The Buddha is going to get you. The Buddha is the most dangerous man who ever lived. He dared to look at the way it is, the way of being human, and tell the truth about it without compromise. He has shown that the ego is a complete falsehood, a fabrication. The most precious thing, the ego—that people ready to fight and kill, deceive and even die for—is phony. It’s a fiction, just a story we tell ourselves and others.
And he even has shown in complete detail how it is done. The Mūla-pariyāya Sutta describes the root-structure of the reflexive consciousness of the ‘I’-making and ‘mine’-making process. Let’s start by looking at the Pali words in just two lines of the Sutta.
pathaviṃ pathavito sañjānāti;
pathaviṃ pathavito saññatvā pathaviṃ maññati
Next are the synonyms in English:
pathaviṃ – earth; pathavito – as earth; sañjānāti – recognizes; pathaviṃ – earth; pathavito – as earth; saññatvā – conception, idea, notion; pathaviṃ – earth; maññati – to think, to conceive, to imagine.
And the translation…
“Perceiving earth as earth, he conceives notions about earth…”
The word maññati is the key to the deep meaning of this Sutta. We translate it as conceive. According to the dictionary, to conceive can mean: become pregnant with, form or devise an idea in the mind, form a mental representation of; imagine, or become affected by something. All these meanings apply, one after another, to the process of ‘I’-making.
What the Buddha is describing here is a process that goes on in the mind of every unenlightened person. We take our immediate experience and conceive something in it; we conceive or add something to it that was not present in the original experience. And what do we add? ‘I’ and ‘mine’.
Our original experience becomes pregnant with the possibility of ‘I’ and ‘mine’; we devise a plan or idea in our mind, how to add ‘I’ and ‘mine’ to our immediate experience; we form a mental representation of our immediate experience, adding the concept of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ to it; we imagine ‘I’ and ‘mine’ where they do not originally exist; and finally, we become affected by our own imaginary creation, and think our illusory ‘I’ and ‘mine’ were there all along. We have fully deceived ourselves.
This conceiving occurs in six distinct stages described by the Buddha in the Mūla-pariyāya Sutta. The processes of ‘I’-making and ‘mine’-making are intertwined with immediate experience, beginning implicitly but becoming more and more explicit with each stage. The Buddha then repeats the same six stages with the other elements (water, air, etc.).
The process of ‘I’-making and ‘mine’-making that is the root-structure of our reflexive experience in unenlightened consciousness is illustrated as a pyramid, in which each stage becomes the support or foundation for the next. In actual experience, these six stages run concurrently, like layers of software.
This is how ‘I’ and ‘mine’ are made. Normally the process is completely unconscious and automatic. When we observe this process in ourself in real time, as it occurs, bringing awareness into it in present time, it changes. It cannot hold power over us as before.
We start to see how our ‘I’, ‘mine’ and ‘self’ do not have independent existence as we would like to think, but are conditioned by immediate experience, senses and sense objects. The ego is unnatural; it is made, manufactured in the factory of mental bad habits and misconceptions.
The ‘I’-making and ‘mine’-making machine cannot be stopped by an effort of will, just as squeezing a sponge works only as long as we apply pressure; as soon as we let go, it springs back into its original shape. Similarly, we may temporarily hold or compress a sponge into any shape; but as soon as we release it, it returns to its original form. Stopping ‘I’-making by an effort of will is similarly ineffective.
The practice of practical meditation is simply bringing awareness into the shadowy corners of the mind, seeing how it really operates. When we do this, the mind changes all by itself. Mindfulness and awareness is the medicine for the disease of ego-consciousness and attachment.
The above explanation is rather technical, but will be very useful if you decide to actually meditate on the root-sequence. So now let’s go through a practical example. Suppose I see a car on the street. Seeing the car is the immediate experience, the raw sense data, the simple animal sensation of seeing. As yet there is no meaning attached to the experience.
Now the next step is recognition: “Hey, that’s a classic 1933 Duesenberg!” I recognize that it’s a car, and what kind of car it is. This is just a simple identification of the object: connecting the car with its category, nomenclature and other information in the filing system of my mind.
But then, my imagination starts conceiving ‘I’ and ‘mine’. I project ‘I’ and ‘mine’ into the car. Now it’s more than just a car: it’s a car plus ‘I’ and ‘mine’. Suddenly there is something there that did not exist before: a relationship with the car beyond the simple act of seeing it. I have begun the process of acquisition: making the car mine. At this stage the process is quite implicit, subtle and difficult to observe. But don’t worry; that will change soon enough.
My projection starts as admiration or appreciation: “Oh, that’s a nice car—a beautiful car.” I have identified the experience of seeing the car as a pleasurable experience—one that I would like to repeat again and again whenever I desire. An object must be perceived as pleasurable and also existing into the future to work as a basis for the process of ‘I’-making. This is because we want the object to confer some sense of continuity of existence upon our fabricated ‘I’. Solid, lasting objects like machines, buildings, land and countries are ideal bases for the process of ego-fabrication.
Then, I start to see myself in the car. I am conceiving ‘I’ and ‘mine’ in the car. Now I have projected my concocted ‘I’ out into space and into the object. My point of view changes from my current actual location and situation to an imaginary one where ‘I’ have co-located with the object. I begin to dream of experiencing the world and life from that point of view.
Then I start to imagine myself driving the car, and see how the world would look from there. Now I am conceiving ‘I’ and ‘mine’ from the car. Essentially, I have identified with the object, become the object, and am now seeing it as my ‘self’. Is this nuts or what? Wait, it gets better.
Then I conceive, “This car is for me—this is my car.” I have made my acquisition of the car explicit, and I have made a vision of ‘I’ based on the car. I am in a dream world, a fantasy where the car is mine, beautiful women and rich men are falling at my feet, begging me for a ride. All this, and without even smoking anything!
Finally I walk away, now equipped with a new ego-identity based on the car, making up stories about ‘I’ and the car: “I’m going to get one of those cars. I will be a classic Duisenberg owner! Then I will enjoy driving around and being admired.”
You may not be ‘into’ classic cars, but it is certain that you are ‘into’ something—projecting your feeling of ‘self’ into some sense experience or object that you identify with so strongly that for all practical purposes it becomes your identity. Musicians, for example, frequently identify with their instruments with such force that when asked “Who are you?” they automatically reply, “I’m So-and-so, the pianist. Pleased to meet you.” People not identify with their possessions, but also with important places, times and relationships in their lives.
This is ‘I’-making and ‘mine’-making. You know this is true. You do it too. We all do. But only the Buddha observed it with such clarity that he could record the process in the Mūla-pariyāya Sutta and share it with others for use in self-observation and meditation.
Of course, as soon as we see ourselves doing this, we can’t identify so much with the process. So the Buddha’s path is not prohibition; he doesn’t say, “You must give up this ‘I’-making; stop this egotism!” His path is simply quiet, persistent self-observation, awareness and insight. Just like a single ray of light immediately dissipates the darkness, even a little direct awareness of the normally unconscious process of ‘I’-making and ‘my’-making changes it completely.
Self-observation starts in meditation. If we continue with this process of self-observation after mediation, during our ordinary activities in life, gradually the habit of ‘I’-making and ‘my’-making will stop completely, fade away exactly like the morning star in the light of dawn. This is the Buddha’s process of no-self, emptiness.
One day after watching your process of ‘I’-making for some time, you spontaneously come to the insight, “Hey, I don’t have to do this anymore.” Bang, you’re dead. No more ‘I’ and ‘mine’, no more dukkha. The Buddha got you!