“I” Does Not Exist

Today I began in earnest the process of declaring a religion and English double major. I entered Amherst as a prospective Nueroscience and LJST double major. Somehow that turned into biology and English, then biology and religion and now, by a process that is fairly mysterious to me, I find myself a religion and English double. So there it is.

In Buddhist philosophy, there exists the concept of No Self. Buddhism believes that “I” is merely a linguistic construct used to represent an aggregation of the perceived five senses. There is no single thing about a person that exists in them throughout their whole life: no soul. Instead, we have dhammas, or properties that together create whoever we are in the present moment. These properties are traded out over time, so that while they do overlap, we have none of the same properties as a child, that we have as a teenager, an adult, or an older person.

This is sort of the same idea as Heraclitus’s “No man ever steps in the same river twice.” The “river” of one moment affects the wetness etc that creates the river of the next moment, but the actual water is different.

Think of it sort of like the seven years it takes to regenerate all of our skin cells (yeah, I still have some bio knowledge bombs I can drop, at least until those memories fade…) While you don’t completely shed your skin and then grow a new skin from nothing, each individual living skin cell is pushed to the surface of your dermis over time and eventually flakes off as dead skin.
I have none of the skin I had at the age of twelve.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t anything related about who I am now and who I was when I was 12. According to Buddhism, a person’s karma carries over from one dhamma to another. For example, as the famous 2nd century BCE monk Nagasena put it, the dhamma associated with the aggregate person who steals a mango from the monastery is causally connected to the dhamma associated with the aggregate person who has stolen that mango. The mango-thief therefore still has to pay up. One point to Buddhism, zero points anarchy. Yay!

Similarly, auditioning for the part of cook/statue in my middle school’s production of Secret Garden led me to taking acting, playwriting, and debate in high school. In turn, those classes led me to participating in poetry and jazz improv performances, and then spoken word, and eventually to living in Marsh House this year. The path from the Secret Garden to Marsh House is obviously affected by more factors than just that. The person I was in 6th grade is different in almost every way than the person I am today, although some dhammas, some actions, are still repeating. I still, for instance, identify as a woman, have weird feelings about both dairy and pork products, and enjoy Friday afternoons in mid-autumn more than most other moments in a year.

The interesting thing, though, about the concept of No Self, is that while it allows for a certain amount of causality in a temporal relationship with oneself, it definitively denies the traditional Judeo-Christian paradigm of dogmatic trajectory. I find this refreshing. There is no great summation at the gates of heaven to tell you whether or not you WON at life. Or, to use a more Jewish ideology, there are no “mitzvah points” in Buddhism. It seems, in my thus far brief and isolated foray into Buddhist philosophy, to be a religious creed much more sympathetic towards my oscillating majors.

What I’m studying, and what I’m going to do with a degree in religion and English doesn’t actually have to make sense TODAY. This is mostly because my studies here are only vaguely and tangentially related to what I’ll be doing… in The Great Beyond post-Graduation.

<3 ConstantLy