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a conversation with susan about Buddhism.

October 17, 2014

Susan Qualls is a holistic fitness/spiritual trainer here in Boise. Today we had an interesting and challenging discussion on certain Buddhist topics via email. I asked Susan about the Buddhist version of reality, the nature of the self, and what gets reincarnated.

First though, Susan’s explanation of the Buddhist version of the word “emptiness.”

A lot of the confusion about Buddhism is a result of our western way of thinking as well as the language barrier. Translating from an Asian language to English is not always efficient. The word that is translated as emptiness is shunyata.
Say you have a glass of water and you drink it all. Now you have an empty glass right? Not really because now it’s full of air. Glass is made of sand so you could say it’s also full of sand. Also, a person had some part in making that glass so you could say the glass is full of that person. In other words, it couldn’t have come into existance without that person. And that person wouldn’t have come into existance without his/her parents and grandparents and on and on. So your glass is “full” of all those people. As well as the machinery that made the glass and the people who made the machines. Those people wouldn’t exist without water, food, and sunlight. In fact, the food they eat wouldn’t exist without all those things as well. You could go on forever with this finally realizing that that one glass you drink water from could not have come into existance without everything else that exists. This is called interdependant coexisting. Everything depends on everything else to exist and is made of everything else. So what is that glass (and everything) empty of? We are empty of an independantly existing self. That is what is meant by emptiness. So when Buddhism says everything is an illusion it means the illusion is the false perception we have that everything is seperate from everything else. It’s not that things don’t exist. They just don’t exist in the way we think they do. When we look at ourselves and the things around us it appears that they are seperate from us when actually everything is connected to everything.
Karma and rebirth:
Buddhism and rebirth. I think it’s more a matter of sematics than anything else. Buddhist believe our stream of consciousness (what some might call a soul) is reborn along with our karma. Karma is your actions and the results of those actions so if I’m a terrible person who hurts a lot of beings in this life, my next life will be hard. If I try to help others and am caring and compassionate I’ll have a good rebirth. This is not because some outside force (like a god) is rewarding or punishing me but because that’s where my stream of consciousness will naturally be attracted.
If we are empty of an independently existing self, what gets reincarnated? How is our individual stream of consciousness different from an independently existing self?

How can you have what you refer to as “my stream of consciousness” and not have an independently existing self?

The stream of consciousness that gets reincarnated is no longer yours once you die, correct? If I am remembering this accurately, some Buddhist writings do refer to the self, but that the self is impermanent. What you call “you” is impermanent, and dies with you. Right?
And that stream of consciousness in the next life isn’t you anymore, it is going to be someone else, born after you die. Someone with a different name, personality etc.
So if there is no permanent “me,” it wasn’t me who generated negative karma in a past life. It was someone else with a different name, personality, etc. Why should I bear the weight of negative karma caused by the wrong actions of someone who died before I was born?
I don’t see how it is possible to have no independent self, a self that is impermanent, and have a stream of consciousness (which seems like a “self”) that gets reincarnated.


Hi Tom,
Thank you for such insightful questions! One of the things that attracted me to Buddhism was how intellectually challenging it is. Answering these questions helps me to clarify my own thoughts so, again, thank you.
This question about no-self and rebirth is one that I asked and had trouble with when I first started studying Buddhism so I’ve put a lot of thought, study and meditation into it. I’m certainly no expert (just a practitioner) but hopefully I can explain this difficult concept in a way that is understandable.
Buddhism talks about two kinds of reality. Relative reality and Ultimate reality. Relative reality is the way things appear. The illusion Buddhism is famous for talking about. The Buddha talked about five aspects of our “self” that we think is us in this Relative reality.
First is the physical body. I look at myself in the mirror and say “Yes, that’s me.” I’m a woman or a man. I’m a certain age and come from a certain ethic background. But really I’m not any of those things. That just happens to be the body I’m wearing. It’s a convenience that makes it possible to interact with others in this Relative reality. Also it is not permanent. One day this body will die and change into fertilizer and food for other beings. So that is not me.
Next is our emotions. We identify closely with them. We say “I’m angry” or “I’m sad”. But our emotions are influenced by so many things. What we eat and drink. Whether we got enough sleep last night. What time of the month or what time of our life it is. Our emotions are constantly shifting and changing. I can honestly say that many things that made me angry or anxious several years ago have no impact on me now. So our emotions are constantly changing and many times make no sense. So that isn’t me either.
Then there’s our thoughts. It’s the same thing. Our thoughts are often determined by our emotions and our body. When you begin to meditate it becomes very clear just how crazy our thoughts are. They jump randomly from one subject to the next and often make no sense at all. We spend a lot of time worrying about what may happen or worrying about what happened in the past. And an equal amount of time just making things up. So my thoughts are random, impermanant and not me.
Sensory perceptions is the next. Because we experience the world through our senses we identify closely with them. We in the West especially think that what we see, smell, feel, taste and hear is reality and everything else is unreal or nonsense. But our senses change as we age. They are heightened or dulled by whatever food or substances we put in our bodies. They are changing and so they are not me.
Finally is our consciousness. This is a combination of all the first four as well as our experiences. Our experiences have shaped our personality. Buddhism sometimes calls this our ego. My ego is a culmination of everything I’ve experienced in this lifetime. However it is influenced to some degree by past lifetimes as well. It determines how I react to things. It forms opinions about things. It in effect thinks it’s me. It is Susan. It says “I’m a mother and grandmother. I’m a Buddhist. I’m a whatever.” But I haven’t always been a grandmother or a mother. I haven’t always been Buddhist. It is always changing and so it isn’t me either.
So that is our stream of consciousness. That is the “self” the Buddha said is an illusion. That personality or ego that thinks it’s me. As it moves to a new body memories are lost and new ones form so the personality changes. I’m in a different body. Maybe I am a different gender or come from a different culture in my new life but that old ego is still there and still influences me to some degree.
When the Buddha became enlightened (there have been many enlightened beings in our world by the way) he broke through the illusions of this Relative reality. He saw that these five things were constantly changing and easily influenced and so he understood that these things were not “him”. Not his true nature. That in fact is the whole point of Buddhist practice. To break through the illusions of Relative reality and experience Ultimate reality. Our true nature. Often called Buddhanature. Because the Buddha fully realized this he is no longer wandering from one body to the next. He, and other enlightened beings, are no longer reborn. Different traditions have different ideas about what happens then. Some believe you join with “all that is” because that is your true nature. Some believe you still exist as an individual being in some way. But all agree it is something that has to be experienced. It can’t really be explained. And, thank goodness, all agree that it is a wonderful thing.
I hope this helped. Let me know if it makes any sense.
Stay well Tom.
I understood almost everything until the last two paragraphs (although I have a question or two about those). Maybe I am understanding those too?
Let’s focus on what you wrote in the last two paragraphs.
My understanding of what you wrote in the last two paragraphs:
The stream of consciousness believes it is a self, but it is different from a self. The “self” or “ego” is an illusion, but the stream of consciousness is real, (ultimate reality) or else it would not be reincarnated. It has to be different from the self it thinks it is. The stream of consciousness is real, but each incarnation, it takes on the notion that it is a self, which it is not.
So.. leading to the last paragraph.. our Buddha nature is..

A stream of consciousness which migrates from body to body, from birth to death to rebirth, that thinks it is an individual self with a name, gender and so forth, but it isn’t. It is simply consciousness without permanent identity, that takes on different identities as it takes on different incarnations, and carries with it the weight of karma from past lives, bringing that weight of karma into future lives until enlightenment is reached.

Almost. The stream of consciousness is the “self”. It is that ego that thinks it is real.
Our “True Self” is something else. It is what we are attempting to uncover when we meditate. As we meditate we begin to recognize all the layers of false self that seem so real. This stream of consciousness moves from one body to the next until we finally realize our true nature. Then the stream of consciousness falls away and our true nature is able to appear. It’s like a diamond that is buried in a pile of muck. The diamond is still there but you can’t see it until all the muck is cleared away.
So our Buddha Nature is the diamond and the Stream of Consciousness is the muck.
You’ve described the stream of consciousness as an illusion.Illusion (from the dictionary on my computer) “A thing that is or is likely to be wrongly perceived or interpreted by the senses.”
So this stream of consciousness, this ego, this false self, is an illusion. Something we wrongly interpret. If it is something we wrongly interpret, it is still a thing. It is this illusion that gets reincarnated and carries karmic weight with it?It seems the illusion has to be something that exists. Something has to get reincarnated. How can an illusion get reincarnated?

The idea of our “self” being an illusion is twofold. In Relative reality we believe we exist separately from everything else. This is untrue because in  fact we depend on everything else to exist in this reality. Food, water, air, rain, sunlight, etc.
In the Ultimate reality it is also an illusion. But the illusion is caused by our confusion in Relative Reality. We identify so strongly with this reality we have forgotten our true nature. The illusion is not the stream of consciousness itself but our misperception of it as being real. It is an emanation of our true self. Our Buddhanature. It’s who we think we are.
In fact it is almost (not quite but almost) proof of our true Buddhanature. Because it moves from one body to the next as this emanation or projection cycling continually from birth to death to birth again. When we wake up (become enlightened) to our true nature this false nature falls away and that endless cycling stops.
The illusion is caused by our confusion and misunderstanding of what we truely are.
It’s kind of like those folks who believe they are Jesus or some other historical figure. We think we’re one thing when in fact we’re something else. But as we move from body to body we continue to believe we are that false thing.
Hmm.. I still don’t fully understand all this, but thanks very much for trying! I appreciate it. I guess it’s alright for me to get part of it for now. My head is spinning a bit though, and I need to think of something else for awhile before I go back and ponder this.
Big thanks to Susan for making a valiant effort to explain the concepts of self and no self, illusion and reality.
But.. this has gotten too complex for me. One of the main things taught to Buddhists is the importance of living in the moment and being mindful of it.  I wrestled with what Susan wrote most of the day. I could not concentrate on what I was doing.
Fact is, I don’t entirely get all this. I had, last year, decided not to get back into Buddhism. Perhaps that was the right choice. All that you’ve read in this entry..  it might be true, maybe. We might have a Buddha nature, but maybe not. 
I think that’s enough Buddhism for now. My head feels unpleasant, my mind strained.
Time to watch some TV.
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