“Just as, with an assemblage of parts,
The word ‘chariot’ is used,
So, when the aggregates are present,
There’s the convention ‘a being.'”
In the teachings of the Buddha and his disciples, everything that pertains to “self” is conventionally constructed. By this, as the Buddha thoroughly explains on myriad occasions (e.g., see the entire Khandha Vagga — The Section on the Aggregates, comprising 1/5 of the Samyutta Nikaya, which itself contains 2,889 suttas or discourses spoken and affirmed by the Buddha and his disciples), anything termed “self” consists of countless component parts that for all intents and purposes seem to exist, at least in a practical sense. In Buddhist philosophy, therefore, the “self” is conveniently designated for the sake of conforming to standards of language in common use in everyday parlance.
“Imā kho, Citta, lokasamaññā lokaniruttiyo lokavohārā lokapaññattiyo, yāhi Tathāgato voharati aparāmasanti.”
“For these, Citta, are merely names, expressions, turns of speech, designations in common use in the world. But a Tathāgata [one who has fully realized the truth] makes use of them, but does not misapprehend them.”
Since the self is conventionally constructed, a convenient designator (in common use in the world), it has only a conventional existence for the sake of convenience. In the same sense that a chariot is conveniently said to be built of its component parts, the conventional self is likewise made up of five aggregates: form, feeling, perception, mental fabrications, and consciousness.
1. form – rūpa
2. feeling – vedanā
3. perception – saññā
4. mental fabrications – saṃkhārā
5. consciousness – viññāṇa
The aggregates are “heaps” of phenomena. They are mistaken as “self” because it is convenient to think of them as such, for the sake of navigating ordinary life in the most conventional manner. Yet at the level of deeper truth, there is no self to be found in or outside of them. We are amalgams of these aggregates, like a chariot built of many parts. Yet neither together nor alone do they constitute an ultimate self.
Like a chariot, the self is just a convenient designation for an assemblage of parts, a heap of phenomena.
Thus it can be said that the self is a convention, not an ultimate truth.
Any reference to “self” as ultimate truth thus deviates profoundly from the Buddha’s teachings on the non-existence of an eternal soul (nivāsī-atta).
Take the metaphor of the chariot. Even in a literal sense, the wheel, the axel, the rod, the various parts that hold the chariot together and so on, by themselves do not constitute the chariot. Even together, they amount to nothing eternal, above and beyond the parts that make the chariot a “chariot.” A chariot is simply a convenient designator (in other words, a word) for a heap of parts, just as a “being” is a convention of language. Seeing that “self” is merely a convention of language can be profoundly liberating, as the Buddha experienced himself upon his enlightenment and liberation from all suffering.