How to Meditate to Discover Selflessness for Yourself.

Through this meditation we will gain a certainty that isn’t just a borrowed one; it will be a certainty that we don’t just have because of what some great authority has said or something found in a book. Through doing this meditation ourselves, investigating our own experience, we don’t need to rely on anything further. It is something one sees for oneself like a child who might have been fearful that there was a monster under their bed. Even though their parents had told them there was no monster, it was not until they summoned the courage to investigate under the bed themselves that they knew for sure there was no monster and there never had been.

Once something is known with that kind of direct experiential certainty, it cannot be forgotten; whereas the confidence gained merely on the basis of the words of another is not sufficient and will not last.

These were words of Lama Jampa teaching The Wheel of Analytic Meditation by the nineteenth century Tibetan master Mipham Rinpoche. The Lama taught this text to a group of fortunate students in Harrogate recently. He went through Mipham’s text in fine detail, explaining exactly how to do this meditation. Then in a second session, he went through the second part of the text, which explains the significance of the meditation in terms of how it enables the practitioner to make authentic progress along the Path of the Buddha.

Here in this blog, we will just reflect on one aspect of the meditation method: how it is used to gain experiential certainty of the meaning of selflessness.

The meditation method begins and ends with a look into the nature of one’s disturbing emotions, especially desire and hatred. This is done through the prism of an easily accepted, non-radical framework known as the five aggregates ( skandhas in Sanskrit). Lama Jampa said the five aggregates are a slightly more precise way the Buddha used to categorise phenomena than just to talk in terms of  body and mind. So, this categorisation is to be taken as self-evident and not at all radical, unlike the true objective of this meditation. The aggregates merely provide a basis, a framework, for deeper investigation. The Lama described them as follows.

1. Form – whatever has physical extension in space such as the body and also mentally created forms

2. Sensations – refers to the pleasure, displeasure or indifference one has upon appearance of a form

3. Perception – is the noticing and categorisation of the sensation

4. Mental formations – are the mental factors that arise in the wake of perception and help to shape the completed apprehension.

While it is not necessary to know the details here, it may be worth mentioning that Buddhist psychology breaks these down into numerous mental factors, including the core disturbing emotions and their offshoots and also various virtuous and positive emotions.

5. Consciousness – which is where the apprehension of the object is completed.

The way this meditation is able to deliver truly experiential understanding is that it asks the meditator to take as their object of meditation examples of their own experiences of a disturbing emotion such as desire (and the Lama made it quite clear that he was not talking about desire for things like tasty pastries but desire to possess another person). Focussing on the object of desire they have chosen for a particular meditation session, the meditator proceeds to examine qualities, through the prism of each of the five aggregates, taken one at a time.

The qualities the meditator is instructed to look for are those which the Buddha has categorically said cannot be found; ones that lend a seeming substantiality to one’s desire, hatred, jealousy, ignorance and pride. So in failing to find them in themselves or others the meditator will succeed in bursting the illusory bubble of their desire, hatred etc. Having seen through the illusory nature of their disturbing emotions; having seen them as their own projections, they will be more able to open to people and beings who had previously been given a reality in their mind.

The illusory qualities in question were stated by Buddha as “four marks” of phenomena:

  1. All phenomena are conditioned; there is nothing or no-one that has a pure singularity
  2. All conditioned phenomena are impermanent; there is nothing or no-one that endures
  3. All phenomena are suffering; there is nothing inherently blissful
  4. All phenomena are devoid of self; there is nothing or no-one which can be found to have the qualities of a self (i.e. having an enduring singularity with autonomy with respect to replacing suffering with bliss).

Lama Jampa clarified each of these in turn. Firstly, in our meditation, we are to ask ourselves if the one who we are making the object of our desire has any singularity about themselves? Such a singularity would persist across all different and changing circumstances. There would be a pure, unchanging essence. However, is there not a complexity about them that we are missing because of the limitations of how we are seeing them? Secondly, whatever we imagine that singular essence to be, do we think it could endure indefinitely exactly as it is now?

The third and fourth mark need more explanation. The meditator should ask themself whether the person focussed upon is free of each of the three modes of suffering: “the suffering of suffering” which is obvious suffering that is likely to occur for all of us; the “suffering of change” which is that which starts as happiness only to turn into suffering. Then thirdly, “the suffering of conditionality” which is the suffering that inevitably follows from clinging onto an identity for oneself when no identity can ever really be valid or fixed because of the conditional and ever changing nature of reality. This, the Lama explained, is how we can understand the phrase “nothing inherently blissful”. There is no need to deny there can be happiness but for how long can it endure? .

The ultimate of the four marks is the most radical statement under interrogation within this meditation. Here are words of the Lama on this:

We have been attributing  the qualities of purity, permanence and blissfulness, but most of all the quality of self, a solid definition that makes them distinct; then saying ‘this person is inherently good and I desire them’ etc.

But, is there such a thing? If there is, it will be in the skandhas since the skandhas – physicality, sensations, perception, mental factors and consciousness – represent the totality of what experience is. There is nothing outside of that, from moment to moment, that constitutes experience, for ourselves and for others.

Is there an unchanging him, her or me? No, I have never found any such enduring singularity; only a kaleidoscope, a multiplicity of selves which is no self at all. Furthermore, if there is suffering, there can be no self, because the principle of self is autonomy. The autonomous self as controller would not allow suffering.

The Lama said that the meditator should:

Take another person and examine again, jumbling the order around to make sure it is real. Do this for yourself and for others. See for yourself, working with your own feelings and responses. You aren’t trying to make it fit into the ‘textbook explanation, You are trying to allow this recognition to come about for yourself.

Having gained genuine acknowledgement of the veracity of the four marks, the meditator finds him or herself with a fresh calmness and clarity with respect to how they npw see the world. This is because the meditation, as well as providing an understanding of selflessness, simultaneously will have subdued the obscuring power of the disturbing emotions. Furthermore, the meditator will now have begun to see others with a freshly compassionate eye, one cleared of the obscuring effects of their own projections of desire, hatred and so on.   

Please note that posts in this blog are not intended to represent full accounts of teachings given by the Lama. They focus on particular aspects of teachings that the authors think may be of interest to people coming new to the Dharma, and other fellow students. They represent the understanding of the authors who bear responsibility for the content. Please address any comments to