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The four formlessness – Part Two

We are still at Non-I;

But let’s take the topic one notch down (Beginner to intermediate) because the concept of anatta (Pali) or Anatman (sanskrit) is such a central part of Buddhism. It distinguishes us from religion such as Hinduism or other faith that believes in a soul.

When we talk about formlessness of I, we seldom talk about its usefulness. Personally, this Buddhist concept/practice allows me flexibility in my daily interaction with the world. If we are locked-in by our persona (self-definition) or sense of being, then our life and opportunity will be locked-in too. We simply cannot look beyond other possibility of existence.

At its most extreme, the idea of “defined persona” manifest as social classes that one is born into. For example, during Buddha’s time, he was born into the warrior class. And even today, the untouchables (the lowest caste in India) still encounter discrimination and unfair treatment.

Separately, defined persona can also relate to religious or social believes. Some religion believes that one is being born into their religion and one must be loyal to that religion for life. Some tribes and societies are enemy since antiquity, inter-marriage is taboo.

If we believe that we are born to be what we are, then a poor man can never be rich. On the other hand a rich man can never imagine himself as anything less. Thus, his bankruptcy might result in his desire to end his new life through suicide.

If we reflect back on our life, we realize that the child that we used to be is no longer us today. What we used to like becomes silly now. There is no permanent identity at all and here’s one of my life story.


One of my 1st lesson about non-self was from my school-van driver when I was 12.

I was seated beside the driver when I started commuting to school by a little green van that sat 15 children; Simply because that was the only vacant seat available when I signed up. The daily return trip home was always filled with rowdiness and noise from my fellow schoolmates sitting behind us. Separated by a low divider, my world with the driver was separated from my fellow schoolmates. Everyday, the driver would shout at the noisy kids behind us to be quiet. I felt the noise irritating too because I wasn’t a part of it. Thus, it wasn’t long before I joined the driver in shouting, “QUIET”! Encouraged by his approving smile, I soon became the unofficial prefect in that school van. Shouting at my classmates to quite down when the noise became unbearably loud. After a year, a vacant seat at the back became available and I was told to sit behind.

Unfortunately, the driver’s ploy to plant his prefect in the passenger compartment backfired! I became the new noise leader with my creative games and banter. One day, the driver called me over and said, ‘you used to sit beside me and knew how distracting it is when there is a din behind. You used to shout at everyone to keep quite too. Have you forgotten?’

I was ashamed and became quiet throughout that day. There was 2 me? I was too young to figure out more at that time. But the driver’s word had stuck in my mind and that “shock” of “2 me?” had registered too.

People change according to situations in life. We forget our past and that is actually a form of ignorance. Imagine what it would be like, if we can remember all our past lives, mistakes and achievements. Just like Buddha when He attained Enlightenment,

We could have been an animal or someone of the opposite sex or someone of another race or someone of another religion, so on and so forth. Which one of those existences is the real me? When we realize that the personality we identify so strongly with now, is nothing but a point in the ever changing flux of being; we learn to chill and not be burdened by our identity. When that happened, we loosen up our ego and have a new perspective in life. Our interaction with life also shift accordingly.

A wise monk once explained, “When the fire of a candle lit another candle, is the fire of the second candle the same fire as the 1st candle?” Our state of being is just that, passing from one state to another. What we are today is because of what we were yesterday, same but yet not the same. Just a never ending series of cause and effect. (Karma)

Only when we bravely let go of our self, can we move on to ultimately become Buddha.

When I was actively volunteering at a Buddhist organization, one of the most frequent push-back from people who refuse to meditate is “Oh, I am too impatient to meditate.” They hang on to that belief that being impatient is part of their state of being. This is one example, why the Buddhist concept of anatta is precious and important in our daily practice.

The above is my personal approach when I first started thinking about non-I. I hope it will help lessen the fear of non-I for beginners because whether we like it or not, we are manifesting different persona under different situations, everyday. As time goes by, one will be less afraid of this non-I concept and take the bull by its horn. That is when we start examining ourselves using the method mentioned in part one. (We breakdown our experience of I into various mental activities/components!) In another word, we practice our psychological or spiritual dissecting.

Once we realize and experience Non-I (Theravada) / emptiness of self (Mahayana), Full Enlightenment becomes guaranteed.

May all be well and happy.

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