Are We Not Who We Are?

I read recently that success in today’s world requires that we all be brands. As in products that are packaged, marketed and sold. The right “personal brand” will help you present yourself and create a good impression, the article said.

If you’ve practiced for awhile, you may already have dug through several layers of conditioning, rationalization and fantasy without striking bottom. More packaging is about the last thing any of us really needs. But here in the U.S. we’re all so saturated in a consumerist culture that it can seem life is one big marketing campaign, and the whole universe is a vast, glitzy shopping mall.

As Madge the Manicurist used to say in those dish soap commercials — you’re soaking in it.

So let us un-package ourselves. What do we find? Who is the “real you”? What is the self?

I may have told this anecdote before, but here it is again — my college sociology professor once challenged the class to define or describe ourselves without reference to a relationship. And none of us could do it. We couldn’t get past “I am … ,” without losing the challenge. We were sons and daughters; we were students of the college; we were employees, parents, members of a church. All of our self-definitions were conditioned and dependent on other things.

Is the body the self? The Buddha said it wasn’t, but let’s look. Scientists say that 90 percent of the cells in “our” bodies are not us. We’re all a walking collection of microbes — some of which we need to survive — and random self-replicating DNA from old viruses. I also remember reading that the cells that do have “our” DNA are constantly dying and being replaced by new cells. The right arm you “have” now is literally not the same one from six months ago.

Let’s look at behavior. What’s nature, and what’s nurture? The last post was about how babies start out being sweet and helpful — aside from teething and colic, I suppose — and then learn to be discriminatory and bound by social norms. Really, the conditioning starts as soon as we’re born, and perhaps the best we can do later is learn to recognize it as such.

So as the layers are excavated, is there a bottom? Or like the famous turtles holding up the world, are we illusion all the way down?

Mahayana Buddhists may point to Buddha Nature as being the “true self,” but I have been taught not to think of Buddha Nature as a “self.” That would make Buddha Nature just like the atman that the Buddha denied. So be careful of that.

My understanding is that not only is there no self beneath the layers, there is no self to peal them away. Through practice they fall away, or at least become more transparent. Needless to say, a “personal brand” won’t help.

Read more about the spiritual quest in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World.

[This post originally was published on Buddhism on November 7, 2013.]

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