This dialogue between the Buddha and Kutadanta resounds through history and is replayed between teacher and student often.
Before saying anything else, let me point out that the Buddha’s response to Kutadanta regarding where nirvana is to be found is pretty straight-forward: it’s wherever you live in truth and goodness. No need to get all esoteric about it! It’s clear it is not a place: you don’t enter into nirvana. In fact, my Graduate School teacher said that it might be more accurate to translate the Pali as “nirvana-izing” in that it is an on-going action or experience rather than a state.
But in this post, I want to address the question that comes from an existential angst many feel when presented with the Buddha’s teaching. Just the other day, for instance, a student asked me this same question: “What about the part of me that has always resided for as long as I’ve been alive and conscious of being alive?”
But that’s just the crux of the matter: where and how does this idea that there is a “thing,” an “entity” that persists unchanged throughout life? This self that is felt to be separate from the body is itself created by the brain/mind. Antonio Damasio, a leading neuroscientist writing about this in The Feeling of What Happens has this to say about it:
“When we discover what we are made of and how we are put together, we discover a ceaseless process of building up and tearing down… It is astonishing that we have a sense of self at all, that we have some continuity of structure and function that constitutes identity, some stable traits of behavior we call a personality…
…the brain reconstructs the sense of self moment by moment. We do not have a self sculpted in stone, and like stone, resistant to the ravages of time. Our sense of self is a state of the organism, the result of certain components operating in a certain manner and interacting in a certain way, within certain parameters. It is another construction, a vulnerable pattern of integrated operations whose consequence is to generate the mental representation of a living being.” (Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens; 1999, pp 144/245)
Some schools of thought teach that each individual is a separate self, some call a soul that refers to some “essence” that is unchanging; a substrate entity that underlies, or transcends all the varying changes we experience. It is an unchanging “witness” to the flux of experience. This is the position Patanjali takes when he posits a purusha (which literally means “person” and is a masculine noun) as one’s true “identity” against the body and the mind of the organism which is part of prakriti (a feminine word meaning something like “first creatrix”) which is the entirety of the created universe. It is a radical form of dualism, even more radical than the Cartesian dualism posited by Rene Descartes who said the two separate “reals” or substances are mind and body. The body for Descartes is not you; it is the mind (“I think, therefore I am”).
Other schools of thought teach that the appearance of multiplicity is simply an illusion (maya, akin to a magic act) and that in fact there is only one real or substance. This position is called monism. Where different schools of thought come into the picture is what they believe that one substance to be: whether material or immaterial. Western science is materialistic monism: it teaches that matter is all that is really existent. Vedanta is an example of a form of idealistic monism: the only thing real is Brahman.
The position I am sharing here is that we are not simply “one thing.” Each of us is a unique aggregation of various elements, none of which is or makes up an essence. I am not you and you are not me. However, there is no core, no individual essence – no self-nature -- that completely separates or isolates us from each other.
What we call “self” is a convenient designator, a label we give to this aggregation of non-self elements. It’s kind of like the “laundry.” What is the laundry other than a pile or aggregation of various elements like socks, underwear, shirts, pants, skirts, linens etc. Rather than saying “I have to wash four pairs of socks, six undies, six shirts, two pants….” we simply say “I have to do the laundry” but there is no unchanging essence, substratum or transcendent entity called the laundry.
Physics, Psychology, Chemistry, and Biology all agree on this. Despite all the looking, we have not find and have no evidence for some absolute, individual, independent, autonomous, persistent, unchanging core/self. It is this one thing, this ‘entity-ness’ that we are empty of! And this is the insight of the Buddha. It is the insight Hui-ke had when he replied to Bodhidharma who had tasked him with bringing him his mind: “No matter how much I seek, I cannot find the mind.” It is what Dogen Zenji was getting at when he taught: “Zazen is the study (investigation) of the self. When you study or seek the self, you lose the self. In losing the self, you become intimate with all phenomena.”