-sabi is the quintessential Japanese aesthetic. It is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional.” Leonard Koren (1994)

“[W]abi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. It’s simple, slow, and uncluttered – and it reveres authenticity above all.” Robyn Griggs Lawrence (2004)

“Wabi Sabi is a way of seeing things that is at the heart of Japanese culture. It finds beauty and harmony in what is simple, imperfect, natural, modest, and mysterious. It can be a little dark, but it is also warm and comfortable. It may best be understood as a feeling, rather than an idea.” Mark Reibstein (2008)

Ah, but what is wabi and what is sabi? To be sure, the distinction between the two is not eminently clear. They even seem to be used synonymously at times. Indeed, Iwamoto (2008) points out that “in some ways, ‘Wabi’ is ‘Sabi’ and ‘Sabi is ‘Wabi’” (p. 186). Notwithstanding this inherent potential for confusion, it also seems to be the case that even a fumbling attempt at distinguishing the two will go a long way toward bringing clarity to their hyphenated union. Let’s begin with sabi.


Door in Egypt
A close reading of the definitions above reveals that ‘the beauty to be found in imperfection’ is the only feature common to them all. According to Suzuki (1959), “When this beauty of imperfection is accompanied by antiquity or primitive uncouthness, we have a glimpse of sabi” (p. 24). But sabi should not be construed as pertaining only to crafted objects. It might be present in nature as well. A gnarled tree growing out of a rocky outcropping whispers to us of sabi, as does an ancient door. For crafted objects to possess sabi, however, they must unpretentiously marry art with utility, all the while conveying a sense of seemingly effortless creation.

In addition to imperfect, primitive, and unpretentious, some other adjectives associated with sabi are: asymmetrical, austere, authentic, desiccated, desolate, incomplete, irregular, modest, obscure, rustic, simple, uncontrived, unconventional, worn, weathered, and withered. More than merely pertaining to physical appearances, however, sabi also encompasses the feelings that might be evoked or conveyed by an object or landscape – feelings such as serenity, tranquility, and solitude; or perhaps even chilliness, numbness, or loneliness. It is in this area, by the way, that sabi and wabi begin to become indistinguishable.

Bristlecone Pines in California


“Of all the terms in traditional aesthetics, wabi is the most difficult to define.” Varley (1984)

Cottage in France
Well, it would seem that our exploration of sabi went smoothly enough. Unfortunately, as as soon as we begin talking about wabi we find ourselves utilizing the same or very similar adjectives as we did for sabi! The key to distinguishing the two is to keep in mind that sabi generally refers to the objective realm – objects and the environment – whereas wabi generally refers to that which is subjective and personal (Iwamoto, 2008, pp. 185-186). For example, we might look at the weathered door up above and say to ourselves: “Ah, sabi!” On the other hand, it is the one who dwells within the shadows of that stone abode that is most likely to know the essence of wabi.  

The essence of wabi, according to Suzuki (1959), consists of “[not being] dependent on things worldly – wealth, power, and reputation – and yet to feel inwardly the presence of something of the highest value, above time and social position” (p. 23). Suzuki refers to this essence as “poverty” – a rather unfortunate translation for us Westerners given the fact that we are generally hard-pressed to find any redeeming qualities in what we consider poverty. The poverty that is the essence of wabi, on the other hand, involves a shift in values or outlook – the embrace of a different aesthetic – without which the poverty that Suzuki refers to would merely amount to indigence and deprivation (p. 284).

Well Bucket in Moldova

Wabi, Zen, and the Tea Ceremony

Wabi is closely related to the practice of Zen. Through Zen meditation, and the subsequent realization of emptiness, aspects of the self such as wealth, power and reputation become diminished (or fall away altogether, for that matter) and the sufficiency of our present circumstances becomes realized – without regard to whether or how another might find those circumstances lacking. It is the cultivation of Zen practice, then, that leads to the embrace of a different aesthetic spoken of above, which in turn leads to the truest realization of wabi.

Raku Tea Bowl
Wabi is also intimately associated with the Japanese tea ceremony. Brought from China by Zen priests, by the mid-1400s the tea ceremony had grown into a popular practice and pastime of the Ashikaga aristocracy (Varley, 1984, p. 317; Suzuki, 1959, p. 272). The utensils used in the tea ceremony were originally imported from China and Korea. However, during the later years of the Muromachi period (1337-1573) a variation of the tea ceremony known as Wabi arose which eschewed the more refined utensils imported from China for those less refined wares from Korea. This aesthetic shift spurred the creation of new and uniquely Japanese pottery favoring “crude simplicity” over polished refinement (Munsterberg, 1962, 122), and tea ceremony proceedings that were “straightforward, considerate, and not arrogant” in contrast to the “gorgeous display” of the previous tea tradition (Iwamoto, 2008, p. 180). It should be noted here that this new development in the art of the tea ceremony can be referred to more specifically as wabicha – “tea (cha) based on the aesthetic of wabi” (Varley, 1984, p. 143). It should also be noted that the various utensils used in the tea ceremony are of a decidedly sabi nature.

Seeing Wabi-Sabi

Let’s put all of this together as we examine the image below. Oh, but first let me mention one more general distinction between sabi and wabi. Recall that I already mentioned that the former is generally more objective and the latter more subjective. Let me also mention here that sabi often relates to the temporal domain whereas wabi relates to the spatial domain (Koren, 1994)

Wind and Waves by Sesson

At first blush this appears to be a modest and humble scene – a fishing vessel and a spit of land upon which ocean waves are crashing. Likewise, the composition might seem somewhat unconventional at first – especially to the Western eye. The dense form in the lower left corner appears to be inadequately offset by a tiny and crudely sketched boat seeming to hover in a sea of emptiness. Rather than being unappealing, however, this asymmetry actually serves as an intriguing invitation to explore the scene more fully, to complete with the “minds eye” that which seems incomplete – in this case, the vastness of the ocean. Worthy of note here is the fact that the composition of this image might actually seem more conventional to a Japanese or Chinese viewer – one more familiar with the one-corner style of painting pioneered by Ma Yuan. If anything, though, the one-corner style is a convention of unconventional composition!

In addition to the humble nature of the subject matter, the apparent simplicity of its artistic execution, and the asymmetrical incompleteness of the composition (all sabi), we can almost feel the passage of time – the temporal aspect of sabi that I just referred to. Certainly this image has the feel of a period of time long past; but even if it were a rendition of a recent event we would still be able to sense the passage of time in the representation of the wind-shaped tree (is it dead, or has it merely lost its needles?) and in the sagging roof of the little cottage. You did notice the little cottage, didn’t you? Perhaps these evoke in you those feelings of sabi mentioned earlier: serenity, tranquility, solitude; or perhaps chilliness, numbness, or loneliness. Note how these words might also seem to relate to the “poverty” of wabi. What else do we see that might be wabi?

Certainly the most moving aspect of this scene for me is the reality that a fisher-person is separated from his or her home and loved ones during the height of a storm. The strength of the storm, by the way, is subtly but unquestionably conveyed by the angle at which the fishing vessel sits – as if it is rising or falling upon a massive passing wave. The separation spoken of is represented by the vast undrawn sea – the spatial nature of wabi. Does the cottage represent the fisher-person's destination – their safe refuge? Is a loved one there, or are the cottage-dweller and the fisher-person absolute strangers to each other? The story is incomplete.

We might be concerned for the safety of the fisher-person. We might be concerned for the cottage-dweller, for that matter! Perhaps the storm will grow strong enough to totally inundate that little spit of land. And, yet, there seems to be a feeling of sufficiency to this scene. The sagging cottage roof will withstand the raging winds. The fisher-person will use his or her skills and knowledge of the sea in order to fish another day. In the face of annihilation there is contentment; there is this moment, and it is enough. This is wabi.   

Can Wabi-Sabi Save the World?

So, can wabi-sabi save the world? In this age of discontent, in this age of disposable everything, in this age in which material wealth seems to be the measure of all things, can we come to know the sufficiency of a mended coat, a repaired piece of pottery, or the enjoyment of a cup of tea with friends in lieu of a night out on the town or sitting in front of the television?

African Village
We are awash in stuff – stuff to make us feel good, stuff to fill our empty places, stuff to ease our workload, stuff to give us a workout, stuff to fill the quiet spaces, stuff to facilitate peace and quiet, stuff to show others the uniqueness of “who we are”, stuff to be like everyone else, stuff to entertain us. We collect stuff until such time as we begin to chafe under its weight and clutter, and then we sell it or give it or throw it away – thereby making way for the acquisition of new stuff. Yes, it is new stuff that is most enticing to us. New stuff makes life easier than it was before, and with our newfound extra time we are able to do more, enjoy more, and have more. Thus, we need more stuff.

I’ve already written about Voluntary Simplicity – the philosophy of choosing to have fewer things in order to make room for a richer experience of life. I’ve also coined my own expression, Aspirational Contentment, in order to convey the sense that contentment is an ideal that we might successfully work towards. However, I am now seeing with fresh eyes how completely congruent Aspirational Contentment is with the Wabi-Sabi aesthetic. I’ll say more about this in my next post. For now, though, I hope I’ve at least provided a glimpse – food for thought, perhaps – as to how Wabi-Sabi might, indeed, save the world.

Earthrise as seen from Apollo 10

P.S. My next posting will probably not be for a couple of weeks. I’ll be away from technology for a spell. However, I do hope to be filled with a sense of rich sufficiency all the while. I hope that life will be likewise for all of you! As always, thank you for reading.      


Iwamoto, H, (2008). Japanese aesthetic sense through Zen. The World Sacred Text Publishing Association, Tokyo.

Koren, L. (1994). Wabi-Sabi: For artists, designers, poets & philosophers. Stone Bridge Press.

Lawrence, R. G. (2004). The wabi-sabi house: The Japanese art of imperfect beauty. Published by Clarkson Potter. Excerpt accessed June 12, 2012 via: and

Munsterberg, H. (1962). The arts of Japan – An illustrated history. Charles E. Tuttle Company.

Reibstein, M., Young, E. (2008). Wabi Sabi. Little, Brown and Company. Hachette Book Group, USA.

Suzuki, D. T. (1959). Zen and Japanese culture. Published by MJF Books by arrangement with Princeton University Press.

Varley, H. P. (1984). Japanese culture: Third edition. University of Hawaii Press.

Image Credits

Wabi Sabi the cat, illustrated by Ed Young for Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein.

The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest of the Inyo National Forest by Jim Gordon via:

Door in the ruins of an abandoned city outside Dakhla oasis, Egypt, by Crashsystems via:

Cottage with stone roof at the cabanes du Breuil, Saint-André-d'Allas, France, by Jochen Jahnke via:

Well Bucket in Moldova by Zserghei via:

Raku ware from the collection of the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, via:

Wind and Waves, ink and colour on paper by Sesson via:

African Village by Africa via:

Apollo 10 view of the Earthrise by NASA via:

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

Friday, June 8, 2012

Four (More) Views of No-Self

I hope you’ve had the opportunity over the course of what might have been a busy week to reflect upon the view from atop the summit of the previous post – A Gestalt View of No-Self. It was quite an excursion, especially for those who might have been unfamiliar with the terrain. Such views as that revealed by “what is called the self is everything that is not the self” might leave one wondering whether their eyes are to be believed! After all, things are generally defined by that which they are, not that which they are not. And to say that something is both that which it is and that which it is not simply defies the logic that usually pertains to the way we think about “things”. Well, sometimes the meaning of a great truth only becomes apparent over time – upon reflection, meditation, or prayer perhaps. If truth were otherwise then I suppose we could simply read ourselves toward the wisdom of the sages! These next four excursions won’t be quite so challenging as the last – especially now that we’re suitably warmed up. So, are you ready once again? Let’s hit the trail!

A Deductive View of No-Self

Readers inclined to marvel at their very existence might be fascinated to know, if indeed they do not already, how very tenuous is our foothold here in space and time. For example, there are certain physical attributes of our universe such as the speed of light, the gravitational constant, Planck’s constant, et al., that seem to have been fine-tuned in order that life might be possible. If these physical constants were to have varied considerably from their present values, life as we know it – in fact, the universe as we know it – would not have come into existence. In other words, the present cosmological reality of stars and planets would not have been able to form, nor would the elemental variations of matter have been able to condense into existence from whatever plasmic stew preceded them.

Just in case all of this talk of physics and cosmology and mathematical measures that you might have never even heard of has caused your eyes to glaze over, think in terms of the earth and sun instead. If the sun were very much bigger or hotter or closer we would be burned into a crisp. If the earth were very much smaller it might not have enough gravitational attraction to hold an atmosphere in place in which we could live and breathe. Now, some readers might be thinking to themselves: “Well, of course, that’s the way God planned it!” Indeed, that is one possibility. Others might be thinking to themselves: “Come on, the very fact that we’re here to think that it’s so mind-boggling in the first place is precisely because it just happened to have worked out this way.” This latter view is a rough restatement of the so-called anthropic principle; we are able to marvel at the ability of the universe to give rise to human consciousness precisely because it has! However, let’s not allow ourselves to be distracted by these scenic overlooks to the extent that we mistake them for the view from the summit up above. The salient point with respect to our discussion of no-self is that our very existence depends upon the fundamental construction of the universe itself, whether that construction was planned, accidental, or otherwise. If the universe were just a little bit different, we might not exist. So, to think of ourselves as separate and independent, complete in and of ourselves, each of us possessing our own identity is, from where I stand, a far more preposterous prospect than any thoughts about no-self might be!

Alright, we’re almost to the summit. Let’s take this last little trail forged (or at least made well known) by Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hanh is perhaps best known, at least to me, for guiding meditation practitioners through very evocative mindfulness exercises involving the in-depth consideration of some particular item that they might be holding in their hands – a piece of fruit, for instance, or the paper from which they are reading. During such a meditation we might think of how the elements that make up the molecules of the piece of fruit that rests in our hands were forged in the furnace of the Big Bang and spewed out into the universe before coalescing into the planet that we now call Earth. We might then think of life beginning, taking form, rooting itself, living and dying and making soil for future life. We might think of subsequent life gaining nutrients from that soil, soaking up the sun and drinking of the water that rains down, and gathers into streams and rivers and oceans before raining down once again. We might think of the animals or the wind dispersing seeds all over the Earth, and the insects that helped pollinate them once they’d taken root and flowered. We might think of people down through the ages selecting and cultivating and hybridizing the plants that we know of today. We might think of the farmers and migrant workers, the packers and shippers, the retailers and stockers and cashiers that place that piece of fruit in our hands. We might hold it and examine it and smell it. We might then bite into it and taste it and swallow it. It becomes us. So, given this meditation on the reality – yes, reality, not theory – of our existence, does it make more sense to think of ourselves as separate and independent, complete in and of ourselves, each of us possessing our own identity, or does it make more sense to recognize that this thing that we call the self is really just part of a much, much larger reality – large beyond comprehension?

An Evolutionary View of No-Self

How life began on Earth is still a mystery. Perhaps it happened just as we so often think it did – when a lightning bolt sent a surge of electricity through the primordial swamp of almost-living molecules. Perhaps, instead, some passing comet deposited the critical seed of life here from somewhere else far out in space – from a birthplace we will never know. However it might have happened, it happened, and from that humblest of self-replicating beginnings we have a fairly good idea of how “we” came to be. And, yet, the vastness of the passage of time, and the immensity of what has taken place before us, and, yes, our inability or our unwillingness to recognize the chain of events that has made us what we are has made us quick to conclude that we are here, separate and independent, complete in and of ourselves, each of us possessing our own identity.

Can we even begin to fathom the reality of being part of an unbroken chain of life extending billions of years into the past? Can we even begin to fathom the depth of the dedication that each being gave to the task of ensuring that life continued into the future? Can we even begin to fathom the result of multiplying this depth of dedication by everything that has ever lived? I spoke of this in a post entitled Desire, Aspiration, and Doing What We Can. In that post I called attention to the fact that there have been times during the history of planet Earth when catastrophic events have caused almost all of life to be wiped out. Where would we be today if each and every life that ever lived had not strived to its fullest extent to populate every nook and cranny and niche of the environment so that some of them managed to survive that which wiped out nearly everything else?

The Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences states that we humans are about 92% genetically similar to mice, 44% similar to fruit flies, and about 18% similar to weeds. Apparently, it’s not merely cliché to say that we’re related to everything that lives; it’s scientific fact. And, yet, despite the preponderance of evidence that we should carry in our hearts the greatest measure of humble gratitude to all life past and affiliation with all life present, we continue to harbor the conceit that we are separate and independent, complete in and of ourselves, each of us possessing our own identity. It’s as if a leaf upon a mighty tree were to suddenly acquire self-consciousness and begin believing that it, above all others, was the most important leaf upon the tree. Call it the Tree of Life, if you will.

An Existential View of No-Self

Though the word existential may simply refer to existence itself, it seems to be used most often in reference to either the meaning that we decide to attribute to our existence or the process of attempting to “find” that very meaning. Victor Frankl is one of the foremost theorists and practitioners in this area, having formulated what he calls logotherapy on the premise that the need to find meaning for one’s life is the primary motivating force for all of humankind. Recall, for a moment, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – with self-actualization at the very pinnacle, of course – and how the need to find meaning for one’s life might fit into it. I’ll give you a hint by quoting from Frankl’s groundbreaking book, Man’s Search For Meaning, first published in 1946:

[I] wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic "the self-transcendence of human existence." It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence. (Frankl, 1959, p. 133)

The preceding passage is striking when compared to one of the sayings that I’m fond of quoting – the words of a 13th century Zen monk by the name of Dogen Zenji:

To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be verified by all things. To be verified by all things is to let the body and mind of the self and the body and mind of others drop off. (Okumura, 2010, p. 2)

I think it’s plain to see that, while the former is born of the experiences of a psychoanalytically trained medical doctor and Nazi death camp survivor, and the latter is the distillation of many years of devotion to meditative spiritual practice, both are pointing in the same direction – toward transcendent actualization. The regular reader will recall that I touched on transcendent actualization in my post related to Sympathetic Joy. I’ll quote more extensively here from the source that I introduced at that time. Hamel, Leclerc, and Lefrancois (2003) note that:

[The] fourth component of transcendent actualization [that of going beyond ego-identification] denotes the ability to leave one’s personal preoccupations behind to focus on others, a mission, an altruistic goal. Its fundamental property is the realization of profound spiritual values (such as love, goodness, courage, mutual support, honesty). The proactivity of the I [the individual “small self”] toward the Self [the “big self” or transcendent self] is characterized by transcending one’s egocentric boundaries by avoiding continued self-preoccupation, identifying the values of Being as ends in themselves rather than means and expressing them concretely in one’s attitudes, and feeling a sense of belongingness to a greater whole than oneself, which generates feelings of humanity, the sacred, gratitude, humility, admiration, faith, and hope. (p. 13)

So, how does all of this fit into this series of posts begun by Too Big For Any Sticks Or Stones To Hurt Us? Well, if it’s up to us to find our own meaning, then why not choose to find it amidst the boundlessness of all that is rather than within the confines of our small self? Easier said than done, right? Perhaps; but if we can just keep in mind that our continued clinging to our small sense of self will undoubtedly keep us locked in the cycle of samsaric suffering, then we might be able to steadily move toward the expansion of our sense of self. This setting of intention will keep us pointed in the right direction – toward transcendent actualization; toward a self that is “verified by all things,” having dropped off the body and mind of the self, and that of others as well; toward a self that is “too big for any sticks or stones to hurt us.”

An Experiential View of No-Self

Despite the fact that theorists such Frankl, and Hamel, et al. appear to be pointing us in the same direction as Dogen Zenji – toward the transcendence of the self – they, nonetheless, do not convey any specific methodology for doing so, as Dogen does. In fact, it is the practice of zazen – seated meditation – that lies at the heart of Dogen’s declaration that “to study the self is to forget the self.” This study involves sitting in stillness so that the insubstantiality of this thing that we call the self might become apparent. With the ‘dropping off of the body and mind’ we experience directly the boundless nature of ultimate reality. At such time there will be no need for the contemplation of “a gestalt view of no-self”, or a “deductive view of no-self”, or an “evolutionary view of no-self”, or an “existential view of no-self”; there will be no need for the Buddha’s own “twelve-fold chain of dependent origination” view of no-self, for that matter; neither will there be any need for any skillful metaphors or analogies related to this thing called emptiness, or shunyata. There will be no need for any of this because reality itself, free of all conceptualization, will have been realized at that time. Try it for yourself. Quiet your body and mind and see for yourself how that which we call the self eventually recedes into the background, leaving only an experience of oneness in its place.


In conclusion, being too big for any sticks or stones to hurt us involves realizing our unity with all “things”. Ultimately speaking, we are the stick and the stone and the “other” that might be wielding them. However, whenever we identify with just a small part of what is otherwise a boundless reality, inevitably we must die. Nothing can stay the same, after all. Thus, if there is sorrow in “your” life, take comfort in the joyfulness of “others”. If old age or sickness is threatening to take “your” life, take comfort in that which is young and flourishing all around you. There's no need to push away your sorrow or your sickness; simply accept it as but one part of a world of sorrow and sickness, joy and vigor, and everything else, whether "good" or "bad". Allow yourself to be big enough to experience it all without clinging and without pushing anything away. This is how we can become too big for any sticks or stones to hurt us.  


Frankl, V. (1959). Man’s search for meaning. Simon and Schuster, Inc.

Hamel, S., Leclerc, G., & Lefrancois, R. (2003). A psychological outlook on the concept of transcendent actualization. The International Journal For The Psychology of Religion, 13(1), pp. 3-15.

Okumura, S. (2010). Realizing genjokoan: The key to Dogen’s shobogenzo. Wisdom Publications. (Original work published 1233)

Image Credits

Doradus, Tarantula Nebula, by NASA’s Hubble Telescope via:

Tree of Life by Haeckel via:

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs by Tomwsulcer:

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

Saturday, June 2, 2012

A Gestalt View of No-Self


My original intention was for this post to be a follow-up piece to last week’s Too Big For Any Sticks or Stones To Hurt Us. Notwithstanding that fact, Too Big For Any Sticks or Stones To Hurt Us – Part 2 of Whatever seemed just a bit too obtuse and cumbersome. It was then that my working title changed to Five Views of No-Self. I really liked that title, despite the fact that it tips my hand regarding precisely what I really mean by “too big”. (Alas, the element of surprise has been lost!) The biggest problem with that title, however, was the fact that I could only do justice to one of those views over the course of the five or so pages comprising my usual post length. And so we have this week’s A Gestalt View of No-Self – with four more views to be explored in the following post.

Too Big For Any Sticks or Stones To Hurt Us began an exploration of the premise that we might be better able to withstand the many verbal and physical insults of life by simply expanding our conceptualization of who we are – by letting dissolve our rigid ideas regarding self and other – thereby making ourselves bigger in the process. Why don’t we begin with that premise now – using it as a base camp, so to speak, from which to launch some additional excursions? From where I’m standing it looks as though there are at least five peaks up there worthy of climbing. I’m betting on the view from at least one of them being good enough to give us a clear-eyed view of this valley that we call the self. But, of course, you’ll have to judge that for yourself. So, are your hiking boots tightly laced? Let’s head on out!

Base Camp at Mount Everest

A Gestalt View of No-Self

The usual Western way of thinking about the world is as a collection of things, each one separate and independent, each one complete in and of itself, each one possessing its own identity. Notwithstanding this prevailing perspective, Western thought has also given rise to the concept of the gestalt, defined by Merriam-Webster's online dictionary as: “a structure, arrangement, or pattern of physical, biological, or psychological phenomena so integrated as to constitute a functional unit with properties not derivable by summation of its parts.” How one experiences a gestalt is a function of perspective, orientation, viewpoint, or conditioning. For instance, one viewer might focus on the individual parts without experiencing the integrated whole while another might experience the integrated whole without ever becoming aware of the individual parts.

As long as we keep a couple of caveats in mind, we might make good use of the gestalt concept in order to better understand the Mahayana Buddhist concept of no-self – the nonexistence of this thing that we normally think of as being separate and independent, complete in and of itself, possessing its own identity. The first caveat relates to the final clause in the definition of gestalt: “summation of its parts.” Mahayana Buddhism does not recognize the existence of any irreducible “parts” (dharmas to use a Buddhist term). The second caveat relates to the fact that whatever structure, arrangement, or pattern might result from any collection of “parts” is also without enduring selfhood. Thus, whatever we are experiencing when we experience a gestalt is also without separate and independent existence.

Consider the famous image to the left. On one level it merely consists of three shapes – two black and one white. However, when we focus on the image in totality, the gestalt, we see an image containing much more meaning than a mere collection of shapes. The ambiguity of this gestalt image is an excellent example how figure and ground interact in order to affect our perception. In fact, figure and ground have no absolute meaning in this image. We might see the black shapes as the ground and the white shape as the figure – a vase, it would seem. We might also see the white shape as the ground and the black shapes as figures – two faces, it would seem.

This example of figure/ground ambiguity can be used to help us better understand how we experience our world as a collection of separate human beings (figures) acting within a separate environment (ground). The reason that we tend to not even question this understanding is testament to the strength of our conditioning – we are projecting our understanding of selfhood “out” into “our environment”. Whether we see faces, or a vase, as the case may be, is related to our conditioning. The fact of the matter is that neither face nor vase exists without the other. Neither exists independent of the other; neither is complete in and of itself, possessing its own identity.

In an ultimate sense, we might say that the image is empty of any meaning whatsoever. The face or vase forms are illusory. This is precisely what is meant by the two levels of truth of Mahayana Buddhism – relative and ultimate – wherein relative truth pertains to our ordinary way of perceiving the world and ultimate truth pertains to the emptiness of all phenomena (shunyata, to use another Buddhist term). This interplay of relative and ultimate truth is precisely that which is spoken of in the Heart Sutra: “That which is form is shunyata; that which is shunyata is form.”

Hold that thought while I shift gears for a moment and harken back to a line from the Diamond Sutra:

Subhuti, what is called Buddhadharma is everything that is not Buddhadharma.

Perhaps you recall me quoting this line in my Reflections on the Diamond Sutra post (translation courtesy of Thich Nhat Hanh, 1992, p. 7). The term Buddhadharma means “buddha law” or “buddha teaching” and is generally used in reference to the teachings of the historical Buddha (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 48). Of course, the great truth pointed to by the teachings of the historical Buddha is that of the seamless nature of ultimate reality. But how can we even begin to grasp the truth of this seamless reality as long as we’re still clinging tightly to our small ideas related to the Buddhadharma being some narrowly prescribed pathway of perfection while everything else is simply, well, everything else. It would seem, then, that these words spoken to Subhuti by the Buddha must be pointing to a universal truth. Let’s see what happens when we point them in the direction of this thing that we call the self.

What is called the self is everything that is not the self.

Hmmm…, there’s that figure/ground ambiguity again! The figure exists only in relation to the ground from which “it” is set apart. The figure cannot exist without the ground. Likewise, the self cannot exist apart from the context in which it arises. The self is not independent of family, community, or the cultural and social norms and forms that “it” has been born into. The self is not independent of the environment into which “it” arises.

Do you doubt this? Consider the following thought experiment: Imagine that you wake up tomorrow in a foreign land – one with strange customs and a different language, one that doesn’t particularly value that which you’ve grown to believe is of value, one in which all of the skills that you’ve painstakingly learned throughout the course of your life are of absolutely no use or consequence whatsoever. Why stop there? Imagine, as well, that none of that which gave you sustenance even exists in this foreign land. Now, imagine that this strange happening turns out to be your permanent fate. Ha! I suppose I’m asking you to imagine yourself in a situation like might be described on the Firesign Theatre’s science fiction satire, Everything You Know is Wrong. Seriously, when plucked out of context in this way, the “self” can no longer exist. It must change, adapt, transform, and relearn. It must become that which it is not. It must become another self – another self in relation to another environment, that is.

So, we’ve made it to the top of our very first peak. How’s the view? It’s kind of interesting, isn’t it, that when we’re way down on the valley floor it seems as though the valley is our entire world. Now that we have some perspective, though, that valley is much more easily seen as an integral part of a much, much larger universe. Well, how about we head back down for now? We'd better get some rest because we still have four more climbs to go!


Nhat Hanh, T. (1992). The diamond that cuts through illusion: Commentaries on the prajnaparamita diamond sutra. Parallax Press.

Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Image Credits

Everest Base Camp by Tom Simcock via:

Cup or Faces Paradox by Bryan Derksen via:

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank