Sandra Holmes Dharma Talk: Who Am I?


Who Am I?

by Sandra Jishu Holmes
Talk given to Zen Group at Naropa on Feb. 6, 1993
There are three kinds of views of self. The first is that this body is the self, or these feelings, perceptions mental formations, or consciousness are the self. This is “the belief in skandha as self,” and it is the first wrong view. But when one says, ‘The skandhas are not the self.’ one may fall into the second wrong view and believe that the self is something that exists independently from the skandhas and that the ‘skandha is different from the self.’ The third wrong view consists in the belief that there is a presence of the self in the skandhas, and there is the presence of the skandhas in the self. This is called ‘the belief in the presence of skandhas and self in each other.’

Rahula, practicing deeply the meditation on the emptiness of the self means looking into the five skandhas in order to see that they are neither self, belonging to self, nor interbeing with self. Thich Nhat Hanh, Old Path White Clouds.

Those of you who are studying in the “How to Raise an Ox” program have been using the study of the skandhas to deeply explore the question “Who Am I?”

We’ve learned that, according to Buddhist psychology, the five skandhas are the basic building blocks or components of all our experience, that is, each event in our lives is a crystallization of these five fields of energy.

Let’s talk about the “self” as an event in our lives.

We’ve learned how we tend to identify ourselves with the five skandhas. We are very strongly attached to the idea that our bodies are our selves. How do you describe your form? I am 5 foot 4 inches, I weigh 120 pounds, I have brown eyes, I have brown hair turning grey. I have two arms and two legs and I’m attractive, ugly, fat, thin, tall, short….. Basically I am … this body. I do not extend beyond this body. I am not you and you are not me. The limits of my extension is my skin. What is inside the barrier of the skin is me. What is outside the barrier of the skin is other.

Similarly with feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. Consider how you use labels to describe yourself. I am a mother, aunt, sister, daughter, cousin, teacher, secretary, diplomat, young, old, American, Italian, Christian, Buddhist, lovable, funny, uptight, intelligent, loyal, thoughtful, considerate, a real Boy Scout, deceitful, arrogant, incompetent, etc…….etc. We place these labels on ourselves and then believe that that is who we are.

And then there are our story-lines, the thread of consciousness that we run through all of our experiences in order to give ourselves the illusion of continuity and stability. We see Johnny Upstart across the street and we immediately plug into our Johnny Upstart story line. Oh! there’s Johnny, he’s always talking about how great he is. If he sees me he’s going to want to spend a half hour talking about how he won his last basketball game and how successful he is at work and how everybody loves what he’s doing at the club. Or how about our favorite story lines about who we are: I am a person who can’t work with others, I’m not a leader, I can do this but not that. We know who we are because we are constantly telling ourselves who we are and who we are not.

But who are you really? Probably you’ve begun to see how you recreate yourself in each moment. Perhaps you’ve begun to see that the Buddhist idea of impermanence extends even to this entity you’ve been calling yourself. And if your ‘self’ is not what you been in the habit of thinking it is… What in fact is it? If we are not the five skandhas then are we something else? Is there some other thing that we can call the self? Is there a self that exists independently of the skandhas?

Milarepa wrote a beautiful song about this. He said:

To maintain the existence of a ghost,
Only brings about mischief;
To understand the non-existence of a ghost
Is the way of Buddha;
To know that ghost and Reality are one
Is the way to Liberation.
Knowing that the ghosts are all one’s parents
Is the right understanding;
Realizing that the ghost itself is Self-mind
Is glory supreme.

So you see, this brings us back to the Buddha’s instruction to Rahula, practicing deeply the meditation on the emptiness of the self means looking into the five skandhas in order to see that they are neither self, belonging to self, nor interbeing with self. Each human being is in fact a series of events. Each event is the result of the preceding one and follows it without any interval. The unbroken progression of closely connected events gives the appearance of continuity, of identity, but this continuity is only the ghost of reality, not ultimate truth. But Milarepa is telling us that this ghost of a self, which is empty of self-nature is in fact Reality, is itself the self-mind. The Heart Sutra tells us, Form is emptiness, Emptiness is form. Seeing the emptiness of our idea of self is half way. The other half is seeing that that same ghost of a self is our Self-mind. is Reality.

It is because of our attachment to the idea that this is our self, that we fall into suffering. It binds us to action and identifying with the actor, the action, and the thing acted upon. But in fact we are free. Can you glimpse your self as pure being? As pure Buddha Nature? Can you appreciate that aspect of you that is beyond your body, beyond your name, your thoughts and feelings, you ideas, opinions, concepts and beyond your identification of yourself as a certain age, sex, or nationality?

But as the Heart Sutra tells us form is emptiness, emptiness is form. So the skandhas are empty, our self is empty and yet that very emptiness is form, is reality. To Know that ghost and Reality are one, Is the Way to Liberation. We all have qualities and characteristics. They are not errors and faults, they are the seed of Bodhi-mind. They are the see of liberation. Only that which we reject, and try to push away becomes an obstacle. To befriend ourselves, to move towards and embrace the whole series of events that constitute who we are, that is to begin the process of liberation.

Dogen Zenji, who lived in twelfth century Japan and is the founder of the Soto Zen Tradition, said:

To study the Buddha Way is to study oneself.
To study oneself is to forget oneself.
To forget oneself is to be enlightened by the ten thousand dharmas.
To be enlightened by the ten thousand dharmas is to be freed from one’s body and mind and those of others.
No trace of enlightenment remains, and this traceless enlightenmentis continued forever.