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How can there be no-self if I recognise there is karmic continuity?
November 23rd, 2012 (November 25th, 2012)

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

How can there be no-self if I recognise there is karmic continuity?
Part 2

On a post about "treat[ing] all living beings with great respect" (, +J. Brian Waddington   commented that it "seem[ed] to [him] that, even if it cannot be found, there must be something that is [him] that keeps moving on to enlightenment." So here is the continuation of an answer as to: how can there be no-self if I recognise there is karmic continuity?

Part 1 ( provided an analogy to show that continuity may exist without transmission of a self, to show that the 'must' in "there must be something…" is not a logical requirement!
I tried to keep part 1 both short and "opening a perspective," but the comments led me to consider that I may have left too much uncertainty for people to just sit with it. Interestingly, this uneasiness in front of not-knowing is what makes us create a 'self' and be reborn, it is the very root of 'cyclic' existence, chasing an ever-elusive sense of security: as soon as the 'self' is challenged, one re-invents a 'self', no matter how contorted any redefinition needs to be.
In part 2, I initially wanted to cover the 'contact' ensuring karmic continuity from one life to the next. However, after the comments in the first post, it seems clear I need to address a preliminary point. This is much longer, and will provide no certainty… Please try to sit within this lack of certainty until part 3. Comments are still welcome, but please refrain from rushing to prove me wrong (unless you can justify it with strong evidence…). "Opening up" is required at this stage of the conversation if we want to ever get to "how can there be no-self if I recognise there is karmic continuity?"


What is a "sense of self"? It is our perception of a self.
Is perceiving a 'self' enough to assert the existence of the 'self,' following Descartes' famous "cogito ergo sum" (I think therefore I am)? Kant, Comte, Nietzsche or Husserl should have definitely dispelled this myth; one does not need Buddhism to realise the immediate reification of "cogito ergo sum." One does not need Buddhism to realise that 'cogito' requires a 'thinker' but also an 'observer' aware of the 'thinker.' Self-awareness is an appropriation mechanism already: it takes a (perception of) thought and appropriates it as 'mine.' The problem is that 'mine' is only possible if I assume a 'me' in the first place, so I cannot logically prove that the 'me' exists by making explicit what is 'mine.' Logically-speaking, "cogito ergo sum" is a circular argument.

Perception is not reliable: we might well perceive something and wrongly identify it as something else… I see the Earth flat; that doesn't make it so. I see the dark sky at night, without light; that doesn't make it so, it's only full of light out of the visible spectrum for the human eye… I hear silence, when dogs may hear ultra-sounds. I may recall 'memories' that never happened anywhere other than in dreams. I may forget 'memories.' Scientific experiments have shown that many decisions are 'made' (i.e. are deterministically predictable by the scientific observer) before they become conscious (let alone acted upon).

Therefore, a "sense of self" does not prove that a 'self' exists. A sense of self is a perception, and like when looking at a magic trick, illusions and mirages may affect perception. This is very important, because rejecting the existence of a 'self' has nothing to do with rejecting the existence of a "sense of self".

Fundamentally, for something to have a chance at being true, we not only need to conceive it, make sense of it, but we also need to confirm the theories by actual experience. Theories are only useful inasmuch as they are giving us predictive / explanatory power. We cannot trust theories in isolation more than we can trust perception; both are easily deceiving. However, their interactions apply constraints on each other and may allow for some conclusion.

What is a 'self'? Let's attempt to be crystal clear. The 'self' is what perpetuates identity through all other changes, it is what does not change when the rest does. In a context of re-incarnation, it is what pertained to the previous lives and still pertains to the current life and will keep pertaining to the future lives (as long as 'I' am in cyclic existence).

The goal of our analysis should not be a game of renaming 'self' as a 'process of re-incarnation', in which one may locate a 'continuity' in spite of our repeated deaths! If one considers how a body will be recycled by Life at large, this is not what is meant by re-incarnation (or re-birth)! "Life at large" (body turns to dust, which feeds new life) is not supportive of any specific identity, so this is not what we are after if we look for a 'self.'

If one identifies the 'self' with one particular process of re-incarnation (among many processes), then this requires an additional constraint: this requires the 'process' to be un-changing, i.e. pre-determined, fate out of one's hands (down to the minutest details)… Again, the 'self' has to be what is constant to support 'identity.' And since a process fundamentally interacts with 'conditions', fixing the process requires fixing everything ever interacted with. If everything is pre-determined, then… as it is written on the tin: everything is pre-determined! You might or might not continue reading this, but this 'choice' of yours is pre-determined. What you will 'see' or have insights about is pre-determined; what you will do with these insights is pre-determined… There is nothing you can do in your attitude to life, in how you experience life, to hasten or impede your journey. There is nothing you can do to play, or not to play, your part. There may be a purpose to spiritual practice, but it is completely out of your hands.

Personally, I always find it easy to understand why someone would want to convince others that they're not 'free'! After all, this is the best excuse ever if you want to coerce someone: "you have no choice! you must…" It is also the best excuse if you want to avoid taking responsibility for something you are blamed for: "I had no choice… 'I' should not be blamed for a decision fundamentally not 'mine'…" It is the best excuse if you want to lock someone away: "they don't control their behaviour, they have this dangerous tendency, it is not their fault but there is nothing they can 'choose' to change, so they have to be locked away. This is not out of some morally-justified retaliation, but simple pragmatism!"

There is only one way to live one's life fully and it is to take responsibility for being free.

If "being free" is a deterministic illusion, then I was meant to delude myself and there is nothing I can do about it, so be it! If it is not an illusion, then I am more likely to act appropriately by acknowledging freedom than by deluding myself (for the sake of easy excuses? thus exhibiting freedom in the very choice of not taking responsibility?).
Hopefully, by now, either you have stopped reading or you are ready to accept that, to be of interest, the karmic process cannot be fixed (static or pre-determined) and, if the process is changing, it is not a 'self' (by definition of what does not change in identity).

Note that it does not work either to consider that the karmic process might be like the 'wave' view of an atom while the 'self' might be like the 'particle' view of an atom. While an atom may appear to have a rather solid identity (according to the Mendeleev periodic table), it can be smashed, fused, fissioned, and so its identity is pretty elusive… Nāgārjuna would clearly state that anything that is composed may simply not be a fixed entity.

What is my 'self'?

J. Brian answered "what do I call self? what a strange question. I am myself. I am made up of physical and mental. I am the self that is interacting with your self. I am the self that has existed for a very long time and will continue to exist for a very long time in many forms. I am energy and energy may be transformed but it cannot be destroyed."
The 'self' of J. Brian is not constant and does not allow identification through time: all physical aggregates have changed — most cells have been fully replaced and in the major exception, the cortex, neurons have evolved new connections and tuned new thresholds to trigger activations and inhibitions. Mental consciousness is discontinuous (when in deep sleep) and, in any case, changing. Habits change, beliefs change; some old behaviours are modified or even fully inhibited; some new behaviours are cultivated. History itself is forgotten, recreated, re-interpreted… So there is nothing in physical or mental that supports a 'self' providing a constant identity through decades, let alone across lives. For 'identity' to mean something real, the identity that is interacting with me should be the same identity that pre-existed the interaction.

The energy may be transformed but it cannot be destroyed. This cannot be the 'self' (or a 'soul') i.e. a basis for identity though, because energy is the perfect shape-shifter. And while quantum mechanics suggest quanta of energy, there are reasons to suspect a threshold effect on an energy field rather than entities per se. One needs to be careful that, while a quantum may give a photon a corpuscular characteristic, not all photons have the same energy… Preservation of energy may be associated to causality quite easily: matter + anti-matter gives light (or other pairs), rather than nothing, as it preserves energy. Preservation of energy is not comparable to preservation of identity or entity though, as we have no way to trace back to the origins of a particular observable: it is noticeable that, while we can generate isolated quantum particles, we observe their reactions with something else, we do not observe the particle itself and then observe its impact on a scientific instrument. We can observe similar particles in different manners, but not the 'same' particle. We are good at generating particles with similar characteristics, and we can do scientific models based on these similarities; but they are not the exact same particles.

Heisenberg's uncertainty somehow prevents identity from being ascertained. Measuring the speed of an electron is antinomic with measuring its position: intuitively, it is hard to measure a change of position (speed) while fixing the position! It seems possible by putting a wall: it fixes the position and one can measure the force applied on the wall by the impact… but then you only know the past speed of a particle which no longer has this said speed and is irremediably smashed into something else on impact (you might even get a nuclear fusion, later decaying into other elements! Or you could get a mini black hole in the LHC small enough not to grow and eat Earth, but evaporating by radiation instead! As said, energy is the perfect shape-shifter…)

For now, we are left without a satisfactory definition of my self. The energy is too much of a shape-shifter, and too uncertain, to be what preserves identity. I doubt many people would consider their identity altered by simply breathing in one breath, or not even doing that, just staying a microsecond exposed to some light (cosmic radiation or anything). Let's keep looking.

What is found? One has to realise that there is nothing that can be put forward as "this is me." If the phone rings, would "this is me" be of any satisfaction when one asks "who's calling?" It wouldn't. The only reason it could be is because one recognises the voice, but then the voice and the pattern recognition mattered, not the answer itself — which could have been "this is God" and the recognition would have been the same (and hopefully one would not have believed it actually was God).

The 'self' is not found. By experience, you already know this. "Not found" does not mean it does not exist, but it certainly does call the question of its existence and prevents any easy answer. Even if I think I found the 'self,' the description (to myself and others) is like "I 'know' because of this experience or that experience," i.e. I merely 'infer' from something else: this is a mental fabrication, which may well use logic and other tools to convince myself of the veracity, but I have no idea of what the 'self' actually is. I have no direct measure of it. I did not even put a wall to indirectly measure the impact of an old self against it, knowing I altered it by doing so but at least proving there was 'something' in the causal chain! I truly have no measure; the experience is always about something else, a dream, a vision, a feeling… The vision is never of the self itself. At best, it appears as the clothes of the 'self', fitted maybe, but still not the 'self'. At best, it appears as the shape of a 'power' or a 'characteristic' of the 'self', still not the 'self'.

What is found is a "sense of self." What is found are characteristics associated to a 'self': 'attributed' (to someone else) or 'appropriated' (to oneself).

If I ask you to introduce yourself, you well know "this is me" says nothing! If you tell the truth, telling "this is me" to yourself does not even work: the next question would be "me, as in the person who cares about saving the environment, or the person who wasted a lot of water to have a hot bath last night because I really needed one after such a stressful day?" You know this defined 'me' of yours is inconsistent and inconstant. And you know you can 'rationalise' the impermanence out, you can tell yourself stories about what's constant (and when it does not resist analysis, let's gloss over and say that what's not constant is not relevant, but keep the conclusion nonetheless!).

If I ask you to introduce yourself, you will use images or labels to indicate characteristics (be they nominal, physical, habitual (tastes, values, skills), historical…). The key is to see that you don't indicate any 'self': you construct a self by associating characteristics to it. You have no 'me' but you infer one from what you define as 'mine': of course, if something is 'mine,' there must exist a 'me,' right? True, but there is a gigantic 'if'! You're relying on a circular argument here, so logic merely indicates the consistency of your claim of the existence of a self, not its reality!

The sense of self arises from the appropriation mechanism. I perceive thoughts. Moreover, relatively early in life, I can realise that a thought is not the same as its object (the thought of food doesn't satisfy as much as actual food: wishing for something doesn't make it appear). The discrimination between thought and its object leads to awareness of a fleeting relationship between them (sometimes satisfactory, sometimes not).
However, the thought does not exist independently of its content (be it in words, memories, direct sensation…). There is no thought without content. Even self-awareness is awareness of awareness. The interesting thing is when awareness becomes reflexive: not only do we realise that awareness relates to an object but also that awareness exists as an object (of self-awareness). And we start reifying the awareness, we make a real 'thing' of it, which separates it from the rest even though we cannot find awareness independently from its content. We create a 'me' as the imagined 'core' of this awareness, and we cannot find this core, but the more we establish relationships between this 'me' and other things, the more we sense we know this 'me': that's the 'me' who has blue eyes, blonde hair, hates coffee, etc. The longer the list, the longer the narrative, the better… which quickly is great because we realise none of these characteristics are constant, so they're not really giving us any information about the 'core' but, by building an 'historical' narrative of the changes, we can still appropriate an even longer list of past and present characteristics! In practice, when we reach the historical phase, we are accumulating evidence against the existence of a 'self', but we build a narrative to rationalise why the narrative itself should be a 'self'!

The more I would know the looks, habits, values, 'history' narratives of someone else, the more I would feel I know this person. I simply apply the same logic to myself. Obviously, I may doubt the narrative of my friend (being a little one-sided maybe), I may doubt their history truly informs me of who they are now (when is a trauma truly overcome? what is to say that all this past was not a deceptive ploy?), etc. I understand that their characteristics are not who they are… But I'd anguish at the simple idea of doubting these in myself. If someone writes on g+ that I have no real core, I would immediately rush in with a new definition of continuous karmic stream or whatever to insist that, evidently, I have a core, 'I' exist! Funnily, this is still simple 'appropriation' though: the point made will not be about a karmic stream, this will be about my karmic stream, squarely assuming there is a 'me' the karmic stream can be attributed to. Circular reference, here we come again! 'I' cannot be 'my' karmic stream. 'my' indicates a relationship between 'me' and the stream, it discriminates the two, separates the two… There is no core. There may be a stream, but no real persistent 'me'.

What exists is a sense of a core, a sense of self. This 'sense' arises from misinterpreting a circular reference as an existential reality. Thanks to the consistency of the circular reference, I can pile up forever characteristics of who 'I' am… but that still establishes nothing. The consistency is still circular: I assume a 'me', to who I associated characteristics, then consider the characteristics prove the existence of the 'me' at their centre. All the characteristics I mention are subject to change, thus do not even give me an indirect handle on the core, but I still assume the core as existent.

It is an illusion similar to seeing an object as a 'full' solid: at the atomic level, the solid is 'full' of empty space… the empty space in no way prevents relationships (and constraints from them) to exist that will allow to 'build' a solid. A construct with an empty core may physically stand, and present itself as solid. The chair you're seated on is such an example! In architecture, it is the space in between walls that is liveable, not the walls themselves. Our sense of self is fundamentally misguided: it requests a solid to be full, it requires a building to be full… We want to generalise the external of a construct to the internal. There is no independent 'core' found, there is no 'self' found, only characteristics we appropriate. A 'core' simply is not needed to have a structure of relationships. Moreover, our lack of core is precisely what allows us to live. To change, we need emptiness where change can take place!

Conclusion: there is no self, there is no true identity. A lack of true identity makes re-incarnation irrelevant: 'you' will not be reborn. But this does not imply that the "sense of you" will not perceive a re-incarnation (some kind of identity passed from one body to the next).

Part 3 will hopefully cover the 'contact' allowing karmic continuity from one life to the next (and how the 'next' life appropriate a past life as its own).

#Buddhism   #Dharma   #buddhistcircle  
 Diamond and graphite have the same chemical composition (just a bit of carbon and mostly space): the relationships between atoms decide the properties of the materials — 'wavy' atoms, not little 'hard' balls…
 That's for the solid state, and liquid and vapor states are also possible, cf.
If matter does not need a 'core' in order to be, why would you? ]