Who Am I?


Translated by Andrew Yang

“Human life is a pure fantasy.

Indeed, in a worldly encounter, who is meeting whom?

Prior to my first breath, who was I?

And upon my last gasp, who do I become?”

This poem is a gatha sent to the king of Goryeo, a Korean kingdom (918-1392), by the monk Zhongfeng Mingben (1263-1323) during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). Its profound meaning has made numerous readers wonder about the origin of life, and the question “Who am I?” has since been an enduring topic for Buddhist discourse and contemplation in pursuit of enlightenment.

The origin of life has been a perpetual mystery since ancient times. Since countless kalpas ago sentient beings have been reincarnating without knowing from where they come at birth or to where they go upon dying.  What drives them to the hustle bustle of this world, and what makes them eventually leave after such fleeting stay.

A view of karmic origination holds that all sentient beings are entangled in rebirths owing to karmic force created by body, mouth and mind. However, what is the primal substance at the centre of this transmigration? In other words, “who” exactly is “I”?

Ancient Greek philosophers did not explain the origin of life in much detail, as at the time they were more preoccupied with the nature of human thought. Democritus and other atomic materialists posited that the soul of “I” lies within the finest atoms of the human body. Socrates explored how human should seek to live in a dualistic world with distinguishing good and bad, and right from wrong. This went a step further than simply believing in a spiritual self beyond the Five Skandhas. Neither did Plato or Aristotle elaborate on the genesis of life, but as their greatest contribution, they theorized the thinking of all the great men before them and formulated a clear, rigorous analytical system, which later became known as philosophy.

Broadly, though, there are four types of answer to the big question, “Who am I?”

The “I” is made up of the Five Skandhas

Ordinary people tend to think of human life as something composed of five aggregates, also known as Five Skandhas: form, feeling, perception, impulse and consciousness, where form refers to the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and otherwise the rest of the physiological body, and their interaction with the material world made up of the four cardinal elements: earth, water, fire and wind. Feeling, perception, impulse and consciousness belong to the spiritual realm.  Feeling is the perception of the external environment, perception is the formation of mental activity as a result of feeling, impulse is an urge or idea caused by perception to act, and consciousness the overall awareness by the mind of the external environment. In this view, the self is a combination of the Five Skandhas, and it is something real that exists, with all these five aggregates combining into the “I”. Thus, it is a constant and spiritual entity, commonly known as the soul that exists from the cradle to the grave during the lifespan of a sentient being. The concept of “I” is a fundamental affliction which constantly attachment to the functions of the “self”, and creates acts out of greed, anger and delusion, and eventually receiving retribution.

The “I” is beyond the Five Skandhas

In another view, the “I” is not the five aggregates, but something beyond them, an entity variously known as “Heaven”, “Brahman”, “God” or “The Void”. Since the epic poem Mahabharata, many people believed that Mahasvara is the creator of the universe and master of all beings, and that once the world perishes, everything returns to Mahasvara. In this view, the Five Skandhas are not the true self. Indeed, this view is no different from panentheism.

In early Hindu philosophy, the Vedanta and Upanishad schools advocated that the human “I” and Brahman jointly created the universe, a principle known in Sanskrit as Tat Tvam Asi, or “Thou art that”, meaning “You’re it”. Of the two, which co-exist within the same entity, the self is illusory, unreal, impermanent and therefore empty, and only Brahman exists in eternity. Thus, according to the Brahmanists, “its body lives but the void permeates”. Among the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy, scholars of Samkhya and Vaisesika also believed that there is an entity of the spiritual “I” existing beyond the Five Skandhas that is eternal, omnipresent, and in volume equal to The Void, collecting karma in all places and reaping retribution.

Accordingly, the existence of all dharmas, including all sentient beings, is driven by the will of Brahman and Mahasvara. Hence, joy, suffering and all other emotions experienced by human beings are generated by God.

The “I” is neither the Five Skandhas nor beyond them

On the other hand, according to Vatsiputriyah and Sammitiyah, two derivational schools of early Buddhism, life of the “I” is neither within the Five Skandhas nor beyond them, but somewhere in between, and their relationship determines its fate. If we compare the self to candlelight, then the light is not the candle itself, nor can it be separated from the candle, for it comes from the burning candle, and when thus produced it relies not merely on the flame or the candle, but a combination of the two, the combustion.

There is no “I”

The foregoing three views all treat the “I” as something that commands an absolute, eternal, and independently existing soul. The mortal, obsessed with the self and clinging to the external circumstance, commit evil karma through greed, anger and delusion, as well as killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, illusion, libel, double speak and lying, and hence draw retribution that entangles them in perpetual transmigration. Mahayana Buddhism does not recognize that the “I” is made up of either the Five Skandhas, beyond them, or somewhere in between. Instead, it maintains that given a temporal dimension, all things change moment to moment, so beings experience birth, sickness, aging and death, and inanimate objects undergo germination, existence, decay and extinction. What is past is gone, what is present is changing in an instant, and what is future is yet to come, thus all is in transience, and this is called the impermanence of all dharmas. The uninitiated, not comprehending it, attempt to seek permanence within impermanence. This is why Buddha advocates impermanence to break their attachment to the hurdle of permanence. In a spatial dimension, all dharmas rely on karmic forces for their existence. An individual human, in this view, has no entity with independent autonomy, let alone any other dharmas in the universe.

The mortals have no eternal, independent, autonomous existence, possesses nothing but a body and mind made up of the Five Skandhas and under constant change. When one life ends, he moves on into a new one, and this is called “all dharmas without a self”. Not knowing this, sentient beings impose their own views on all phenomena, so Buddha advocates “no self” to remove their ignorance. Sentient beings cling to the self and external circumstance, deriving karma that leads to endless affliction and transmigration. On the other hand, once he grasps the meaning of no self, while diligently pursuing vinaya, samadhi and prajna for liberation and awakening in his practice of Buddhism, he will be able to gradually subdue mental afflictions, stop making evil karma to attain the absolute truth of all dharmas and eventually enter nirvana in quiescence.

To be sure, the truth of all dharmas transcends time and space as well as the scope of human experience, and cannot be validated or negated. But how, one may ask, could a sentient being, with his very limited wisdom, be in a position to prove its absolute existence which lies utterly beyond the depth of his experience?! In actual fact, even if it were proven, the result would not be lying within the confines of the phenomenal or spiritual world, nor be accessible through one’s personal practice or enlightenment, so one should really not persist on exploring an absolute answer.

In Buddhism, indeed, there are fourteen questions that Sakyamuni Buddha refused to contemplate, known as “the fourteen unanswered questions”, all relate to the origin and existence of the world, because Buddha believed that these questions merely confuse and agitate as useless sophistry. Having said that, in order to inspire sentient beings, Mahayana Buddhism does try to explicate the doctrine of “no self” based on karmic origination, “All dharmas arise out of causality and cease out of causality. There is no independent, eternal, unchanging ‘I’”.

Pondering over the question “Who am I?” makes one realize that the “I” is neither with the Five Skandhas nor beyond them, nor between these two states. Mahayana Buddhism believes that sentient being has no self.

Admittedly, “no I” serves as not much of an answer to “Who am I?”, it simply negates the question. What one must really do is move away from a narrow perspective of “the self and other” to the theoretical dimensions of “dependant arising” and “absolute reality”. These principles, however, both broad and profound, are unfortunately beyond the limits of this article. Nevertheless, like Zen Buddhists involved in deep introspection, a diligent reader may start with questioning the origin of life, delve into extensive Buddhist literature, consult knowledgeable fellow practitioners, use theory to guide his pursuit, and then re-evaluate it with what he discovered. In this way one improves both his own theoretical understanding and his practical cultivation, on a path to yet a higher level of wisdom.


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