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.
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 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.
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.