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I understand that there is no self; yet there seems to be a never changing deeply seated, unfindable awareness attached to a human body that observes the sensations that arise and pass away.

This awareness continues to observe the body, life after life. It sits quietly as the body reacts and reacts until it discovers meditation and begins to stop the cycle. What is the nature of this awareness?

I can't make sense of the apparent contradiction that there is no self, yet this 'awareness' has to follow a series of rebirths until this 'individual' is purified, at which time they are fully liberated.

I understand that there is no self. There is nothing definable about the self which makes perfect sense to me. But there is most definitely an awareness. What is this awareness? Is every living creature in the universe a unique awareness with identical properties? Are we all the same awareness? If so then why are we dealing with karma as discrete individuals?

  • The observed is the observer. All is impersonal phenomena. – Nuthman Jun 17 '18 at 23:14
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there is no self; yet there seems to be a never changing deeply seated, unfindable awareness attached to a human body that observes the sensations that arise and pass away.

Yes.

This awareness continues to observe the body

Yes.

life after life.

Evidence for this?

It sits quietly as the body reacts and reacts until it discovers meditation and begins to stop the cycle.

Stops the cycle of ignorantly regarding life as 'self'? Yes, it can, as described in SN 22.99.

What is the nature of this awareness?

It knows, it cognises (MN 43); it arises dependent upon sense organs, sense objects (MN 38) & the mind-&-body (SN 22.82) ; that is all that can be said about it.

I can't make sense of the apparent contradiction that there is no self

A mirror does not have a 'self' yet a mirror reflects. Awareness/consciousness is similar.

For example, 1st the mind sees an object and, afterwards, the mind thinks: "I like that object". The seeing or awareness of the object occurs prior to the idea of "I". Awareness operates without a 'self'. The idea or thought construct of 'self' arises after awareness. There can be awareness without 'self' thoughts.

yet this 'awareness' has to follow a series of rebirths until this 'individual' is purified, at which time they are fully liberated.

No. The Pali suttas do not refer to a 're-birth' of awareness or consciousness. Instead, the Pali suttas refer to the 're-birth' of the ignorant 'self' concept. To quote:

There is the case where an uninstructed, run-of-the-mill person — assumes form to be a 'self'. That assumption is a fabrication. Now what is the cause, what is the origination, what is the birth, what is the coming-into-existence of that fabrication? To an uninstructed, run-of-the-mill person, touched by that which is felt born of contact with ignorance, craving arises. That fabrication (of 'self') is born of that.

SN 22.81


The craving that makes for re-becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving to be, craving not-to-be: This, friend Visakha, is the origination of self-identification described by the Blessed One. MN 44




I understand that there is no self. There is nothing definable about the self which makes perfect sense to me.

OK.

But there is most definitely an awareness.

Yes.

What is this awareness?

Knowing, cognition; like a mirror reflects.

Is every living creature in the universe a unique awareness with identical properties?

Whenever there is some communication, there must be some awareness (however that awareness may not be fully reflective, like human awareness can know emotions but not act upon those emotions). For example, some plants know when an insect lands on them and they close up to eat the insect. These plants must have some awareness, however primitive.

Are we all the same awareness?

No. Now, my awareness is looking at a certain pink flowered tree outside my window. Since your awareness is not, the two awarenesses are obviously not the same awareness.

If so then why are we dealing with karma as discrete individuals?

Kamma is unrelated to awareness. In Pali, awareness is called 'vinnana', which refers to 'knowing' or 'sensing'. Where as kamma is related to intention (cetana) or thinking ('sankhara khandha').

The mental impacts of kamma (actions) are stored in the citta (mind-heart). For example, if a man gets angry at his wife and then feels regret the next day, the feeling of regret is related to the faculty of mind called 'citta' ('mind-heart') rather than 'awareness/consciousness'. Awareness only knows; only reflects.

Why human life has a 'citta' or an 'intelligent conscience', again we cannot say. It is probably just a survival mechanism.

  • Thanks for your response. I have some comments: It is not obvious that we are 'not' the same awareness. There is no evidence that the same being is not compartmentalizing its mind into billions of multiple awarenesses that are isolated from each other. This is far fetched, but only one of millions of ways that this could be achieved. The fact is, there is no way of knowing that we are discrete beings. – Nuthman Feb 9 '17 at 16:51
  • It seems to me that my understanding of self is not what Buddhists understand as self. For me, 'Me' or 'Myself' has nothing to do with my body, mind, 'soul', emotions, memories, knowledge, etc. "I" am what's left over after removing all of this. Even as a small child, before I ever heard of the Buddha, I never thought of myself as any of these things. I was the unlocatable thing seemingly somewhere in my body. It seems to me that no one knows exactly what this is; only what it isn't. – Nuthman Feb 9 '17 at 17:05
  • also, just to clarify, are you saying that we don't have past lives/rebirth? – Nuthman Feb 9 '17 at 17:13
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What is awareness?

The totality of awareness includes the following for 6 Sense Bases and the 5 Aggregates:

“internal” (ajjhatta) = physical sense-organs, or our person;
“external” (bahiddhā) = physical sense-objects, or another person;
“gross” (olārika) = that which impinges (the physical internal and external senses,
with touch = earth, wind, fire);
“subtle” (sukhuma) = that which does not impinge (mind, mind-objects, mind-consciousness,
and water);
“inferior” (hīna) = undesirable physical sense-objects (form, sound, smell, taste,
and touch), or the sense-world;
“superior” (panīta) = desirable physical sense-objects (form etc), or the form and the
formless worlds;
“far” (dure) = subtle objects (“difficult to penetrate”), or distant objects, other
universes;
“near” (santike) = gross objects (“easy to penetrate,” or things close by, or anywhere
in this universe).

...

As regards the terms “internal” (ajjhatta) and “external” (bahiddhā), it should be noted that they
have two applications:
(1) the aggregates (khandhā) composing a particular “person” are “internal” to them, and anything
else is “external”;
(2) the sense-organs (ayatana) are “internal,” but their objects—which may include aspects of
the person’s own body or mind, which are “internal” in the first sense—are “external.”

In the commentarial tradition (including the Abhidhamma), “gross” (olārika) refers to the
nature of the five physical senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body), while “subtle” (sukhuma) refers to
the nature of the mind. The physical senses are said to be “impinged on” while mind does not function
that way.

Adapted from Piya Tan introduction on Dutiya (Aññathatta) Ānanda Sutta, Indriya Bhāvanā Sutta

You should clearly see the world, person, 5 Aggregates, 6 Sense Bases are impermanent, conditioned, dependently arisen. [Maha Taṇha,sankhaya Sutta, Indriya Bhāvanā Sutta] All experiences fall into 3 categories (pleasant, unpleasant and neutral) which are also impermanent, conditioned, dependently arisen, subject to destruction, subject to vanishing, subject to fading away, subject to ending. Dīgha,nakha Sutta

Also your awareness should be the right awareness.

And what, bhikshus, is right mindfulness?
Here, bhikshus, 
a monk dwells  exertive, clearly knowing, mindful, observing the body in the body, 
   removing covetousness and displeasure in the world;
a monk dwells exertive, clearly knowing, mindful, observing feelings in the feelings, 
   removing covetousness and displeasure in the world;
a monk dwells exertive, clearly knowing, mindful, observing the mind in the mind, 
   removing covetousness and displeasure in the world; 
a monk dwells exertive, clearly knowing, mindful, observing dharmas in the dharmas, 
   removing covetousness and displeasure in the world.
This, bhikshus, is called right mindfulness.

(Magga) Vibhaṅga Sutta similar passage in Sacca Vibhanga Sutta

"removing covetousness and displeasure in the world" means you are to be equanimous without getting attached to the pleasant or averse to the unpleasant. You have to see impermanence also to remove ignorance. For more on this see this answer.

In addition if awareness is there in the present moment like that of in a surgeon, ballet dancer, gymnast, acrobat, stuntman, racing drive this does not help. Any of these activities require awareness but this is not exactly the awareness in line with the Buddhist goal. This is because:

  • such a person does not see the 3 marks of existence in the conditioned. Also see Vipallasa Sutta
  • such a person is not free from the unwholesome roots, i.e., reacting to pleasant, unpleasant and neutral sensations. Kīta,giri Sutta

More on this see this answer also.

This awareness continues to observe the body, life after life

This question has been asked before in the past:

it is this same consciousness, not another, that runs and flows through the rounds of births

Maha Taṇha,sankhaya Sutta

There are other religions and philosophies which have this view but in Buddhism the observing consciousness is also not self and in consistent though it appears to to be consistent in early stages. [Sampasadanīya Sutta] For more information see this answer.

  • Thanks! This is helpful information. It is a lot to take in. – Nuthman Feb 9 '17 at 17:06

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