Namo Buddhaya. Sabbe Dhamma Anatta. Form is Anatta too. Meaning form is not worth identifying as myself, me or mine.

Does that mean that I should identify myself as formless ? Am I in form or am I formless or I do not exist ? Similarly for feelings and consciousness. Should I identify myself feelingless? Should I identify myself consciousless( i.e. I will become without consciousness) ? I am pretty confused.

4 Answers 4


There's a nice explanation in the Khemaka Sutta below. It has the analogy of the scent of a flower, and its lack of direct relationship with the flower's constituent components. A similar analogy based on music and lute can be found in the Vina Sutta.

Ven. Khemaka: "I am not getting better, my friend. I am not comfortable. My extreme pains are increasing, not lessening. There are signs of their increasing, and not of their lessening." .....

As he was sitting there, the elder monks said to him, "Friend Khemaka, this 'I am' of which you speak: what do you say 'I am'? Do you say, 'I am form,' or do you say, 'I am something other than form'? Do you say, 'I am feeling... perception... fabrications... consciousness,' or do you say, 'I am something other than consciousness''? This 'I am' of which you speak: what do you say 'I am'?"

"Friends, it's not that I say 'I am form,' nor do I say 'I am something other than form.' It's not that I say, 'I am feeling... perception... fabrications... consciousness,' nor do I say, 'I am something other than consciousness.' With regard to these five clinging-aggregates, 'I am' has not been overcome, although I don't assume that 'I am this.'

"It's just like the scent of a blue, red, or white lotus: If someone were to call it the scent of a petal or the scent of the color or the scent of a filament, would he be speaking correctly?"

"No, friend."

"Then how would he describe it if he were describing it correctly?"

"As the scent of the flower: That's how he would describe it if he were describing it correctly."

"In the same way, friends, it's not that I say 'I am form,' nor do I say 'I am other than form.' It's not that I say, 'I am feeling... perception... fabrications... consciousness,' nor do I say, 'I am something other than consciousness.' With regard to these five clinging-aggregates, 'I am' has not been overcome, although I don't assume that 'I am this.'

"Friends, even though a noble disciple has abandoned the five lower fetters, he still has with regard to the five clinging-aggregates a lingering residual 'I am' conceit, an 'I am' desire, an 'I am' obsession. But at a later time he keeps focusing on the phenomena of arising & passing away with regard to the five clinging-aggregates: 'Such is form, such its origin, such its disappearance. Such is feeling... Such is perception... Such are fabrications... Such is consciousness, such its origin, such its disappearance.' As he keeps focusing on the arising & passing away of these five clinging-aggregates, the lingering residual 'I am' conceit, 'I am' desire, 'I am' obsession is fully obliterated.

"Just like a cloth, dirty & stained: Its owners give it over to a washerman, who scrubs it with salt earth or lye or cow-dung and then rinses it in clear water. Now even though the cloth is clean & spotless, it still has a lingering residual scent of salt earth or lye or cow-dung. The washerman gives it to the owners, the owners put it away in a scent-infused wicker hamper, and its lingering residual scent of salt earth, lye, or cow-dung is fully obliterated.

An explanation here from Walshe on the residual "I am" (for the case where Khemaka has no wrong views but he is still not yet an arahant):

Subcommentary says: "By way of clinging and conceit (ta.nha-maana)," that is, not by wrong views (di.t.thi). At this stage, wrong views would have been eliminated, but the other factors would still be residually present.

Note from ChrisW: There's a more detailed commentary by Piya Tan on the Khemaka Sutta here on Dharmafarer.

Also from SN 22.47, where the Buddha said:

“The five faculties remain right there, bhikkhus, but in regard to them the instructed noble disciple abandons ignorance and arouses true knowledge. With the fading away of ignorance and the arising of true knowledge, ‘I am’ does not occur to him; ‘I am this’ does not occur to him; ‘I will be’ and ‘I will not be,’ and ‘I will consist of form’ and ‘I will be formless,’ and ‘I will be percipient’ and ‘I will be nonpercipient’ and ‘I will be neither percipient nor nonpercipient’—these do not occur to him.”

  • I will chew over it. I found what I was looking for. Essentially with regards to five aggregates I am not this and 'I am' results due to craving and clinging. Only upon removal of craving and clinging that I unbecome. Unborn is a state which is called Nirvana. Apr 8, 2018 at 14:46
  • @DheerajVerma OK. I updated the answer with a commentary on the residual "I am" being caused by clinging and conceit, but not wrong view.
    – ruben2020
    Apr 9, 2018 at 6:00
  • 1
    I asked "How are 'conceit' and 'identity-view' not the same?" because "conceit" is a fetter until the final stage of enlightenment, while "identity-view" is abandoned at the first stage.
    – ChrisW
    Apr 9, 2018 at 10:29
  • 1
    @DheerajVerma There's a more detailed commentary about the Khamaka Sutta here on Dharmafarer. The "conceit" is also associated with "ignorance" (the opposite of which is ñāṇa), and with the āsavas.
    – ChrisW
    Apr 9, 2018 at 12:47

I think the doctrine is saying that you shouldn't "identify yourself" at all. Quoting from this answer

"You may well accept, monks, the assumption of a self-theory[27] from the acceptance of which there would not arise sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief, and despair. (But) do you see, monks, any such assumption of a self-theory?" — "No, Lord." — "Well, monks, I, too, do not see any such assumption of a self-theory from the acceptance of which there would not arise sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair."

I think that, "I am form", "I am formless", "I exist", "I don't exist", are all self-theories ... theories about self ... and from accepting or assuming any of these theories arises "sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief, and despair".

There is also (quoting from MN 2):

"As he attends inappropriately in this way, one of six kinds of view arises in him: The view I have a self arises in him as true & established, or the view I have no self... or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive self... or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive not-self... or the view It is precisely by means of not-self that I perceive self arises in him as true & established, or else he has a view like this: This very self of mine — the knower that is sensitive here & there to the ripening of good & bad actions — is the self of mine that is constant, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and will endure as long as eternity. This is called a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is not freed from birth, aging, & death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. He is not freed, I tell you, from suffering & stress.

... so if you say that, "I am pretty confused", I think that is what the dhamma was predicting as the result of attending to views of self (i.e. it predicted "a thicket of views", etc.). I remember "a thicket of views" as a warning, a sign, of attending inappropriately to some view[s]-of-self.

See also:

And yet I also like Why is the Buddha described as trackless? and The Trackless One?

Perhaps there's some ambiguity: between "not describing (not constraining, not leading) the Tathagata", compared to "describing the Tathagata as 'not' (or describing as 'formless')".

But that kind of consideration is, more or less, stuck right in the middle of "the thicket" again -- so, if the question is confused, I maybe shouldn't try to tie a (clear) answer to a (confused) question.

So instead of this answer, I hope you find its references helpful.

If it helps, I once saw a video (Dalai Lama's guide to happiness) where the Dalai Lama said,

... I always open. I never consider myself as a something special. If I consider myself something different from you, like, I am Buddhist, or, even more, I am His Holiness Dalai Lama, or even is I consider I am Nobel Laureate, then actually you create yourself as a prisoner. I forget these things, I simply consider I am one of the seven billion human beings. We are mentally, emotionally, intellectually, we are same.

  • Take another example : I am thought or I am without thought. Truth as you say I am neither because state of thought and thoughtlessness arise and I identify with them because of craving. Without craving there is no identity to identify state of thought or thoughtlessness. Am I correct ? Apr 8, 2018 at 11:10
  • I'd guess that, "I am thought", "I am without thought", "I am neither", and/or "I am both", might all be examples of self-views. I'm not sure how craving and identity-view are connected. One author (the author of The Notion of Diṭṭhi in Theravāda Buddhism) writes, I think that the term implies an ‘identification’ with the khandhas. The identity-view does not see things as they are, and this produces craving and attachment. The opposite to the identity-view is the nonidentity-view, the non-craving-view, namely, right-view. ... in other words, that craving is because of identity-view.
    – ChrisW
    Apr 8, 2018 at 11:24
  • But the 12 nidanas suggest the cycle is craving -> clinging -> becoming. Maybe that's more of the thicket, though, alas. :-)
    – ChrisW
    Apr 8, 2018 at 11:30

This question is as valid as asking "is Superman an American citizen?". Superman is a fictional character. So there's no validity(in reality) in questions asked based on the assumption that Superman exists.

  • Just as craving for existence in Form World(rupa-raga) leads to origination of self in Form world, craving for existence in Formless World (arupa-raga) leads to origination of self in Formless world. Superman is a fictional character but Self is not fiction. Self becomes mature with the grasping of aggregates. If you identify with body then you are the body however wisdom tells us that one should not identify with body because it is not worth clinging as me , mine or myself. But that doesn't mean Self is a fictional character. It originates and with good training in Dhamma it ceases. Apr 8, 2018 at 21:24
  • Self is fiction. Craving for form leads to birth in the form worlds. But it doesn't create a self. The notion of 'self' is a mere misunderstanding to begin with. Apr 9, 2018 at 5:11
  • Yes. Self is a misunderstanding but now that misunderstanding has been removed , why do we still say 'I am' ? Because conceptual understanding is not enough. We must develop the mind to realise dispassionate state of Anatta. Work on the path must be done. In that sense Self is real. Apr 9, 2018 at 6:28
  • Even Arahanths may use the words "I am". That doesn't mean they believe in a self. It's the way the language is constructed. Apr 9, 2018 at 10:57
  • 2
    @DheerajVerma Choose any example where the Buddha refers to himself. In the Mahaparinibbana sutta, for example, he says, "I am eighty years old". In Pali that's a phrase like "Eighty years to my age happens" -- not "I am" but, still, using a possessive pronoun ("my"). I think the dhamma says to not identify with the aggregates, because that results in suffering (and arises from inappropriate attention), nor to view them as a permanent Soul.
    – ChrisW
    Aug 5, 2018 at 18:52

I have two understandings that may help in this regard - the negation of existence/nonexistence and the affirmation of dependent arising. I will substitute "form" for "exist" just to make it simpler. Additionally, I am still learning so please feel free to object to any points.

In terms of "exist", it is easy to see that nothing truly exists on its own. Everything is made up of parts which are, in turn, made of parts. A table, for example, never truly exists. There are trees, bits of metal perhaps rubber or plastic, and other materials that go into assembling what we call "table". We typically don't look at objects this way and it takes a little bit of concentration to do so. Those parts are also made of parts all the way down to subatomic particles.

Beyond even that, things come to be only from causes. The parts cause the table, and other causes cause the parts themselves. There is no start to this cycle - everything that comes to be is dependent on its own causes.

Thus, if everything comes from causes, then nothing exists inherently and is temporary. Thus, if something were to exist in a permanent, inherent way, then it would have to be uncaused. Additionally, it could not change as that would indicate cause and thus violate any sense of permanent inherent existence.

We don't see things this way typically. We think of "I" and "you" and "this" and "that" as if things are substantial in an inherent way. Even "I" am not the same physically or mentally. The atoms making up our body turn over constantly, and our mind is simply a series of mental moments, one causing the next moment to moment. Thus, the "me" I know is not the "me" of ten years ago or even one week ago.

When it comes to "non-existence" in light of this, then it is easy to see that such a concept is nonsensical. You would have to presuppose the possibility of something existing (in an inherent, causeless way) in order for it not to exist. Since we have already seen that permanent, inherent existence is a conundrum, likewise any notion of non-existence is as well.

So we are left with the dilemma - nothing is in a state of existence or non-existence. How do we solve this?

The answer is known as dependent arising. Things "exist" but not in a way that is permanent, eternal, or inherent. In other words, things only "exist" in a relative way. Everything is caused by the immediate moment before and, in turn, becomes the cause of the next moment.

Thus, we experience reality as existing on a relative level. It is truly there as "something" that comes into awareness from the immediate moment before and passes away as a cause to the next moment. We never experience anything in a permanent, self-inherent way as that is nonsensical. At the heart of what we perceive as reality is therefore emptiness - that is, everything is lacking inherent existence. There is no such thing.

Thus, you are in form in a relative way as are your thoughts and feelings. They do "exist" in a relative way. But they are all dependent on causes and do not arrive into awareness out of nothing (i.e. self-created inherent causeless existence).

Source: Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika https://www.amazon.com/Nagarjunas-Middle-Way-Mulamadhyamakakarika-Classics/dp/1614290504


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