What follows is a review of the four foundations of mindfulness of bodies, feelings, mental states, and phenomena. Through closely attending to and analyzing bodies, feelings, mental states, and phenomena generally a Buddhist practitioner is able to see that all things are marked by impurity (in that there everything has elements that we do not care for or even actively dislike), suffering (in the sense that even pleasant experiences, let alone the unpleasant, are not able to provide unchanging or complete satisfaction), impermanence (exemplified by our constantly changing mental states), and no-self (the lack of an independent and unchanging self-nature). Śāntideva will examine each of these four foundations to see if any of them can be identified as a Self or as having a self-nature.

Śāntideva begins by observing that no part of the body in isolation is worthy of being identified with as the Self. The six consciousnesses of the five physical senses and the mental consciousness of thoughts and feelings, which are just fields of awareness of passing phenomena, are also disqualified as being the Self.

“The teeth, hair, or nails are not I, nor is the bone, nor am I the blood, neither the mucus nor the phlegm, nor the pus nor the synovial fluid. I am neither the marrow nor the sweat. I am neither the lymph nor the intestines. I am not the rectum, nor am I the excrement or the urine. I am neither the flesh nor the sinews. I am neither heat nor wind. I am neither the orifices nor, in any way, the six consciousnesses.” (IX.57-59)

 The argument now turns against the proponents of Sāṃkhya, one of the six schools of orthodox Vedic philosophy in India because they might argue that one of the six sense consciousnesses is indeed the Self or the evidence of a transcendent Self interacting with material nature. The Sāṃkhya are dualists who believe that reality can be divided between persons (S. puruṣa) who are bare consciousnesses and nature or material reality (S. prakṛti), composed of three threads or “qualities” (S. guṇa) of purity (S. sattva), passion (S. rajas), and darkness (S. tamas). According to the Sāṃkhya, the person or Self is consciousness which falsely identifies with material nature and its qualities and thereby becomes bound to samsara. Even the intellect and ego-consciousness are products of this interaction and are not actually the person or true Self, which is just consciousness. In order to attain liberation, the person must overcome the ignorance which causes false identification with the ego-consciousness and even the intellect. Freedom comes from isolation of the eternal pure consciousness which is the true Self from material nature and all its products. The theoretical underpinnings of the Yoga school of orthodox Vedic philosophy and practice are very similar to those of Sāṃkhya, though Yoga is more theistic in that its practices can include devotion to a deity (S. īśvara).

 Śāntideva observes that if a permanent Self were auditory consciousness, then sound would always be heard, but there is not always something to hear. If consciousness has no object it might as well be a block of wood. Now consciousness might be conscious of something else besides sound, but how can auditory consciousness also be visual consciousness? The assumption here is that for consciousness to be an unchanging independent Self it must also be constant in how it is experienced, and not something intermittent or with a changing object of awareness. (IX.60–63)

The Sāṃkhya try to argue that a single consciousness can have different objects, in the same way a person can be both a father and a son. Śāntideva points out that the analogy of a person being both a father to one person and a son to someone else depends on external relations, but the Sāṃkhya teach that their alleged primal nature has no such external relations, and its three alleged qualities of purity, passion, and darkness are supposed to be internal constituents. The bottom line is that a visual consciousness is not the same thing as a sound consciousness. (IX.63-64) Śāntideva rather sarcastically remarks:

  “If you say consciousness is like an actor taking on different roles, then it is like no simple unchanging thing I have ever heard of. What is the one unchanging thing that it is? If its simply the quality of being consciously aware, then one consciousness would be all consciousnesses, there would be no way to distinguish them. Even consciousness and unconsciousness would just be different modes of the same thing. If differences are false, then there can be no meaningful distinctions or even identifications.” (IX.65-67)

 In other words, it makes no sense to talk about consciousness apart from processes and discreet moments of awareness of particular sensory objects. Consciousness is a provisional phenomena that always arises on a different basis as distinct series of conscious moments with different objects. It is not a singular independent unchanging thing. In the above remarks, Śāntideva points out that even the Sāṃkhya admit that distinctions can be made between the consciousnesses of different people, therefore it is not a ubiquitous entity with no distinguishing characteristics. So consciousness is better thought of as more like a wave that rises and falls depending on the interactions of water, wind, shifting currents, and other factors than an inert lump of wax waiting for an impression.

Śāntideva then turns his attention to the view of the Self held by the Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika schools of orthodox Vedic philosophy that dealt with metaphysics, logic, and epistemology. Both of those schools believe the Self is a non-material, all-pervasive, independent, unchanging substance that can possesses consciousness, but is not itself consciousness. Oddly, the Nyāya also think that the Self, though all-pervasive, is only the size of a particle. Consciousness is also a material particle that the Self can possess to relate it to the world. Obviously, Śāntideva finds these ideas incoherent. He argues that a Self that is not conscious can no more be thought of as a Self than an inanimate insentient object such as cloth. If having consciousness is integral to the existence of a Self then it follows that when it stops being conscious of something it perishes. If the Self is in fact unchanged whether or not it is has consciousness, then why should it possess consciousness at all? Something which is unconscious and does not partake in any activity is really no different than space. (IX.68-69)

Before returning to the analysis of the body, Śāntideva anticipates objections to the assertion that a Self cannot be found.

 “If you argue that the connection of action and consequence is not possible without a Self, for ‘If the agent of the action has perished who experiences the consequence?’, we say: For both of us it is established that actions and consequences happen at different times and places. Now an unchanging self is not affected by changing contexts, so on this we are agreed. Can the same person act and receive the consequence in the same moment? Such an occurrence is never seen. It is taught that there is an agent and an experiencer of the consequence in terms of a unity of the continuum of consciousness.” (IX.70-72)

The conflict here is that the opponent is assuming that only a Self can maintain the continuity between cause and effect, but the contradiction is that an eternal, independent, unchanging, and singular Self would not be affected by change, and cause and effect is all about the process of changing circumstances and activities. What makes the connection is the continuity of the flowing stream of consciousness, not an unchanging Self.

The proposed Self, then, is not findable. Echoing chapter 18 of the Diamond Sūtra, wherein the Buddha says, “…past mind cannot be grasped, present mind cannot be grasped, and future mind cannot be grasped,” Śāntideva says, “The past or future mind is not ‘I’ since that does not exist. If the present mind is ‘I’ then, when it has ceased, the ‘I’ does not exist any more.” (IX.73)

In the Samyutta-nikaya (Connected Discourses) the Buddha compared the five aggregates that are mistaken for a Self (or as pertaining to or possessed of a Self) to things that are ephemeral or (in the case of the plantain trunk) not possessing a solid core to show that all of them are empty of a Self.

 “Form is like a lump of foam,

Feeling like a water bubble;

Perception is like a mirage,

Volitions like a plantain trunk,

And consciousness like an illusion,

So explained the Kinsman of the Sun.

“However one may ponder it

And carefully investigate it,

It appears hollow and void

When one views it carefully.”

(SN 22.95)

Likewise, Śāntideva says, “Just as the trunk of a banana tree is nothing when split into pieces, in the same way too, the ‘I’ is not a real entity when hunted out analytically.” (IX.74)

Another objection that Śāntideva anticipates is how a bodhisattva can cultivate compassion if there are no sentient beings to be compassionate towards because there is no Self or selves. He answers, “For anyone projected through the delusion which is embraced for the sake of what has to be done.” (IX.75) In other words, the bodhisattva deliberately maintains the conventional or provisional view that there are sentient beings to be saved in order to develop compassion and act on it. But the opponent might then object: “Whose is the task to be done, if there is no being?” If the bodhisattva does not exist, then who is doing anything? To which Śāntideva responds, “True, moreover the effort is made in delusion, but, in order to bring about an end to suffering, the delusion of what has to be done is not prevented. So the bodhisatva is also, for a time, provisionally asserting his or her own existence in order to develop themselves so that ultimately all delusion can be transcended. The Tiantai view, however, sees provisional existence as one part of the three truths that implicate each other, and not as a delusion ultimately negated when buddhahood is attained. The truth of provisional existence when completely understood is not in contradiction to the truth of emptiness but rather a different perspective on it. Those to be liberated and the bodhisattva who compassionately makes efforts to liberate them are empty of intrinsic existence precisely because their existence is provisionally established on the basis causes and conditions rather than intrisically or inherently. The deep understanding of one is therefore the deep understanding of the other, and of the Middle Way that does not get stuck on either emptiness or provisionality but recognizes that they mutually illuminate one another.

Whereas Śāntideva’s position is that temporarily indulging the delusion that he or she is a being who can cultivate themselves to relieve the sufferings of sentient beings is helpful in providing a compassionate focus for practice, he does not advocate indulging in the false view that there is a Self. “However, egotism, which is the cause of suffering, increases from the delusion that there is a Self, and, if this is the unavoidable result of that, it is better to meditate on no-Self.” (IX.77)

At this point, Śāntideva returns to the contemplation of the body as an abstraction and not an inherently existent thing or the basis for believing that there is a Self. There is no “body” because you can only point to parts. “Body” is only an abstraction based upon the parts in a particular configuration. Everything can be analyzed in this way, even atoms. When analyzed, bodies are just like dreams, so how can there be a woman or man existing as a simple unconditioned entity? Anything that depends on other factors or is composed of other things does not have a self-nature. The conclusion is that body or form is empty. (IX.78-87)

Feelings, the second of the four foundations of mindfulness, are also empty of self-nature. Śāntideva observes that feelings come and go. It doesn’t make sense to speak of a previous feeling as still existing if another feeling is being experienced. Analysis of such mistaken assumptions as that of a feeling remaining even when it is not felt is the nourishment of contemplative practice. (IX.88-92)

Since feelings arise from contact, Śāntiva goes on to address the view that ultimately things can be analyzed into partless unchanging minute particles and that it is these particles that contact one another and give rise to feeling. If the sense faculty and the sense object are ultimately indivisible particles, then they could not contact one another in part, because they have no parts. Nor could they contact each other by merging as one, because then they would become the same entity, so again you could not talk about one thing in contact with another. (IX.93-94) He asks, “How can we explain contact if things are are composed of unchanging indivisible particles?” (IX.95)

Furthermore, how can there be contact between a non-physical consciousness and a physical object? Or how could there be contact with a “body,” which has already been shown to be an abstraction and not an entity with its own self-nature. If it doesn’t make sense to talk about contact between two indivisible separate entities that inherently exist, how does it make sense to talk about the feelings that arise from contact as an indivisible entity or Self that inherently exists and not as something composite and relational? This contemplation is meant to undercut craving for feelings that cannot inherently exist but only arise depending upon the seeing and touching by a self which is like a dream or illusion. (IX.96-99)

Śāntideva also argues that we never experience feelings at the time they arise. Consciousness arises in response to something that precedes it. Such a pre-existing phenomena can be the object that the arising consciousness is aware of. Consciousness cannot arise as the awareness of something that is not yet there. Therefore, a feeling cannot be the object of the consciousness that is arising simultaneously with it in the present moment. A past feeling can be the object of awareness of a subsequent moment of consciousness as a memory, and a possible future feeling can be anticipated, but the feeling that arises in the present moment along with the present moment of conscious awareness is never directly felt. If an actual feeling (not just a memory or anticipation) is never experienced, it can be concluded that there is no inherently existing feeling and also no inherently existing Self that feeling can afflict. (IX.99-101)

Mental states or mind, the third of the four foundations of mindfulness, is the next to be revealed as empty. Śāntideva says:

“The mind is not positioned in the sense faculties, nor in form or the other aggregates, nor in the space in between. The mind is found neither internally nor externally, nor anywhere else either. What is not in the body nor elsewhere, neither intermingled nor separate anywhere, that is nothing. Therefore living beings are inherently liberated.” (IX.102-103)

Mind as a phenomena is a very difficult thing to locate and account for, so Śāntideva concludes that it is also empty of any kind of self-nature that can be isolated or grasped as a thing or entity. It is therefore not something that can be an object for attachment, and in this sense it can be said that living beings are inherently liberated, because there is not any actual thing that inherently exists which binds or can be bound. This perspective on the elusiveness of the mind is dramatized in the meeting between Bodhidharma (c. 5th-6th century CE) and his successor Dazu Huike (487-593):

Huike said to Bodhidharma, “My mind is anxious. Please pacify it”

Bodhidharma replied, “Bring me your mind, and I will pacify it.”

Huike said, “Although I’ve sought it, I cannot find it.”

“There,” Bodhidharma replied, “I have pacified your mind.”

(Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings by Andy Ferguson, p. 20)

This way of contemplating the nature of the mind also something that appears in a writing attributed to Nichiren called “On Attaining Buddhahood” wherein the writer explains the meaning of the characters that compose the daimoku or title of the Lotus Sūtra in Chinese which in Japanese are pronounced Myōhō-renge-kyō:

“What then does myō signify? It is simply the wondrous nature of our life from moment to moment, which the mind cannot comprehend or words express. When we look into our own mind at any moment, we perceive neither color nor form to verify that it exists. Yet we still cannot say it does not exist, for many differing thoughts continually occur. The mind cannot be considered either to exist or not to exist. Life is indeed an elusive reality that transcends both the words and concepts of existence and nonexistence. It is neither existence nor nonexistence, yet exhibits the qualities of both. It is the wondrous entity of the Middle Way that is the ultimate reality. Myō is the name given to the wondrous nature of life, and (S. dharma), to its manifestations. Renge, which means lotus flower, is used to symbolize the wonder of the Dharma. If we understand that our life at this moment is myō, then we will also understand that our life at other moments is the Wonderful Dharma. This realization is the wondrous kyō, or sutra.”

Śāntideva next explores the relationship between mind and phenomena, the fourth of the four foundations of mindfulness, in terms of which arises first or if they arise together.

 “If consciousness exists prior to what is cognized, on what basis does it come into existence? If you argue that consciousness arises simultaneously with the object perceived, on what basis does it come into existence? If it arises after the thing to be cognized, then from what does the consciousness arise? In this way, it is demonstrated that no phenomenon comes into existence.” (IX.104-105)

The problem is how causality is conceived. For something to cause or condition something else, it must be prior to that other thing, not simultaneous with it or appearing afterwards. On the other hand, if phenomena is only momentary, what exists in a previous moment is gone in the next, so how can it cause or condition what follows it? Śāntideva concludes that there is no temporal arrangement that can make sense of how consciousness and phenomena arise. Mind and phenomena, therefore, are both empty of inherent existence. The point of this is that taking a granular view that divides everything up into inherently existing parts, even if they are as minute as atoms or sub-atomic particles, and into fleeting moments of time that can be rigidly divided into past present, and future, cannot account for reality. All things that one might examine are seen to be products of dependent origination and empty of inherent existence.