Notes on a Buddhist path

Is there any I out there?

May 20, 2012 By | 4 Comments

To be or not to be, that is the question. ~ Hamlet

Who am I?

Ah, there’s the rub. As a writer my I is fixated on birthing pithy lines of prose and then killing all my little darlings, watching words emerge as perfect butterflies from ethereal cocoons only to pluck the wings from their temporal bodies in search of deeper meanings. I the writer reads better writers in the hopes of unraveling the golden threads of their woven bits of eloquent wordsmithing. I the writer wants to be clever and mercurial, funny and rare. I the writer scavenges the storehouse of my brain looking for brilliant phrases and succumbs to the muse’s way with me to channel pure inspiration into these mindless fingers on the keyboard.

The Buddhist I on the other hand is constantly endeavoring to extinguish Me, not in the sense of killing myself, but in the larger sense that my self (big and/or little “S”) doesn’t exist at all. This personality, these likes and dislikes, these eyes looking at the computer screen and these hands typing away are mere thoughts and elements of earth, air, fire and water. The concept of no-self, anatta, links to The Four Noble Truths: first, there’s suffering (dukkha); second, suffering’s cause is attachment to our cravings and aversions (upadana); third, there’s a way out (nirodha); and fourth (ta-da!), the exit map (The Eightfold Path).

My preferences to the way I like my desk arranged and how I fold my sheets, my aversion to Las Vegas and my craving for Paris, my love affairs with almond butter and John Coltrane, all of them lead to suffering because it’s the I that suffers. I may find I’m allergic to creamy, delicious almond butter or discover my trip to Paris derailed with a pesky stopover in Vegas. I may be thick in the cream and decadent sensuality of the City of Love, but I will someday leave or run out of money or grow weary of croissants or meet an Italian man and have a sudden yearning for gelato. Even if none of these endings come to pass, one day the ultimate end will pursue me to my front door. This body will die but is there an I to go with it?

Impermanence is the only permanent commodity on this earthly plane. The point in this crazy time-bomb ticking passion play is to realize we are only carbon footprints on the stage of life, with as much self involved in the whole production as the trees and the sky, the books and the buildings, the melting glaciers and the finest grain of sand.

The idea of “I” is just that, an idea like any other thought. It’s the mythical lens through which we think we are watching the play. We need to ask ourselves what, not who, is looking out the window? What is driving the car? What is in pain? What is writing? What is dying? The car will change, our bodies will change, even the pain will change in its appearance and strength. My words and how they are put in order will change because what is writing them is different each moment.

On my recent retreat to Birken Forest Monastery, I felt for the briefest of interludes the weightless immensity of no-self. No wants, no pushing away, no clinging to what was past, present or waiting (perhaps) in the future. It was rapture beyond description. The delicate filigree of suffering’s curtain had been torn just enough for me to peek through its threads of desire and see the transcendent emptiness on the other side.

And yet I write. I write because there’s more I want to say. I write because someday I won’t be here. I write because I’ve seen the curtain and with each letter I type a new fragment of light may filter through until there’s no need for another word or for this I to write them.


by Stephen Dobyns

Each thing I do I rush through so I can do
something else. In such a way do the days pass—
a blend of stock car racing and the never
ending building of a gothic cathedral.
Through the windows of my speeding car, I see
all that I love falling away: books unread,
jokes untold, landscapes unvisited. And why?
What treasure do I expect in my future?
Rather it is the confusion of childhood
loping behind me, the chaos in the mind,
the failure chipping away at each success.
Glancing over my shoulder I see its shape
and so move forward, as someone in the woods
at night might hear the sound of approaching feet
and stop to listen; then, instead of silence
he hears some creature trying to be silent.
What else can he do but run? Rushing blindly
down the path, stumbling, struck in the face by sticks;
the other ever closer, yet not really
hurrying or out of breath, teasing its kill.

“Pursuit” by Stephen Dobyns, from Cemetery Nights. © Penguin Books, 1987. The Writer’s Almanac, February 27, 2012.

Image credit: Sunbathing Buddha by magical-world at Flickr Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.


  1. Murdering our darlings is our job, finding no-self state–a rare and special thing for a rare and special being. Thank you for sharing your I Tess.

  2. It just isn’t right,Tess, that you aren’t aware of the power of your words and references `for me!!! And so, I, who am embarking on the Theraveda journey; I who am upisland and very grateful for your blog, who is thanking you and anticipating the next installment, Lois

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