Self-Essence and Identity


“When this is, that is.
From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
When this isn’t, that isn’t.
From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.”
~Assutavā Sutta

Many of the traditional human philosophical systems are invariably built upon, or strive to confirm, some sense of permanent self-existence. Is it possible, however, that this sense of a continuous personal “self” actually derives from a misreading or misinterpretation of the causes and conditions of experience, mistaking what is essentially a temporary matrix of perception, or even an expedient creation akin to an avatar in a video game, to be a reliable indication of some unchanging essence?

As the great sage Tsongkhapa wrote in the profound “Lamrim Chenmo”, “When living beings experience or see a phenomenon, they do not apprehend it as being set up by the power of the mind to which it appears. Rather, they apprehend it as existing just as it appears, i.e., as existing in an essentially objective manner. This is how intrinsic existence is superimposed. The presence of such a nature in the object is what is meant by essence, intrinsic nature, and autonomous existence.”

Afraid of death and the possibility of our individual nonexistence, we tend to habitually impute the existence of (and then fixate on the belief in) an enduring “I”, when in reality such a notion may be merely symptomatic of our primal desires and fears – a hopeful coping mechanism with which to navigate the unknown. Rather than recognize ripening causes and conditions for what they are, we instead hypostatize their apparent effects (i.e. represent an abstraction as a solid reality), granting this hypostatized entity a more concrete identity than what we encounter in actual living experience.

Transcending that view by recognizing that all which comes into existence does so dependent on perpetually changing causes and conditions is to see things as they actually are. It is to see beyond our conceptual constructs that have become rigidified over time into various human philosophical systems that are employed to confirm the reality of the “I”. Since the physical body is dependent on its parts, if we try and find some self-essence within the body, we will not be able to do so.

As Buddha, in the “Samyutta Nikaya”, is quoted: “We who look at the whole and not just the part, know that we too are systems of interdependence, of feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and consciousness all interconnected. Investigating in this way, we come to realize that there is no ‘me’ or ‘mine’ in any one part, just as a sound does not belong to any one part of the lute.”

Thus, since the mind can only exist in relation to its constantly changing objects, no inherent unchanging self can be found there either. That is to see things as they are, free of any filtered and conditioned fabrication or conceptual addition to perception. The fact that so few of us are awake enough to truly see things as they are is basically a testament to the deluding power of consensus beliefs and assumptions, which are typically characterized by strategic avoidance. Avoidance of what? Avoidance of any serious and persistent inquiry into one’s actual nature and true condition. It is also an indication of how great a challenge the prospect of real awakening entails, particularly in the midst of the propaganda of this world, which cherishes the sense of an independent and enduring self-essence above all else.

What’s truly confounding is how some of us adamantly cling to our personal self-images (no matter how much pain and stress is generated as a consequence), rather than taking the time to consciously inquire into that self-sense to the point of recognizing its fundamental emptiness (no matter how much freedom and relief can result by directly seeing through it). Instead, we would rather talk about fixing or forgiving it, manipulating it to make it nicer, or modifying it in some way, as if it were an actual entity. This is exactly how suffering is habitually perpetuated — by a failure to inspect one’s self-image and really see it for what it is (and isn’t). All subsequent dysfunctionalities and pathologies are merely ramifications of that original case of mistaken identity.


More often than not, human philosophies tend to fall into fixed propositions of either “eternalism” or “annihilationalism,” or to put in other terms, “continuity” or “discontinuity.” However, things (i.e. the phenomenal world, persons, etc.) are neither continuous nor discontinuous. Neither the world nor the things in it endure unchanging and endlessly; nor is the world a random, discontinuous, fragmented event in consciousness. Things are neither reducible entirely to their specific causative conditions, nor are they ever something other than their conditions. The 20th Century Sage Ramana Maharshi perfectly described the paradox when he noted: “The ‘I’ casts off the illusion of ‘I’ and yet remains as ‘I’. Such is the paradox of Self-realization. The realized do not see any contradiction in it.”

This “middle way” of recognition (beyond the extremes of hopeful perpetuity and despairing nihilism, or any conflation of Absolute and Relative views) investigates, sees through, and discards those philosophical abstractions which have been reified to the point of seeming more real than the conditions from which they have been abstracted. However, the problem of hypostatization is not confined to the notion of self in its limited sense of an individual’s self-essence, but is apparent everywhere, since all conventional explanations of the way things are, are grounded in conceptually designated entities that are themselves ultimately unreal. All of our fundamental notions, including time, actions (karma) and the agents of action, the characteristics with which things are defined and classified, relations, and so on, all are infiltrated by the notion of “identity”.


Identity is simply another name for an imputed self-essence: a continuous, unchanging, self-identical core story of “me and mine”. However, when seen properly as a result of thorough investigation (perhaps in the form of the inquiry “Who am I?”), all phenomena, including the separate self-sense and its imaginative narrative, are revealed to be devoid of any actual self-essence, lacking autonomy, and thus are determined to be “empty” of any inherent existence.

“Emptiness” (in this sense) does not mean a cosmic void, or nonexistence. Rather it signifies the absence of something very precise – a concrete and enduring self-essence. It is the self-essence which is in question when considered within the mechanics of dependent origination – in other words, the fact that all phenomena (including the self-sense) arise in dependence upon multiple causes and conditions. Moreover, whatever appears must also disappear, since causes and conditions are ever-fluctuating, leaving no room for some fixed and unchanging independent entity in the process. As the pre-eminent Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna wrote: “Whatever arises dependently is explained as empty. Thus dependent attribution is the middle way. Since there is nothing whatever that is not dependently existent, for that reason there is nothing whatsoever that is not empty.”

Of course, the question that is often raised at this juncture, especially by those who have been conditioned by one of the prevalent religious indoctrinations (or even by “mystical” experiences such as near death events or “out of body” adventures), is the matter of the “soul”. This subject was addressed to some extent in my essay on Survival and Personal Continuity here, but within the context of this current exploration, the soul as it is typically understood can be appreciated as the “mindstream”.

In Buddhist philosophy, for example, the mindstream is that thread of energy, or continuum of consciousness, which moves from life to life. However, it is also dependent on causes and conditions, and so in turn exists in a state of perpetual flux. Given that it exists within such a state, there is no fixed self-essence that can be pointed to and claimed as some permanent identity. Consequently, whether on the physical plane, or in the astral, the same essential emptiness pertains.

In order to provide a clearer picture of the nature of Dependent Origination, the noted Vietnamese master Thich Nhat Hanh employs the metaphor of the table:

“For a table to exist, we need wood, a carpenter, time, skillfulness, and many other causes. And each of these causes needs other causes to be. The wood needs the forest, the sunshine, the rain, and so on. The carpenter needs his parents, breakfast, fresh air, and so on. And each of those things, in turn, has to be brought about by other causes and conditions. If we continue to look in this way, we’ll see that nothing has been left out. Everything in the cosmos has come together to bring us this table. Looking deeply at the sunshine, the leaves of the tree, and the clouds, we can see the table. The one can be seen in the all, and the all can be seen in the one. One cause is never enough to bring about an effect. A cause must, at the same time, be an effect, and every effect must also be the cause of something else.”


What is both intriguing and yet not that surprising is that the most advanced branches of contemporary physics, such as Quantum Mechanics, are also beginning to echo this same view of the relationship between emptiness and appearance by positing reality as systems of interacting objects with inter-penetrating causes and effects, and yet empty of any permanent inherent core or fundamental essence.

In any case, it is clear that directly recognizing the cloud-like, dependent nature of the arising of all phenomena is essential to understanding the nature of reality itself, as well as our relation to it. Ultimately, however, all philosophical questions, as provocative and intellectually absorbing as they may be, must take a back seat to the matter of clarifying our immediate condition, as well as all the attendant afflictive states which we continue to fuel through our attachment to uninspected notions of a separate and substantial self and world.

Moreover, if we have been in the “spiritual game” long enough, and based on all the readings and teachings we have likely encountered on the subject of an enduring self-essence, we by now typically tend to over-think the matter, or else fall into fixed positions to which we cling, and which become our own mind-prisons when we do so. This is why it is refreshing to hear a wise teacher like Ponlop Rinpoche note:

“The mistaken ideas about the essence arise from fixated attachment that solidifies the present mind as being negative. You believe that noble and positive wisdom will be attained only if present mind is relinquished. This is a mistaken idea in the Mahamudra tradition, because there is no wisdom higher than present mind itself.”

There is only this present mind, insubstantial and omnipresent, without beginning or end, regardless of whatever phenomena come and go. Another name used to describe it is Awareness, or Buddha Nature, though it does not get better or more enlightened by assuming the form of a Buddha, or worse or corrupted by assuming the form of an ordinary sentient being. Nor do we have to jump through hoops for lifetimes trying to get to the present mind.

It is always itself, always here, always shining, regardless of the clouds that appear and disappear. Terms like existent and non-existent equally miss the mark. It cannot be grasped, but it is no mere nothingness either. As Nisargadatta once pointed out: “The person, the ‘I am this body, this mind, this chain of memories, this bundle of desires and fears’ disappears, but something you may call identity, remains. It enables me to become a person when required. Love creates its own necessities, even of becoming a person.” Yes, leave it to Love to confound even our most carefully crafted assumptions about the nature of our True Self and its play of colorful, though transient, personas!

Indeed, the Reality may be so simple that we invariably skip right over it, or end up looking for it everywhere, not realizing that it is what’s looking. That’s the big joke, the cosmic joke! Just so, we can relax and enjoy the insecurity of the unknown, of having no conclusive handle on or conceptual designation for “what is”. After all, that is our actual human condition – not knowing – though paradoxically, nothing is concealed!

“Whenever clouds gather, the nature of the sky is not corrupted, and when they disperse, it is not ameliorated. The sky does not become less or more vast. It does not change. It is the same with the nature of mind: it is not spoiled by the arrival of thoughts; nor improved by their disappearance. The nature of the mind is emptiness; its expression is clarity. These two aspects are essentially one’s simple images designed to indicate the diverse modalities of the mind. It would be useless to attach oneself in turn to the notion of emptiness , and then to that of clarity, as if they were independent entities. The ultimate nature of mind is beyond all concepts, all definition and all fragmentation.”

~Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche


See also:

About Bob OHearn

My name is Bob O'Hearn, and I live with my Beloved Mate, Mazie, in the foothills of the Northern California Sierra Nevada Mountains. I have a number of blog sites you may enjoy: Photo Gallery: Essays on the Conscious Process: Compiled Poetry and Prosetry: Verses and ramblings on life as it is: Verses and Variations on the Investigation of Mind Nature: Verses on the Play of Consciousness: Poetic Fiction, Fable, Fantabulation: Poems of the Mountain Hermit: Love Poems from The Book of Yes: Autobiographical Fragments, Memories, Stories, and Tall Tales: Ancient and modern spiritual texts, creatively refreshed: Writings from selected Western Mystics, Classic and Modern: Wisdom of a Spirit Guide: Thank You!
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13 Responses to Self-Essence and Identity

  1. marcel says:

    Thank you Sir.
    Only thingy I haven’t come to terms with (conceptually/imaginary that is – so who cares anyway)
    Neverthless, the quantum physics and neuro science thingy regarding the abstraction process of the brain (as explained by Wolinski on the DVD etc) regarding the ommiting proces of the “emptiness” so that we have the appirition of a seemingly solid form and regarding to what the Lanka says about “emptiness” (something about the ‘lowest view on emptiness being “something not there as a form) should be discarded and doesn’t refer to the “emptiness” the Buddha spoke of. Everything might just be expedient talk, but on the phenomenal level it seems to me that “emptiness and form” are just opposites in the manifest consciousness. In the absence of consciousness, where is the notion of it? At one point I used to think that the “emptiness and form” (Heart sutra) was some great knwoeldgable and mysterious thingy, later I saw it as just another expedient for those who imagined “I am this – and that is the world” AFTER the “fluids come together” as everything is a play of consciousness (elements) and I see everything as a function of consciousness (appearing in form/emptiness) as just That. To whom do the expedient of ’emptiness and form’ actually refer? I cannot attribute it to anything, the 84000 names and form us just That, “emptiness” only appears in name and form (language) just like “non-duality” only appears in language. The whole thing just seem like words to me (the emptiness/form stuff)
    Nevertheless I thought I mentioned that this brain thing, noticed the Wolinski explanation as being the same as the Buddha’s “emptiness and form”… something of a “mysterious teaching” was all of a sudden “obvious”, yet that “obvious” explanation also only appears in language, concepts. So perhaps I’m just a heretic or something, but the whole “emptiness” stuff has lost its entertaining value, just like “causality” and all that silliness. Perhaps you see some error here.

    • Bob OHearn says:

      Greetings, Brother! Thank you for your comments!

      As Maurice Frydman once noted, words are helpful in dealing with the objective world. As you say, they are expedients, as are concepts like “emptiness”. Nevertheless, the world of words is a symbolic one, and hence unreal. Having an experience of the concept of emptiness is nothing like the actual realization of emptiness. Names and forms can become a kind of limiting prison, a contraction. To break out from this prison of the verbal mind into reality, one must be able to shift one’s focus from the word to what it refers to, the thing itself. “Words are pointers, they show the direction but they will not come along with us. Truth is the fruit of earnest action, words merely point the way.”

      In the final consideration, if one’s philosophical exploration has served in eliminating greed, envy, hatred, and arrogance, birthing genuine humility and integrity, and rendering one more capable of giving and receiving love, then it is of value. Otherwise, it merely represents “a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the uninstructed … is not freed, I tell you, from suffering and stress.” (Buddha, Sabbasava Sutta)


  2. marcel says:

    Many thanks Brother!

  3. Bob OHearn says:

    “As soon as you say that you are an individual, Illusion is very happy to distract you from your real nature and to keep you inside her institution.”

    – Sri Siddharameshwar Maharaj

  4. Bob OHearn says:

    “Consciousness exists (whatever its relationship to the physical world happens to be), and it is the experiential basis of both the examined and the unexamined life. If you turn consciousness upon itself in this moment, you will discover that your mind tends to wander into thought. If you look closely at thoughts themselves, you will notice that they continually arise and pass away. If you look for the thinker of these thoughts, you will not find one. And the sense that you have — “What the hell is Harris talking about? I’m the thinker!”— is just another thought, arising in consciousness.

    If you repeatedly turn consciousness upon itself in this way, you will discover that the feeling of being a self disappears. There is nothing Buddhist about such inquiry, and nothing need be believed on insufficient evidence to pursue it. One need only accept the following premise: If you want to know what your mind is really like, it makes sense to pay close attention to it.”

    ~Sam Harris

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  5. Bob OHearn says:

    Nisargadatta Maharaj: Whatever can be described cannot be your self, and what you are cannot be described. You can only know your self by being yourself without any attempt at self-definition and self-description. Once you have understood that you are nothing perceivable or conceivable, that whatever appears in the field of consciousness cannot be your self, you will apply yourself to the eradication of all self-identification, as the only way that can take you to a deeper realisation of your self. You literally progress by rejection — a veritable rocket. To know that you are neither in the body nor in the mind, though aware of both, is already self-knowledge.

    Q: If I am neither the body nor mind, how am I aware of them? How can I perceive something quite foreign to myself?

    M: ‘Nothing is me,’ is the first step. ‘Everything is me’ is the next. Both hang on the idea: ‘there is a world’. When this too is given up, you remain what you are — the non-dual Self. You are it here and now, but your vision is obstructed by your false ideas about your self.
    You know so many things about yourself, but the knower you do not know. Find out who you are, the knower of the known. Look within diligently, remember to remember that the perceived cannot be the perceiver. Whatever you see, hear or think of, remember — you are not what happens, you are he to whom it happens. Delve deeply into the sense ‘I am’ and you will surely discover that the perceiving centre is universal, as universal as the light that illumines the world. All that happens in the universe happens to you, the silent witness. On the other hand, whatever is done, is done by you, the universal and inexhaustible energy.

    Q: It is, no doubt, very gratifying to hear that one is the silent witness as well as the universal energy. But how is one to cross over from a verbal statement to direct knowledge? Hearing is not knowing.

    M: Before you can know anything directly, non-verbally, you must know the knower. So far, you took the mind for the knower, but it is just not so. The mind clogs you up with images and ideas, which leave scars in memory. You take remembering to be knowledge. True knowledge is ever fresh, new, unexpected. It wells up from within. When you know what you are, you also are what you know. Between knowing and being there is no gap.

  6. Bob OHearn says:

    “In every experience there arises the experiencer of it. Memory creates the illusion of continuity. In reality each experience has its own experiencer and the sense of identity is due to the common factor at the root of all experiencer-experience relations. Identity and continuity are not the same. Just as each flower has its own colour, but all colours are caused by the same light, so do many experiencers appear in the undivided and indivisible awareness, each separate in memory, identical in essence. This essence is the root, the foundation, the timeless and spaceless ‘possibility’ of all experience.

    Q: How do I get at it?

    M: You need not get at it, for you *are* it. It will get at you, if you give it a chance. Let go your attachment to the unreal and the real will swiftly and smoothly step into its own. Stop imagining yourself being or doing this or that and the realization that you are the source and heart of all will dawn upon you. With this will come great love which is not choice nor predilection, nor attachment, but a power which makes all things love-worthy and loveable.”

    ~ Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

  7. Bob OHearn says:

    When I speak these things people believe that they become completely annihilated and there’s nothing left. They melt into the great ocean of nirvana. This is not necessarily true. You will always be awareness. You will always be pure intelligence for that is your real nature. You will always be blissful. Except you will understand that you are not who you appear to be. Your body will still appear to be doing things, going through its motions. You will appear to be an ordinary person but you will know. You have lifted yourself up above the gross world into the heavenly world of pure consciousness and you will be at peace.

    ~Robert Adams

  8. Bob OHearn says:

    Searching for the Mind

    Where does the mind come from?

    Where does it stay?

    Where does it go?

    If these three questions are investigated, the mind will be trained and its true nature understood.

    To start, investigate the mind’s point of origin. The factor that we refer to as “awareness” and “mind” is in constant motion like the wind; it is this “mind” that experiences all forms of happiness and suffering. Where does this shifting awareness first come from? Does the mind come into being from a point of existence or nonexistence? Does it arise from appearances or from emptiness? Does it originate from the external universe or the beings that inhabit it?

    You may wonder whether or not the mind arises from some particular thing made up of the four external elements. If you look for such a thing, however, you will find that you can break everything down into tiny parts . In the end, you won’t find anything. You may then get the idea that it arises from inside your own body. Search through each part of your body, through your head and each of your limbs. Can you find it anywhere? On the other hand, if you think that it arises from a state of emptiness, can you find some place that it arises from? Yet if it comes into existence from appearances, what do you actually observe?

    In short, investigate the mind that you are searching for and then turn your attention back to the mind that is doing the searching. You will then behold the mind in its’ original state, and see that it has no identifiable essence at all. Until this has actually come to pass, you should repeat this process of examination over and over again.

    Second, investigate the mind’s presence. In this very moment, is the essence of this aware consciousness present in the external universe or in the beings that inhabit it? What part of the body is it in? And if not there, where else might it be? What shape, color, function, and essence indicate its presence?

    Once you have examined and investigated in this manner, and determined that it does not exist in any location whatsoever, turn your attention back to the consciousness that is conducting the investigation.

    Continue this process until you have determined that consciousness lacks inherent existence and has no basis or root, while it nevertheless knows and perceives.

    Third, look into the mind’s departure. Like the wind, this mindful awareness seems to suddenly arise and then departs just as abruptly. Where does it go? Does it end up in the external universe or in the beings that inhabit it? Does it end up in appearances or emptiness, existence or nonexistence, or in some other condition? When you investigate this matter, you will see that there is no place to which the mind goes.

    Likewise, the subjective mind itself cannot be identified either. It has no essence that one can point to and say, “This is it!” Hence, there is no place where the mind goes, nor is there a mind that goes somewhere. As before, continue this process until you have determined that empty awareness neither comes nor goes.

    Practicing these mental preliminaries serves an ordinary function, a supreme function, and a sublime function. In an ordinary sense, it functions to reverse any intense clinging one may have to the ordinary mind, as well as to purify mental negativity and pacify obstacles.

    Its supreme function is to keep the mind from becoming involved with samsara, and to bring it to a state of liberation, inseparable from the dharmakaya.

    Its sublime function results in the mind becoming inseparable from the enlightened mind of all the Buddhas, which will bring about an infinite range of benefits for other sentient beings.

    ~the Third Dzogchen Rinpoche

  9. Bob OHearn says:

    “The person merges into the witness, the witness into awareness, awareness into pure being, yet identity is not lost. It is transfigured, and becomes the real Self, the eternal friend and guide.”

    ~Nisargadatta Maharaj

  10. Bob OHearn says:

    “Liberation and bondage are both expressions of the ego. Only one who recognizes this ego can be truly realized. Saying that “I am liberated” is to remain in bondage. One can drown even in the shallowest water of illusion by tying an anchor in the form of pride of liberation.”

    ~ Siddharameshwar Maharaj

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