There Is No Self - by William Liang, 8th Grade High School Student

What is the smallest thing in the universe?                                     

What happens after you die?

Why are some people happy and other people sad?

What came before the big bang?

What came before that?

Why am I here?

Who am I?

   I have never, from the time of my earliest memories, known the answers.  This is not because I do not try to find them, but because the questions I ask do not have answers that everyone will agree upon.  Two years ago, an opportunity to answer these questions which could not be answered presented itself to me in the study of Buddhism.           

   Buddhism was first introduced to me by my father who is now an Upasaka, a lay practitioner who has taken the Bodhisattva precepts.  He introduced me to some of the fundamental elements of Buddhism: the Heart Sutra, how to meditate, kindness, compassion, and principles of Buddhist philosophy like non-discrimination and karma. 

   The basis of Buddhist philosophy is the idea that one can be liberated from all suffering by attaining a state of mind that does not discriminate.  However, I doubt that in our modern world, a middle school student could live a day without discriminating.  I think that the realization most practical and most applicable to my life right now is the idea of ‘no-self.’ My English teacher, who is focusing on community this year, inadvertently helped me gain new insight into this idea when she asked the class to complete a series of sentences beginning with “I”:   I think…, I believe…, etc.  I could not complete the sentences.  Everything I wrote about myself was influenced completely by the people and events that have existed in my life.  I could have claimed those characteristics to be my own, but that would have been in error. They were only a culmination of everything that had happened in my life until then.  

   That single day in the beginning of eighth grade was perhaps the time of greatest personal growth for me.  It was a joyful experience to be on the path to answering one of my childhood questions.  Calling upon what I had learned about karma from my father and about community from my English teacher, I began to realize that “I” is not an individual but a community.  Every action anyone takes has a direct effect on everyone else.  We are constantly changing and shaping the lives of people we know or who know someone we know.  “I” is everyone.  “I” is a community.  There is no self.            

   This idea has changed the way I look at the world and the way I interact with the people and creatures who form my “I” community:  family, friends, teachers, everyone, all sentient beings.  Once, I was at a café when I felt the irritating scratching of an insect’s legs on my arm.  Years of mosquito bites instinctively prompted me to slap at the unfortunate insect. But before I could bring my hand down, I remembered the “I” community, which includes sentient beings.  I stopped my hand just in time to let a honeybee fly away.  If I had slapped at the honeybee, it would have stung me.  Harming the honeybee, who is part of my “I” community, is the same as harming myself.  This real-world application of no-self only strengthened my belief in the connection all sentient beings share.

   Truth is not something that I feel qualified to define, but I know that my experience with Buddhism in the last two years has enabled me to come closer to my “I” community and to the answers of the unanswerable questions that I have asked since I could remember.


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