illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
(Finding unity between Dhyāna traditions and Theravāda)
Chán / Sŏn / Zen is replete with enquiries into "who am I?" as well as "what is this (experience)?" Such questions are natural gateways into 'selflessness', which itself is a gateway into 'emptiness'.
It may be argued, quite easily, that these were the fundamental questions the Buddha asked about the nature of existence.
Who am I? Impermanent, conditioned aggregates.
What is this? Suffering. And what is suffering? Clinging.
It might not seem stupid to trust a method of enquiry which proved key to the Buddha…
There is however the Phagguna sutta (SN 12.12)… which, without criticising the above (since it proved useful to the Buddha, criticism might be difficult to justify), would nonetheless suggest that maybe we don't have to re-invent the wheel:
"Monks, there are these four nutriments for the maintenance of beings who have come into being, or for the support of those in search of a place to be born. Which four? Edible food, gross or refined; (sense-)contact; (mental fabrications and) volition; and consciousness."
When this was said, Ven. Moliya Phagguna said to the Blessed One
"Lord, who feeds on the consciousness-nutriment?"
"Not a valid question," the Blessed One said.
"I don't say 'feeds.' If I were to say 'feeds,' then 'Who feeds on the consciousness-nutriment?' would be a valid question. But I don't say that.
"When I don't say that, the valid question is 'Consciousness-nutriment for what?' And the valid answer is 'Consciousness-nutriment for the production of future coming-into-being. When that has come into being and exists, then the six sense media. From the six sense media as a requisite condition comes contact'."
"Lord, who makes contact?"
"Not a valid question," the Blessed One said. "I don't say 'makes contact.' If I were to say 'makes contact,' then 'Who makes contact?' would be a valid question. But I don't say that.
"When I don't say that, the valid question is 'From what as a requisite condition comes contact?' And the valid answer is 'From the six sense media as a requisite condition comes contact. From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling'."
"Lord, who feels?"
"Not a valid question," the Blessed One said. (…) " 'From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling. From feeling as a requisite condition comes craving'."
"Lord, who craves?"
"Not a valid question," (…) " 'From feeling as a requisite condition comes craving. From craving as a requisite condition comes clinging'."
"Lord, who clings?"
"Not a valid question," the Blessed One said. (…) " 'From craving as a requisite condition comes clinging. From clinging as a requisite condition comes becoming. From becoming as a requisite condition comes birth. From birth as a requisite condition, then ageing & death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair come into play. Such is the origination of this entire mass of stress & suffering.' (…)"
Neither a derogation nor an idolisation of language will do (gplus.wallez.name/MpMqw5wnCwu).
Chán / Sŏn / Zen is a "transmission beyond scriptures" (gplus.wallez.name/MjXGCt9df7t). 'Beyond', and not 'without': it may not be so smart to waste time reinventing Dependent Origination! To enquire into it, without being bound by scriptures, is different from blindly ignoring a conventional truth (gplus.wallez.name/gyr4iNrYS58).
The Theravāda Abhidhamma is fundamentally an attempt at systematising the teachings of the Buddha in terms of ultimate truth (i.e. without reference to an illusory 'person' or 'self'). The Dhyāna traditions may take a different approach, aiming to point directly to the selfless mind, rather than via "conventional truths to then be 'understood' in ultimate terms". It is easy for meditators to accuse the Theravāda school of leading to / relying on mental proliferations, but Arhats have fully realised why "Who am I?" is not a valid question and have "dropped body and mind". Both traditions are tailored for different people, with different conditions or circumstances, and none is intrinsically superior to the other.
As I recently explained in a "tl;dr" post (gplus.wallez.name/6A7U8YDt9bY), blame is unhelpful because it is a process of "identifying entities" (worse: not only identifying entities but also freezing them, as 'causes', in the past) rather than "identifying ways of dealing with the problem.". This makes 'who?' a double-edged question: 'who' as the apparent actor engaged in a tendency (wholesome tendency to cultivate, or unwholesome tendency to cease) is helpful, 'who' as a reified 'result' of the past (terminated, disengaged) is not so helpful… Zen knows so, and the question "who am I?" is a trap one ultimately has to extirpate oneself from!
"What to do here&now?" is the valid question, to embody wisdom, in terms of causality and processes / tendencies, without the delusions of permanency and entities.
"Who am I?" is only a gateway to "What to do here&now?" (or "who do I choose to embody?"); if a Zen example is needed, the two questions respectively led to the two main satoris of Hakuin (gplus.wallez.name/SMWkGtSfKDz).
Photo: © Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters
Two complete translations of SN 12.12: