I’ve been preparing for the next teaching talk I’ll be giving in a couple of weeks at my local sangha Be Here Now. I’ve decided to base my talk on the topic of nonself, which is proving to be a good stretch for me. Since my last talk was on the nature of impermanence, specifically the Five Remembrances, I’ve decided to have my next two talks continue to form around the theme of the Three Dharma Seals, which are: impermanence, nonself, and nirvana. The Three Dharma Seals, as stated in Thay’s (Thich Nhat Hanh’s) book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, are described as follows: “Any teaching that does not bear these Three Seals cannot be said to be a teaching of the Buddha.” The Three Dharma Seals are essentially the marks which indicate any true teaching offered by the Buddha.
Another way to phrase nonself is to say no self, to which I then like to add the word “separate” in between, for clarity of purpose, as in: no separate self. And yet another way to say this would be to use Thay’s word “interbeing.”
Nonself is easy to misunderstand. Nonself is not a nihilistic approach to life’s human construct or some fancy metaphor explaining how everything is just an illusion and doesn’t really exist. Nonself speaks to the simple truth of how we cannot exist by ourselves alone. We are a collage of our blood ancestry, experiences, relationships, and interactions. There is no separate self we can point to as being disconnected from the whole of everything else. We are because everything else is. Just as a tree cannot exist without the influence of the sun, air, water, and soil we cannot exist without the collaborative entirety of our past and present influences. As Thay states, in the same book as mentioned above, “Nonself means that you are made of elements which are not you.”