The Buddha’s Triple Formula of Identification

David Cortesi


The Buddha always spoke against a wrong view of self using a triple formula “This is not mine, this is not my self, this is not what I am.” Not merely a rhetorical flourish, the formula concisely describes three distinct types of self-identification. 


When the Buddha preached against the stress caused by self-identification, he always used a triple phrase for wrong view:

This is mine; this is my self; this is what I am.

and the logical inverse for right view:

This is not me; this is not my self; this is not what I am.

He never seems to have said simply “this is me” or “I identify with this,” but—at least as reported by the monks who wrote their memories of his sermons—always used these triple identifications.


Until recently I supposed this was merely a rhetorical device to create emphasis. I thought it might even be a flourish introduced by the translator, giving three different English forms to a repeated phrase.


Neither idea is correct. The three clauses of this phrase use distinct words and syntax in Pali, so the variation in phrasing is in the original, not introduced by the translator. And each of the three clauses of the triple identification has its own meaning.


Examples


Nadi Sutta

For one example of this usage, look at Samyutta Nikaya XXII.93, called the “Nadi Sutta”:

Thus, monks, whatever form is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: all form is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment: 'This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.'

(This identical peroration occurs in several related suttas: SN XXII-86, SN XXII-100, SN XII-70.)


Discourse on Effacement


In Majjhima Nikaya 8, “The Discourse on Effacement,” the monk Cunda asks if “a monk who is only at the beginning of his [meditative] reflections” is able to abandon wrong views about the world and the self. The Buddha replies,


Cunda, ... if [the object] in which these views arise, in which they underlie and become active, is seen with right wisdom as it actually is, thus: 'This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self'—then the abandoning of these views, their discarding, takes place in him [who thus sees].


Here again is the triple formula for right view of the self. (But also note this amazing answer. The “object” in which a view arises and becomes active is, of course, the person, the monk who is entertaining the view. The Buddha says, don’t worry about the views that arise in the mind; only cease to identify with the mind that houses those views! When you can do that, the views the mind contains won’t matter.) 


Chachakka Sutta


In Majjhima Nikaya 148, the “Chachakka Sutta,” (or the “discourse on the six sextets”), the Buddha preaches against using any of the six sense-doors as a basis for a sense of self. These six senses are sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and intellect. 


Note that the Buddha chooses to include intellect as a sense organ, making it a peer of touch or smell. In Western thought, we assume that intellect, the ability to form rational ideas, is something especially sophisticated, of a different level than mere sensation. In the Buddha’s system, intellect is a sense faculty, like smell. It arises from contact with ideas, just as smell arises from contact with odors.


In customary Western tradition, one is allowed, even encouraged, to feel proudly, “I have composed these thoughts.” In the Buddha’s system, one is led to the more modest feeling “As a result of causation, these thoughts have arisen in my mind.”


In the Chachakka Sutta, the Buddha sets each of the six senses within a chain of causation, a chain that starts with six “external media”: forms, sounds, aromas, tastes, tactile sensations, and ideas. These phenomena impinge on six “internal media”—the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and intellect. When an external medium and the corresponding internal one meet, there arises a Contact; from Contact arises Feeling; from Feeling arises Consciousness; and from Conciousness arises Craving. 


Thus for each of six senses, there is an external medium, an internal medium, a contact, a feeling, a consciousness, and a craving. This creates a six-by-six matrix; or six, six-fold chains of causation from external stimuli to internal craving. In the Sutta, the Buddha spells out all thirty-six links, and takes pains to deny any source of self-hood in any one of them. 


For example, he says of the eye-sense:


This, monks, is the path of practice leading to self-identification.

One assumes about the eye that

'This is me, this is my self, this is what I am.'

One assumes about forms that

'This is me, this is my self, this is what I am.'

One assumes about consciousness at the eye that

'This is me, this is my self, this is what I am.'

One assumes about contact at the eye that

'This is me, this is my self, this is what I am.'

One assumes about feeling that

'This is me, this is my self, this is what I am.'

One assumes about craving that

'This is me, this is my self, this is what I am.'


This pattern is repeated for the six-step chains for the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body, and the intellect. In each case, the path to self-identification, with its stress, begins with saying 'This is me, this is my self, this is what I am.’


Dhatu-vibhanga Sutta


In Majjhima Nikaya 140, called the “Dhatu-vibhanga Sutta” or “Exposition of the Properties,” the Buddha analyzes and dismisses the self in a different way. Instead of parsing out the self as a set of faculties that arise from contact, he analyzes the physical body in its “six properties”:


These are the six properties: the earth property, the liquid property, the fire property, the wind property, the space property, the consciousness property. 


The classic Greek philosophers found the first four of these elements—earth, air, fire, water—sufficient to describe the physical world. To our modern minds, the Buddha’s addition of a Space property—the property of occupying a  volume, the property of containing other things—seems a natural addition, and we wonder why the Greeks didn’t notice it. (It is not so obvious to us that consciousness is an elemental property of physical stuff, and in fact, in this sutta, the Buddha doesn’t treat this sixth property the same as the other five.)


The Buddha exhorts us to refuse to find a self in each of the first five properties. For example, of the liquid property he says


The liquid property may be either internal or external. What is the internal liquid property? Anything internal, belonging to oneself, that's liquid, watery, & sustained: bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, oil, saliva, mucus, oil-of-the-joints, urine, or anything else internal, within oneself, that's liquid, watery, & sustained: this is called the internal liquid property. Now both the internal liquid property & the external liquid property are simply liquid property.  And that should be seen as it actually is present with right discernment: 'This is not mine, this is not me, this is not my self.' 


Buddhaghosa’s Commentary


For a casual reader it is easy to assume that the formula 'This is [not] me, this is [not] my self, this is [not] what I am’ is a sonorous repetition used to create a solemn poetic resonance. Indeed, it should have that effect when a sutta is chanted aloud. But that is not the purpose of the triple phrase.


My eyes were opened to this in an indirect way by a footnote in Bikkhu Bhodi’s translation of the Samyutta Nikaya.  The footnote refers to the following lines from SN 12.Vii.61, “Uninstructed” (p.595).


But, bhikkhus, as to that which is called ‘mind’ and ‘mentality’ and ‘consciousness’—the uninstructed worldling is unable to experience revulsion towards it and be liberated from it. For what reason? Because for a long time this has been held to by him, appropriated, and grasped thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self.’


In the footnote (number 155 on p.  770), Bikkhu Bhodi quotes from the Saratthappakasini, the commentary attributed to Buddhaghosa:


“This is mine” (etam mama): the grip of craving... “This I am” (eso ‘ham asmi): the grip of conceit... “This is my self” (eso me atta): the grip of views...


In other words, each clause of the triple formula relates to a different kind of identification—identification based in a different error in each case.  The following are my own expansions on these three kinds of errors.


‘This is mine’—the fallacy of ownership


This is mine describes identification based on the desire to possess. This is the basic form of craving, the most common way of creating stress. The desire to possess includes a need for permanence, a desire to set the owned thing outside of time so it will remain as good forever as it is now. For example, the person who says “this body is mine” is not just asserting possession of a body, but expressing a need to maintain it as it is.


A claim to own one’s body, or in fact a claim to “own” anything whatever (in a permanent way) has no philosophical support. Permanent possession is exactly what we cannot have, of our bodies or anything else. When we say “this thing is mine,” we set up for a disappointment when the thing wears out, breaks, or is stolen. In the meantime, we live with constant concern that the thing might be wearing out, breaking, or tempting a thief.


When I attempt to maintain permanent possession or control of my body, I suffer agonies as it wrinkles up, grays over, and starts to fail. If you say “This faculty of sight is mine,” what will you say when you  need bifocals, or discover a cataract or a detached retina? Anything we claim to own—a body, a house, a skill—immediately begins to mutate into something else, slipping from our grasp.


Ownership in law and fact


As a society we have elaborate rules under which people can “own” things, sell and trade them, pass them on to their heirs, and so forth. When we deny the possibility of ownership, are we denying the legal basis of our economy? But these rules are not really about ownership in the permanent sense. The customs, rules and laws of what we call “ownership” actually deal with a right to sole use. Because you paid for that automobile,  society concedes that you have the right to sole use and sole enjoyment of it. The law agrees that if someone deprives you of the ability to use what you call “your” car—for example, by stealing it—that person is in the wrong, a criminal, and you are right, deserving compensation.


As long as you and society hold by this mutual contract, you can enjoy sole use of the car you paid for, or the house, the shirt, the meditation cushion. But notice how fragile this is. It depends on your society’s agreement. If your society decides to abrogate that contract, you won’t “own” the house or the cushion any longer.


Do you think that doesn’t happen? Then you weren’t watching the TV news during the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories recently. One of the most striking images, shown over and over again, was the moment when an Israeli tank, coming down a narrow street in a Palestinian town, ran over the nose of a little compact car. The car, squashed under the tank tread, bounced around in the wake of the tank like a kicked beer can. Up until that moment there was surely a person who thought he “owned” that car. Then he didn’t own it—or he did, but it wasn’t a car any more.  The same goes for the houses and other possessions that were destroyed in Palestine, or in Afghanistan, or any other war zone. People thought they owned them, and then they didn’t.


Even when society holds up its end of the ownership deal, your ownership of any possession can be cancelled without notice by accidents, fires, tornadoes, earthquakes and floods, or by other ill fortune like losing your job or having your short-sales called in.


In some cases, there may be insurance or compensation for the lost property. But it is literally impossible to replace what has been destroyed. The thing that you “owned” and lost to disaster is irretrievably gone. You may get a substitute, but the substitute is a different thing—maybe a better thing, but not the same thing.


What we call “ownership” is a legal device that cannot preserve or maintain anything. So in fact and in logic, there is no ownership. There is only termporary tenancy, transient and conditional. To act as if this were not so is to set up for pain. The first clause of the triple formula, This is not mine, is meant to remind us that as soon as we assert ownership of anything, including our very skin, we step onto a path of agony.


‘This I am’—the fallacy of conceit


This I am describes the futility of using your body, or your possessions, or anything else, as a basis for measuring your value or self-worth.

In normal speech, conceit is “excessive appreciation of one's own worth or virtue.”  But Bikkhu Bodhi comments there are “three modes of conceit: the conceit ‘I am better’ ... the conceit ‘I am equal’ ... and the conceit ‘I am worse’” In other words, it is conceit to rate yourself at any position, positive or negative, on any scale. When you rank yourself on any scale, based on any quality, you commit the fallacy of conceit.


Impermanent qualities


Why is it a mistake to evaluate yourself on a scale? The first reason is the same one that makes ownership a fallacy: nothing remains the same. Whatever quality you use as a basis for your rating—your hair, perhaps, or your reaction time, or your wealth, or your poverty—every quality is impermanent and constantly changing. We’ve already seen how you can’t depend on preserving that quality as a possession. Equally you can’t depend on it to remain true as a basis for a comparitive rating.


Take an example. Imagine you run in a race. You place somewhere, perhaps first, or second, or 27th, or even last. Can you use the result of that race as a basis for self-evaluation? Is it valid to say “This I am: the fastest”? Or “This I am: the 27th fastest”? Of course it is not valid, because the outcome of a race is determined by incalculably many contingent causes—the weather, the particular selection of racers who turned up that day, the person who stumbled in the third turn, how much sleep you had last night, and what the person who finished just behind you had for breakfast—and you can’t suppose that any of those contingent causes will be the same in the next race. Indeed, if the race was run again immediately, the outcome would likely be different.


Whether the event is an athletic competition, or a beauty pageant, or a scholastic exam, you can never say “This I am: this result.” all you can ever say about the result is that “This I was at that moment, in that contest, given the conditions and the other people there.” You might use that result as a guide in preparing for another contest of the same kind, but you can’t validly use it to rank yourself on an absolute scale.


Statistics don’t help


In everyday life people try to compensate for the unreliability of ratings by using statistics, like baseball batting averages. As a baseball fan you can be pleased that a favorite player is batting over .300. But if you talk to the athletes, you find that they pay much less regard to statistics than fans do. Why? Because an athlete knows from bitter experience that “The stats don’t swing the bat, I do.” By that, the athlete means that what you have done in the past doesn’t matter; the only thing that ever matters is what you do next. In any sport you are only as good as your next play. The number of pitches you hit (or missed) yesterday has nothing at all to do with whether you can hit the next pitch. And so many unpredictable causes feed into the next play—chief among them your body and your mind, both of which change and age from second to second—that nothing is certain. Competitive athletes know that skill can never be proven once and for all; it can only be demonstrated, over and over. And as soon as one demonstration is finished, the question “does that skill exist still?” remains open. It’s a question that can never have any answer but “let’s try it again and see.”


What is true in athletics is true of every other kind of comparative scale on which you might be tempted to rank yourself. Every possible feature, trait, skill or  possession on which you would base your value is a dynamic thing that can only be discovered in the instant of its application. Suppose that you purchase a fine new home theater system with 5.1 channel sound and a plasma TV. When you demonstrate the system to your friends, you might be tempted to a feeling of “This I am: owner of the finest home theater.” But if you do this, you make yourself vulnerable to great stress: the stress of discovering that one friend has a newer system with more features and a lower price; or the stress of finding out that that another friend considers you a bit of a fool for spending so much on a TV when there’s not all that much worth watching. 


During those pleasant times when you could rate yourself as “better” or “equal,” it might be uncomfortable to hear of the futility of conceit. But it is a hope and comfort in the times when you are tempted to rate yourself as “worse.” Happily, it is also futile to rank yourself on a scale of pitifulness: your disasters and failures are just as transient as  your successes.


Society’s ratings


So much of our society is organized around giving people ratings—trophies, grades, salaries, celebrity and fame—does our denial of ratings mean there is no way to compare people? There truly isn’t, but as a society we engage in a shared pretence that prior performances are a trustworthy guide to future performances. So we reward people with money, prizes and fame for what they have done well, in order to encourage them to do it some more. But they still have to perform, and when they can no longer perform, the rewards dry up quickly. There is a time-lag in society’s rankings, but they are not permanent.


Egotism


The largest fallacy in self-ranking is the temptation to take success or failure in one area as a sign of one’s general value; that is, to take something that might temporarily be true—like “This I am: the best-dressed person at the party,” or “This I am: one who scored 28 points in a basketball game”—and to extend that into a general glow, “This I am: a desirable, important person.”  Or, on the other hand, to extend “This I am: the worst-dressed person in the room” into “this I am: permanently undesirable.” 


Celebrities often are acutely aware of this fallacy. They know that their success is based on the knife-edge of continued demonstration of a particular skill, and when they are praised or admired as if that skill meant they were wonderful people in general, they are embarrassed. Almost every person who becomes a celebrity will say that celebrity is a strange state because the public adulates them for reasons that have nothing to do with their own actual qualities.


‘This is my self’—the fallacy of causes and views


In the Pali phrase translated as this is my self— eso me atta—the key word, atta, is more weighty than the English self.  It can be translated as soul. Atta is that abstract, eternal, spiritual essence that many people like to believe they have inside them, which will outlast their bodies. And it is the exact thing that the Buddha said, over and over, does not exist. It’s one of the three fundamental characteristics of all existence: anatta, non-soul-ness.


So what tempts us, even after we have absorbed the initial teaching that we, like all things, are anatta, non-souled, to say yet again, “this is my essential self”?

Opinions, ideas, roles, and causes tempt us to this fallacy. “This is my self: an American.” Or, “This is my self: a nurse ... a fireman ... a public servant caring for the community.” Or, “This is my self: one who cares about the environment.”

There is nothing wrong with acting like an American, a public servant, or an environmentalist, that is, nothing wrong with acting in ways that are patriotic or altruistic. In fact, if we act in these ways out of compassion (or even out of the sheer joy of doing them well) we are doing good for ourselves and others.


Impossible Identity


The danger lies in putting on an identity as that kind of person and trying to take comfort from being that kind of person. There is that desire for permanence cropping up again, in a more subtle form this time. For the same essential reason that a baseball player can never really be “a .300 hitter”—because there’s no way to hit one-third of a baseball; you either hit all of the next pitch, or you miss all of it—you can never be “an environmentalist.” You may do particular, environmentally-good acts, but in between them you do other acts that aren’t relevant to the environment. In any moment of time, you might be acting in an environmental way, or a patriotic way, but when that action is finished, you go on to act in some other way. Are you an environmentalist, or a vegan, or a Republican, when brushing your teeth? Is there a patriotic way to wash the dishes? Is there a way to shop for groceries as a nurse? Of course not; so during those times, it is silly to say “This I am: a patriot... a nurse.”


The fallacy of "this is my self" is the fallacy in believing that we can have a nature that rises above our instantaneous, momentary intentions and actions. We can never be any kind of person, good or evil. We can only behave, one action at a time.


In the instant of an intentional act you can know “this is an action of that kind.” Well, it was an action of that kind—but now, what about the next action?


Views about ourselves


Although it is logically impossible to be a certain kind of person, there is no great danger that relying on the emotional comfort of being a certain kind of person will cause great stress. The reason is that (as psychologists have shown) we humans are amazingly consistent about paying attention to our successes while ignoring and minimizing our failures. Without concious intent, we take pride in the moments when we act like our best self-image, and we really don’t notice the moments of action when we fall short of our own ideals. If we lacked this quite normal tunnel-vision of ourselves, we would have more reason to dread having views, opinions on how we should behave.


Views about others


The real danger, the genuine pain that arises from having views, is when we extend them to other people’s behavior. If you cannot succeed in defining yourself as a certain kind of person, how much less is it possible to define another person? But in this lies the greatest danger of having views.


It is simply true that we don’t control other people. We can barely exert a little influence on the actions of an intimate few, none at all over the behavior of most. And we have zero control over the opinions and beliefs of anyone at all. So: when we think that other people ought to believe, think, or act in a certain way, and they do not, we suffer in two severe ways.


First, we feel the stress of frustration. We have an image of how the world ought to be, and it includes other people behaving in this certain way, but they won’t. When we are children, we express this with the word “spozed.” If you hang around children, before long you’ll see someone in a red-faced, tear-streaked rage because someone else didn’t do like they were “spozed.” Perhaps you can remember how deeply you were offended when people didn’t do what they were “spozed” to do? This is the pain of having a view about other people’s behavior, pure and unadulterated.


As adults we don’t go into an emotional meltdown when somebody acts contrary to our image of proper conduct, but don’t tell me the rage, the frustration, the disappointment, isn’t there. Oddly enough, we are most vulnerable to this with people we love. Most parents of an adult child know the feeling of watching that child choose the “wrong” friends, or career path, or lover. Most people have watched a friend or relative make “wrong” choices that destroy them. 


Contradiction as threat


But there’s a worse kind of stress that comes from having views about other people. When people misbehave (according to our standards), there is not only frustration; there is fear. Because when someone acts contrary to your view of right behavior, and gets away with it, that is implicitly a criticism and a denial of your belief. And criticism of a belief is a threat. And a threat to a belief must be dealt with; must be expunged—sometimes, by violence if necessary.


For a small example, suppose that you take pride in being the kind of person who respects traffic laws and drives carefully. Now, imagine you see another person breaking the laws, running a red light or driving aggressively on the freeway. How do you feel?


It is hard not to feel angry, and here’s why: because that outlaw, by his behavior, is denying the value of your identity, or part of it. His running a red light or speeding suggests that, not only are you are not admirable for following the rules, but indeed you are something of a fool for doing so. 


This is a small threat to your emotional stability, easily healed by telling the story to someone else and sharing a head-shake and tsk-tsk over the bad drivers these days. But when people adopt a religious creed as a deep personal view, and then extend that views to other people, real trouble starts. If you are a devout Something-ist, and you have convinced yourself that Something-ism is the path that God wants everyone to follow—indeed, that to not be a Something-ist is to be on a path to eternal damnation—then the very existence of people who ignore Something-ism is a vital threat, a clear and present danger to society. That non-something-ites are not only walking around free but apparently prospering and happy is an insult, a constant critique of and challenge to the value of your Something-ism. Worse, their blithe disdain for Something-ism threatens to mislead yet more people, make it harder to persuade them of Something-ism’s value, and thus threatening the eternal salvation of a cascading pyramid of souls.


When these interlocking feelings of threat, frustration and anger are encouraged and fostered, any kind of action to erase the threat to Something-ism can seem justified.


The Buddha used very strong words about views:


This is called a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. 

— Majjhima Nikaya 2 and 72


The deep anger that can come from views about other people’s behavior is probably the reason for this seriousness.


Summary


The triple formula “This is mine, this I am, this is myself” was meant to encapsulate three different ways of making oneself unhappy through identification:



Each is a different way of destroying tranquility; each needs to be considered  separately and abandoned.f