Foundations of Identity

The question of ‘who I am’ is of vital importance in Buddhism. The Buddha said that the world and everything in it is characterised by Three Marks. These are dukkha / duhkha (suffering), anicca / anitya (impermanence) and anatta / anatman (not-Self). Clearly the third of these is very important when discussing what is meant by ‘I’. Buddhists believe that there is no permanent unchanging Self (as is often postulated by other religions – Hinduism’s Brahman, for example, or Christianity’s soul). The reason for this belief is that empirically and experientially no permanent self can be found. If one investigates what people identify a permanent self with – the mind for example – one discovers that this is subject to change and fluctuation and as such subject to suffering. The Buddha analyses each of the five khandhas / Skandhas that make up a being and argues that no permanent self can be found in any of them. They are not-Self. Thus in Buddhist thought, what is thought of as self is simply an accumulation of constantly changing and interacting physical and mental phenomena. However, Buddhists have two forms of truth: conventional and ultimate. This means that in terms of conventional truth it is appropriate to use the word ‘I’, in other words there is a conventional self. However, at the ultimate level it must be remembered that the self is not permanent, unchanging or free from dukkha / duhkha.

The teaching on anatta / anitya is of great soteriological importance. It stands in the middle between eternalism (people who assume an eternal unchanging Self) and annihilationism or nihilism (people who claim that there is no self at all, nothing remains after death). In Buddhism the conventional, empirical self constantly changes (as opposed to the Self of the eternalists which is not subject to change). It is this fact that allows people to develop by doing good deeds, studying and meditating; they can become better beings, and eventually achieve nibbana / nirvana. If the self could not change, then there would be no self-development, no self-improvement and one could not reach nibbana / nirvana. Equally, if the self completely ended at death (as argued by annihilationists) there would be no point in developing the self, acting morally or helping people. In fact it is the ‘I am conceit’ that leads to suffering. For example, if one does not see a permanent self as the owner of pain then it is a lot easier to bear. Thus it is the Middle Way and the perception of self as a continuum of interacting phenomena that allows people to improve themselves and eventually escape from samsara.

To talk about a person therefore is to talk about them on a conventional level, but at the ultimate level we should be thought of in terms of interacting changing phenomena. Buddhists however, do believe in individuality. The stream of phenomena does make up an individual – we are not simply one big stream or one big self; a person’s actions are his or her own. Thus, while the self should not be thought of as eternal and unchanging, it should be thought of as individual.

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