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


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