I have often wondered about one particular riddle regarding the stages of the path. If Sakkāyadiṭṭhi, a view of the self, is one of the first fetters conquered at stream- entry, why is it that Māna, that is a consequence of subtle ‘I-am-ness’, is one of the last to go at Arahanthood? In what form does the ‘I’ sustain itself till the last?
Here's an analogy. Stream entry is like that point in time where you have completely understood how diet, exercise, obesity, metabolism, homeostasis, ageing and non-communicable diseases work. You've thoroughly seen how it works. There's no more denial, delusion and doubt. There's no more ritualistic practice of diet and exercise without understanding. You're still obese and unhealthy, but now you have understanding. The remaining journey to attainment of Arahatship, is like the rigorous journey of improving one's diet and exercise further till perfect health and fitness is achieved.
There's a nice explanation in the Khemaka Sutta below.
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?"
"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.
Here's a more detailed commentary by Piya Tan on the Khemaka Sutta here on Dharmafarer:
In other words, one may not regard the five aggregates as self (attā) or as belonging to self, but this does not mean that one is an arhat. This is because even after the destruction of the five lower fetters, there still remains a residue of the conceit “I am,” of the desire,“I am,” and of the latent tendency, “I am.” Only when one has totally uprooted the notion that “I am” the aggregates, that one becomes an arhat.
Piya Tan quotes Ven. Bodhi:
The other elders apparently had not yet attained any stage of awakening and thus did not understand this difference, but the Venerable Khemaka must have been at least a stream-enterer (some commentators say he was a non-returner) and thus knew that the elimination of identity view does not completely remove the sense of personal identity. Even for the non-returner,an “odor of subjectivity” based on the five aggregates still lingers over the experience.
And Piya Tan continues:
Here, what Khemaka (who is at least a stream-winner) is saying refers to his understanding of the working of the latent tendencies that constantly proliferates one with thoughts rooted in lust, repulsion and ignorance. None of these latent tendencies has been uprooted by the stream-winner or the once-returner. Even though the non-returner has overcome lust, he still has some repulsion (in the form of conceit), and ignorance.In any case,the latent tendencies are still active even in such saints (short of the arhat), and Khemaka is simply describing what occurs in his own mind. Although the notion “I am” arises in him,6observes Khemaka, he is not troubled by it and does not identify with any of the five aggregates. Of course, Bodhi’s translation, too, confirms the fact that Khemaka still experiences the “I am” notion since he is not yet an arhat.
Sakkāyadiṭṭhi means to view one or more of the aggregates as a real solid inherent self.
Mana is simply conceit; a fleeting self-view arising in the mind it is superior to 'another'. Both 'self' & 'other' are self-views.
It is important to understand the sense of 'self' is an instinct or tendency (anusaya).
Therefore, the sense of self can arise, however fleeting & unmindful, in a non-Arahant.
As for an Arahant, they still perceive 'self' as a 'convention'. In other words, an Arahant still views discrete individual lifeforms.
This lecture may help with the matter of 'self': ANATTĀ & REBIRTH by Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu
If a very young child looks in a mirror, it sees an object there that it cannot identify as itself. A slightly older child recognizes that the object it sees in the mirror is itself. A bit older than that, and a child internalizes the mirror, seeing a reflection of itself in the actions and reactions of others around it. On this development goes until the onset of adulthood, when we have established an ongoing, unconscious, self-reflective awareness: a 'me' that we hold as an object in our heads, that we put out into the world in structured ways for others to experience, and to whom we attribute all of our thoughts and behaviors.
Stream-entry merely means that we come to see that internal mirror for what it is: an imperfect reflection of something we cannot see directly. In fact, we start to see that the entire human world is like a fun house: distorted mirrors reflecting that which is just outside of our line of sight in ways that might be beautiful or ugly, normal or strange, comforting or terrifying... an infinite kaleidoscope of perspective as the flaws in the mirrors bend and shape what is. A steam-enterer understands that this 'me' isn't himself or herself, but is a reflection of something else they cannot quite grasp.
Being arahant means grasping that-which-is-reflected, where one no longer uses the concept 'me' in the same way.
An excellent question!
We are all growing and learning, both of which are a part of cultivation. The process of defining the self and the Dharma attached is somewhat like refining our integrity; something we never expect to compromise nor change. The compassion of free will and the contradiction of self is we have a choice to act towards 'our' path or sabotage that original integrity - 'our' meaning with respect to every individual all a part of the system of our planet; not just humanity.
A component of this process is stripping away the influence of societal expectations and go back to the primal nature of how we define ourselves, before any historical suffering, to an existence of purity (where we would struggle to sacrifice the life or suffering of another for the sake of comfort). At that point we then go further to what makes us unique amongst every single other of the nearly 8 billion humans on this planet and what we can give that no other can.
When we first actualise the Dharma it is an obscure meaning to our existence, but we may sustain enough of how to continue refining what it is that defines us and what may happen next on our path as a reassurance. The influence of our path in the bigger picture becomes clearer and coincidence advances beyond 'common' sense. At that point the Dharma of the world reacts to the Dharma of the individual, which are in essence one and the same.
Cultivating closely to that great truth, at some point along the way the path of the bigger picture becomes blurred with the identity, conditionin the Dharma of the individual and the Dharma of the world.
It is a common question to ask about loss of 'self' for the Dharma. There is irony to the answer because we are cultivating, there is always a level of loss. When we learn, what do we lose in exchange for that information? What if that information went against what we thought was true to logic and had to be rectified by those who assured our logic was wrong? Does our path of logic come back or had it been altered?
Acting towards the Dharma of the system we are all are a part of, and therefore following our Dharma, is following a path of our own cognition, unassuming and respectful of sustainable harmony, however it is guided.
To answer your question concisely:
There are not just one or two, but many potentials of self. Once we understand our cultivation is dynamic and has an impact on the entire world at large; we either continue observing our lives in one dimension or start seeing beyond the individual self. When we become closer to what really defines ourselves beyond that first dimension of thinking, hindrances become irrelevant shackles as we are not deluding ourselves as much as we had before. Continually cultivating this path, somewhere further along it becomes apparent the individual and the definition are one and the same and the self becomes the definition of aspiration.
Cultivate in harmony