About 150 years after the historical Buddha died, a king named Menander encounters the venerated Buddhist monk Nagasena. The king did not know him and asked for a name. The monk provided his name, but added:
"This is only a name, a denotation, a matter of conventional usage. There is no individual person to be found here."
They king continued his questions.
"Who is wearing robes, who enjoys them, who meditates, who practices?"
"The designation Nagasena."
"Could it be that the hairs on your head are Nagasena?"
The king asked if his true identity might be found in his other body parts, such as his nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow kidneys, heart, liver, membranes, spleen, lungs, intestines, stomach, excrement, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, saliva, mucus or urine? The brain, perhaps?
The monk told the king that his identity could not be found in any of them.
The king then asked if the monk was a feeling of pleasure or pain, a perception, an impulse, or a state of consciousness?
The monk said no.
The king then accused the monk of lying to him.
"You said that you are Nagasena, when no such person exists."
The questioning now reversed. Earlier the king had said that he had arrrived by chariot.
"Is the chariot the axel, the wheels, the yoke, the reins?"
"Is there a chariot separate from these things?"
Now the monk accused the King of lying:
"You say that you arrived by chariot, but you cannot say what a chariot is."
"I am not lying, for it is because of these parts that a chariot exists as a name, a denotation, a convention."
"Exactly, because of my body, feeling, perception and so forth does Nagasena exist as a denotation, a convention, a name. But ultimately there is no person at all to be found."
In Buddhist philosophy, delusion is said to be the cause of our suffering. The main delusion is the belief in a self.
Conservative, progressive, religious, rational, black, white, male, female, rich, poor... when you are sitting quietly with only your breath these labels are meaningless.
All the words and concepts we use to define ourselves are relative. They describe the differences between ourselves and others. But what are we in of ourselves?
Mingyur Rinpoche dedicated his life to meditation and cutting through his habitual tendencies which reinforce these delusions. With tens of thousands of hours of meditation practice under his belt, Rinpoche is the happiest person we've ever measured.
Yet despite this, there were still subtle layers of the self-concept to be removed. He noticed he identified with his robes, his name, his title, his role as a teacher and his relationships with his friends, family and students. So he gave it all up.
At age thirty-six, after thorough planning, in the middle of the night he snuck out of his monastery to take up the life of a wandering yogi. Like the Buddha and Milarepa before him, he renounced the world and went forth into homelessness.
The once esteemed Mingyur Rinpoche - surrounded by attendants and followers - was now an ordinary beggar. He would spend the next four years of his life engaging in spiritual practice, travelling back and forth between the himalayan mountains and the plains of India.
If we define ourselves in reference to other people and how they relate to us, *what if we changed how other people saw us? *
Underneath his name, appearance and social roles who was he really?
I would like to keep this email short, but not before sharing a little wisdom from the book.
Since childhood, Rinpoche has had the aspiration to follow in the footsteps of the Milarepa and embark on such a traditional wandering retreat.
To never allow himself to forget his ambition and the precarious nature of human life for decades he repeated this mantra as a part of his daily practice.
"All things are impermanent. Death comes without warning. This body too will be a corpse."
Like when a candle burns it melts, as we live we die. With each moment our time left dwindles ever shorter. To not forget death, is to not take our life for granted.
But who is it that dies?
To close this letter, I have a question for you. Who is it that is reading this right now? Who or what are you?