Searching for the bit called “me”

Apr 21, 2022


Given Buddha’s view that the fundamental cause of our suffering is the clinging to an independent self and that the discovery of its nonexistence will cut the suffering, one of the first steps in this discovery is the identification of what we think that self is, then to carefully look for it. This sounds hilarious, of course! “Of course there’s a self in there!” 


If Buddha’s right, we can’t just believe him; that won’t help. We have to prove it to ourselves.


We need to search among the parts that make up “me” for the piece that we think is there, the special little bit that’s called “me.” 


There’s one analysis referred to as “one or many”: if something exists it must be one thing or more than one. And if something exists, we have to be able to point it out. 


I can say, “I’m holding a cup.” You will check to see if that’s true, won’t you? How many phenomena are there? Two, right? There’s the cup and there’s me holding it. They’re independent insofar as they don’t depend upon each other to function, to exist. You can point them out easily enough: two things.


Now I’ll say, “I have a nose.” Without analysis, you can see it’s true. But this is more nuanced. This is where we make mistakes.


We can point out the nose easily enough. But can we point out an I? Can we distinguish it from the nose? Can we point out an I that isn’t the nose, that is independent of the nose insofar as it they don’t rely upon each other for their existence? We assume that we can. We simply believe there is a piece called “I” in there somewhere, along with the nose, the eye, the mind and everything else. 


Let’s say I don’t know what a nose is; you’ll give me a clue: “It’s one of the parts that make up you. It’s one of the parts of the body. It’s one of the parts on your head.” I know what a body is, a head is, and I can narrow it down. I can work it out. Where is the nose? No, that’s lip, that’s ear, that’s eye, that’s eyelash, that’s forehead, that’s hair. Finally, we’ll find it, “Oh, there’s the nose.” You’ll find it. You will find an nose definitely, within the head, within the body of the person, the self.

Well, we also think we can find the “I.” We believe there is a piece in here called “I,” in just the same way there is a nose. We really believe there’s a piece called I, as my friend Pende says, walking hand in hand with all the other bits. 


We need to do the same analysis as looking for the nose. Because if it’s there, you’ll find it. If there is a piece called I in there, you will definitely find it.


Look at the feeling behind the word “I.” Not only do we think it’s there, we give it an extra-special status: it’s the boss part; it runs the show; it makes decisions, and without it, nothing would function. That’s how we think of the “I.” We treasure it. 


Buddha says, “Sorry mates. Among all the bits and pieces in there, you will indeed find an ear, a nose, an eyelash. But you won’t find a piece called I. You won’t find an I that’s independent of the other bits.” That’s a shock to us; it’s absurd. “What are you talking about!” So we have to prove it.


Let’s say you look up IKEA on the computer, and there’s a picture of a nice person called “Robina.” You decide to buy a Robina. When you get there, you’re quite disappointed because you don’t get a fully constructed Robina; you get a bunch of bits in a box, don’t you? “Oh, I’ve got to make my own Robina? What a drag.” But it’s very helpful. This is a really brilliant discussion of dependent arising; a very precise discussion about the bits.


We know that to make anything – a cake, a house, a table – you have got to be incredibly precise. You don’t just throw in seven eggs, a few cups of flour etc and hope for the best. You must be precise. The cake is made of parts all nicely put together. Same for a table. In the box containing the parts for a table IKEA don’t just throw in seven legs, a couple of screws; no. They’re precise. Each part plays a role precisely.


So, let’s build a Robina. Let’s build a “me.”


There are going to be quite a few bits, right? Millions! First of all, you’ve got the bits of your body: legs, nose, eyelashes, blood, bones, you name it. Then you’ve got the bits of your mind: your anger, your love, your kindness, your generosity, your compassion, your subtle mind, your gross mind. Millions of bits of your mind, millions of bits of your body, and you’re slowly, slowly constructing this me. And each piece will have its own role. Each of the fingers has its job in functioning as a hand; the pinky won’t argue with the ring finger – “Go away! You’re doing my job!”


What’s happening is we’re starting to get nervous because as we gradually put all the bits in the right place, gradually build a me, we keep waiting to find among these thousands of parts the very special part in a gold envelope with a beautiful “I” written on it. 


And we can’t find it! We’re panicking because it’s not going to be a real me until we find that special piece called “I.” We believe that totally. The Christians call it a soul. The Hindus call it an atman. The Greeks call it an essence. In the West, we call it ego or something; I don’t know quite, but we’re not very clear about it.


Buddha says, “Don’t be silly. You will not find a separate part called “I” because you don’t need one! All the parts do just fine functioning as Robina.” This is the point: you don’t need something like that to be the boss because all the parts do beautifully on their own. You don’t need a special piece called “I.” You just don’t need one. You won’t find one, it’s true, and you don’t need one, because all the parts will do beautifully working together harmoniously. To do what? To function as Robina.


Now, if there were a piece called an I in there, along with the nose, and let’s say you say, “Your nose is ugly, Robina!” I will say, “How dare you insult me!” And you will say, “No, Robina, I didn’t insult you; I insulted your nose.” We’d laugh at that!


And, the fact is, if there were an independent little I in there, it’s accurate. As you insult my nose, my I would be thinking, “Phew! I’m glad she’s not insulting me!”


That’s literally how it’d be if there were an independent I!


This doesn’t mean there’s no “I.” It means there’s no independent “I.” So, what’s Robina actually? 


Robina does exist – as a dependent-arising Robina. “Robina” is a name, merely the label we impute upon those parts. 


We need to realize this.

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