This subject goes to the heart of things, it concerns the fundamental question, “Who am I?” In the Buddha’s day the belief was that the Universe was permeated with Brahman – later defined as truth, consciousness and bliss – and we, as part of the Universe, were joined with Brahman by our own Self, the Atman.
The Buddha, ever the empirical scientist, investigated this claim using his meditative insight and discovered that wherever he looked within the psychophysical components of his being, called in Buddhism the five skandhas, – his senses, how the information they received was felt and processed, his reactions and his consciousness – he could not find anything that corresponded to the characteristics of the Atman. Thus each and all of the five skandhas were not the Self – or more simply, ‘not-self’. This realization became part of his description of how really things are – not-self, impermanent and unsatisfactory – that we looked at in our session on Right View.
The Buddha’s position on not-self was not so much a statement of faith or a doctrine but something much more about staying with things just as they are and not adding anything else. In a way it was also a teaching device giving the message not to get caught up in metaphysics but rather persist in a mindful awareness of what is already here. However, after only a few generations, this very simple and pragmatic approach began to be replaced by a re-emergence of speculation amongst the later monks about what the Buddha had really meant when he talked about not-self. Did he really mean that there really was absolutely no self at all when you look very deeply and if that was the case who is doing the looking and what happens when we die, who (or what) is it that is reborn? There was also the emotional issue of it all sounding a bit negative, even miserable. It could seem it was all about giving up ignorance, grasping and hatred and then when finally purified, bingo, awakening dawned!
As more years unfolded the debate on Self grew bigger and out of it was born a whole succession of different Buddhist philosophies that without exception tried to walk a middle path between on the one hand suggesting that there really was something Self-like at the centre of our being and on the other hand that there was nothing whatsoever, only an endless process of change. Into this mix, perhaps around six or seven hundred years after the Buddha’s death, emerged the idea of the Tathagatagarbha – the womb or the embryo of awakening that is found within all beings and all things – which is also known as the Buddha Nature. This beautiful idea must have immediately answered the emotional need for a warmer, more positive perspective. The three poisons of ignorance, grasping and hatred remained but they could be countered by the development of wisdom, kindness and generosity and that at our centre, in the place of our innermost being, it was not a mere nothing but something more positive, a Buddha Nature that was already and always replete with the enlightened qualities of spaciousness, clarity and bliss. This was something to cheer a solitary Buddhist on a dark night.
However it was not quite that simple. The Buddha Nature could be understood in different ways. Was it like a seed that grew when fed and watered by our practice of the Noble Eightfold Path or was it more like something already perfect and fully formed that, covered by ignorance, grasping and hatred, is revealed immediately they are cleaned away? Those monks and teachers who favoured the side of the argument that emphasised the absolute absence of a Self liked the first ‘gardening’ metaphor and those monks and teachers who favoured the side of the argument that emphasised the more positive description of things liked the second ‘uncovering’ metaphor.
Now coming back to our own meditation. It is possible to take this ancient (and on going) debate and see for ourselves how these two images – gradual cultivation like a gardener or clearing away and there ‘it’ suddenly is already perfect and complete – might affect our own experience. To change the metaphors a bit we may imagine the first like a river that has nothing within it that is not in a constant state of change, no essence of river that remains at the centre of it, and the second like a wheel that at its rim is in constant change while at its centre is perfectly still. To put this into practice choose to practice mindfulness of breathing first with the background feel of the river and then in a second session with the background feel of the wheel. You might also like to note down the difference in feeling (if any) and see whether you actually prefer one to the other and why that may be so.
Have a go now.
So finally you may by now be asking why is this all so important? The answer to this is that in the back of our minds, usually fairly unconscious, we all have images of what we are doing when we are practicing mindfulness and furthermore these images deeply affect our practice. All Buddhist schools agree that if we do not have an accurate understanding of the oddity that there appears to be no one actually meditating when we look into our minds to find them, then the whole process will finally falter and perhaps end in tears. That there is no complete agreement on what this accurate understanding may be is another issue! For myself I believe the philosophy is not as important as investigating personal experience. It may just be that I find I am deeply attached to the feel of the river because something inside me just wants to be totally free. Were we to find this, practicing with the image of the wheel might disclose where we are limiting our practice. Conversely we may find an attachment to wanting a still centre we can take refuge in because something inside just wants to hide away in something that feels safe. Again practicing with the feel of the river may be a way forward for our practice to go. Either way there are no ultimate rights and wrongs here, just an invitation to explore it for ourself – in just the same way the historical Buddha did almost two and a half thousand years ago.