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

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