Part Five - The Marks of the Self
At this point let us return to take another look at those marks of conditioned existence - impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and the lack of an unchanging self or nature. These make clear on what basis there is a problem with the Self – it acts as if the opposite is true; that permanence, satisfaction and a stable fixed self can all be found within conditioned existence. We would rightly call this perverse behaviour, in Buddhism it’s referred to as a viparyasa - an upside down, Topsy-Turvy viewpoint. There are four such perverse views, three of them directly related to the marks of conditioned existence ;-
- The belief that the impermanent is permanent.
- The belief that the unsatisfactory is satisfactory.
- The belief that the insubstantial self is substantial.
- The belief that what is ugly is beautiful.
This last viparyasa is not saying everything in conditioned existence is truly ugly, despite an outward semblance of beauty, because this is simply not true. It’s real meaning is, that in comparison to the True Beauty experienced by an Enlightened person, the beauty of the conditioned world can only be seen as inferior, or ugly. True Beauty is disguised, if not disfigured by conditioned reality. We cling to conditioned beauty, because, however transitory it may be, it keeps us afloat and positive, unable to see or believe a more substantial True Beauty could exist in an unconditioned realm.
This mental perversity is barely conscious, our raw perceptions being instantly filtered through the distorting lens of the Self. Our vision is said to be obscured specifically by ten viewpoints, or fetters, all of which are delusory and thus deemed incorrect. These bind us to seeing only a conditioned version of reality. These Ten Fetters, must all be broken free from before anyone can fully awaken to a Pure Consciousness. The Self having a fixed permanent nature – is traditionally the first fetter that needs to be shattered. So, looked at from the perspective of the three marks of conditioned existence, the three forms of craving, the four mental perversities, and the First Fetter, the evidence is beginning to build up and make it clearer to understand - Why Buddhism considers the Self such a problem. It’s not just one impediment among many, but the primary impediment preventing us from seeing ‘the knowledge and vision of things as they really are’ and thus progressing to attain that elusive state of Enlightenment.
Even to mention the word ‘fetter’ conjures up for me images of manacles, balls and ropes. Fetters do indeed hold back our spirit and aspiration for release. At some level buried in our unconscious, we do want to escape the terminal condition we find ourselves in. Most of us act like rather amateur escapologists, hanging helplessly over an abyss, suspended from a crane, bound by chains, handcuffs and a straight jacket, wondering what happens next. Slowly, as we are lowered into a large tank filled with water, it dawns on us that once we are born into the water, we’ll have only a short time in which to escape. It will only be a matter of minutes. The strategy to escape a conclusive death needs rigorous, systematic execution. We cannot just hold our breath and hope to survive. Unfocused and lacking in resources, the desire for self preservation will be overcome by panic, as the clock continues ticking. If we don’t release ourselves soon the air will run out. At some point we cease to struggle, and give ourselves up to our mortal end.
Faced with the need to escape the impermanent, unsatisfactory nature of our own transitory Self, it seems quite natural, instinctual even, to want to convert our condition to its opposite. The Buddha, two and a half thousand years ago, warned that you cannot permanently escape conditioned existence through any form of craving or aversion. Life is like a cart wheel running uncontrollably down a hill, crossing rough or smooth ground, rolling and bouncing over stones and bushes. Obviously a life’s progress would be more comfortable if we could dictate the nature of the terrain we cross, but mostly we cannot. Our only hope is to find either a way to stop the wheel rolling, or a way to permanently get off it.
First, before we devise an escape plan, we must get a fuller picture of what our predicament is. The Buddhist symbol - The Wheel of Life, represents in iconic form, the evolving pattern of conditioned existence. Around its outer rim, in a succession of images, is drawn a Self perpetuating cycle, a chain of mutually conditioning events, one flowing out of another, known as the Nidana Chain. The sequence traditionally runs as follows ;- Ignorance - Karma Formations - Consciousness – Mind & Body – The Six Sense Bases – Sense Contact – Feeling – Craving –Grasping –Becoming – Birth – Old Age & Death. These twelve links form a binding chain that holds us to the round of conditioned existence, to that wheel spinning wildly out of control down a hill. They also demonstrate something fundamental to understanding the impetus for Buddhist methods and practices – pratitya samutpada, It’s often translated as Dependant Arising, because in dependence on one state, or states, being present, others will arise as a consequence from them. The first part of pratitya samutpada goes as follows ;-
This being – That becomes
From the arising of this – That arises
This describes a simple karmic principle, a chain of causation that produces conditioned existence. This can also be seen as a process that spans not just one life, but many lives. Initially we could look at this span from the perspective of genetics. We come into this current life with a genetic inheritance, dispositions mental and physical, not just from our immediate parents, but from the cumulative evolution of all human and earthly life. We pass on that inheritance, plus our own unique genetic variant to our children. Genetics, unsurprisingly, also demonstrates the three characteristics of conditioned existence. Our genes are in flux, the genetic message they transmit alters from life to life. They are often imperfect and flawed in that transmission, but basically our genes continue to produce human beings that ultimately will die. A specific gene combination deteriorates and dies, devoid of any permanent sense of a self, other than a chain of impulses, a core sense of a genetic message that needs to survive.
The Nidana Chain documents a similar process of inheritance, its practical consequences are, however, more interlaced with spiritual ramifications. The first two stages – Ignorance & Karma Formations – are said to be our inheritance from our previous lives. From - Consciousness right through to Becoming - the effects of that inheritance run through this present life, further added to by the things we do in our current life. From – Becoming through to Birth, Old Age & Death – is what we bequeath to the future being that is re–born. This model is used to demonstrate how conditionality is said to operate. It is only a model, and should not be taken as a scientifically verifiable description, weaving as it does biology and psychology with metaphysics For our purposes, I think it would be useful to closely examine the middle part of the chain, from – Consciousness through to Becoming – viewing it from our perspective of The Self and its evolution.
Consciousness has arisen, but it’s not a Pure Consciousness, because its already tainted, spiritually ignorant, and self conscious in a crude instinctive way. This stage is usually represented by the image of a monkey in a tree. A primate, alone, isolated and perched high up in a tree, looks down on the world from its lonely perspective. It has already discovered that, in terms of survival, it’s got a much better chance of escaping it’s predators high up in the tree canopy. This is one of our genetic relatives, still an animal really, but with a rudimentary, but developing, sense of it’s Self which is separated by necessity from the rest of reality.
Already, almost the very instant consciousness arises, the sense of a Self emerges to take possession of a distinct Mind & Body because here is the monkey, and there is the tree that its sitting in. The image representing this next stage is of four men in a boat. These are said to represent – the five skandhas– of Form, Feeling, Perception, Volition and Discriminating Consciousness, this latter is said to be steering. The boat and the four men are our body, complete with its emotional and mental limbs, that is now self-consciously moved and manipulated. Damasio’s - 'Core Self' has developed into 'The Extended Self.' Once upon a time the boat just floated idly, pulled this way and that by the rocks and eddies, in a stream of instinctual responses. Now the boat is controlled, has a definite sense of direction and purpose, and discriminates accordingly. The Self knows where it wants to go and how it wants to get there.
The Self begins using the body's sensory capacities, The Six Sense Bases, for its own ends. These bring it form and substance, building something solid for it to live in. The image on the Nidana Chain represents it as an empty house with five windows and a door. When you see an unfinished new house, never before inhabited, its very emptiness can be exciting. You rush around from room to room, look out of each window to see the different perspective they give, and stand in its open doorway to get a sense of ownership. An empty house has a potential in that first proprietorial encounter, that it never quite lives up to. As far as The Self goes, it’s a permanent structure, something that protects and will survive, which is all that is required. Yet, this house is permanently empty, imagine it, without real doors or windows, just vacant spaces that the rain can blow through. It’s a house, but not as we know it, its incomplete, unfinished, and a dissatisfied breeze inhabits its rooms.
The relationship between the Self and the Six Sense Bases is like a form of lust, obsessive and driven by a libidinous urge. So, when we come to the image for Sense Contact it really isn’t surprising to find its of two lovers embracing. You know what lust can be like, you’re horny for someone, even though you haven’t actually talked to them. You’re already visualising how it will be when you first experience sex with them. Even before your first date, you’re completely besotted with imagining their body. When the time for actually making love to them arrives you are oblivious to any world outside of them. For a while you just can’t get enough of one another. When the Self is in a sensual relationship with the body and its emotions, it is likewise all consuming, indifferent to anything other than its own lust for assertion and fulfillment.
Feelings arise from this act of narcissism. Though love is blind, so they say, and the image for – Feeling - is of a man with an arrow in his eye. So, not only does the Self blind you to anything other than its own needs, it also requires putting up with a perpetual source of suffering. The ‘Loved One’, the one that we lusted after for so long, may not live up to our fantasies. Relationships are full of minor and major disappointments, as well as the satisfactions and emotional highs. No one person can ever fulfill us in quite the way we imagine they can, we are left still feel lacking in something. Our lover might decide to leave us, they may become broken physically or ill mentally, and worse still even die on us. Desire in all its forms dwindles and dies. The man with the arrow in his eye, suffers pain from this, but he’s not about to take the arrow out of his perception. He is, quite rightly, afraid he’ll die of shock if he removes it, he might simply expire of a broken heart.
With such feelings arises a craving for it to be otherwise. No one in their right minds wants to suffer pain, self-inflicted or not. So, the Self, searches for a palliative, a soothing balm to ease or numb our mental wounds. Craving is pictured as a man drinking and being served by a woman. Intoxication with pleasure, be it via drink, sex or shopping, temporarily blots out our existential predicament. It might even be possible to live one’s whole life, constantly distracting your attention, with one craving being immediately followed by another. The cravings of the Self, are like any drug, they become addictive through repeated application. After a while it becomes almost impossible to take a hold and put a stop to them. Such addictions are a self- perpetuating cycle, and increasingly desperate as we age and become mortified at the proximity of death.
This is why arising out of Craving comes Grasping, the Self and its voracious desires reach desperation point. We aren’t just casually reaching for things, we are grabbing them, rapaciously. The image for grasping is of someone gathering fruit from a tree, perhaps from a whole orchard of fruit trees. We are trying to pick, and stuff into our faces, all the fruit possible before they drop and rot on to the ground, or we do. Time is running out to find that permanently satisfying fruit, that person or thing that will be an eternal self-sustaining elixir.
If we go to our deaths still grasping, Buddhist tradition says the outcome will be a further conception, birth, old age and death. The image for Becoming is either a pregnant woman or a couple engaged in sex. Grasping sows the seeds for a further becoming, a further consciousness, a further Self, a further rolling of the wheel down the hill, another turn around the cycle of conditioned existence. The Nidana Chain demonstrates a flow of conditioning factors, the manner in which we continue our ride on the merry-go-round of existence. Most of the time we are just passively riding, being pulled around, up and down. It’s all a blur, as the fairground organ grinds on and on, and the ride goes round and round. It only takes a little thought, a moment of reflection, for an alternative to seem possible – perhaps it need not be like this.
We exist in a conceptual world of dualities; male and female, black and white, left and right, right and wrong, always there is a balancing symmetry. A conditioned existence implies, at least, the possibility of an opposite unconditioned existence. It would seem safe to presume that this would bear marks the mirror opposite to those in the conditioned - well almost. Whilst the unconditioned is said to be permanent and satisfying, what is considered opposite to ‘a self devoid of substance’ is not ‘a completely durable and permanent version of our existing self’, or ‘no self at all’, but what is termed ‘a greater self’, a self composed and formed from a greater wiser substance. To adapt a phrase from the Christian Liturgy of Committal – our ‘frail’ self is replaced by a ‘glorious’ self in the unconditioned state.
We cannot ever know from our conditioned perspective what is really meant by that, though Buddhist doctrine informs us that for Enlightenment to arise seven positive factors must be present. The most important of these is said to be upeksa, translated as equanimity. Equanimity may perhaps indicate what makes a ‘greater’ more ‘glorious’ sense of self. Whoever possesses equanimity is secure, unshakable and completely unperturbed by the workings of The Eight Worldly Winds we discussed earlier. They will have experienced Insight into their conditional nature. Possessing this wisdom, they’d feel strong compassion for the suffering of any living thing. The frail and insubstantial nature of the sense of one’s Self within conditioned existence could be characterised as disconnected, dependent on, yet also separate from other peoples lives and experience. The ‘greater’ sense of self seems to be characterised by feeling interconnected, interdependent and inseparable from the lives, feelings and thoughts of ,not just us, but the whole of sentient existence.