The concept of “No-Self” is one of Buddhism’s three marks of existence also called “Three Characteristics.” (The others are Impermanence and Suffering.) No-self refers to the idea that we believe in the existence of a separate, permanent self.
The common belief often goes that there is an entity – an “I” or “me” – separate and apart. This belief that “we are our body” flows easily until the we attempt to take possession, stating “This is my body.” At that very instant the owner of the body becomes distinct from the body itself – making them different entities. This dual notion of “the observer and the observed” negates the original idea that “I” am equivalent to my body. Even so, our self or body always exists in a state of impermanence, a ball of flickering energy at rate akin to reality on the sensate level.
Next, we consider whether thoughts themselves make up “I.” These thoughts seem to ring more true with the “self,” than the physical body does. However, thoughts are also mercurial and ever-changing, and we lack control over most of them. Their form is not permanent enough to constitute the “I.” Even our “ego” is elusive. Though it exists through a process of identification with reality (of both physical and mental phenomena), it is not something that stands on its own, but acts more like a bad habit. Given its lack of existence, it cannot be destroyed, except that by reflection and understanding of our mind and our bare experience, we can cease the process that produces it.
Consider the “watcher” or “observer,” the idea that something is watching all of these. But, the Watcher is unseen as well, because it seems to be first in our eyes, then perhaps somewhere else such as appearing as images in our head. Sometimes the Watcher seems to be our physical being, our body, but then later it is watching our body. The Watcher who is seeing all of the phenomena, appearing to be separate from reality, and being in control of the self, is itself existing in an impermanent state. It is always changing and shifting and escapes definition.
This all presents a complex mystery with one of the greatest clues being that by observing all of it, then logically we are not it. Reality consists of sensations, and once we begin to solve this mystery, an awakening begins. The sensation of a separate watcher is not reality, but a delusion. So, what is it that wakens?
The transience itself will be waking up. Though the idea is very complicated, we will attempt to summarize it here.
The philosophy of “No-self” erases the idea of the separate “watcher.” There is no “watcher” that is really ourselves in control, while we watch reality and suffer as a target of earthly tribulations. The teachings wipe away the process of creating an illusion of a separate self based on mere sensations that are in themselves non-dual and completely transient.
We should not mistake mere phenomena as a separate self. These phenomena are physical, consisting of all we perceive through are senses, and mental, made up by our thoughts, feelings and emotions. These phenomena are utterly impermanent and very interdependent on one another. They come and go as we travel through reality, like the buzzing of mosquitos that pop into our existence then disappear as we continue on our path.
It is true that there is awareness of phenomena, but this “awareness” is not a particular thing in a particular place. Thus, stating “There is awareness,” creates another problem by implying there is a distinction entity or existence where there really is none. Awareness can be permanent and static, and some say all things come from it and all things return to it. They call it by several names, God, Allah, The Tao, Nirvana, the Buddha nature, the present moment or just simply awareness.
Even though phenomena are ever changing from the time they arise until they pass, we have an awareness of them. So, awareness and phenomena are distinct from one another, but they are interdependent, because without the phenomena, awareness cannot create the experience.
In the teachings of True-Self, we exist as all of these phenomena, rather than them being seen as observed. Because they are observed, phenomena can’t actually be the observer. Awareness, which is the observer, cannot exist as a phenomenon, so it cannot be localized and cannot exist. This duality seems to imply there is an observer and an observed. This notion does not hold up, because there is no phenomenal observer. When the transience awakens, the illusion of this duality evaporates resulting in the awakening. What remains is the phenomena, which is the True Self.
A Buddhist poem by Kaul Rinpoche offers a summary of this explanation:
“We live in illusion and the appearance of things.
There is a reality, we are that reality.
When you understand this, you will see “you” are nothing.
And, being nothing, you are everything. “