The following is taken from pages xiv–xvi of the General Introduction to Śhantideva, The Bodhicaryavatara: A Guide to the Buddhist Path to Awakening (Birmingham, UK: Windhorse Publications, 2002), translated with an Introduction and Notes by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton and with a General Introduction by Paul Williams.
The Illusion of an Unchanging Self-Identity
Sakyamuni Buddha, the so-called ‘historical Buddha’, . . . lived and died some time between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE. . . . Sakyamuni’s message in its simplest expression was that of a very deep sort of ‘letting go’. He seems to have discerned that most — he would say all — of our unhappiness and frustration comes from holding on, reifying, when actually things are always changing. Seeking for a raft in the sea of change, we particularly grasp at some sort of self-identity for ourselves. To hold onto all such unchanging self-identities is a fundamental misapprehension which ends in tears. Ourselves and others, animate and inanimate, are composite collections which come together and part again bringing life and death, purpose and apparent uselessness. That is the nature of things, against which we fortify ourselves through the misapprehension of grasping an unchanging identity which is at variance with the way things really are and thus invariably produces suffering. The principal dimension of this misapprehension is reifying ourselves into Selves, the feeling that somehow I must have an unchanging core which is the ‘Real Me’. Thus, unlike other spiritual teachers in India, the Buddha did not teach the search for the True Self behind the changing world, but rather the opposite: he taught that there is no True Self either in or behind the changing world, and grasping at such Selves is the cause of suffering. The permanent truth is that there is no such thing. To seek to dissolve away apparent unities into their constituent flow of parts is a hallmark of the Buddhist approach. Thus, as far as we can tell, the Buddha seems to have taught that what we call ourselves is actually a construct superimposed upon an ever- changing flow of physical matter, sensations, conceptions, further mental contents such as volitions and so on, and consciousness. That is all there is. There is no unchanging Me, my Self. To understand this deeply in a way which truly leads to the cessation of grasping after all fixed identities is to destroy completely the very forces which lead to continued embodiment, rebirth into suffering. That is enlightenment, nirvana.