A Buddhist Thought Experiment

Kenneth Leong
4 min readOct 4, 2020

One key teaching of Buddhism is that there is no independent existence. This is called the doctrine of Anatta (no-self). How can you discover that you have no self? Let’s do a thought experiment. Consider the internal organs of your body. Your brain and your heart are both parts of yourself, right? Neither the brain nor the heart can live alone. They cannot exclude each other, and one cannot claim superiority over the other. It seems fair to say that something is part of yourself if you cannot survive without it. Now, expand the boundary of yourself. Can you still exist if all the bees are gone? The extinction of the bees would mean that a major pollinator would be gone. This has ominous consequences on the food chain. Can we survive that? Now, repeat the question with other natural objects. Can you still exist if all the fish are gone? Can you still exist when all the trees are gone? When clean air is gone? When the rivers and streams are gone? When the sun is gone? Certainly not! My existence depends on all these things. We are an ecosystem. The boundary of yourself can be expanded indefinitely because even distant objects such as the sun, the moon, and the stars are vital for your existence.

Now, do the experiment in the other direction. Instead of expanding the boundary of ourselves outward to the stars, focus your attention on what is happening on a microscopic level. Modern medical research has drawn our attention to the importance of our microbiome. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the microbiome refers to “a community of microorganisms(such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses) that inhabit a particular environment and especially the collection of microorganisms living in or on the human body. The Harvard School of Public Health issued a report which highlights the importance of the microbiome in our bodies:

These (microorganisms) include not only bacteria but fungi, parasites, and viruses. In a healthy person, these “bugs” coexist peacefully, with the largest numbers found in the small and large intestines but also throughout the body. The microbiome is even labeled a supporting organ because it plays so many key roles in promoting the smooth daily operations of the human body.

What are some of the health benefits of the microbiome? The Harvard report contiues:


Kenneth Leong

Author, Zen teacher, scientific mystic, professor, photographer, philosopher, social commentator, socially engaged human