Do You Really Know Yourself?

Do You Really Know Yourself?


The words ‘know thyself’ appear frequently in the work of the Greek philosopher Plato and have been used by writers and philosophers for thousands of years. But what does it mean to know oneself, why is it important, and how can a person acquire such knowledge?

We suspect that some people would be uncomfortable, or even offended, by the suggestion that they don’t know themselves. We spend 24 hours a day in our own company and while it can sometimes be difficult to interpret other people’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviours, we can’t use this excuse when it comes to ourselves. We have direct access to our inner psychological world and in theory, we are in an ideal position to cultivate an in-depth understanding of who we are.

However, the truth is that many people are not aware of the events unfolding in their mind. At any one moment, a vast number of psychological processes are happening inside them, but at best, they are only partially aware of a small number of these. Consequently, their behaviours are the automated product of a complex – and sometimes competing – assortment of impulses, thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and memories. Rather than consciously allowing these psychological processes to influence their choices, they are effectively ‘processed’ by them. Instead of collaborating with the mind and using it as a tool, they find themselves ‘lived’ by the mind.

Changing this habit is easier said than done but there are some remits of human endeavour that may be able to assist us. In particular, we can look to modern science in order to gain insight into how we can develop a better understanding of ourselves. In order to acquire knowledge about a given phenomenon, scientists engage in the process of observation. This observation takes on many forms. It can involve observing phenomena in their natural state or it can involve observing how phenomena behave under a given set of experimental conditions. However, either way, careful observation is a crucial part of scientific enquiry and if we adopt the same principle in order to gain insight into ourselves, it is likely that our journey of ‘inner scientific enquiry’ will bear fruit.

By stepping back and observing our inner psychological world, a number of ‘truths’ about ourselves become apparent. Firstly, given that it is possible – particularly when using meditation – to observe our thoughts, feelings, and impulses, we must conclude that we are something more than these psychological processes. Secondly, we must also conclude that there exists a part of us that can ‘consciously observe’ our own mind. As we continue to engage in the process of inner observation, this ‘conscious observer’ part of us steadily grows, such that it becomes easier to maintain concentration and observe ourselves for longer periods of time.

A third truth that we may come to understand about ourselves is that the closer we observe, the harder it becomes to establish exactly who and what we are. The reason for this is that we don’t exist as standalone or isolated entities. We exist in reliance upon all other phenomena in the universe. We breathe in the out-breath of every other living being. When we drink a glass of water, we are effectively drinking rivers, clouds, and oceans. Our visit to the bathroom produces food for the plants and trees. Being embraced by a loved one can change a bad day into a good one, and a single heartfelt smile can completely change another person’s life.

In order to truly know ourselves, we have to fundamentally change our ideas of who we think we are and of how we think we exist. In effect, in order to find ourselves, we have to let go of ourselves.  When we stop thinking in terms of ‘me’, ‘mine’, and ‘I’, we start to see the world differently. We start to experience that the boundaries between ourselves and other phenomena become blurred. It becomes difficult to determine where the ‘self’ ends and ‘other’ begins. We adopt a much looser definition of ‘self’ yet somewhat paradoxically, we start to understand more about who and what we are.

Letting go of self really means that we are embracing the universe. The universe has existed for billions of years and it contains lots of knowledge. It contains the knowledge of creation, existence, and dissolution. We are an indispensable part of the universe and it relies upon us just as much as we rely upon it. By exploring the inner universe of our mind, we can weaken – or even remove completely – the boundary that we think exists between our inner psychological world and the external physical world. In other words, our practice of inner scientific enquiry and observation can, in time, cause our inner and outer worlds to collide. When this happens, we find ourselves flooded with the knowledge of the universe and the universe becomes flooded with the knowledge of our mind.

Ven Dr Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Is Buddhism One or Many?

Is Buddhism One or Many?

buddhism 3

In our experience, most individuals who assert that ‘Buddhism is one’ are generally not well informed or are secret (or in some cases open) advocates of ‘hippyism’! Accordingly, the preferred scholarly position appears to be that there are ‘many Buddhisms’. In terms of the superficial form that Buddhism assumes within a particular culture, time, and geographic region, this assertion is perfectly true. For example, Theravada Buddhism is prevalent throughout South East Asian countries (e.g., Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Burma) and places emphasis on following the original word of the historical Buddha. Mahayana Buddhism, which originated several hundred years after Theravada Buddhism, is prevalent throughout East Asia (e.g., Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam) and places emphasis on compassionate activity and the non-dual or empty nature of phenomena. Vajrayana Buddhism didn’t become popular until around the 7th Century and is associated with Himalayan plateau countries such as Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, and Mongolia (and to a lesser extent Japan). Compared to Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhism places greater emphasis on ‘sacred outlook’, the bond between teacher (or ‘guru’) and student, and on various esoteric practices. Schools representing all three Buddhist vehicles (i.e., Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana) are present in the West – where to admittedly differing degrees – they continue to embody the teachings and practices of their source traditions.

Despite these differences between Buddhist vehicles (and even between the various schools that comprise a particular vehicle), we would argue that it is still possible from an informed/scholarly position, to assert that Buddhism is one. Such an assertion is based on the fact that all authentic Buddhist lineages teach methods that ultimately lead to the same result. Furthermore, most of these methods are intended to directly or indirectly foster insight into core Buddhist principles such as suffering, impermanence, and non-self. In essence, suffering is suffering whether you approach it from a Theravada, Mahayana, or Vajrayana perspective. The same applies to impermanence and non-self. Another good example is the trishiksha principle (Sanskrit for the ‘three trainings’; Pali: tisso-sikkha) that incorporates the three trainings of wisdom, meditation, and ethical awareness. These three trainings form the foundations of any authentic Buddhist path, regardless of what geographical region or historical period it originates from.

The essential point is that the different Buddhist vehicles and their respective traditions work with many of the same underlying principles, which they reconstitute and teach in different ways. Furthermore, it is our experience that the further a teacher or practitioner advances along the path of spiritual awareness, the more they start to see similarities between the various Buddhist paths (as well as between Buddhist and non-Buddhist paths). Perhaps this is because the teachings are equivalent to a finger that points to the moon, but they are not the moon itself. In other words, there are some underlying truths of reality and the diverse spiritual teachings are methods of introducing discerning individuals to these truths.

Whenever a realised spiritual being expounds the Buddhist teachings, they provide individuals with an entirely new path of practice. It is completely new compared to that which has gone before because it is being taught by a different teacher, to different students, and in a different period of time. However, although it is a new path, it is really just a manifestation of a ‘universal path’ that, as one of its defining features, has the ability to assume new forms according to the prevailing conditions. A suitable analogy to explain this principle might be that of a chameleon lizard that changes its colour and complexion according to its surroundings. The chameleon can display many different colours, but it is always the same chameleon.

Our view is that the most profound Vajrayana practices are implicit within the simplest of Buddhist teachings, such as the discourse on the four noble truths. Likewise, we believe that Theravada Buddhism, when correctly understood and practiced, can, in particular circumstances, introduce spiritually ripe individuals to what are generally regarded to be Vajrayana or tantric meditative attainments. Within Buddhism, there are different interpretations of how to effectively practice spiritual development, but in essence, they represent variations on the same theme. Consequently, it is possible to make a credible argument that Buddhism is many, but it is also possible to credibly argue that it is one.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2016). Mindfulness and wellbeing: Towards a unified operational approach. In: I. Ivtzan, & T. Lomas (Eds). Mindfulness in Positive Psychology: The Science of Meditation and Wellbeing (pp. 280-292). Oxford: Routledge.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Singh, N. N. (Eds). (2015). Buddhist Foundations of Mindfulness. New York: Springer.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2015). The lineage of mindfulness. Mindfulness, 6, 141-145.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Toward effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6, 123-137.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. D. (2016). Buddhist emptiness theory: Implications for psychology. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, DOI: 10.1037/rel0000079.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Griffiths, M. D., & Singh, N. N. (2015). There is only one mindfulness: Why science and Buddhism need to work together. Mindfulness, 6, 49-56.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Griffiths, M. D., & Singh, N. N. (2015). Mindfulness and the Four Noble Truths. In: E. Shonin, W. Van Gordon, & N. N. Singh (Eds). Buddhist Foundations of Mindfulness (pp. 9-27). New York: Springer.

The Seat of Self and Consciousness in the Brain: A Buddhist Perspective

The Seat of Self and Consciousness in the Brain: A Buddhist Perspective


Clicca qui per Italiano

In recent decades there have been major advances in scientific understanding of the human brain. To a large extent these advances have been driven by new neuroimaging technologies that have provided neuroscientists with increasingly refined images or maps of the brain. One specific arm of neuroscientific research has made use of these neuroimaging techniques in order to try to identify the neurological seat of the self or consciousness. Today’s post briefly highlights some of the key findings of this research and discusses them in relation to core Buddhist principles concerning the manner in which the self is believed to exist.

Neuroimaging studies exploring how and where the brain processes information concerning the self have identified associations between certain self-related cognitive processes and the activation of specific areas in the brain. For example, self-referential memories (i.e., memories concerning the self) are associated with increased activation of the medial prefrontal cortex. A further example is the role played by the left cerebral hemisphere in the regulation of self-recognition (i.e., an individual’s ability to recognize itself in, for example, a reflection or visual image).

The ability to distinguish between self and other is a key aspect of adaptive psychosocial functioning and it therefore makes logical sense that there exist areas within the brain that play a role in processing information concerning the “self”. However, despite the fact that neuroimaging studies have provided some valuable data in terms of brain areas that correspond to self-referential processes, the activation of such brain areas does not equate to the location of consciousness or the nucleus of an inherently existing self. Rather, neuron activation in these brain areas simply demonstrates that most individuals have a pronounced sense of self.

According to the Buddhist teachings, there is an ocean of difference between individuals having a sense of self and there actually being a self that inherently exists. Buddhism accepts that a sense of self is essential if society is to function effectively. For example, most elucidations of the practices of loving-kindness and compassion – two core aspects of the Buddhist teachings – are based on the assumption that there is both a giver (i.e., self) and a receiver (i.e., other). If the historical Buddha didn’t have a sense of self that allowed him to identify that his level of spiritual insight was in some way different than most of his followers, then it is reasonable to assume that he would not have felt the need to expound a path to overcome suffering and ignorance.

However, although beings at the stage of enlightenment have a sense of self (and understand fully that this sense of self is necessary if they are to effectively function in the world), they are also fully aware that the “self” is an illusion. The reason why Buddhism teaches that the self is an illusion relates to the principle of emptiness which asserts that beings (and all phenomena) exist only as interdependent and mentally designated constructs. For example, a flower manifests in dependence upon the water and air in the atmosphere, heat of the sun, seed from which it grew, nutrients in the soil, insects and animals that died and decomposed in order to produce those nutrients, and so forth. Consequently, the flower does not exist in isolation of all other phenomena and it is empty of an independent and inherently existing self. Thus, as we discussed in our Zen-style post on Dream or Reality, phenomena certainly appear to be real but the manner in which they are perceived does not actually equate to the manner in which they truly exist.

Enlightened and unenlightened beings both have a sense of self, but a key difference between these two types of being is that the latter is caught up in the belief that they inherently exist. As we discussed in our post on Deconstructing the Self, due to a firmly-embedded (yet scientifically and logically implausible) belief that the self is an inherent and independently existing entity, Buddhism asserts that afflictive mental states arise as a result of the imputed “self” incessantly craving after objects it considers to be attractive or harbouring aversion towards objects it considers to be unattractive. As part of our academic work we have termed this condition ontological addiction and have defined it as “the unwillingness to relinquish an erroneous and deep-rooted belief in an inherently existing ‘self’ or ‘I’ as well as the ‘impaired functionality’ that arises from such a belief”.

The idea that at the ultimate level there is no such thing as a self that intrinsically exists may be a difficult notion to digest. However, scientific experiments have recently been conducted that appear to add credence to the validity of emptiness. For example, a study published in the journal Nature in 2010 demonstrated that a minute metal blade of semi-conductor material can be made to simultaneously vibrate in two different energy states. This is the kinetic equivalent of matter being in two different places at the same time and it demonstrates that at the sub-atomic level, particles (and any property of self that they might possess) can never be absolutely located in time and space (i.e., they exist nowhere and everywhere at the same time).

Using neuroimaging techniques in order to explore where and how we regulate self-referential processes is important for advancing scientific understanding about the human brain. However, from the Buddhist perspective, consciousness and self are absent of intrinsic existence and they abide just as much within the brain as they do outside of it. Therefore, according to Buddhist theory, attempts by some scientists to identify the specific location of self or consciousness in the brain might be considered a somewhat futile endeavour.


Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Kelley, W.T., Macrae, C.N., Wyland, C., Caglar, S., Inati, S., & Heatherton, T.F. (2002). Finding the self? An event-related fMRI study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14, 785-794.

Heatherton, T. F., Macrae, C. N., & Kelley, W. M. (2004). What the social brain sciences can tell us about the self. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, 190-103.

O’Connell, A.D., Hofheinz, M., Ansmann, M., Bialczak, R.C., Lenander, M., Lucero, E. …. & Cleland, A.N. (2010). Quantum ground state and single-phonon control of a mechanical resonator. Nature, 464, 697-703.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Dream or reality? Philosophy Now, 104, 54.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Searching for the Present Moment. Mindfulness, 5, 105-107

Turk, D. J., Heatherton, T.F., Kelley, W.M., Funnell, M.G., Gazzaniga, M.S., & Macrae, C. N. (2002). Mike or me? Self-recognition in a split-brain patient. Nature Neuroscience, 5, 841–842.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2015). The lineage of mindfulness. Mindfulness, 6, 141-145.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Meditation as medication: Are attitudes changing? British Journal of General Practice, 63, 654.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. (2015). Towards a second-generation of mindfulness-based interventions. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 49, 591-591.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., Compare, A., Zangeneh, M., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Buddhist-derived loving-kindness and compassion meditation for the treatment of psychopathology: A systematic review. Mindfulness, 6, 1161-1180.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). Searching for the present moment, Mindfulness, 5, 105-107

La sede del Sé e della coscienza nel cervello: una prospettiva buddista


Negli ultimi decenni ci sono stati grandi progressi nella comprensione scientifica del cervello umano. Per la maggior parte questi progressi sono stati guidati dalle nuove tecnologie di neuroimaging che hanno fornito ai neuroscienziati immagini o mappe sempre più raffinate del cervello. Un ramo specifico della ricerca neuroscientifica ha fatto uso di queste tecniche di neuroimaging per cercare di identificare la sede neurologico del sé o della coscienza. Il post di oggi, in breve, mette in evidenza alcuni dei principali risultati di questa ricerca e li discute in relazione ai principi buddisti fondamentali, riguardante il modo in cui si crede che il sé esista.

Gli studi di neuroimaging, esplorando dove e come il cervello elabora le informazioni riguardanti il sé, hanno identificato associazioni tra determinati processi cognitivi sé-correlati e l’attivazione di specifiche aree del cervello. Ad esempio, le memorie autoreferenziali (cioè, i ricordi riguardanti il sé) sono associati a una maggiore attivazione della corteccia prefrontale mediale. Un altro esempio è il ruolo svolto dall’emisfero cerebrale sinistro nella regolazione dell’auto-riconoscimento (cioè, la capacità dell’individuo di riconoscersi, ad esempio, in una riflessione o immagine visiva).

La capacità di distinguere tra sé e l’altro è un aspetto fondamentale del funzionamento psicosociale adattivo e ha quindi senso logico che esistano aree all’interno del cervello che svolgono un ruolo nell’elaborazione delle informazioni concernenti il “sé”. Tuttavia, nonostante il fatto che gli studi di neuroimaging abbiano fornito alcuni dati importanti in termini di aree cerebrali che corrispondono a processi auto-referenziali, l’attivazione di tali aree cerebrali non equivale alla posizione di coscienza o al nucleo di un sé inerentemente esistente. Piuttosto, l’attivazione dei neuroni in queste aree del cervello dimostra semplicemente che la maggior parte degli individui ha un pronunciato senso di sé.

Secondo gli insegnamenti buddisti, c’è un oceano di differenza tra individui che hanno un senso di sé e il concetto di un sé inerentemente esistente. Il buddismo accetta che un senso del sé è essenziale se la società deve funzionare efficacemente. Ad esempio, la maggior parte delle delucidazioni delle pratiche di amorevole gentilezza e compassione – due aspetti fondamentali degli insegnamenti buddisti – si basano sul presupposto che c’è sia un donatore (cioè, il sé) sia un ricevitore (cioè, l’altro). Se il Buddha storico non avesse avuto un senso di sé che gli avesse permesso di identificare che il suo livello di intuizione spirituale era in qualche modo diverso dalla maggior parte dei suoi seguaci, è ragionevole supporre che non avrebbe sentito la necessità di esporre un percorso per superare la sofferenza e l’ignoranza.

Tuttavia, anche se gli esseri nella fase di illuminazione hanno un senso di sé (e comprendono appieno che questo senso di sé è necessario per poter funzionare efficacemente nel mondo), sono anche pienamente consapevoli che il “sé” è un’illusione. La ragione perché il buddismo insegna che il sé è un’illusione riguarda il principio del vuoto, che afferma che gli esseri (e tutti i fenomeni) esistono soltanto come costrutti che sono interdipendenti e mentalmente designati. Ad esempio, un fiore si manifesta nella dipendenza da acqua e aria, dall’atmosfera, dal calore del sole, dal seme da cui è cresciuto, dalle sostanze nutrienti nel terreno, dagli insetti e gli animali che morirono e si decomposero al fine di produrre tali sostanze nutritive e così via. Di conseguenza, il fiore non esiste isolato da tutti gli altri fenomeni, ed è privo di un sé indipendente e intrinsecamente esistente. Così, come abbiamo discusso nel nostro post di stile Zen il Sogno o la Realtà, I fenomeni certamente sembrano essere reali, ma il modo in cui sono percepiti in realtà non equivale al modo in cui esistono veramente.

Sia gli esseri illuminati sia quelli non illuminati hanno un senso del sé, ma una differenza fondamentale tra questi due tipi di essere è che questi ultimi sono presi dalla convinzione che essi esistono intrinsecamente. Come abbiamo discusso nel nostro post sulla decostruzione del sé, a causa di una convinzione saldamente incorporata (ma scientificamente e logicamente non plausibile) che il sé è un’entità inerente e indipendentemente esistente, il Buddismo afferma che gli stati mentali affliggenti nascono come conseguenza dell ‘”io” figurative, desiderando incessantemente degli oggetti che ritiene di essere attraenti o provando avversione verso gli oggetti che ritiene  essere poco attraenti. Nel nostro lavoro accademico abbiamo defenito questa condizione dipendenza ontologico, per precisare è “la mancanza di volontà di rinunciare a una credenza erronea e radicata in un ‘sé’ inerentemente esistente o ‘io’ e la ‘funzionalità ridotta’ che nasce da questa convinzione “.

L’idea che al livello ultimo non esiste una cosa come un sé che esiste intrinsecamente può essere un concetto difficile da digerire. Tuttavia, di recente sono stati condotti esperimenti scientifici che sembrano aggiungere credibilità alla validità del concetto del vuoto. Ad esempio, uno studio pubblicato sulla rivista Nature nel 2010 ha dimostrato che una lama di metallo molto piccola di materiale semi-conduttore può essere fatta vibrare contemporaneamente in due differenti stati di energia. Questo è l’equivalente cinetico della materia simultaneamente esistente in due posti diversi e dimostra che a livello sub-atomico, le particelle (e qualsiasi proprietà di sé che essi potrebbero possedere) non possono mai essere localizzato nello spazio o nel tempo (cioè, esistono da nessuna parte e ovunque nello stesso momento).

Utilizzare le tecniche di neuroimaging per esplorare dove e come si regolano processi autoreferenziali è importante per far progredire la comprensione scientifica del cervello umano. Tuttavia, dal punto di vista buddista, la coscienza e il sé sono assenti di esistenza intrinseca ed è altrettanto corretto affermare che risiedono sia all’interno del cervello che fuori del cervello. Pertanto, secondo la teoria buddista, i tentativi da parte di alcuni scienziati di identificare la posizione specifica di sé o della coscienza nel cervello potrebbe essere considerato un tentativo un po’ inutile.


Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Ulteriore lettura

Kelley, W.T., Macrae, C.N., Wyland, C., Caglar, S., Inati, S., & Heatherton, T.F. (2002). Finding the self? An event-related fMRI study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14, 785-794.

Heatherton, T. F., Macrae, C. N., & Kelley, W. M. (2004). What the social brain sciences can tell us about the self. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, 190-103.

O’Connell, A.D., Hofheinz, M., Ansmann, M., Bialczak, R.C., Lenander, M., Lucero, E. …. & Cleland, A.N. (2010). Quantum ground state and single-phonon control of a mechanical resonator. Nature, 464, 697-703.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Dream or reality? Philosophy Now, 104, 54.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Searching for the Present Moment. Mindfulness, 5, 105-107

Turk, D. J., Heatherton, T.F., Kelley, W.M., Funnell, M.G., Gazzaniga, M.S., & Macrae, C. N. (2002). Mike or me? Self-recognition in a split-brain patient. Nature Neuroscience, 5, 841–842.

Dream or Reality?

Dream or Reality?


In our recent post entitled ‘Do We Really Exist?’ we included a dialogue between a meditation teacher and their student as a means of elucidating some of the subtleties of Buddhist thought regarding the true and absolute nature of mind and reality. Using a similar style of teacher-student dialogue (this time between a university professor and their student), today’s post is set in the not-too-distant future and explores some of these concepts further.


Student: Professor?

Professor: Yes.

Student: Pinch me.

Professor: What are you talking about?

Student: It’s just that we’ve been testing the Shared Dream Inducer so frequently that I can’t remember if I set the time on the Dream Termination Device.

Professor: I hope you’re joking.

Student: No seriously, I know you’ve told me so many times but I just can’t remember.

Professor: You mean …

Student: Yes, there’s no way of knowing whether we’re currently in a shared dream or in waking reality. If it turns out we’re dreaming, the SDI could keep us here indefinitely.

Professor: How shall we remedy this situation?

Student: We could just activate the SDI and try to enter a dream via the brain-computer interface – if it allows entry then at least we’ll know whether we’re awake or dreaming.

Professor: That’s way too risky. If we’re already dreaming we could end up getting stuck in a nested dream.

Student: Ok, I have another idea. In a dream, everything is the product of the mind. Things appear real to the dreamer yet everything is an illusion.

Professor: Agreed. But what is your point?

Student: So all we have to do is choose some objects around us and work out if they truly exist. If they’re real then we’re awake, otherwise we’re dreaming.

Professor: Interesting idea. Here, you can start with my fountain pen.

Student: Well, the pen certainly writes when I put it to paper. Yes, I think it’s real. I think we’re awake.

Professor: So your criteria for existence is based on the function that an object performs?

Student: Yes, of course.

Professor: I see. Go ahead and take away all of the components of the pen so that you’re left with nothing other than the nib. Does the nib still write?

Student: Yes, it still works.

Professor: But the nib isn’t the pen?

Student: Ah, good point. It appears my original premise was wrong. The nib is just a single pen component and cannot be all of the individual parts that comprise the pen. One thing cannot be another thing.

Professor: So is the pen real?

Student: Well, having just taken the pen apart and seen that all of its component parts are present, I would still conclude that it is real. I still think we’re awake.

Professor: So you’re saying that the pen exists as the sum of its component parts?

Student: Yes, that’s right.

Professor: Ah, I see. But you’ve already said that a component part can’t be two things at once. Yet now you seem to be saying that when the nib, cartridge, lid, and other pen components are put together they stop being those components and become a new single entity?

Student: No, that is illogical. The component parts still exist in the pen but the word “pen” is used to designate the collection of individual components that collectively form a pen.

Professor: Right, so you’re saying that the pen is just label?

Student: Well, I guess so.

Professor: If the pen is just a label then it doesn’t inherently exist. So are you now saying that we’re currently dreaming?

Student: I’m a bit confused. Irrespective of whether we are awake or dreaming, although things certainly appear, there is no logical basis upon which it can be said they truly exist.

Professor: Yes, that is correct. Therefore, your idea of investigating whether or not things are real doesn’t get us any closer to working out whether we are currently dreaming or awake. Have you got any better ideas?

Student: If we’re currently shared dreaming, it means the SDI is keeping some of our brainwave frequencies in perfect synchrony. We could try to disrupt them and wake ourselves up by inducing an electric shock.

Professor: If you want to stick your finger in the electric socket then go right ahead, but I’m certainly not joining you. Any more ideas?

Student: Hmm. Well I don’t ever remember bursting into laughter during a dream. So why don’t I tell you a funny joke and if it makes you laugh then that means we’re not dreaming?

Professor: I’m not convinced about this suggestion. For example, I don’t think it concurs with findings from the field of orienology. However, go ahead and tell your joke.

Student: What did the professor who always gave examples say when asked how many eggs they’d like for breakfast?

Professor: I don’t know.

Student: Four eggs ample.

Professor: I thought you were going to make me laugh.

Student: Very funny.

Professor: Well if you haven’t got any more sensible ideas then I have a suggestion. Let’s just stop, breathe, and do nothing.

Student: I don’t understand.

Professor: I built a failsafe into the SDI so that even if the DTD isn’t activated, the dream automatically terminates after eight hours.

Student: What! Couldn’t you have told me that an hour ago?

Professor: Well, haven’t you learnt something?

Student: You’re right, I’ve actually learnt rather a lot. The dream occurs within the expanse of mind and in a dream, there is the impression of coming and going, yet nothing really moves. Whilst dreaming, there is also near and far, but there is actually no distance. In a dream, although things appear, they are illusory and cannot be said to truly exist. However, objects perceived by the waking-state consciousness are also devoid of intrinsic existence. So are you saying that waking reality also unfolds within the expanse of mind?

Professor: You’ll have to work that out for yourself.

Student: But we still haven’t determined whether we’re currently dreaming or awake?

Professor: Does it really matter? Can’t you just relax and enjoy each moment of whichever reality you are currently in?

Student: Yes, I think I can.


Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Do We Really Exist

Do We Really Exist?


A truly fascinating question, don’t you think? In order to investigate this question effectively, we need to plunge into and explore some slightly taxing concepts.

When we want to examine the question of whether or not things truly exist, we can do so from either a relative or an absolute perspective. Answering this question from a relative perspective is a fairly uncomplicated procedure: if we accept that other things exist then in relation to those things we can conclude that we definitely exist. However, when we examine this question from an absolute perspective, things are not quite so straight forward.

When investigating this question in absolute terms, we need to remember that our existence is dependent on many factors, is caused by many factors, and is defined by many factors. According to the Buddhist view of emptiness based on the Madhyamaka system of philosophical reasoning, any given apprehended object relies for its existence on: (i) our mental designation of it, (ii) the conditions that caused it to be produced, and (iii) its attributes and component parts. However, the Madhyamaka treatises go on to explain that objects are neither equivalent to any of these individual causes or components, nor to their sum total, nor do they truly exist apart from these causes and components.

In other words, no matter how hard we try to find an object that inherently exists, we will never be able to do so. The reason why phenomena appear far more “real” and concrete than they actually are is due to the process of mental reification. We tend to make things real – including how we construct and create the ‘self’ or ‘I’.

In our most recent post entitled ‘Suffering Exists’, we used the example of a motor car to explain how people suffer due to constantly wanting to change or better their situation. Let’s now use the example of a motor car in a slightly different way in order to try and understand more about this idea of “non-self”. The example that we have formulated is based on a dialogue between a meditation teacher and their (somewhat haughty) student.

An Example: Looking for the Car


Meditation Teacher: Does this car inherently exist?

Student: Yes, of course.

Meditation Teacher: How does it exist?

Student: It exists because it is comprised of car parts.

Meditation Teacher: Ok, I see. So is this the car?

car chasis 2

Student: No, of course not, that’s just the chassis.

Meditation Teacher: Well what about this?


Student: No, don’t be ridiculous, that’s just the wheels and one of the axles. An individual car component cannot be all of the mutually exclusive parts that make up the car. One thing cannot be another thing.

Meditation Teacher: So the car doesn’t exist in any of its component parts?

Student: Of course not.

Meditation Teacher: Does it exist outside of its component parts?

Student: No, that’s even sillier. The car doesn’t exist in any one of its individual component parts nor does it exist outside of its component parts.

Meditation Teacher: Ok, so how does the car exist?

Student: The car exists as the sum of its component parts.

Meditation teacher: Ah, I see. But you have already said that a component part can’t be two things at once. Are you now saying that the chassis can be both a chassis and a car?

Student: No, that would be illogical.

Meditation Teacher: So you’re saying that when the wheels, chassis, axles, and all the other car components are put together they stop being those components and become a new single entity?

Student: No, that wouldn’t make sense either – the component parts still exist in the car. The word “car” is used to designate the collection of individual components that collectively form a car.

Meditation Teacher: Right, so you are saying that the car is just label?

Student: Well, I guess so.

Meditation Teacher: How can a car be just a label?

Student: I don’t know.

Meditation Teacher: You still haven’t shown me where I can find a car that inherently exists. Where is the car?

Student: I’m not sure, I’m confused.

Meditation Teacher: Enjoy being confused.

Student: I’m going out to get some fresh air.

Meditation teacher: Ok, but don’t take too long. We’re going to test drive a new car later and I’ve been looking forward to it all day.

We can apply the same line of reasoning employed in the above example of the motor car to ourselves as human beings. We are made up of blood, flesh, bone, thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. We are made up of molecules, atoms, electrons, and quarks. We are made up of our parents and their parents, and of the wind, water, earth, and sun. Although without any of these things we do not exist, an inherently existing self may not be found within these causes and components whether in singular or in sum. Therefore, when, in Buddhist philosophy, we speak of ‘non-self’ (Pali: anattā), the ‘self’ that we are denying is an independent and intrinsically existing self.

Deconstructing the ‘Self’


However old we are, we have had that much time since birth in order to create the construct of ‘I’. In fact, we don’t limit ourselves with just one ‘I’, but tend to be a different I for each different aspect of our lives. We have an ‘I’ that we use when we are with the family, another for friends, and yet another when we are at work.  It’s as if we have built a mansion with many rooms where each room comes with the label ‘I’. A useful practice is to take a moment to discover how many rooms make up our mansion and what materials have been used to construct and arrange each of these rooms. What beliefs, motivations, habits, and perceptions have influenced the creation of each of your different ‘I’s’?

Unfortunately, most people live out their entire lives in this mansion – stuck in a boring and cyclic pattern of moving from one room to the next and limiting themselves to being the same cluster of ‘I’s’ that everyone expects them to be. People have a tendency to get stuck in their own identity, and to forget that outside of their mansion there is a whole world to explore. As we discussed in our post entitled “The Practice of Impermanence: Learning How to be Alive”, the problem with getting stuck like this is that we cause ourselves a great deal of suffering because we are not open to change.

self deception

Were you able to witness with clarity and honesty all of the different construction materials that you have used over the course of your lifetime?


What exactly is this mansion that we have constructed? Did the thought cross your mind that instead of a mansion perhaps we have constructed a prison? Is it possible that we have limited and imprisoned ourselves with our concepts, words, judgements, feelings, perceptions, and so forth? Maybe we are our own jailors guarding a prison of our own construction.

If that’s the case, then we need to think about how we can escape from this prison. The good news is that we’re not stuck. If we have the power to create a prison for the mind then we also have the power to dismantle it. With perseverance and hard work, we can definitely dismantle the limited construct of ‘I’ that we have created.  For many people, this can be a somewhat daunting prospect so it is advisable to take things one step at a time. As we become familiar with the fact that we (body, mind, spirit) are not a constant, we begin to feel more comfortable with the idea of allowing things to change. It is then that we can begin to demolish the old ‘I’ and prepare the ground for the new build:


Everything that we uncover during the demolition process made us what we are today. In fact, some of this ‘stuff’ such as ideas, beliefs, emotions, and thoughts will be useful and can be put to one side for recycling in the new build. However, some of the things that we uncover will be of zero or even negative value and it is therefore advisable to dispose of them completely. When the old mansion is completely demolished and we have a clear and clean plot, we can start to build a new ‘I’ that is dynamic, has a vast and panoramic view, is up-to-date, and in a constant state of flux:

meditation house

As we mature in the practice and become more familiar and comfortable with change, letting go of the old to make way for the new becomes easier and easier. We begin to dynamically flow with impermanence and this new found space and freedom causes the mind to remain in tranquillity. It is here that we can start to enjoy the empty nature of phenomena – allowing the old to dissolve and the new to become.

meditation house 3

In seeing, there is just seeing. No seer and nothing seen. In hearing there is just hearing. No hearer and nothing heard.”

(The Bahiya Sutta)

Ven. Edo Shonin and Ven. William Van Gordon