What am I?

The answer that Buddhists give typically is that the personality is made up of five aggregates or khandhas. Bundles of momentary phenomena. They are: matter, sensations, ideas, volitional states or decisions we make about things, and finally consciousness.

The Stream of Personality

These aggregates are only momentary. Think of them as flickers on a video screen. They are only momentary, but they group together to create the illusion of some kind of continuity or permanence.

Buddhists traditionally use two comparisons to express this idea. One is to say that the personality is like the stream of a river. Like the flow of the stream. The word stream is often used to name the personality. The personality is nothing but a stream of aggregates flowing through the world.

The Flame

Another comparison that they use is to think about the personality as a flame. A flame of fire. This is actually useful because it also suggests at the same time that the personality is burning in a painful way. It is a fire that we fuel by all the Karma that we produce, all the actions that we perform to achieve a certain goal or to avoid a certain state. All that karma is like throwing logs on a great fire. And it burns constantly, changing from one moment to the next.

Buddhists think of the personality as flowing like a river and burning like a fire.

What is Reborn?

You can ask another question about the doctrine of no-self. In other articles we talked a lot about reincarnation, about death and rebirth, and the suggestion was that when a person dies, according to the Buddhist view of the world, the soul continues on and it is reborn in another body like the caterpillar that moves from one blade of grass to the next. If there is no self, then what is reborn? What is that is reborn if there is no self?

The classic answer to this is that it is the stream of causes. It’s like the fire. So, when death occurs, the previous physical body disintegrates, and the last moment of consciousness, like the last flicker in a candle flame, sets another candle flame in motion. It kindles another candle flame in another body and carries with it that causal continuity that establishes some connection between one life and the next.

This stream is obviously a metaphor. It is just a way of speaking about the connection between one moment and the next, because nothing real, nothing permanent has been carried over into the next life.

Am I the Same Person that I Was Ten Minutes Ago?

This poses another conceptual question. In what sense it is possible to say that I am the same person now that I was ten minutes ago or in a past life. Obviously, Buddhists would like to assert some kind of identity from one moment to the next, but it shouldn’t be an identity that ties them down too much. It shouldn’t assert any kind of permanence. Because this permanence dissolves as the personality changes.

You find in Buddhists texts a very interesting and a very wise equivocation. It is possible for me to say that I am the same person I was before in a kind of metaphorical way. In the same way that I could say that a candle flame that I light in front of me is the same five minutes from now as it was when I lit the candle.

When we say that it is the same flame what we really mean is that there is a causal connection that links the flames. It is not identical, the gases themselves burn, something has changed. Sameness is a concept that I apply to that flame in order to designate the causal connection that links one moment in the flame to another.

So, I can speak about myself as being the same person, but it is something like a metaphor, a conventional designation. Like the way I designate the identity of a candle flame. I am enduring from one moment to the next.

I Have No Identity

Ultimately speaking, it is not the same flame. And I am not the same person. I have no identity that endures from one moment to the next. The ultimate Buddhist claim about the nature of the self is that it is transient and constantly changeable. This is the fundamental Buddhist insight about the nature of the world. There is no permanent identity that moves from one moment to the next.

This is about as deep as you can go into the Buddhist concept of suffering. When they say that all is suffering, they mean of course that something is painful. They mean also that all things are impermanent and pass away. But what they mean in the most fundamental sense is that there is no permanent reality that gives anything any identity that endures from one moment to the next. The great Buddhist doctrine of no-self.

This article is part of the series about The Buddha's Teachings

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