When you’ve finished this little essay, read the related one, Buddhism for Christians
“No man is an island.”
I certainly feel like I was real. My body has sensations that no one else shares, or even can know directly. My perceptions of my surroundings cannot be shared. As the philosophy cliche has it, there is no way of knowing if your sensation of red is the same as mine or not; we can only agree on what the concept “red” refers to. Apart from the possibility of telepathy, my thoughts are private, and you only know about them through my words and actions. To myself and others, I appear to be an independent agent who is responsible for what he does. There is a definite boundary between me and the rest of the universe, for example the chair I sit on or the person I talk with.
And yet, Donne is right. I am not a unit, an entity, but a component.
The Buddhist analogy of the wave expresses it well. There is the limitless ocean. A wave arises. You can point to it, identify it as “that wave.” It has boundaries, it can affect objects, perhaps even overturn a ship. It progresses from one location to another. It is real.
However, the wave is not a unit, a thing, merely a deformation on the surface of the ocean. A body of water rises, then goes down again. Its energy is transferred to a neighbouring body of water, so that the energy progresses while the water doesn’t. (There may be a current moving the water along, but that’s independent of the waves. Only near the shore, where sea bottom undercuts the wave, does an actual physical body of water move.)
The wave has a duration of existence. After awhile, its energy ceases, or more exactly is transformed into something else, and the wave smooths out.
This is remarkably similar to me and my body. Constantly, I inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Every day, I take in food and water, and get rid of wastes. Cells in my body die and are replaced (or not; aging is change too). The wave is constantly changing volumes of water; my body is a constantly changing volumes of materials. There is zero overlap between my body now and what it was 10 years ago.
Another analogy is my thumb. It has a shape, structure, functions, boundaries. But it is not a unit, merely a component of a body. If it were to be cut off it would become a unit — but it would no longer be my thumb, and it would lose its functions. This is as if the water currently forming the wave were scooped out of the ocean. It would become a unit, but no longer the wave.
In ego-dominated cultures like ours, a person is seen as a unit, a distinct entity that then may have relationships with other distinct entities. But there are great difficulties if you try to pin this supposed unit down.
When I do something, such as lifting an object, I am not the action, but the agent doing the action. When I say something, I am not the words or their meaning, but the speaker. When I think a thought, feel an emotion, have a memory… whatever you can say about me is something I am doing, not something I am. “He is funny” is a description of some of the things I do, which make people laugh. “She is jealous” describes certain behaviour patterns, not an inherent quality of the person. To describe personality traits, such as “she is extraverted and intelligent” are also shortcuts for long-standing patterns of action. There is actually nothing you can say about the entity who controls the movements of the body, thinks a thought, feels an emotion, is responsible for the pattern of habits that form the personality. “I” is actually indescribable.
It is indescribable, because “I” as a unit don’t really exist. I am only a component of All. Everything we can sense, including matter, is a form of energy. Temporarily, a collection of energy is the entity, the wave, that goes on for a while, and interacts with a collection of energy forming the matter of my body, and this interaction interacts with other forms of energy that forms its environment.
This leads to all sorts of interesting consequences. Here is one:
If all is one and one is all, then all love of any other component of the universe is self-love, and any hate of any other component of the universe is self-hate. Harming anyone else is harming the universe, which is me, so it’s harming myself. So, generosity is the ultimate selfishness, kindness to others is self-care.
I am very interested in reactions to these thoughts, in particular other consequences of the non-existence of the ego.