The Buddha’s teaching on anatman or “not self” and shunyata (emptiness) are perplexing for many people when they first are presented with it. And yet, it’s not only what physics, chemistry, psychology and all the other sciences tell us; it's also what the evidence right before our eyes if we actually look without the veils of assumptions, expectations and pre-conceptions tells us: there is no-‘thing’-ness to any phenomena.
Just as the word chariot is merely a means of expressing how axle, body, wheels, and poles are brought together in a certain relationship, but when we look at each of them one by one there is no chariot in the absolute sense; and just as the word house is a way of expressing how wood and other materials stand in relationship to each other in a certain space, but in the absolute sense there is no house; and just as the word fist is an expression for the fingers and thumb in relationship, and tree for trunk, branches, leaves and so on, but in an absolute sense there is no fist or tree – in exactly the same way the words living being and person are but ways of expressing the relationship of body, feelings, and consciousness, but when we come to examine the elements of being, one by one, we find there is no entity or self there. In the absolute sense there is only name and form and the mystery which they express. Such ideas as “I” and “I am” are not absolute.
--- Visuddhi Magga
The shortest formula of what the Buddha called “dependent origination” is:
This is because that is.
This arises with the arising of that.
Without that, this is not.
With the ceasing of this the ceasing of that.
“Things” are not things. Just as there is no stillness to be found anywhere, there are no ‘things’ that exist in and of themselves: every ‘thing’ is an aggregate of myriad causes and conditions necessary to its existence. And when we look closely, we also see that every ‘thing’ is actually a dynamic process in continual flux.
Words like chariot, house, fist, tree and self are “convenient designators.” Convenient because it’s much more convenient to refer to an assemblage of many parts with one term than to delineate each and every part. My favorite example is the laundry. There is no laundry outside of the individual socks, shirts, chonies, pants, towels etc. It’s much more convenient to refer to that pile of articles as laundry then to itemize each one. In the same way, it’s easier to label this collection of elements writing this essay as Frank Jude than to attempt to itemize all the causes and conditions that led to this assemblage! As the physicist Richard Feynman said: "If you want the most complete recipe for apple pie, you must begin with the Big Bang."
When we see this reality more clearly, we see what the Avatamsaka-Sutra calls "the interdependent penetration without obstruction" of all phenomena. The passage from the Visuddhi Magga quoted above ends by saying there is nothing but name and form. In Buddhist teaching, name (nama) includes feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness. And form refers to the body. Thus, we can refer to the mindbody (namarupa). Each and everyone of us is an aggregation of various elements making up these components of the mindbody.
It’s easy to see that the body is made of myriad parts, including the micro-organisms that we could not survive without them doing our digestion, for instance. If we go as far as physics takes us, we see the body as a cloud of sub-atomic particles that aren’t even ‘particles’ all the time, themselves in constant movement! But it’s also true that every feeling we have arises based upon sensual contact between the sense organs and their respective sense object. Without that contact, no feeling! Perceptions too arise based upon myriad conditions including the neural structure of the body and previous experience including education, language and factors such as gender and race. This fact is true for all mental formations. For instance, we think in the language we were raised in: to some extent this determines what you can think and yet you did not create or choose this language.
Finally, though many traditions like to speak of some kind of free-floating ‘pure consciousness,’ the very concept of such 'pure consciousness' arises based upon neural function and perception. There is no evidence for such a ‘pure consciousness,’ and the Buddha pointed out that consciousness too is conditioned by myriad factors. We overlook this despite the evidence we have every night when we sleep! Many spiritual and religious traditions reify consciousness into a Self, the very “essence” of what we are. However, the Buddha referred to the process of consciousness in this way:
“Now suppose that a magician or magician's apprentice were to display a magic trick at a major intersection, and a person with good eyesight were to see it, observe it, & appropriately examine it. To that person — seeing it, observing it, & appropriately examining it — it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in a magic trick? In the same way, a yogi sees, observes, & appropriately examines any consciousness that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near. To that yogi — seeing it, observing it, & appropriately examining it — it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in consciousness?”
And here’s the implication for us…
There are those yogic traditions like Samkhya (and the raja-yoga of Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra) that postulate non-material selves called purushas. With such a view, each and everyone of us is said to mis-identify ourselves as the mindbody which is part of unconscious nature (prakriti) when we are in reality disembodied entities or monads existing in and of ourselves, having nothing to do with nature (the world) or other entities. Liberation in this system is kaivalya which literally means “solitude,” “detachment” or “isolation” derived from kevala meaning “alone, isolated.” Specifically, it is the isolation of purusha from prakriti, and by implication, from each other (the other plurality of purushas).
The situation Patanjali posits is similar to when you are at a movie. Though safe in your seat, you flinch when the hero is punched and cry when they lose someone they love. Why? You are safely isolated from the action on the screen, but you have falsely identified yourself with what you are watching. Purusha is simply the witness to the "movie" of your mindbody (prakriti) but has gotten itself identified with the mindbody. For Patanjali, yoga is not union but the radical divorcing or separating from such identification.
And then the monistic traditions, like the more popular forms of Vedanta, tell us the myriad appearances we perceive are illusory and that there is only one real existent and that is brahman. Each individual mindbody is an illusory expression of the one reality or substance; just as the individual ceramic cups, plates and bowls that seem different from each other are really all just clay, the individuals we perceive as different from each other are really all just brahman.
What the Buddha is saying is something that transcends the dual binary of dualism and monism. We are not “one thing” denying the uniqueness of each and every individual but neither are we individual, isolated, separate selves. Lacking any essentialist core, there is no-thing about any of us that keeps us separate while at the same time we each are unique aggregates of many factors; yes we share many of them, but there are differences we can celebrate rather than deny.
You are not me and I am not you. AND there is no-thing in or about us that keeps us separate and isolated. We can celebrate our differences and uniqueness as 'real' while also recognizing there is no-thing essential about us that keeps us separate and isolated. We -- to use the phrase coined by Thich Nhat Hanh -- inter-are.