SELF AND NO-SELF

-Tan Chade Meng

(This article explores the very difficult question of "no-self". It is one of my favourites among all the articles I've written.)

I'm a Research Engineer by profession and the bulk of my work is in the areas of Neural networks and Computer vision. I have also recently developed an interest in Artificial Life (Alife). I approach the issue of "self" both from what little I've learned from my work and what little I've learned as a meditator.

In my line of research, I find it useful to think of "intelligence" as an "emergent" quality. Perhaps an example will illustrate this idea. Take the example of a flock of birds flying in one direction. The amazing thing about the flock is that it's always organized in a "V" shape, which can be proven to be the most energy-efficient formation (The bird in front generates air movements that lessens the load of the birds behind. When the front bird gets tired, some bird from behind takes over). Another amazing thing is that when the flock meets an obstacle, such as a tall building, it finds a perfect way to split apart and reform again once the obstacle is passed.

Flock behaviour can be described as an "intelligent" behaviour. One observing the flock might be tempted to conclude that there is an overall intelligence controlling the behaviour of individual birds. But then again, it's obvious that there is no bird in overall control.

Here's the fun part. It can be shown in simulations that all each bird does is to follow a simple algorithm. Each bird notes only the position of birds immediately surrounding it and puts itself in a position according to what its sees. From such simple behaviours of individual birds, an intelligent overall flock behaviour *emerges*!

This is what I mean when I say that "intelligence" is "emergent". There is no "central soul" of intelligence, and each element (bird) follows only simple behaviours. But working together, an intelligent behaviour emerges and becomes apparent. Similar emergence of intelligence can be observed in ant behaviour.

This model of intelligence is extremely attractive to me because I feel that it matches perfectly what I feel the Buddha taught about "self". Based on my knowledge as a AI researcher and my experience as a meditator, I see the "self" as an emergent quality.

The "self" emerges from the synergism (working together) of the 6 senses. The 6 senses, as defined by the Buddha, are the traditional 5 (sight, smell, touch, sound and taste) and the mind (there are also very practical reasons why the mind is classified as a "sense", but I'll leave this to another discussion). Each sense is formed by the aggregation of the 5 Aggregates. They are body (the sense organ itself), sensation (in my language, activation of sensual inputs), consciousness (the system responding to the presence of input activation), perception (processing of the input to give a symbolic output) and mental formations (post-processing of the output).

The 5 Aggregates interact to emerge a working sense, and the 6 senses interact to emerge a "self".

To me, it's a very beautiful idea. There is no "soul", no "essence of self that exists independently of and outside of the Aggregates", yet from this web of interaction, "self" emerges. And this "self" is very real, even though it isn't at all.

Perhaps it's useful to compare this to "team spirit". When a group of people come together to play basketball, the members interact to emerge the feeling of "team spirit". This quality can be felt by the members and is observable by other people. But there is no "central essence" of "team spirit". It's gone as soon as the team disbands.

It is therefore correct to say that "*I* feel this way", "*I* am responsible for this and this", "*I* achieved Sotapana-ship", "*I* love so and so", etc. It is also correct to say that "There is no *I*, no *self*. Just the Aggregates and the senses". To me, there are no contradictions, only a very beautiful realization that only a highly Enlightened one could have discovered.

To me, this is not just an intellectual idea. In my own meditations, I can identify very closely with what I described above. One who abides in Mindfulness and Concentration observes how each sense contributes to his feeling of "self-ness". He observes that he is not any of his senses. He obseves how his senses and aggregates makes him. He realizes self, and no-self. It's a very powerful discovery.