The touchstone, instead, is a Buddhist idea that is among the most difficult for Westerners to accept: the concept of anatman, or ‘no-self’. Let’s be clear: Buddhists do not claim that people do not exist. When the Dalai Lama flies to a symposium in Geneva or London, he obtains a ticket with the name ‘Tenzin Gyatso’, and his body occupies a seat. However, for Buddhists there is no self in the deeper sense that no one exists as a singular, permanent structure distinct and isolated in any meaningful way from the rest of the world. This is entirely in line with an evolutionary and ecological approach to our origins and our embeddedness in natural processes.
Each of us arises in conjunction with others, dependent on and inseparable from those others. Trying to locate an inviolate particle of selfhood within anyone (or indeed, in any living thing) is not like finding a solid pit inside an apricot. It is more like peeling an onion: we are layers within layers, with nothing at the centre. Or, like an eddy in a river, each of us can be identified and pointed to, but nonetheless, there isn’t any persistent ‘us’: just a constantly moving pattern of flow, with everyone composed entirely of non-self stuff, all of it passing through. For Buddhists and ecologists alike, we are all created from spare parts scavenged from the same cosmic junk-heap, from which ‘our’ component atoms and molecules are on temporary loan, and to which they will eventually be recycled.