The Song of Self

A puzzle: Do you exist?

Descartes famously answered this one by saying cogito, ergo sum: I think, therefore I am. Is it true, though? Does “thinking” have to be attached to a “thinker”? And what is “thinking” (cogitare) anyway?

For Christians, the Self definitely exists, and is in fact eternal: after you die, your soul continues on — perhaps in heaven, perhaps in hell, perhaps in some other intermediate state, depending on your sect. Obviously, death is a great change; but not so great that the individual selfhood is destroyed. The thinker, and the thinking, goes on forever.

For the Buddhists, the existence of the Self is one of the great illusions of the world. This belief is one of the trickiest of Buddhist tenets to wrap one’s mind around and really come to terms with, and is easily misunderstood. But although I’m no longer Buddhist, I think the Buddhist conception of self is very close to correct, and a good grasp of it is essential to the way I try to live my life as a druid.

Cogitat Terra, Ergo Sum

I recently found a fascinating explanation of the Buddhist conception of the self in the “Gospel of the Buddha”, a compilation from a number of sources by Paul Carus, published in 1894. It’s the story of the Buddha, along with several of his sermons, gathered together and written in the style of the English New Testament — great stuff.

In “The Sermon at Rajagaha”, the Buddha speaks against selfishness; and he does so by arguing that the self does not, in fact, exist. Below I quote his words in full, along with my annotations and thoughts as a druid.

The Buddha, perceiving that the whole assembly was ready as a vessel to receive the doctrine, spoke thus to Bimbisara the king:

He who knows the nature of self and understands how the senses act, finds no room for selfishness, and thus he will attain peace unending. The world holds the thought of self, and from this arises false apprehension.

I think this is an essential point: the world holds the thought of self. The Buddha implies that the world does exist — and, in fact, the self is a thought held by the world itself. In a way, cogita terra, ergo sum.

Some say that the self endures after death, some say it perishes. Both are wrong and their error is most grievous. For if they say the self is perishable, the fruit they strive for will perish too, and at some time there will be no hereafter. Good and evil would be indifferent. This salvation from selfishness is without merit.

Here I disagree with him. Just because a good thing perishes does not mean it is worthless, or indistinguishable from evil. But this is not the core of his argument, so we pass on:

When some, on the other hand, say the self will not perish, then in the midst of all life and death there is but one identity unborn and undying. If such is their self, then it is perfect and cannot be perfected by deeds. The lasting, imperishable self could never be changed. Self would be lord and master, and there would be no use in perfecting the perfect; moral aims and salvation would be unnecessary.

Here he seems to be saying: if a soul — an identity — lasts forever, then it cannot be changeable; it must either already be perfect, or it must be forever fatally flawed. Either way, there is no way to improve the self, and all moral striving is in vain.

In other words, if you hope to improve yourself, you have to admit the necessity of changing your very identity. Are you the same person you were a year ago? Five years ago? How about when you were five years old? Your identity, your sense of who you are, has changed drastically in that time. What hasn’t changed? What has remained constant?

But now we see the marks of joy and sorrow. Where is any constancy? If there is no permanent self that does our deeds, then there is no self; there is no actor behind our actions, no perceiver behind our perception, no lord behind our deeds.

If there is no ‘lord behind our deeds’, is the Buddha denying free will? No. Then what is he saying?

Sentio, Ergo Cogito

At the core is the raw experience: the sensation, the sensory perception, the feeling. There is no self here. We can then name the feeling: sadness, bright light, sound. Still, there is no self. And then we can then wrap that name in a self: “I am feeling sadness.” And then we can then wrap that in another self: “I know that I am feeling sadness.” And we can wrap that in another self: “I realize that I know I am feeling sadness.” And so on…

This process can go on eternally; it never bottoms out. This is illustrated by one of my favorite Zen koans: “Who am I?” If the answer is “Jeff Lilly,” then you ask: “Who is Jeff Lilly?” If I say, “Jeff Lilly is a druid,” then you ask: “Who is the druid?” There is always another answer, always another self. But all of these ‘selves’ are just wrappers for the experience itself; the experience is what’s real, as he explains next:

Now attend and listen: The senses meet the object and from their contact sensation is born. Thence results recollection. Thus, as the sun’s power through a burning-glass causes fire to appear, so through the cognizance born of sense and object, the mind originates and with it the ego, the thought of self, whom some Brahman teachers call the lord. The shoot springs from the seed; the seed is not the shoot; both are not one and the same, but successive phases in a continuous growth. Such is the birth of animated life.

The Buddha was fond of comparing the self to a fire. Like a fire, it is impermanent and always changing, depending on what is feeding it; and when the fuel is gone, the fire simply disappears. Unlike matter and energy, fire is not conserved; it is not eternal. Fire is not a thing, really, but a process.

He also compares the self to the growth of a plant. The plant begins as a seed, and then changes to a shoot. If it did not change, it would be dead. This growth, this change, this process is life.

Morior, Ergo Amo

Ye that are slaves of the self and toil in its service from morn until night, ye that live in constant fear of birth, old age, sickness, and death, receive the good tidings that your cruel master exists not. Self is an error, an illusion, a dream. Open your eyes and awaken. See things as they are and ye will be comforted. He who is awake will no longer be afraid of nightmares. He who has recognized the nature of the rope that seemed to be a serpent will cease to tremble.

Is it really comforting to realize that you don’t exist? I think some people might disagree… But for me, it allows tremendous release. If you realize that the self is impermanent, then your day-to-day problems — and even your life-shattering problems — can be viewed with a bit more perspective. The senses are real; the events are real; but YOU are not there.

He who has found there is no self will let go all the lusts and desires of egotism. The cleaving to things, covetousness, and sensuality inherited from former existences, are the causes of the misery and vanity in the world. Surrender the grasping disposition of selfishness, and you will attain to that calm state of mind which conveys perfect peace, goodness, and wisdom.

Having explained how the self is an illusion, and how realizing this leads naturally to the end of selfishness, he then immediately makes the leap to loving kindness — a core teaching of Buddhism that is often forgotten:

Gifts are great, the founding of viharas [monastaries] is meritorious, meditations and religious exercises pacify the heart, comprehension of the truth leads to Nirvana, but greater than all is loving-kindness. As the light of the moon is sixteen times stronger than the light of all the stars, so loving-kindness is sixteen times more efficacious in liberating the heart than all other religious accomplishments taken together. This state of heart is the best in the world. Let a man remain steadfast in it while he is awake, whether he is standing, walking, sitting, or lying down.

From there the Buddha goes on to talk about other things, but I want to take a moment and highlight some points of disagreement.

Cantat Terra, Ergo Sum

First, as I mentioned before, just because something is impermanent does not mean it has no value. Of course, everything that is beautiful in the world dies; and realizing this brings a profound release from attachment and selfishness. But this is not a reason to disengage from the world, or deny its value.

Engagement brings great fulfillment, and individual growth as well. Contemplation of a single flower brings an appreciation of its beauty in the present, its quick birth and death, and its deep ties with the eternal seasons and cycles of being. Thus a flower exists in three ways at once: it is only here, now, in the present; it lives and dies in a short season; and it is an integral part of eternity. The same is true of ourselves.

Second, unlike the Buddha, I do believe that the self might be said to be immortal, in a way. While it’s true that fundamental qualities of the self change — and change so profoundly that it is almost nonsensical to think of them as being the same identity — some fundamental qualities remain constant. There are patterns of action, patterns of feeling that return, regardless of our maturity. The process, perhaps over many lifetimes, of what Jung called “individuation” — of bringing integration between the self and the Other — brings huge changes, but it does not destroy the self utterly.

The best analogy I have for it — one I owe to Tolkien, actually (like so much in my life) — is to imagine the self as a tune or a theme in music. The self and the body are like a player and his instrument; different lives are like different performances of the tune, in different concert halls, by different players and with different instruments, in different arrangements. Some performances are slavish to the sheet music; others are free as jazz. But the ultimate result of the playing is to weave the Self’s theme into the larger symphony of the universe.

Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void. — The Silmarillion, JRR Tolkien


  • An interesting companion to this article: a Zen Master tries to explain how Bin Laden can be a “bad person” when, in fact, the self does not exist.
  • “Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness.” – Thurber
  • Fascinating site of Ehoah, a druid group focused primarily on what nature has to teach us.
  • REALISM, n. The art of depicting nature as it is seem by toads. A landscape painted by a mole; a story by a measuring-worm. – Ambrose Bierce
  • A pacifist responds to Bin Laden’s death: Why Aren’t I Happy He’s Dead?
  • A kind review of my guided meditation, ‘Meet a Guide’, along with in-depth advice about meeting guides.

3 responses to “The Song of Self”

  1. A very nice article! And ties well with some things I have been reading recently 🙂

    If I may suggest, however, your Latin seems to be off a bit, or you are using one I am not familiar with.

    Third person singular, present tense, for -are conjugation (cogitare, cantare) is -at — meaning, it should say “Cogitat terra” and “Cantat terra”. First person singular for -ire conjugation (morire) is either morio (Present: I die), or moriar (Futue: I shall die).

    Keep on the good work!
    All the best,

    PS: You needn’t post this comment, I just wanted to suggest a slight improvement.


    1. Argenta, you’re absolutely right, my Latin is off — I took three years of Latin, and loved it, but it was fifteen years ago…

      I used Wiktionary for my verb forms: cogitare, cantare, morior. But you know what? I was looking at Italian by accident! 🙂

      Although now I look a third time, I think I may have been right about morior… 🙂


  2. […] sea and the soul that they used almost the same word for both. Today we still are not sure what a soul is, but we still feel the […]


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