‘We usually define or describe ourselves in terms of our sankaras, in other words in terms of our habits. These are usually what are most recognizable about people — you know, ‘such-and-such, he’s into football; such-and-such, they’ve got this tendency to talk very loudly,’ etc. Things like that. We generally define people in terms of their leading habits or qualities — ‘such-and-such is an angry person; such-and-such is a very shy person’ — and we see these things as not really changing.

I want to use an analogy to try to illustrate this business about the sankaras, and it may or may not work for you, but I want to use the analogy of a football team. Let’s, just for argument’s sake, call this football team ‘Manchester United’ (a bit of local colour!)…

…So we talk in terms of a team, or, if you like, in terms of a ‘self’, that somehow seems to have a certain identity that persists through time. The sankaras are each of the individual players. Eleven players — so, just for now, there are eleven sankaras. You’ve probably got a lot more than that… but let’s say there’s eleven.

And we think that there is a ‘core’ to this — but really what is the core to this team? Is it Ryan Giggs? Or it is Roy Keane, the captain? Well… sometimes they don’t play. So, when they don’t play, where is the core of Manchester United? Where has it gone? We still talk in terms of the ‘team’ having this identity. Actually there is only a notional sense of identity; the identity comes from description. There is no identity there. We impose that on the experience of these eleven players, if you like.

Perhaps you could say, ‘Well, what is distinctive about Manchester United is the red shirts.’ But actually, sometimes they play away! They wear blue shirts; even white shirts. So where is Manchester United, when they’re wearing those shirts?

Perhaps it’s the manager? But managers change over time. Even if they stay for quite a long time, they move on. Perhaps it’s the fans? Well, the fans too grow old… die… there are new fans. All of the players that play for the team at the moment will one day no longer play. There will be eleven new players. But we will still talk about Manchester United.

So you can see there is this constant change going on, and it’s not an absolute change — it’s not that one day there is one set of eleven players and the next day there’s a different set of eleven. There is continuity. Players play for several years; a new player comes in; one player drops out; etc. So there is this sense of continuity, and that’s very real, that’s very present. But we need to avoid moving from there to think that because there is that continuity, there is some fixed unchanging Manchester-Unitedness. Okay?

The reason why I’m banging on about this a bit is that we need to understand this business about the sankaras changing over time, and continuity, if we are going to understand the Buddhist idea of karma and the idea of rebirth. We could say that if we did have a core, unchanging self, we couldn’t change, and from a Buddhist point of view we couldn’t gain Nirvana; we couldn’t gain Enlightenment. So actually it is a great boon that we are constantly changing.’ (from Free Buddhist Audio)

To follow on from yesterday’s analogy, in a very English way.

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