If we look carefully we shall see that there are two kinds of life — there is pure life, the essential part of life, and there is a kind of life which has something extra, something added. This addition is the burden. We need to understand this carefully and see that there are two kinds because most of us blur the two together and confuse them. When we talk about the pure life, life that has nothing extra added, we are talking about nama and rupa, or mind and body. Pure life is just mind and body; that is all there is. But the life that is a burden for itself has something added; a third element is added to mind and body. In Pali this is called the ‘atta’. In English we might call it ‘the self’. When we take the pure life of mind and body, and add a self to it, then there is this self which can suffer. This is the extra something that has been added.
Adding self — some people call it ‘spirit’, or ‘soul’, this idea that there is some eternal substance that makes you ‘you’, that makes you into some special individual, some separate personality — is what makes life such a burden. So, if you are wise, you learn to distinguish between the pure life of mind and body, nothing but mind and body, and the burdened, heavy life where you have added this thing called ‘a self.
Often, when we say that there is no self, people get worried, or angry. Their attachment and identification to this idea of a self is so strong that they actually become hostile towards us if we begin to say there is no such thing. We need to explain this a bit, therefore, so that you don’t get mad at us. The idea of a self is common to everyone. Whether we come from the East or the West, we have some kind of idea and belief in a self, every one of us, absolutely; it is a fundamental illusion that arises in all human minds. Indians, Thais, Chinese, everybody, is walking around with this idea of a self, a soul, an atman, or whatever we want to call it.
We have to look at this and see if there really is such a thing. How does this idea of a self come about? What happens to bring it about in children? A child may be walking along, for example, and bumps into a chair. It hurts its leg and becomes angry. The child then kicks the chair, maybe really hard. The chair has turned into a little soul for the child; the chair has been identified as an individual thing, and has been given a personality. And, since the chair aggressively attacked the child, the child strikes back in anger. This is the result of not understanding the way things are. The child is ignorant of the reality of the chair. A chair has no personality and so it is absolutely ridiculous to get angry at it, or at any inanimate object. But because of ignorance, of not understanding, the illusion of a self arises, not only towards the chair, but also towards the body and mind — ‘I’ arises, ‘I’ who am different from that chair.
This is a fundamental illusion constantly being conditioned in the human mind, in the mind of all sentient beings. And it is rooted in ignorance. This illusion, the idea of a self, is constantly arising in the mind. This idea, or feeling, that there is a self, is real. The feeling itself really exists; we experience it constantly. As you listen to me now [or are reading this now], you are probably turning me into a soul, and you, the listener [or reader], into another soul. This idea is constantly arising. This illusion is real, but there is no reality behind the illusion. The idea that there is a self, occurs. But there is no self! It is just an illusion! And we are working with all these illusions, imparting this ‘soulness’, this ‘individuality’, ‘personality’, to things all the time. We are constantly doing this because of our lack of understanding. This ignorance genuinely arises, but what we think exists, i.e. a self, does not. Because this fundamental illusion is so common in the minds of sentient beings, it makes it very difficult for us to understand what is said when we talk about this subject. So please don’t get angry, or frustrated, or nervous, or worried. Just try to understand what is being said. Put your ‘soul’ aside for a moment and think things through clearly.
This idea, or illusion, of a self is something buried really deeply in the mind. It is stuck in there and is very difficult to uproot. For two reasons— one is that it arises spontaneously, instinctually, as in the case of the child who got angry with the chair, and the other is that it is supported, nurtured and encouraged all our lives. As we learn to relate to the world around us as babies, we are taught by our parents and brothers and sisters that this is ‘me’, this is ‘you’, this is ‘mine’, this is ‘ours’. We are taught to attach to things and to identify with them as ‘I’ and ‘mine’ and as separate entities, right from the very beginning. On top of the instinctual tendency for this illusion, it is also drilled into us by the people who love us the most. This idea, or feeling, of a self is, therefore, very deep; it is really stuck in there with very strong glue. Now, some of you may think that what we are talking about is crazy. You may be shaking your heads and thinking that these monks don’t know what they’re talking about But we encourage you to listen very carefully because we are going to tell you how it is possible to uproot this illusion of a self which is the cause of the burden of life.
We are all afraid of letting go of this idea of a self. And when we talk about uprooting it, it sounds as if we are saying you are to kill yourselves, to commit suicide. This shows how great your confusion is, and therefore I encourage you to take a fresh look at this issue. Try to put aside all the opinions, prejudices and ideas you have about a soul, a spirit, a self— all these concepts about ‘I’ — the big I, the little I, the big self, the little self, whatever. Start again. Take a fresh look at the self. Come at it as if you are brand new, with a clean, clear mind that is not clouded with all the old conditioning. Look at the self freshly, and see what is really there. What is this self? Don’t be nervous or afraid. And don’t judge everything that is being said. Approach this issue with a brand new mind. Don’t think that what we are saying is that you have to kill yourself. If you understand our words in that way, you are not listening. We are not suggesting you kill yourself, or destroy your life. We are not saying that life must be done away with. What we are talking about is freeing life of this illusion of self.
The self doesn’t even exist. That is why we say it is an illusion, a delusion, a misunderstanding. And we want to free life of this, because this is the burden. This illusion is something extra; it doesn’t exist. And so to kill this illusion, doesn’t damage life one bit. In fact, it frees life of all unsatisfactoriness, all dukkha. This is the way to solve all our problems. This is the way to deal with all our frustrations, pains, miseries, disappointments, sadnesses, worries and fears. Pure life is just mind and body. There is no soul, no self. So what we are talking about is not killing yourself, but freeing life of this burden, this illusion.
Now, how does the illusion of a self arise in the mind that has no self? The fetus in the mother’s womb has no conception or ideas about a self. But then there is birth. And the child’s sense organs begin to function. As these sense organs gather stimuli from the environment, the child begins to interact with that environment. There is a taste experience as the child feeds from its mother’s breast. The mouth tastes the milk and likes it. The milk is pleasing, satisfying, enticing, and the mind of the infant is drawn towards that taste in a positive way. This is pleasant feeling, pleasant vedana, that causes so much trouble. The infant is pleased with the milk, satisfied by it. And then some kind of feeling begins to arise in the mind of the infant. It may not be an intellectual idea, but there is the feeling of an ‘I’, the ‘I’ that is pleased, the ‘I’ that is satisfied, the ‘I’ that likes — ‘I’ like! ‘I’ am pleased! ‘I’ am satisfied! This ‘I’ arises in the infant. As this happens over and over again with all sorts of different experiences, as this is nurtured and supported by parents and others, this idea grows into the idea of a self. At first, this idea of an ‘I’ just arises and passes away with different feelings, with the attachment to feelings, but as it happens over and over again, it becomes an habitual way of relating to life. And so the ‘I’ is no longer something temporary, but grows into what we call a view, a deep-seated bias and prejudice of the mind, that is stubborn and narrow. The mind is completely absorbed into the view that there is a self. So, in this way, the illusion arises. And this view is clung to so strongly that the mind does not challenge it. The mind will not listen to reason, or observe the situation carefully, because it clings to this view so tightly. This view solidifies more and more as the child grows into an adult, and there is no way that truth can shine into the situation. So this is how the idea, the illusion of a self, arises in the newborn’s mind. And this is how the self which does not exist, becomes a real thing in our minds. There is no such thing as a self, but this view of a self becomes something real. And then it’s a burden of life.
Now, once this ‘I’ arises, there immediately and automatically follows the sense of ‘mine’. First comes the illusion of ‘I’, and then, once this is established, follows the illusion of ‘mine’. And from the ‘mine’ comes the illusion of ‘myself’. There is the ‘I’, the sense of possessing, and then the ‘myself — the things that we possess, that we identify with and attach to, as ‘mine’. These three things together we call upadana. Upadana is a Pali word which can be translated as ‘attachment’, or ‘grasping’ and ‘clinging’. So, this attachment to ‘I’, leads to the attachment of ‘mine’ and of ‘myself’. And in this way all sorts of things become burdens to the mind. This is the problem of life. We not only attach to pleasant things, of course, to the satisfying experiences, but also to unpleasant things — ‘I’ hurt, ‘I’ am sick, ‘my’ pain, ‘my’ disease, ‘my’ death. And some of us get so carried away with all this that we even start talking about ‘my’ world. We attach to the entire world. We claim the whole thing to be ‘mine’. This is how this whole process gets really carried away and how our pride and ego know no limits in this illusion and attachment to everything. Take a look at all this. Look at it clearly without any prejudices and see if this isn’t what happens.
So now, what are you going to do about it? You need to learn how to discriminate between two situations. You have to notice the difference between when the illusion of ‘self arises in the mind, and when there is no such illusion. You need to be able to observe the mind very closely, with a great hunger, to see this, to discriminate between these two conditions — the condition of the mind burdened with this illusion, and the mind free of this illusion. These two conditions must be discriminated. When you begin to see these two different conditions in the mind, you will see that the illusion of ‘self is very heavy. And you will see that the absence of this illusion leaves the mind very light.
Once you begin to discriminate between these two conditions, then you will be able to see how it is that this illusion arises. It is always coming and going in the minds of sentient beings. You can see and understand how this illusion arises, where the self comes from. You can see it. You don’t have to believe me. You can see it for yourself. And once you understand where this illusion comes from and how it arises, then you will know what to do. You will see what must be done in order to pull out the root of this illusion. You have to really want to see this, because it is subtle and if you don’t look carefully you will miss it, as you have been missing it all your life.
More teachings from Buddhadasa Bhikkhu.
From November 1994 Buddhism Now.