Seeing Through the Illusion of Thingness

The Emptiness of the Self


It is customary to assume that there exists a separate self and despite the fact that a mind and body complex continuously changes, there is believed to be an essential, core subject that stays the same.  The belief in a separate and unchanging self is the root cause of suffering.   For in countless and persistent ways, this view creates the need to protect and defend this self against other separate people and things, creating undue conflict and fear.  Peace cannot be attained through such misconception.

In emptiness teachings, a self is seen as valid when viewed as a mere namen or label designated in dependence upon relatively characterized mind and body parts and this account poses no problem.  A conventional self is a useful and necessary characterization and not the target of negation.  It is the inherent existence of a self as the separate the owner of a mind and body complex that is refuted.   Examples of how the self is viewed as an inherent and unchanging property can be recognized in the view that it is the I that gets up in the morning, the I that goes to work, the I who makes a mistake or gets praised and the I that thinks and feels.

Deconstructing the illusion of the independent self requires a penetrating investigation.  For it goes against the ingrained image of a fixed, core self.  It is as if there are two selves, one that changes and another that remains unchanged, as the independent and overarching owner of a dynamic mind and body.  If there is a toothache for instance, there is seen to be one self with a toothache, but another unchanging self that is separate from the toothache, that has the toothache. The same can be said regarding thoughts, feelings, memories, perceptions and sensations that unceasingly come and go.  So are there two selves?  Where is this changing self to be found?  A self cannot be both fixed and changing, independent and dependent, singular and multiple.  Each of these positions are mutually exclusive.

In Buddhist emptiness teachings, everything is seen to exist dependently, in dependence upon parts, conditions and in dependence upon thought.  Regarding the first dependency and in relation to a self, the parts of a self roughly include the body, thought, feeling, perception and sense consciousness, all of which are also empty.  If not for these interrelated parts there would not be a recognizable, functioning person.  When a self is falsely seen to exist as an intrinsic whole, independent of parts, it appears as a separate entity that stands above and beyond the mind and body, as if possessing it.  Yet, if you try to find this self-essence, all you will find is its dependence on parts.

The second dependency is the dependence upon conditions.  There are innumerable conditions that a person depends upon, such as air, earth, water, food, language, experiences, culture, physiology, ad infinitum.  If the conditions that a mind and body depend upon are eliminated, there would be no people, just as a fire will not continue to burn without fuel, oxygen, and countless other conditions.  The mind-body also has conditions.  For example, thought depends upon perception and other characteristics such as objects that do not themselves think either.  Thought does not exist in and of itself, does not think in itself, and is therefore also empty of its own nature.  If thought did think in and of itself, there would be nothing to think about.

Because a person dependently exists, it cannot also independently exist.  It has no self-created or self-sustaining nature that can be found to exist apart from conditions.  To be considered a person mutually depends upon what is not considered to be a person.  For instance, no one would refer to air or water as a person, or objects of perception and thought to be a person either.  A self is unfindable because it is empty of any independent existence or being.  A self is a conceptual construct, a dependent and conventional designation mistaken to exist as an inherently existent entity.

Third, because there is no self that independently exists, what we call thought is necessary to designate what cannot ultimately be singled out.  A person is characterized in dependence upon other things, not in and of itself, not from its own side.  As everything is dependently arisen, there are no sides.  A self is a conceptual image and label, and does not literally represent a singular phenomenon, as there are none.  It is a conventional and relative abstraction.  The assumption of an inherently existent self mistakes concept for reality.  What exists dependently can only be designated by what is conventionally referred to as thought.



“I have a head. Where is this I who has the head. Is it the head? Is the head part of the me? I have one head that is the head as well as one head that is at least one part of the I possessing the head. So then I have two heads.” -Jeffrey Hopkins
“I have a head.  Where is this I who has the head? Is it the head? Is the head part of the me?  I have one head that is the head as well as one head that is at least one part of the I possessing the head.   So then I have two heads.”
Jeffrey Hopkins


One central reasoning used to deconstruct inherent existence is the understanding that what exists dependently cannot also exist independently, as described earlier.  Another central reasoning involves the sameness and difference reasoning addressed on the previous page and which will now be reviewed and applied to a self.  Both of these reasonings are vital in analyzing a self and all phenomena.  Regarding the sameness-difference reasoning, an inherently existent self would have to either be inherently the same as the mind and body parts or inherently different from them to qualify as an inherent unity, as having its own indivisible nature.

In considering a self as inherently the same as the mind and body parts, a singular self would have to be identical to each and every part of the mind and body in order to maintain its independent status, and yet we can see that these parts are not even identical to each other.  There cannot be one singular self when a mind and body are manifold.  For instance, a self is not seen to be the same as or equivalent to an arm and no one would say that it was.  No one would point to an arm as signifying a self.  Likewise, the image of an inherently existent self is not the same as or identical to a thought, feeling, or sensation, none of which remain the same for an instant.  And again, when a thought or feeling changes, a new self will not be seen to have emerged.

A self is conceived to be an independent, unchanging entity, as if existing beyond the mind and body parts as a separate possessor or owner.  So then, is a self inherently different from this complex?  Regarding inherent difference, if one maintains that the self is inherently different from mind and body parts, then it could not have characteristics of the mind and body.  If a self was inherently different from a mind and body, then what would it be?  It would not have mind and body characteristics as it would be unrelated to them.  A self that is inherently different from a mind and body is unimaginable and unfindable.

The separate self is a conceptual overlay, an imputation that appears to cover mind and body parts while remaining independent from them.  It mistakes a conceptual label as the way things really exist.  When an independent self is looked for it is unfindable, neither existing among the mind and body nor apart from them.  To consider the self as a conventional and dependent designation avoids the incoherence of a separate self.  But to first convincingly refute this notion involves still deeper investigation.  Deconstructing the separate self is a most thorough analytic and experiential meditation that will continue in the next section.

“Whatever comes into being dependent on another is not identical to that thing. Nor is it different.” ~ Nagarjuna


Sevenfold Reasoning on Selflessness

Chandrakirti’s Sevenfold Reasoning on the Selflessness of Persons
 develops the sameness and difference argument into a comprehensive investigative method that exposes the illusion of the inherent existence of the self.  In this meditation, the meditator first learns to identify the strong sense of an inherently existent self so that the proper misconception is clearly targeted.

This requires real consideration and focus.  As an example, imagine being accused of a wrongdoing.  Right there, arises the sense of a separate and fixed self that has been accused.  That sense of an I is the target of refutation. In Emptiness Yoga, Jeffrey Hopkins writes about walking along a cliff and being afraid of falling off as an example that brings forward the inherent sense of self.

After identifying the target, the inherent sameness and difference reasoning is then applied.  Regarding sameness, the inherent sense of self is searched for among the mind and body parts, looking carefully to see if this self is identical to each part, searching to see if it can be found.  Is a thought inherently the same as a self?  Compare the two, as if side by side. It can sometimes help to say it this way: Is a thought a self?  Which thought? For a self to be inherently the same as thought implies that if a thought changed, the entire self would change.

Can the I be found in a physical sensation?  If there is a pain or tightness, would you consider that sensation to be a self?  Also compare this self to different parts of the body side by side.  Is the self a hand?  Is the self an eye? Is the self an ear?  A blood vessel? Can the self be found in the shape or form of the body? Which shape and in what position? Where is this I? Sometimes the self is sensed as a feeling. Is the self a feeling?  If there is a feeling of hurt, does that hurt feeling constitute a self?  If the hurt goes away, then the self would go away! This insight meditation cannot be glossed over. We are exposing the trick of the inherently existent self of persons.

If you clear away all of the parts that are not the I, is there any self left over? When it is recognized that a self is really unfindable, you will directly and non-conceptually perceive the absence of its inherent existence, that is, its emptiness.  If you still sense that there is a concrete self, or when the directly realized absence of emptiness fades, again hunt for what still appear to be a self.  Maybe it seems as if the self must be all of these parts. The refutation of the self as a collection and possessor of the parts is addressed below.

Here is an outline of Chandrakirti’s Sevenfold Reasoning that is used to refute the existence of an inherent self of persons.  These reasonings can applied other phenomena as well, even though the examples are different.  It is important to include all seven reasonings in this meditation at least initially, although the first two sameness and difference reasoning needs to be addressed throughout, as it underlies all of the others.  As Sevenfold Reasoning is applied over time, the inherent existence of a self and all phenomena is globally recognized as illusory-like, as merely a conceptual designation, becoming a stable realization.


  1. There is no self that is inherently the same as the mind and body parts.  To exist inherently is to exist as an independent, unified essence or nature.  If this self is seen to be inherently the same as the mind and body parts, then there could only be one part.  And if we instead recognize a mind and body as manifold, then if the self was inherently the same as the parts, there would be multiple selves.  The sameness position also implies that you could point to a toe for instance, and it would indicate the same thing as referring to a self, but it clearly does not.  If the self was identical to the mind and body parts, then referring to this self would also be an unnecessary duplication.  And if a self did inherently exist and was identical to the parts of the mind and body, then if thoughts changed or a body aged, it would produce an entirely new person.  Even cutting your hair, would result in an entirely different self.  Now, if one imagines that a self might be bound to the parts by some kind of unifying substance, then this glue would also be a part of a self and we would be back to the contradictory argument that something can be both inherently singular and plural.

  2. There is no self that is inherently different from the mind and body parts.  If a self was inherently different, it would be unrelated to any mind or body characteristic and thus, unable to experience and function.  It is not a reasoned option to claim that a self that is inherently different from a mind and body could also be related to them.  The parts of a mind and body could then belong to anyone as there would be no relation between a self, and a mind and body.  If a self was inherently different from the mind and body complex, it would imply that if all of the parts were removed, there would still be an independent self left over, and yet such an entity is unimaginable.

  3. There is no self that inherently depends upon the mind and body parts. This reasoning refutes the idea of a self depending upon mind and body parts as its base while maintaining autonomy.  It counters the position that attempts to have it both ways, for a self to be fundamentally dependent upon or supported by a mind and body, while being independent from and unchanged by this transitory complex. Furthermore, if the mind and body was the independent base of a self, it could just as well support another self.  In short, whatever depends upon another cannot do so independently, as dependence excludes independence.

  1. There are no mind and body parts that inherently depend upon a self.  This reasoning refutes the view that mind and body parts are fundamentally supported and sustained by a self while both remain autonomous.  But again, it cannot be both ways.  To inherently exist and depend requires autonomy, which means there would be no relation.  Further, if the self is unchanging and yet inherently relied upon by a mind and body, then a mind and body would be unable to change and yet they clearly do.  And the same reasoning used previously also applies again.  If the self was an independent base for the mind and body, then nothing would prevent the self from supporting another mind and body  Additionally, if the self is conceived to be an inherently existent base, then what created that base?  This view spirals into an infinite regress.  ~

  2. There is no self that inherently possesses the mind and body parts. This reasoning addresses the concept of the mind-body as owned by the self as mine.  That which inherently possesses cannot also be inherently the same as the possessed. For a self to inherently possess thoughts for example, would require there to be thoughts and a possessor of them that stood on its own as a possessor.  The existence of an inherent possessor does not make sense because it excludes the dependence of the possessor on the possessed as a basis of designation.  And if a possessor self is viewed as inherently the same as the possessed mind-body parts, then the self and the parts would be one and the distinction and very notion of possession would have no meaning.  The idea of a mind and body as mine, can only be dependently and conventionally designated.

  3. There is no self that is the inherent collection of the mind and body parts. This reasoning addresses the mind and body as “mine.” However, if the self and the collection were inherently one, it would be pointless to call it a collection, just as the possessor cannot be one with the possessed. While a collection of aggregates is a valid basis for a dependent and conventional designation, a self cannot be a collector of itself. The idea of a collection also implies multiplicity, diversity, or why call it a collection?  This means that if a self was equivalent to a collection, there would have to be many selves.  Additionally, if a self was seen to be a transitory collection, then when any part of the collection changed, as in changing thoughts or physical changes, an entirely new self would have to be assumed.

  4. There is no self that is inherently the shape of the body parts.  If the self was equivalent to the shape of a body, then non-physical, mental characteristics could not be a part of a person.  Also, if the shape of the body changed in any way, including growing or aging, losing or gaining weight or changing body position, then if the self was inherently the a shape, this would imply that the self would then become a different self.  Additionally, the body is a composite of different and multiple shapes and so shape cannot be one inherent unity.~


“If a concept and its object were not different, [the word] ‘fire’ would burn the mouth.” -Nagarjuna


The Emptiness of the Thinker, Feeler and Doer 

In Buddhism, the five aggregates that are seen to conventionally characterize a person are form (body), sensation, perception, mental formations and consciousness.  A self that did not include these parts would not be considered be a functioning human.  The separate self is falsely seen to cover these transitory parts, to inherently own or possess them.  However, through investigative meditation, it is revealed that a self is but a conceptual overlay, a name, conventionally designated and imputed by mind body parts. It is also crucial to see that these mind and body parts are empty.  For they too, appear to exist inherently, as separate entities, but are dependent and conventionally designated as well.

For instance, a thinker does not independently exist, but depends upon what does not think, that is, an object of thought.  If a thinker existed independently it would yield an odd result.  A thinker would think without anything to think about and thought would exist without a thinker.  To think, is to think about what is not thought.  Thought cannot think in and of itself.  The thinker, thought, and objects of thought are interdependent and so are empty of separate natures and processes.  Without non-thought content, a thinker could not think, and without a thinker, thought would not be connected to anyone or anything, which is unfathomable.  And if thought did independently exist, why would it even need a thinker?

Furthermore, if a thinker and objects of thought were to inherently exist, this would also mean that neither could undergo change and yet neither remains the same for an instant.  A thinker and objects of thought co-arise, along with other countless conditions that is reduced to what is labeled “thinking.”  Additionally, because what is called a thinker dependently exists, thinking cannot independently confirm anything.  For as a thinker does not exist in itself, what knowing can it grasp?  So then, both an independent thinker and a knower are unfindable.

Likewise, there is no inherent separation between feelings and non-feeling content.  Feelings do not feel in themselves, but depend upon other than feelings to feel.  If a feeler and feelings did autonomously exist, just as with thought, there would be feelings running around without anyone to feel them and a feeler without anything to feel.  Any characteristic of subjectivity depends upon a relational object, as a subject must be the subject of an object.  Being mutually dependent, they are both empty.  It is practical to make subject-object distinctions, but mistaken to take these distinctions literally, as independently grounded.  For they are ultimately inseparable, nondual, mutually implicative even within their relative and conventional distinction.

These same arguments apply to all of the mind and body aggregates, including the idea of an inherently existent doer.  Independent of action there is no actor, and without an actor, there can be no action.  And neither can arise without object to act upon.  The doer, the doing and the object of doing are all dependently existent and the variables, innumerable.  One becomes a doer through the process of doing.  One is a worker through working.  One is a gardener through the act of gardening.  If a doer was a pure subject, it couldn’t relate to anything, which would exclude it from doing anything.  Explanations involving inherent existence do not make sense even conventionally.

Conceptual language superimposes the sense of an independent subject, a self.  Even the act of visual seeing is taken to be its own property, but depends upon light and other countless phenomena that do not see.  Hearing does not exist in itself either and thus depends upon so-called non-hearing sound waves.  All of the mental functions are dependently arisen (including their dependence upon a body) and therefore without a nature, function or location of their own.  Everything is inseparably interdependent, like fire and light, and cannot be singled out.

And so it can be reasoned that if the parts of a self cannot be found to inherently exist, then neither can the self.  By recognizing the essenceless interdependence of the parts, the emptiness of a self of persons and of all phenomena can also be  realized.



“That very seeing does not see itself at all. How can something that cannot see itself see another?” -Nagarjuna


6 Responses to “The Emptiness of the Self”

  1. Anonymous

    Wow Susan your blogs are so insightful and explain emptiness in a very approachable way! Thank you you so much – keep it up!

  2. Doug Hall

    Thank you very much for this. I just took a 7 week course on this very subject which culminated today. I had a question about the “I” and seeing it as independent of the mind and body or something more than mind and body. What your article helped me see is my challenge at times to grasp more than one concept at a time. Your detailed descriptions of each point helped me grasp each independent thought. It’s definitely a piece to be re-visited.

  3. Gary Highberger

    To the Author of this wonderful article,

    I once heard Ken Wilber say something like “a measure of one’s wisdom is one’s understanding of emptiness.”

    You must be very wise o:)

    Yao Feng

  4. Terefe Feyssa

    Your emptiness teaching is very clear and very helpful.
    I am not sure whether You wrote a book about it.
    Please write a book.
    Thank You


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