The Strong Misconception of an Enduring Self

Author: Linmu

In a previous article, I described the Four Elements as solid, liquid, heat, and motion, and I presented the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body as five sensory organs. However, many friends who base their views on Buddhist scriptures do not agree with this. They believe that the Four Elements are earth, water, fire, and wind – four indivisible cosmic particles and the smallest units constituting all material things in the world.

From these Four Elements, the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, colors, sounds, fragrances, tastes, tactile sensations, and the primary elements of sustenance are generated. These Four Elements and the primary elements are all ultimate realities, subject to birth and cessation.

It is by observing these ultimate realities and their arising and ceasing that people develop wisdom. They perceive these as ultimate realities, and what I have described as conceptual realities cannot be equated with ultimate realities. When I first encountered Theravāda teachings, I also had an epiphany. I thought that the reason I struggled to comprehend profound Buddhist concepts like dependent origination, impermanence, no-self, reincarnation, and liberation was due to my lack of understanding of ultimate realities and conceptual realities.

However, I later discovered that what people call ultimate realities are actually the perception of a self, specifically, the notion of an enduring self. What they refer to as conceptual realities essentially correspond to the mental formation aggregate (the "sankhara" in Buddhism). Many traditions advocate avoiding conceptual realities during meditation, which essentially means avoiding the mental formation aggregate. This is because the failure to accurately recognize the mental formation aggregate and the failure to eliminate the perception of a self contribute to the belief that the Four Elements and sensory organs are ultimate physical phenomena.

This misunderstanding is akin to people's ignorance of their own existence as the Five Aggregates and mistakenly believing they have a soul, or their lack of knowledge about the structure of a camera, leading them to believe there is a truly existing camera, or their lack of understanding of a car's construction, making them think there is a truly existing car.

If people could grasp this concept, they would realize how concealed and challenging it is to eliminate the perception of a self. It can persist covertly for thousands of years and remain unnoticed in prominent texts. The harmful effects of this misconception are difficult to overstate, as even the faintest hint of it can cause countless individuals to struggle for a lifetime without realizing the truth.