I Am No-Self
“I am everything I’ve learned and more.”
There’s a rather difficult idea at the center of Buddhism: no-self. It seems so counterintuitive. How can there be no self?
When the explanation is applied to a tree, which Thich Nhat Hanh uses as an analogy, it makes perfect sense. There is no essential tree, no singular thing that we can point to that makes a tree a tree. Rather, a tree is an aggregate of its parts: roots, trunk, limbs, leaves—even sunshine and clouds that go into nurturing it.
And, okay, sure I’m an aggregate of parts too from head to toes. But it doesn’t feel right, this idea of no-self. In fact, some deeply practiced meditators argue that we have to feel no-self, that it can’t be grasped completely intellectually.
We can give it a shot, though, by turning to another reliable fount of wisdom: a Disney movie.
Moana doesn’t seem like an obvious choice with its main character belting out in song and repeatedly saying, “I am Moana.” The movie complicates that notion of I, however, offering insight into no-self.
For we are not only aggregates of the various parts that currently make up our being. We are also an aggregate of our ancestors.
Some of that is pretty straightforward. When Moana’s father continuously stifles her strong intuitive urge to be with the sea, Moana’s mother eventually explains to her that “He was you,” telling Moana that her father when young also felt the call of the ocean but capsized, losing his best friend in the process. Moana’s Gramma also tells her that she’s stubborn like her father.
The film goes deeper than those connections to immediate family that feel obvious to us, which we learn via Moana’s Gramma, the one character in the movie who encourages Moana to figure out “who you are.”
Gramma holds the stories of the islanders’ ancestors, and she recognizes that the problems they are currently experiencing come from this lore and because “we have forgotten who we are.” To remind Moana, Gramma takes her to a secret cavern, telling her she will find the “answer to the question you keep asking yourself: Who are you meant to be?” Gramma understands that Moana is an aggregate of the many ancestors who predated her, not an independent entity unique in her desire to go out to sea but an expression of generations who did exactly that.
Moana learns that she embodies the mission of these ancestors to be wayfinders. She struggles, of course, because that essential self idea is so strongly embedded in us. When she feels lonely and says aloud, “I go alone,” a beautiful stingray made of pure light appears representing her Gramma. And when the spirit of her Gramma appears to her at her most desperate, Gramma assures her that “I can’t leave you. There is nowhere you could go that I won’t be with you.”
Moana indeed proclaims, “I am Moana,” but her Gramma instructs her to phrase it this way: “I am Moana of Motunui.” She is not a lone entity, a mere self, but a part of her island, the island a part of her, a part of her people, and the people a part of her.
Why is this important? When we are focused solely on the self—convinced that we are separate, that there is a definable self—then we are scared, alone, and defensive because we believe we are not a continuation. We must defend this essential self at all costs—all of our opinions, all of our comfortable ways that we’ve invented to keep us “safe,” and all of the “Very Important Stories,” as Pema Chodron calls them, that make up our version of reality.
We cause a lot of suffering.
We can choose instead to see ourselves as belonging, to “tell the stories of our elders in a never-ending chain,” for then, “We know the way.”