Who am I – The Buddha’s Teachings on No-Self


There is no independent, permanent, unchanging “I” or “You” or “Ven. Chuan Guan”, but our existence in the various roles that we play.  That exist.

No One Role Defines Us

Given conditions, “you” exist, and as a son or daughter wrt to your parents, as a niece or newphew to your uncle and aunts, as a friend to your peers, as a colleague at work, etc. These roles collectively is who you are, yet none of it totally define you.

Sometimes we forget and overemphasis one over the other, or totally neglect this or that role. Other times, we forget to stop playing certain roles even when that role is no longer needed or relevant.  It is almost like the music that continues to play in our mind even when we stop listening to it. We continue to play some roles even when the conditions and situations have changed.

Then our work mindset spills over to our family life, and our love ones feel like we are managing them and not caring for them. Or when our child is all grown up already but we have not grown together with them into a different parenting role, but continue to treat them like five year olds.

No Fixed Roles or Identities

All the roles in our lives that we call “me” do exist, but not as independent, permanent, unchanging identities that belong to us inherently. They depend on the situations, on others, and ourselves, among the conditions, to arise and changes according to conditions … and not according to our whims and fancy. With any of the conditions changing, the resultant role or “me” change or in some case cease to exist.  In a way, all changes require that the earlier state cease to exist, but I digress.

At this macro level, this is one application of the Buddha’s teaching of no-self and emptiness. Within these roles, as we go through life, our very existence in turn comprises our physical being and our mind/heart, which in Buddhism can be further split into sensations, perceptions, mental formations (processes) and consciousness. This mind and body collective form what we call “me”, but is also dependent on various conditions to arise. They too change with the conditions, and not according to our whims and fancy.

We were not born with the roles we currently have and in turn, we are actually not limited to these roles.  Given the right conditions, practically almost every role that humans have played, is open to us.  (Except for cases like gender based roles which would require taking drastic steps to change our gender, or like non US-born citizen would not qualify for the role of US presidency etc).

Instead of limiting ourselves to what we currently do or know, we should realise that we have more potential than that.  Given the right conditions, different roles can be available and we should not limit ourselves thinking that “I” am only “this” or “that”.

Like a Blank Piece of Paper

The question then becomes, “What role should we play next?”

Here my friend, is where it becomes exciting.  There is no fixed role, no fixed path, nor destiny.  For some, it scary because it seem uncertain.

Everyday when we wake up, our life is like a blank piece of paper.  The previous page may be filled with fears or frustrations, but today’s page is not written yet.  Will the role of the lead be that of a happy person who is patient and understanding, or grumpy and short-tempered?  It’s up to you, how you wish to write it.

This year, according to the conditions, choose wisely.  Choose with love and care.  Choose with kindness.  Choose with compassion.  Choose the roles that can best benefit yourself and others.  Choose the role that brings long term welfare and happiness.

Happiness.  It’s a choice.
Choose Happiness.

Meanwhile, I’ve a different role to play.  A sleeping monk.


1 thought on “Who am I – The Buddha’s Teachings on No-Self”

  1. Dear Shifu
    Do we really have a “choice”? Where we are born and our physical & mental state?
    Some are born into the world with disabilities and some are born into families who abuse them. There is a recent article about a weeping 12 yr old girl was asking the Pope, “How god could allow children to be prostitutes?”when he visited Philippines. It is sad and does not seem fair. Most individuals are capable of making choices while some have to resign to their roles.

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