The True Self Models
Closely related to the unity models are the true self models. As we start out with a strong notion that there is some self, some true, abiding, permanent, separate “I”, it is only natural that various models will then take that view and augment, modify, or work with it to some degree to try to explain what happens when the sense field wakes up to its essential characteristics. The great no-self versus true self debate tends to arise when Hinduism or Christianity encounter Buddhism. However, perhaps it should arise more when Buddhists are thinking about Buddhism.
While I have been talking about how Buddhism proposes the fact of no-self, various generally newer strains of Buddhism also contain a surprisingly large number of “true self” teachings, though if you told most Buddhists this they would sneer and maybe scold you. Many of these teachings have their origins in Hindu Vedanta, Hindu Tantra, and the long and complex history of how the dharma spread to Tibet, China, and beyond. Much of the watered down or misinterpreted talk of Buddha nature, and the distorted understanding of the bodhisattva vow, etc., are true self teachings. By pointing to this wide field of experience as being somehow related to awakening, true self teachings can help some more aversive practitioners to examine their reality just as it is and “inhabit it” in an honest and realistic way, to be more embodied and grounded in what is going on—or they can cause more desirous practitioners to cling to transient experiences as “self” if they misunderstand this teaching.
Many of the juvenile and tedious disputes between the various insight traditions result from fixation on these concepts and inappropriate adherence to only one side of these apparent paradoxes. Not surprisingly, these disputes between insight traditions generally arise from those with little or no insight. One clear mark of the development of true insight is that these paradoxes lose their power to confuse and obscure. They become tools for balanced inquiry and instruction, beautiful poetry; they become intimations of the heart of the spiritual life and of our own direct and non-conceptual experience of it, and ways to redirect those who wander either too far to one side or the other on the spiritual path. When experience is simply the experience, that is profoundly straightforward, and much less odd than the various confused and confusing interpretations of no-self and true self would seem to indicate.
At their very skillful best, true self and no-self teachings are talking about the same thing, just from different perspectives. In short, when the artificial boundaries and misperceptions fall away, there is just what is happening. You could say in some strange way that all this was “you”, or you could equally state that the whole field was “not you”.
There are potential advantages and problems with both. Just as with the unity models, if you say the whole unbounded, causal, natural, intrinsically aware sensate field is “me”, then many will unfortunately assume all sorts of odd things, such as, for example, that they could somehow control the whole field of experience or the whole universe, that they could somehow perceive all sorts of things, such as feel the whole world in some sensate way beyond what they actually do, and that they could know all sorts of remarkable things about the universe, such as what the animals on the other side of the planet feel like at that time, for example. They also tend to imagine some permanent something that would be this true self. All of those are very confused, narcissistic, grandiose ways of looking at the true self way of describing things, as they all take the delusion of localized control and a centralized permanent perceiver and just extrapolate that out to all phenomena.
If you say that the whole field is “not me”, then some people will similarly misinterpret that, such as by imagining that their body will disappear, that consciousness will disappear, that they will feel nothing, that the sensations of effort and will and the like won’t arise, that they will stop moving, that they will stop thinking, and that perception itself will stop permanently. They may believe more mundane things, such as that they should repress themselves and thus try to be less than themselves in various disempowering and life-denying ways. That said, the benefits of no-self teachings are that they directly counter the sense that there is a separate watcher, and that this watcher is an “I” that is in control, observing reality or subject to the tribulations of the world. However, if misunderstood, no-self teachings can produce a shadow side that reeks of nihilism, dissociative tendencies, schizoid behaviors, disengagement from life and the world, and denial, all of which preclude, sidestep, bypass, or dismiss the first training of morality.
People can get all fixated on eliminating a “self”, when the emphasis is supposed to be on the words “separate”, “unchanging”, and “permanent”, as well as on the illusion that is being created. A better way to say this would be, “stopping the process of mentally creating the illusion of a separate self from sensations that are inherently non-dual, utterly transient, totally causal, without any actual boundaries that could construct a separate self, and thus perpetually and totally empty of any separate, permanent self.” Even when you awaken, you will still be here from a conventional point of view, but you will also be just an interdependent and intimate part of this utterly transient universe, just as you always have been. The huge yet subtle difference is that this will be known directly, clearly, palpably, and pervasively. The confusing language “eliminating your ego” is similarly misunderstood most of the time.
As stated before, there are physical phenomena and mental phenomena, as well as the “consciousness” or mental echo of these, which is also in the category of mental phenomena. These are just phenomena, and no phenomenon is a permanent, separate self, as all phenomena change and are interdependent; they manifest where they are without any observer of them at all. The boundaries that seem to differentiate self from not-self are arbitrary, conceptual, and not the true nature of things. Put another way, this utterly transient sensate reality is intimately interdependent and non-dual.
Related directly to the problems with true self teachings, there also seems to be something people call various things such as “awareness”, but awareness is not a material phenomenon, and therefore not localized, so even to say “there is also awareness” is already a tremendous problem, as it implies separateness and a permanent existence where none can be found. Terms and concepts like “I” and “awareness” are conventional, expedient, and helpful for relative, ordinary work. But, for insight practice, it is easiest to say that the specific textures and qualities of this transient space that create the sense of attention, of comprehension, of “awareness”, are just an intrinsic property of the qualities of experience that arise, just more textures and qualities, nothing more, and certainly not anything that can be found to be more than that.
For the sake of discussion, and in keeping with certain strains of standard but very true-self–influenced Buddhist thought, such as those that use the term “ground of being”, awareness is sometimes described as permanent and unchanging, but picking this apart, we notice something subtler about this. If there is experience at all, meaning that things are in the realm of manifestation, “time” and the like, then you can say from a conventional perspective that there is awareness, which is to say there is sensate information. This will always be true when there is experience. That said, you can’t find any awareness that is different from phenomena. So, you could just say that while there is manifestation, there is always something manifesting. That doesn’t mean that there is always manifestation, or that there is something continuous across those manifest, transient moments. Thus, while this would seem to imply something perpetual, there isn’t anything permanent that can be found, but merely a repeating quality that presents again and again when sensate information is happening. You could also say that the sensations presenting and the presentation are the same.
Then some of the true self schools will say things such as, “All things arise from it, and all things return to it,” though again this implies a false certainty about something that is impenetrably mysterious. More importantly, mixing the concept of an extrapolated infinite potential or ultimate source with “awareness” is a notoriously dangerous business. As already mentioned, these sorts of misunderstandings are some of the standard traps that lie in wait for people in the middle stages of awakening.
We might be tempted to call what we wish to be there, either as some perpetual awareness or as some infinite well of potential, names like “God”, “nirvana”, “the tao”, “the void”, “ground of being”, “Allah”, “Krishna”, “intrinsic luminosity”, “Buddha nature”, “Buddha”, “Bubba” (did I mention I currently live in Alabama?), or just “awareness”, as long as we realize the above caveats, especially that it is not a thing that is separate from phenomena or localized in any particular place and has no definable qualities, in which case we will be okay for a while. Awareness, though formless, is sometimes conceptualized as pervading all of this while not being all of this, and sometimes conceptualized as being inherent in all of this while not being anything specific. Neither is quite true, though both perspectives can be temporarily useful in very specific contexts and dangerous in others, and finally we have to come to something that is actually much simpler than the term “awareness” generally implies, nothing more than just the sensations themselves, much more fundamental and yet more ordinary than anything grand that those terms would suggest, “Bubba” obviously excepted.
If you find yourself adopting any fixed idea about what we are calling “awareness” here, try also adopting its logical opposite to achieve some sense of direct inquisitive paradoxical imbalance that shakes fixed views and points to something beyond these limited concepts. This is incredibly useful advice for dealing with any teachings about “ultimate reality”. I would also recommend looking into the true nature of the sensations that make up philosophical speculation and all sensations of questioning, as that more direct inquiry gets much more quickly to the answer.
One teaching that comes out of the Theravada that can be helpful or harmful, depending on how it is interpreted, is that there are three ultimate dharmas or ultimate aspects of reality: materiality (the sensations of the first five sense doors), mentality (all mental sensations), and nibbana (Pali) aka nirvana (Sanskrit). In short, this is it, and “that” which is beyond this is also it. You will notice that I have mentioned two meanings of nibbana, those being Fruition (from which we might extrapolate a false view that nibbana is some ultra-transcendent infinite potential we might enter as a refuge) and as the state of things being perceived as they are, which can give rise to the false view that everything is some stable ultimate something. Notice that “awareness” is not on this list. It might sometimes be conceptualized as being all three (from a true self point of view that included some extrapolated infinite potential), being just the first two (as those involve sensate experiences), or quickly discarded as being a useless concept that solidifies an illusory, permanent, separate and/or localized “watcher” (from the no-self point of view) and/or some unknowable and extrapolated well of creation.
Summarizing, we can start with the simple practice that notices that, as phenomena are observed, they cannot possibly be a separate, stable observer. Thus, the observer is not any of the phenomena pretending to be it, cannot possibly be a phenomenon, and thus is not localized and doesn’t exist truly. This is no-self. Taken the wrong way, some practitioners using this emphasis will become averse to all phenomena and/or dissociated, so one must guard against this misinterpretation. Some of the many possible remedies to achieve rebalancing are practices that are embodied, visceral, and inclusive, that still maintain an insight-oriented focus, such as focusing on momentary transience more than on other aspects of no-self.
As the illusion of duality is just an illusion, when perception is well-developed, the sense that the textures of reality actually form some boundary between what we call “self” and what we call “other” doesn’t exist in the way we generally perceive it to. When the illusion of duality permanently collapses in final awakening, all that is left is all of these phenomena, which is what is meant by true self, that is, the lack of a separate self and thus just transience as it occurs. Remember, however, that no phenomena abide for even an instant, and so are empty of permanent abiding and thus of stable existence.
Until we have a lot of fundamental insight, the sense that duality is true can be very compelling and can cause all sorts of trouble. We extrapolate false dualities from sensations until we are very highly awakened. Similarly, the more unitive experiences we may have can be so compelling that we yearn for an idealized (solidified, real, abiding, permanent) version of them to be “The Answer”. However, now we have a very practical gold standard: if it still seems that any patterns of sensations habitually fail to reveal their true nature automatically, and thus falsely imply a duality or a unity, then those sensations are what must be investigated carefully to understand all this for yourself directly.
As both unity and duality clearly fail in the face of such lenses as logic, physics, and deep investigation, the term non-duality has value, and yet obviously it is an inherently paradoxical term, one that confounds reason and our current experience of reality until we are truly accomplished insight practitioners. If we accept the working hypothesis that non-duality is true, then we will be able to continue to reject both unitive and dualistic experiences as being some final answer and continue to work towards awakening, which sees through both of these as limited and missing something critical about the sensations that make them up. This is probably the most practical application of discussions of no-self and true self.
There is a great poem by the late Kalu Rinpoche that goes:
We live in illusion
And the appearance of things.
There is a reality:
We are that reality.
When you understand this,
You will see that you are nothing.
And, being nothing,
You are everything.
That is all.
There are many fine poems on similar themes presented in Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. [Yes, I am aware of the controversy around Sogyal Rinpoche, but it is still a good book.] Taking no-self and true self to the extremes to make some basic points: it is because we are none of this that freedom is possible, and it is because we are all of this that compassionate action for all beings and ourselves is so important. To clearly perceive this moment is to understand both truly, which is the middle way between these two extremes (see Nisargadatta’s I Am That for a very down-to-earth discussion of these issues, albeit from the true self perspective). I also recommend checking out the standard Pali canon anti-dogma dogma (you will see what I mean by that when you read them) in, for example, “The Root of All Things”, a sutta found at the beginning of the Middle Length Discourses (MN 1), and “The Supreme Net: What the Teaching Is Not”, found in the beginning of the Long Discourses (DN 1).