Once again I was fortunate enough to attend another teaching at my local Buddhist institute. Last night’s lesson was HEAVY. It’s meant to be an introduction to Buddhism but in my opinion (and I think the teacher’s too) it took a tangent that was quite advanced and may have overwhelmed the first-timer.
As usual, there was a brief meditation session at the beginning to get our minds focused and ripe to receive any benefits from the lesson. The tangent came about when a student asked what else could we meditate on if not the breath? The response was many things but the one that seemed to require the most explanation and thereby took up the bulk of the lesson was the question “Who am I?” Ahhh… existential philosophy. My old friend from University. I must’ve spent hours debating various topics and reading many different books. I loved this topic and couldn’t get enough.
Now my mind is not what it used to be. After two pregnancies (I think Baby Brain has actually been scientifically proven to exist now hasn’t it?) and spending the majority of my time converting my perspective to the level of a 3 yr old (or younger!) I have lost something of the adult comprehension or clarity that I had in my 20’s (in spite of all the drinking that was done on campus). So this loss of mental acuity combined with it being late on a Monday night meant that I struggled to follow the lesson and must admit if I had not spent some time with these concepts earlier in my life then I would have had no idea what he was talking about. To give you an example, there was a lot of “I am me and you are you but only to me and to you, you are me and I am you”. Sheesh!
The best book I found on this topic, and still get great enjoyment from to this very day, is actually not a Buddhist transcript but in fact from a teacher of the Advaita Vedanta school of philosophy, that is, Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj and his work I am That. I can flip to any page of this book and learn something profound. Below is a snippet of his teachings on this topic to wet your appetites. The book is written in question answer format.
Q: Are persons real, and universals conceptuals, or are universals real and persons imaginary?
M: Neither are real.
Q: Surely I am real enough to merit your reply and I am a person.
M: Not when asleep.
Q: Submergence is not absence. Even though asleep, I am.
M: To be a person you must be self-conscious. Are you so always?
Q: Not when I sleep, of course, nor when I am in a swoon or drugged.
M: During waking hours are you continually self-conscious?
Q: No. Sometimes I am absent-minded, or just absorbed.
M: Are you a person during the gaps in self-consciousness?
Q: Of course I am the same person throughout. I remember myself as I was yesterday and yester year – definitely, I am the same person.
M: So, to be a person, you need a memory?
Q: of course.
M: And without memory, what are you?
Q: Incomplete memory entails incomplete personality. Without memory I cannot exist as a person.
M: Surely you can exist without memory. You do so – in sleep.
Q: Only in the sense of remaining alive. Not as a person.
(This discussion goes back and forth with the Maharaj peeling back the layers of consciousness a little bit more until his final comment below)
M: You cannot possibly say that you are what you think yourself to be! Your ideas about yourself change from day to day and from moment to moment. Your self-image is the most changeful thing you have. It is utterly vulnerable, at the mercy of a passer-by. A bereavement, the loss of a job, an insult, and your image of yourself, which you call your person, changes deeply. To know what you are you must first investigate and know what you are not. And to know what you are not you must watch yourself carefully, rejecting all that does not necessarily go with the basic fact: ‘I am’. The ideas: I am born at a given place, at a given time, from my parents and now I am so-and-so, living at, married to, father of, employed by, and so on, are not inherent in the sense ‘I am’. Our usual attitude is of ‘I am this’. Separate consistently and perseveringly the ‘I am’ from ‘this’ or ‘that’, and try to feel what it means to be, just to be, without being ‘this’ or ‘that’. All our habits go against it and the task of fighting them is long and hard sometimes, but clear understanding helps a lot. The clearer you understand that on the level of your mind you can be described in negative terms only, the quicker you will come to the end of your search and realize tour limitless being.