Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Archive for December 2013

What does one not have when one does not have a self?

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One of the most difficult of all Buddhist doctrines is anātman, which literally means non-self. A typical way of framing this doctrine is in contemplative exercises in which one is instructed to pay attention to the incoming and outgoing breaths. Paying attention to breathing requires deciding to focus attention on that one thing, and remembering to return to the breathing when attention drifts to some other topic (as it almost always does). Typically, when this exercise is done in a Buddhist context, one is told to make a mental note that paying attention is just a mental process; it is not the self, nor is there a self to which paying attention belongs. Similarly, deciding is just a mental process, remembering is just a mental process, distracted drifting off topic is just a mental process. None of these is the self, nor is there a self to which these processes belong.

It is easy to say all those words, and not especially difficult to follow the instructions for that particular contemplative exercise. Less easy is to know what is gained by disowning all those mental processes and not letting oneself see a self in any of them. The standard answer is that seeing all those processes in impersonal terms is conducive to wisdom, the antidote to delusion, and that delusion is one of the three mental processes that result in dissatisfaction (the other two principal causes of dissatisfaction being desire and aversion). But that is simply a claim. To say that looking at mental processes in personal terms is delusional and that looking at them impersonally is wise is to beg the question. Why should anyone believe such a claim? Why should one deem any thought to be either wise or delusional?

I do not have an answer, at least not one that I find satisfactory or am willing to try to defend. At this stage in my life, all I have is the question: What warrants the claim that thinking in personal terms causes dissatisfaction?

In the past I have experimented with several different ways of talking about the dogma of anātman. My approach has been to answer the question what exactly is being denied when one denies that something is the self or part of the self or a property of the self. Three possible answers have suggested themselves to me. One possible reply is that what is really being denied is individuality. Another possible reply is that what is being denied is identity. And a third possible reply is that what is being denied is autonomy.

The word “individual” literally means that which is not divided, that which remains a single thing, no matter how many aspects it may have. Denying individuality could be seen as affirming our internal dividedness, acknowledging and perhaps even accepting the fact that some of our motivations are in conflict with some of our other motivations and that our psyches are not always in the same mood.  Jungian psychologists sometimes say that the healthy psyche is not so much an authoritarian government in which the Supreme Leader (the ego) directs all decision-making and banishes all dissidents to dark dungeons; rather the healthy psyche is a round-table discussion in which the ego is but one voice among many, and not always the voice that prevails. Delusion might then be the feeling that we somehow should be consistent, always on course, never wavering from a single point of view. Since it is impossible to be that way, striving to be that way and then failing is a recipe for dissatisfaction.

A second possible interpretation of the dogma of anātman is that what is being denied is identity, again in the etymological sense of the word. “Identity” literally means sameness. To say that one has an identity is to say that there is something essential that remains the same when accidental properties change. If one had this sort of identity, then the temporary angry or grumpy moments are aspects of an enduring self that is at other times calm and cheerful. An abiding identity of this kind would have no abiding qualities; it would make no sense to say, for example, of a person in a fit or rage that he is not himself today. On the contrary, he is very much himself at all times, whether drunk or sober, pleasant or unpleasant, careful or reckless. It is not obvious what is gained by believing in a self of that kind, nor is it clear what is gained in denying it. It is not obvious whether belief in an abiding sameness that is essentially unaffected by temporary association with different properties is delusional or wise, whether it engenders contentment or disappointment. Something that can be said about identity in the sense of something that remains stable as its aspects change is that denying it flies in the face of how nearly everyone experiences the world. It is a very unusual person who wakes up in the morning without feeling that she is the same person as the one who went to bed to night before. What could the point be of denying the validity of experiences that seem so very intuitive?

There is another sense of identity, that which attends the phrase “to identify with” as when we say that a person identifies with being of a particular ethnic group or nationality or political party or profession or religion or gender or lifestyle or that someone identifies with being a hapless victim or a successful entrepreneur or a no-nonsense pragmatist or a far-sighted visionary or a compassionate vegetarian. Perhaps the traditional Buddhist proponents of anātman were making the observation that identifying too strongly with particular candidates for selfhood entrains the dissatisfaction that naturally comes from feeling alienated from all those things perceived to be contrary to what one strongly identifies with. To insist that I am this and not that may make me uncomfortable with those who insist they are that and not this; it may also serve as an obstacle to recognizing that no matter how much I may insist on being only this, I can’t help also being a little bit of that. Perhaps the traditional Buddhist was saying, “the more you can desist from identifying with this to the exclusion of that, the less frustrated you will be with life.”

There is one further thing that the doctrine of anātman may be denying, or at least questioning: autonomy. Different cultures seem to have different attitudes toward the notion of autonomy, to being one’s own law and master. Generally speaking, in post-Enlightenment European culture, autonomy is more highly prized than it is in more traditional cultures. Perhaps the traditional Buddhists deserve credit for observing that the perception of autonomy is largely an illusion. We are all conditioned by the actions and attitudes of people around us, by the environment in which we live, by the indoctrination we have received from family and friends and social institutions, by the health of our physical bodies, and by countless other determinants over which we have very little or no control. We are all like corks being tossed this way and that in a maelstrom, and it may be no more than a fantasy to think we are steering our own course. In most Buddhist contemplative exercises, the instruction is given to observe things as they are, to accept them to whatever extent that is possible without passing judgment. In short, the instruction is to relinquish the conceit of autonomy.

Whatever it may be driving at, the doctrine of anātman is worth thinking about. One way to avoid thinking about it (or anything else) is to have too-ready an answer, too glib a reason for taking on the habit of saying that thinking is just a mental process, not the self and not a property that belongs to the self.

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Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Sunday, December 29, 2013 at 22:51

Posted in Buddhism