Finding the False Self

All our misery comes from attachment, aversion, or indifference. These three poisons, in turn, have as their root an incorrect view of the self.  

We hold the false self, the “I”, to be true, independent, substantial, and permanent. In the Tattva-samgraha-panjika, Acharya Kamalashila states that all emotional afflictions arise from ignorance —misapprehension of the nature of the self. In order to get rid of all the branches of suffering and prevent them from ever arising again, we need to sever this root. In that way we can put an end to all suffering.  

The Buddha’s main teachings on eradicating ignorance by understanding and realizing the wisdom of emptiness are found in his Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) Sutras, and these texts are the main scriptural source for the Protector Nagarjuna’s Six-fold Canon of Reasoning, especially his Root Verses on Wisdom. Other teachings on the wisdom realizing emptiness may be found in Aryadeva’s Four Hundred Verses; Buddhapalita’s Commentary on Nagarjuna’s Treatise on the Middle Way; Chandrakirti’s Clear Phrases; the ninth chapter of Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life; Kunchen Dolpopa’s Mountain Dharma; and Jetsun Taranatha’s Textual Commentary on the Heart Sutra.  

The essence of all the techniques found in these and other scriptures for developing an understanding of the emptiness of self-existence is the method called the “Four Essential Points”. These provide a very effective approach to the application of the antidote, or remedy, of emptiness. We begin by applying these four methods of analysis to gain an understanding of the emptiness of persons and then use them to gain an understanding of the emptiness of phenomena.

The first essential point

The first is the essential point of ascertaining the object to be eliminated. We cannot realize emptiness without first knowing what it is that is empty. This first point helps us understand how the false self —the object to be refuted and eliminated— appears. We need to recognize how we view the “I” as inherently existent, as if it were independent of the aggregates of body and mind. The “I” appears to be substantially established, existent in its own right, “from its own side”. 

In order to catch a thief we have to know who the person is and what he or she looks like. The greatest thief of all is our mistaken sense of self —the conception that not only ourselves but all other phenomena as well are truly existent. We believe that things really exist the way they appear to our senses, as objectively established, as existing from their own side. This, then, is what we have to know in order to catch this great thief, who steals all our happiness and peace of mind.

This is the initial step in developing an understanding of emptiness and the foundation of realizing it. First we must look for the false self, not selflessness. When we start observing how the false self —the self we have habitually assumed to exist in persons and objects— manifests, we soon discover that it does not exist at all.  

Before we begin cultivating this awareness, our “I” seems to really be there, very solidly, but as soon as we start checking, we cannot find it. It disappears. If the “I” truly did exist, the more we searched for it the more concrete it should become. We should at least be able to find it. If it can’t be found, how can it exist? 

The second essential point

The inherently existent “I” must exist as either one with the body and mind —that is, identical with them— or separate from them. There is no third way in which it can exist. This is the second of the four keys, ascertaining the logical pervasion of the two possibilities of sameness or difference.

We have to watch for the self-existent “I,” which appears to be established independently. If the self does not exist as it appears, we should not accept it as real. Perhaps we think it’s someplace else —that it will show up when we meet our guru or that it’s floating around outside the window somewhere. But we need to understand that there’s no third alternative. Therefore, we have to meditate on the second essential point with awareness that if this apparent “I” is neither identical with nor separate from the body and mind, there’s no way it can exist. At this point it becomes easy for us to understand the general character of emptiness.

The third essential point

The third key is ascertaining the absence of true sameness of the “I” and the body and mind. Once we have ascertained the object of refutation by meditating on emptiness and seen how it cannot exist in a way other than as one with the body and mind or separate from them, we concentrate on whether or not the self-existent “I” can exist as one with them.  

If the “I” is the same as the body and mind, then because these are two separate entities (body and mind), there must be at least two continuums of the “I” or, because the “I” is one, the body and mind must be an indivisible whole. We therefore examine the body and mind separately to see if either of them is the same as the self. We ask, “Are my self and my body the same?” “Are my self and my mind the same?”

There are many different analytical procedures to show that the concept of the self as one with the psychophysical aggregates is wrong. For example, if the self were a permanent entity, as self-existence implies, destroying it would be impossible. Then, if the “I” were the same as the body, the body could never die and the corpse could never be burned, because this would destroy the self. This is obviously nonsensical.

Also, the mind and body would be unchanging, because that is the nature of a substantial self. Furthermore, if there were a self-existent “I” identical with the body and the mind, it would be one indistinguishable entity and the individual designations of “my body” and “my mind” would be incorrect.

Thus, there are many different ways we can reason and meditate upon to arrive at the conclusion that reality and our habitual way of perceiving things are completely different. We are not fixed, permanent entities.

The fourth essential point

Having ascertained that the self and the psychophysical aggregates are not a true unity, we then consider whether or not this apparently self-existent “I” is different from, and unrelated to, the body and mind. This is the fourth key, ascertaining the absence of any true difference between the self and the psychophysical aggregates.  

If the “I” existed separately from the body and the mind, when we eliminate the body and the mind we should find a third entity, the “I.” But when we search outside of our body and mind, we come up empty.  

If the self and the mind and body were truly different, there would be no connection between them. When we say, for example, “My head aches,” the “my” would refer to something other than the “head” (the form aggregate) and “ache” (the feeling aggregate in the mind); it would be something that existed somewhere else. The aggregate would hurt, not “me”. If the self were truly a different thing, a true polarity apart from the aggregates, it would be absurd to say, “My head hurts,” “My hand hurts,” etc., as though the pain somehow affected the self.  

By performing different kinds of analysis we cultivate the certainty that the self and the psychophysical aggregates are not truly different.

Meditation on emptiness

If we meditate with the four essential points to search for the self in our body, from the top of our head to the tips of our toes, and our mind as well, we won’t find anything. Thus, we will come to the realization that a fixed, unchanging self does not exist. It’s like looking for a cow in a certain field. We walk all around: up the hills, down the valleys, through the trees, everywhere. Having searched the entire area and found nothing, we arrive at the certainty that the cow simply isn’t there. Similarly, when we investigate the aggregates of body and mind and find nothing, we arrive at the certainty that the self-existent “I” simply isn’t there either. This is the understanding of the emptiness of the false self.

We should meditate often on these four essential points. It may be difficult at first, but it is the most powerful and beneficial form of meditation for counteracting the afflicted emotions.


One must not reify emptiness, the antidote to the view of the false self, as if it were an ultimate reality. It is a helpful view, a theory, upaya: expedient means. The Superior Nagarjuna has warned in the Mulamadhyamakakarika, Chapter 13, “Examination of Mental Conformation”:

The Buddhas have proclaimed

that the view of emptiness corrects all views;

but those obsessed with the view of emptiness

are incorrigible.

Paraphrasing this statement, Acharya Chandrakirti has said: “The Spiritual Conquerors have proclaimed the absence of self in things to be the exhaustion of all views; those for whom the absence of self is in itself a view are declared to be incurable.”

About Tashi Nyima

I am a Dharma student, and aspire to be a companion on the path. I trust that these texts can offer a general approach and basic tools for practicing the Buddha's way to enlightenment. ||| Soy un estudiante del Dharma, y aspiro a ser un compañero en el sendero. Espero que estos textos ofrezcan a algunos un mapa general y herramientas básicas para la práctica del sendero a la iluminación que nos ofrece el Buda.
This entry was posted in Dharma View and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Finding the False Self

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s