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Question of identity, a Buddhist perspective

Have you ever wondered: “Who am I?” If you have, you are not the only one, most people have. However, they think they just don't have the time to find the answer or don't know where to look.

The Buddha preached the Anatta Lakkhana sutta to the five ascetics

The simple question seems easy to answer at first. Yet, as soon as you start to think about it you realise that your name or a description of your physical appearance is woefully inadequate to describe the myriad of thoughts, moods, actions and reactions that make yourself. Even a description of what you do becomes confusing because every day you play so many different roles.

You start the day maybe as a wife or a husband, then at work you become a clerk or an executive or a teacher, at lunch you meet a friend, in the evening an acquaintance. In each role that you play, a different facet of your personality emerges.

Sometimes you feel that you have to play so many different and opposing roles that you no longer know what sort of person you are. When you meet your boss at a party or your parents and friends come round at the same time, you become confused as to how to behave.

Not only have you fixed yourself a special way of acting towards them, but in your mind you have also limited them to a certain role. You can relate to them as ‘your boss’ or ‘your parents’, not simply as another human being. Yet you are quite aware that your real identity is not defined by the role you play. Anatta Buddhist teachings take the question of identity to an entirely different realm.

Anatta concept

The Buddhist concept of Anatta provides deeper understanding to what constitutes a living or non-living being. People are often perplexed by the Buddha’s teaching of Anatta, or not-self. One reason is because in different religions and schools of psychotherapy and philosophy, as well as in everyday language, the word “self” is used in many ways.

The Buddha clearly did not accept any metaphysical definitions of “self”. On the other hand, he emphasised the suffering that can come with clinging to anything as belonging to or defining “myself”. The Buddha’s path of practice leads to the ending of this clinging.

The most common metaphysical “self” against which the Buddha was arguing is implicitly defined in his Anatta Lakkhana Sutta - the Discourse on Anatta. For something to be Atta, according to this view, it needed three components.

It had to have complete control over the body, feelings, thoughts, impulses, intentions, consciousness or perceptions. It had to be permanent. And it had to be blissful. In this discourse, the Buddha makes it clear that nothing in our psycho-physical experience has these three qualities and is therefore fit to be regarded as an Atta or self.

The Buddha’s teaching shows us a way from looking for the self, or trying to understand or improve the self. Instead it suggests that we pay attention to the fear, desire, ambition and clinging that motivate the building of self-identity.

Meditation and contemplation help develop insight into the teachings on Anatta

Perhaps we feel that we are defective in some way, and that our meditation practice will help us make or find a better self. Can we instead find the particular suffering that is connected with wanting to improve the self?

Enlightenment

Enlightenment entails releasing our suffering, not avoiding it, seeking relief from it or compensating for it. Dependent Origination (The sense of identity) could be explained with the example of the oyster and the pearl.

The identity is something that is created from the moment of conception in much the same way a pearl is created in an oyster. There is the initial grain of sand that irritates and slowly, but surely, it is grown until we have something we feel is precious.

The initial starting “grain of sand” is our ignorance. The Buddha explains this in the Law of Dependent Origination (Paticca-samuppada), but in a more mundane explanation, as we come into being and become aware there is a need to interact with the world.

The first step of “I” comes from survival: where am I? What is it my senses are experiencing? How does the form I seem to be controlling relate to the forms that appear independent from this body? The first step of identity comes from a sense of cognition “this is the body and that is not the body”.

As children we are taught “this is yours” and “this is mine”. The idea of possession comes into being as we learn how to cohabit with others. The concept of possession strengthens our sense of identity and our relationship with the world. It gives structure for survival socially and literally.

This identity also creates a more comfortable reference point to navigate from as well, so we value these layers on our “ego pearl”.

When we create a sense of possession, we also concrete our understanding of form. Objects must be unique and independent if they are to be owned. Seeing the world as independent objects, we logically see ourselves as independent as well. There is great comfort of believing in the concept of “self”. It has been a very useful tool, and the more energy given to the “self” or “ego” creates a greater sense of safety and assurance.

Neurosis

By contrast, the idea of “no ego” is unsettling. Worse, the value given to our identity becomes so fundamental to how we relate to the world, that the idea of it not existing creates deep neurosis and uncontrollable fear. The oyster’s response is to protect that “me” concept in more layers. The pearl gets bigger and stronger. The final layer of our “ego pearl” is the transformation of “I”. At first, the “I” was a grain of sand placed as a reference marker.

Through ignorance and rationality, that sand transformed into something that is perceived to be important, then essential, than indestructible: the “ego pearl” is valued so highly by us that it must have purpose. “I am special. The world around me happens to help or hinder my destiny”. The layer of ego has now gone beyond the pearl. The oyster now exists because of the pearl, not the other way around.

Identity is created from the moment of conception in the same way a pearl is created in an oyster

The value of a pearl is dependent on how much someone craves to own it. This thirst (thanha) is the unwholesome craving the Buddha speaks of in the Four Noble Truths. To see it as valuable, we hold on to it tightly. It consumes our attention. When we travel, we protect it, always worrying that it may be taken away.

It gives us stress as we avoid anything that threatens it, and cling to it so tightly we find our hands and minds unable to engage fully. On inspection, the pearl is just a bit of valueless sand and spit.

“Who am I?” is one of those wrongly formed questions. This is an inquiry that many people in the world follow. However, a little bit of reflection should make it very clear that this question already implies an assumption that you are someone. It already implies an answer.

It's not open enough. Instead, one needs to rephrase the question from, “Who am I?” or even, “What am I?” to, “What do I take myself to be?” or, “What do I assume this thing called ‘I’ is?”

Such questions dig very deep into one's avijja (delusion). Only then can one start to really look at what it is that one takes one's ‘self’ to be. It's through a combination of meditation and contemplation of the five aggregates that we can develop the insight into the teachings on Anatta that's beyond mere speculation, and rests instead within the realm of direct experience.

 

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