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. Read More …

Photos ~ A Snap of the Past

A friend recently ask me why I would want photos that do not contain myself in it.  That got me thinking.  Yes, why?

At its simplest, photos provide a visual snapshot of a time from the past.  It allows us to relive those moments and remember the events, the places, the conversations, and most importantly the people.  It reminds us of the good times, … and the very good times.  We seldom bring out our cameras or snap a heated argument with our mobiles.  Maybe we should.  Should we?

Sometimes, hidden beneath the smiles and laughter in the photo is a tinge of sadness or unhappiness that only the persons would know.  Photos don’t lie, but they can’t tell as well.  Looking at these photos may bring a smile as we look back at our own silliness or our ‘old self’ and wonder why we were so upset or happy then or it may rekindle old feelings that we have long forgotten and thought gone, but like an old friend, now stirs our heart.

Taking a peek into yesteryears, it may also reminds us of how the people in the photos have changed.  How we and others are not the same persons anymore.  We have changed.  We will change.  We are changing.  We may long to be back in the “good ol’days”.  It seems like every generation will look back to their youths and pin for these years long gone and scorn at the youths of present days and wonder what went wrong.  And these same very youths will do the same in future, perhaps with holographic immersive videos or cerebral implants instead of printed photos or our tablets and phones.

With digital photos, those moments are forever preserved and locked away, not to be lost, until we wish to reminiscent over days past, or when you accidentally chance upon them while clearing up old archive folders.  Like the photo albums of past, we usually stash them aside until the Chinese new year or when a relative visits.  With digital photos, we are no longer limited to the 16 or 32 shots per reel, each photo of the hundreds and thousands we snap each year, does it make each of them less valuable?

Speaking of value, if you have to choose between “seeing a person frequently or everyday and not have any photos of that person” vs “seeing a person occasionally and have some photos”, what would you choose?  How about not getting to see that person again but to have as much photos of that person?  With videos?  If photos and videos capture the moments shared with a person, albeit less than ideal, then do they serve as a substitute in their absence?  Or do they serve as a surrogate being, an extension of that person?

Perhaps it is the knowledge that we would one day not be able to see one another, that we try feebly to capture as many moments as we can, so that when a person who is special to us is gone, separated from us, we can still have them, have their ‘presence’, even if it is a
less than perfect replacement.  This holding on to of one another, wishing for it to last, perhaps just one more day?  Is that all it is, our powerless struggle against the tides of change, grasping helplessly onto wisp of memories of fond time past?

From the earliest archaelogical findings of cave paintings, humanity has tried to capture what we experience.  Regardless of their intentions and hopes, no matter how fruitless the outcome, it has served to give us, tens of hundreds and thousands of years and centuries later, a peer into the days gone by.  We may interpret Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa as a self-portrait or a drawing of his love-interest, and be totally wrong, or we may see “The Scream” and think that it is his rendering of the scream of innocence lost, while scientists would tell you that it is an artistic expression of the volcanic eruption of Krakatoa, one which split up an island, covered many regions with ashes and caused a drop in global temperature by 1.2 deg C.

We may never quite know what went through the minds of all those artists, but to those who were there, it is perhaps an affirmation that yes, it did happen.  That like the bisons hunted by early man, the thoughts and emotions in artists did exist as well, even if only in their minds and hearts.  When we take a picture today, does it not affirm in us, and even more so to others, that yes, we were there.  Photos do not lie.  And so with photos showing our hands on the Great Wall of China, our presence has somehow become cemented in history.  We were there, and we have photos to prove.  No one shall deny us of that.

For some, we do this because we want validation from others.  For others, we do this to affirm in ourselves that yes we were there.  Or that someone was in our life.  And we sometimes want to let the world know that.  Sometimes we just need to know it ourselves.  Looking at photos of our love ones with us, it may give us more certainty that they are still in our lives, that we are still in theirs.  Yes?

Another purpose photos, paintings and scultures serve is to remind us of people who are no longer with us, or whom we look up to and have respect for, but have never met.  While the renderings may not be photo realistic and may well have artistic or cultural tinting, it helps us to connect to this person.  When we visit a museum or read a book with paintings of Isaac Newton, we may marvel at how this person was one of a series of great intelligence that spark a cascade of technological discoveries, changing human lives even up till this very day.  While we enjoy the benefits of modern science and read this text of a browser, on a tablet, with the page dished out over HTTP, TCPIP layers, sitting over wifi (802.11##), UTP, fibre, all served through a web server running a linux kernel (maybe Centos, Ubuntu or Debian distro), we may not even know who Linux Torvalds is, much less feel anything towards him, or the thousands of technicians, engineers and scientists who has made it possible.

It is somehow, harder to feel gratitude or love towards science, technology, mathematics formula or software algorithms, but easier to feel grateful towards people.  So we thank the tech support person who restored our account but may not feel so much towards the tools that made it possible.  But it is good and important to have gratitude, to feel grateful.  As Buddhists would look to a picture or sculture of the Buddha, and have gratitude and reverence for a very special and important teacher, who discovered the way to completely end suffering, many other religions and cultures too, uses scultures, symbols, paintings and photos to remind us of values and teachings.  Such connection is helpful to spur us on to the teachings themselves and to realise them.  A visual connection of sort.

So why would I want a photo where I am not even in it?  Perhaps I am no longer as narcissistic as I was in university, when I would only order photos containing myself.  In retrospect, maybe we do that to
also hide our need of others.  That it was simply because “I” was inside, so I wanted those photos, not because “others” are inside.  If there was this need to hide, it is no longer in me.  I’m ok with people thinking what they want of me.  I’m ok to admit that yes, I want to be a part of something or that I want someone to be part of my journey in life.  I’m free of that bit of trappings. 😉

So the next time we take a photo together, go ahead and smile, or frown, let others know, that you were here with me, in my life, on the path towards Enlightenment.  Perhaps in time to come, when we attain enlightenment, and we peer into our present past life, we will smile and chuckle, thinking “For we were young … we’ll be alright”. ^.^

Happy Mother’s Day

Psychology Researcher ‘Discovers’ What Buddha Realised 2600 Years Ago

One key realisation that the Buddha discovered was that all conditioned phenomena being impermanent is subject to change (according to conditions and not our wishful thinking!); being subject to change in this way, is not conducive to satisfy our whims and fancy … i.e. not conducive to being satisfactory or happiness, at least not stable, dependable tangible happiness or pleasure.

In Samyutta Nikaya 22: Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic, the Buddha declares

“Bhikkhus, form is not-self. Were form self, then this form would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’ And since form is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’ ~ The Buddha [1]

Beyond form (ie physical matter, including our very own body), the
Buddha further declares how, like form, the other aggregates of feeling, perception, volition formation, consciousness (collectively this latter four is what we call mind, heart etc) also does change simply according to our wishes.

Our very existence, this body and mind being of this nature, is hence, put to the question

“Now is what is impermanent, what is painful since subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this is I, this is my self’?” ~ The Buddha [1]

This and countless suttas point to the truth of no-self, or not-self.  That there is no substantial, permanent, unchanging ‘self’ that can be found within or without the five aggregates, that the five aggregates are not self.

However, the Buddha also saw that sentient beings tend to see wrongly, and have perversions, inversions, distortions of perception, of mind, of view.

“Perceiving constancy in the inconstant, pleasure in the stressful, self in what’s not-self, attractiveness in the unattractive”
~ The Buddha [2]

2600 years after the Buddha’s awakening and thus Buddhahood, Daniel Gilbert, psychology researcher at Harvard university is coming to a similar realisation that despite our sense of a permanent core, identity, values, personality etc, i.e. self, we are indeed subject to change.  In an article “You Can’t See It, But You’ll Be A Different Person In 10 Years[3]

No matter how old people are, they seem to believe that who they are today is essentially who they’ll be tomorrow.

That’s according to fresh research that suggests that people generally fail to appreciate how much their personality and values will change in the years ahead — even though they recognize that they have changed in the past.

Daniel Gilbert, a psychology researcher at Harvard University who did this study with two colleagues, says that he’s no exception to this rule.

“I have this deep sense that although I will physically age — I’ll have even less hair than I do and probably a few more pounds — that by and large the core of me, my identity, my values, my personality, my deepest preferences, are not going to change from here on out,” says Gilbert, who is 55.

From the Buddha’s teachings, we are invited to see for ourselves if there is really anything permanent, substantial, unchanging that we can call “Mine, I or my self” or soul.

Seeing that such a permanent entity such as an “I” do not exist, we realise that the very idea that “I am a fixed entity” is flawed to begin with.  We cannot even exist or survive if we cannot change physically and mentally.

“If one’s heart is unchanging, then it would have been impossible for the two parties to even start liking each other.”
~ 你變心了 Your heart has changed! [4]

Even the very relationships we have with others are not “permanent, fixed and unchanging”, for if they were, friendships cannot come to be, love cannot sprout and feuds must have existed to begin with or never fester.

Unconsciously, we hold onto the notion that “I” am fixed and cannot, will not change.  We project this notion onto others and expect others not to change too!  If we like a person, we tend to attribute all the goodness solely to that person, ignoring all other (ever changing) conditions, including that very person who is changing
as well.  We then expect that person to perpetually fit our perception … and NOT CHANGE.  Are we setting ourselves up for disappointment or what?

Likewise, when we dislike a person, we tend to attribute all the unpleasantness solely to that person, ignoring all other (ever changing) conditions, including that very person who is changing as well.  We then (ironically!) expect that person to perpetually fit out perception … and NOT CHANGE.  Do we give others a chance to change?

Realising that there is no fixed entity, we learn to appreciate even more deeply the relationships we have with others, for it is not a fixed, unchanging link that we can take for granted.  Conversely, this same realisation also liberates us from a fixed negative pattern or relationship we may have had; we give both others and ourselves the chance to grow the relationship towards a positive direction.

The Buddha’s teaching of anatta (無我) no-self / not-self ultimately leads us to the realisation that there is nothing worth while for us to be attached to, and nothing permanent, unchanging or substantial that we can grasp onto anyway, giving rise to Final Liberation, Nirvana (Pali: Nibbana).

So, what do you wish to change this next three months?


Dharma Talk: No-Self in Buddhism and Our Daily Lives @ PMT.1930~2130.Sat 31 Mar 2012

The teaching on “No-self”, anatta, is uniquely found in the Buddha’s teaching.  The Buddha discovered that in the midst of our lives, there is no “I” that exist.  But yet, our conventional language and our own experience says otherwise.  If there is no-self, then who is reading this very line?

The talk and sharing will focus on two aspects:

  1. What is “No-self” and how it is evident in our life.
  2. The impact or implication of this in our life.

In the discussion that ensues, we will also explore together how our usual “self-ful” mode of relating to people around us has shaped our lives so far.

This Dharma talk will require attendees to talk as well.  So come learn and share together. 🙂

Poh Ming Tse : 1930hrs ~ 2130hrs Saturday : 31 March 2012


By Driving:

1A.From West, exit PIE into Eng Neo Avenue, then turn LEFT into Dunearn Road.

1B.From East, exit PIE into Adam Road, then turn RIGHT into Bukit Timah Road. After

Duchess Road, keep RIGHT. When near Hwa Chong Junior College, U-turn into Dunearn Road.

2.Along Dunearn Road, keep LEFT. After Watten Estate Road, turn LEFT into

Shelford Rd. Slow down before entering the basement car park on your LEFT.


By Bus:

1.From West, alight at the bus stop right after Watten Estate Road and Shelford Road.

2.From East, alight at the bus stop in front of Coronation Plaza and use the overhead bridge to cross the road. Then walk against the traffic flow until you reach Shelford Road.

Bus Number: 66, 67, 74, 151, 156, 157, 170, 171, 174, 540, 852, 961


By NorthSouth-Line MRT:

1.Alight at Newton MRT Station.

2.Take ‘Exit A’ to Scotts Road.

3.Take TIBS Bus No. 171 heading towards Bt Timah Road.

4.Alight at the 8th bus stop, in front of Coronation Plaza and use the overhead bridge to cross the road.

5.Then walk against the traffic flow until you reach Shelford Road.