Self, World and Incarnation

Mark Harriss

Who am I? What am I? Where am I going? We all ask these questions from time to time because we all have an innate need for self-understanding and growth. This need arises from the unknown of being: I know that I am but I can’t identify that “am-ness.” I know that death “waits” for me in the future, but with an indeterminate certainty: I don’t know who it is that dies or when. This paper is an attempt to address these questions using Buddhist thought as a springboard.

In Buddhism, it is said that you are an aggregate of attributes. There is no you that has this aggregation, you are this aggregation of five “baskets” or skandhas. They are:

  1. Form, rupa
  2. Sensations, vedana
  3. Perceptions, samjna, cognition
  4. Dispositions, samskara, recognition
  5. Consciousness, vijnana 1

“Name” is 2 through 5. “Form” is number 1. “Namarupa” is the self.

Nirvana is the extinction of number 4, the dispositions, which is also known as “volitional formations” and “compositional factors.”

Reincarnation occurs if there are still dispositions at death, then numbers 4 and 5 stay together and condition a new fetus in a womb somewhere. Numbers 1, 2 and 3 return to a common pool of some sort. Dispositions and consciousness “incarnate,” not a permanent self or soul. Once consciousness is freed of the dispositions, reincarnation no longer need occur.

Karma is action.

Hetu and pratyaya are cause and conditions, respectively. The contents of every moment contain the causes and conditions of each succeeding moment.

The three marks of existence are anitya or impermanence, dukkha or suffering and anatman or no self, no soul.

In Buddhism, emptiness is always emptiness of something: self and substance. Anatman (no self) is the same as nisvhabhava (no substance). People and things are without self; they are anatman.

In Understanding Our Mind, Thich Nhat Hanh says that there are four major mental afflictions having to do with the self. 

“They are self-ignorance (atma-moha), self-view (atma-drishti), self-pride (atma-mano), and self-love (atma-sneha). Self-ignorance is a wrong idea of the self, such as the belief that ‘I am this body, I am this feeling, I am this perception. Things that are not this body, this feeling, this perception, are not I. Things that happen to others are of no concern to me.’ Self-view is the false view that the self is independent and eternal, that it exists apart from other factors of existence. Self-pride is the attitude that we are better, more intelligent, more beautiful, or more important than others. Self-love is when we love ourselves excessively, when everything we say, do, or think shows how caught up with ourselves we are. These four major afflictions are always present in manas. Our practice is to shine the light on manas so that it can release its belief in the self.” 2

Buddha was addressing the Hinduism of his time when he explained the constitution of people and things in this manner. Hinduism had degenerated into the belief that the atman is a permanent, underlying self that keeps coming back, one incarnation after the other, in order to get it right. The skandhas and the three marks of existence are a specific denial of that concept.

A person is an aggregate of attributes; a thing is a collection of qualities (like round or blue). Self and substance are illusions.

Form is the arrangement of qualities; sensation is the colors and shapes; perception is cognition and consciousness is that which brings it all to light. Each subsequent attribute includes the former ones.

A steering wheel is not a car; it is how all the thousands of parts of a car are arranged or related that constitutes a car. If you disassemble your car, you will have thousands of car parts on your garage floor, but you won’t have a car anymore and you won’t be able to drive to work. A car is how all the parts are arranged, not the parts themselves. Your car is made of non-car elements like wheels and fuel pumps and brakes.

Eve is made of non-Eve elements. A fingernail or an eyeball is not Eve. Eve is how all the non-Eve elements are arranged. Eve is how her skandhas are related.

Everything is arrangements, patterns or relationships. A separate object is a thought, not a perception. Relationships are meaningful, but separate objects made of substance are senseless. We perceive relationships of sensations, not separate things and people as objects. That’s why I can be close to my sister even though she is a thousand miles away. Separation is an illusion.

A substrate is not substance, however. A book has paper and ink as a substrate and when you open it up, a whole world of plots, potentials and possibilities are revealed. A book and a symphony are not just paper and ink. Everything is like that, including people. Nothing is limited and nothing has an underlying self or substance: atman.

A house is not a home. A home is where life and relationships happen. It is warmth and security and nourishment and arguing and loving one another: all relationships. A house has home potential because a house is a substrate of a home.

The world is not like a large container with a lot of separate thing/objects placed inside. The world is the totality of relationships of form, sensations, perceptions and consciousness. Center and circumference are relationships, not objects. “To be is to be related,” as Krishnamurti used to say.

The light of consciousness freed of the first four skandhas can now be seen to be “like a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” It is not limited. Who am I? What am I? Where am I going? Light!


1) Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 63-64

2) Hanh, Thich Nhat, Understanding Our Mind, Berkeley, CA, Parallax Press, 2001, pp. 111.