Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Thinking about self and not-self

with 3 comments


…the desire to become free from delusion or egocentrictiy is one of the causes of our delusion and egocentricity. …the desire to escape from this side of existence and enter another side is another expression of egocentric desire.

— Shohaku Okumura, Realizing Genjōkōan: the Key to Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2010, p. 44

Fifty years of being puzzled

The first presentation of Buddhist thought and practice that I ever heard was in a Unitarian church. In that presentation, given by a Theravādin lay Buddhist from Sri Lanka, it was said that a key tenet of Buddhism is that there is no self. It was also said, rather emphatically, that no one should accept any doctrine, Buddhist or otherwise, simply on authority. No Buddhist, it was explained, should accept any teaching simply because it was presented as a Buddhist teaching. For some reason, I accepted, simply on the authority of this lay Buddhist teacher, that it was acceptable not to accept a teaching of Buddhism, even if it was presented as a key tenet, so I did not accept the teaching that there is no self. It’s not so much that I rejected it as false. It was more a matter of not being able to make enough sense of what was actually being said to accept it or reject it.

Over the years I heard various explanations of what the Buddhist doctrine of no-self (anātman) was saying. Some people insisted that it means that there is no soul. Others suggested it is an ethical injunction that one should not be self-centered. Others said it means no one has a fixed and permanent nature, because everything that comes into being eventually passes out of being.

The first of these claims, that there is no soul, struck me as far too modern and materialist to be a likely candidate for what early Buddhists meant when they said there is no self. After all, these Buddhists talked about consciousness, reactions to experience, character, decisions, and various other psychological functions that correspond to what philosophers in other traditions talked about when they discussed the soul and its faculties. It was not at all helpful to interpret anātman as meaning that human beings have no psychological dimensions.

The second of these claims, that anātman is advice not to be self-centered, makes perfectly good sense, but there are scores of traditions that disparage selfishness. The claim, which I came across repeatedly, that anātman is a distinctively Buddhist doctrine that differentiates Buddhism from all other religions and philosophies, would obviously be false if anātman is simply the commonplace warning that little good comes of being selfish.

The third claim, that anātman does not mean that there is no self at all but rather means that such self as there is is a work in progress that does not remain unchanged over time, also makes good sense, but who would ever deny that? Is that not what pretty nearly every human being discovers in the process of being alive for a while? Like the advice not to be selfish, there is surely nothing at all uniquely Buddhist about the observation that people do not have exactly the same nature when they are fifty years old that they had when they were toddlers.

Becoming provisionally less puzzled

As time went on, I came to feel that Buddhists were simply being boastful and making false claims to uniqueness when they said that the doctrine of anātman is what sets Buddhism apart from everything else. It is true that there were philosophical schools in India at the time when Buddhism was evolving there that claimed that the true self, the ātman, is unborn, unconditioned, unchanging and imperishable, and it is also true that Buddhists criticized those schools. That historical reality hardly makes Buddhism unique; it simply makes Buddhism one of the schools that denied the rather strange claim made by some in ancient India that the self is unborn, unconditioned, unchanging and imperishable.

In other words, making sense of the doctrine of anātman in Buddhism was not at all difficult to one willing to pay the price of saying that Buddhists were deluded in thinking that they alone realize that there is no fixed self. That is a price that I have always gladly paid, since Buddhists surely do not have a monopoly on thinking that they have a monopoly on truth. Thinking they are unique and special and better than everyone else is what human beings do best. As Sri Ramakrishna is said to have observed, “Everyone thinks that only his watch tells the right time.” In such chronometric arrogance, the Buddhists are not so unique.

Fifty years later and running out of time

When I first encountered the Buddhist doctrine of not-self, I was twenty-one years old. As I write this, I am seventy-three years old and none the wiser, but it’s clear that in the endeavor to become a little wiser, I’m running out of time. So let me say, for what little it is worth, what the doctrine of anātman means to me this week.

First, what it means to say that there is no self is that everything that I am (or that anyone is) is derived from something other than what I intuitively think of as myself. Subtract everything that is not me from me, and there is nothing left over.

One way to see the truth of that claim is to look at one’s accomplishments, the sort of claims that one makes on a curriculum vitae or a resumé. One of the things that appears on my resumé is a PhD, which I supposedly earned. What made that possible? I was born into a family of well-educated people who valued education, encouraged curiosity, had shelves full of books, had large vocabularies that they used well, instilled the importance of accuracy, and insisted on critical thinking. All that rubbed off on me simply by my growing up in that environment. I cannot take any credit for having acquired any of that. I did not choose to be born into that family and I did not choose to acquire their values. The circumstances of my upbringing happened by sheer luck. In picking up my families values, I simply did what every child naturally doesz: i imitated what I saw around me.

When my time came to pursue a higher education, money was available to pay tuition and keep life and limb together through a variety of sources—family money that had been passed down for several generations from nineteenth century industrialists, government scholarships, student loans, employment that I was fortunate enough to get during student years.

Everything that I eventually came to know was passed to me by people who had learned it from others, some of it through contact with teachers, some of it through books that someone had bothered to write, that someone had published, that someone had selected for a library, that someone had catalogued and shelved and made it possible for me to find. The entire enterprise of getting an education was possible because I was living in stable and mostly peaceful countries. Things that I might have fancied that I had discovered were nothing but items that had somehow been there to discover. There is none of that for which I could honestly take sole credit. Everything that I have ever allegedly accomplished was in fact due to someone or something other than myself. Subtract all the external factors, all the things that I do not normally think of as myself, from my PhD, and there is no PhD left. It is mine only by the grace of social convention, through an impossibility of giving credit to all those to whom credit is due. As with the PhD, so with everything that I have ever been or done or thought of being or doing. In all this, I am typical.

Second, what it means to say that there is no self is that there is no such thing as individuality. I mean that in two senses. The etymological sense of “individual” is that which is not divided. Buddhists, like numerous others, pointed out that what one takes to me one’s self is made up of numerous parts or features; a physical body that is itself made up of organs, that are themselves made up of cells, that are themselves made up of molecules, that are themselves made up of atoms, that are themselves made up of subatomic particles; a bundle of perceptions and thoughts and memories and other intangible features that can be analysed almost indefinitely; a collection of narratives about life, the universe and everything, all of them acquired from the society around one. A person can be endlessly divided into components and so is no individual.

There is another sense in which it can be said that no one is an individual, and that is that one cannot be divided off from, separated from, everything else that exists. By everything, I mean no less than everything in the universe. There is nothing anywhere to which everything everywhere is not in some way or another related and connected.  In this, as in all other things, what I have come to think and believe has been said by someone else better than I could say it myself. In writing about the sense of self as a kind of delusion, A.H. Almaas writes “The delusion here is not that you are an individual, but that you are an isolated individual, with boundaries that separate you from every thing else.” (A. H. Almaas, Facets of Unity: The Enneagram of Holy Ideas, pg. 102, loc. 1693. Kindle Edition. Emphasis added.)

It is possible to act and think and speak in forgetfulness of all that interconnectedness and inseparabity and dependency on what intuitively feels to be outside the self. The result of that forgetfulness is usually, but not always, painful in some way, or at least uncomfortable. Being discontented can usually be traced back to being unrealistic in some way.  Unfortunately, because we are physcially finite and psychologically limited, and because being realistic means being fully aware of every thing in all its details and all its relations to everything else, we must all settle for having a pathetically narrow and partial picture of reality. We must all settle for being unrealistic, and as a result of that we must always settle for being prone to a share of disappointment, surprise, and even the occasional shock. The best approximation of being realistic anyone can hope to have is not to have unrealistic expectations of ever escaping the conditions that make being alive somewhat stressful.

Classical Buddhism told a different story. It held out the promise of the possibility of nirvana, the cessation of afflictions (kleśa-nirodha), when one became awake (buddha) to things are they really are. If that promise is taken too literally, it turns out to be a bogus promise. If, however, it is taken to mean that if one becomes awake to realizing that some degree of suffering and frustration is inescapable and that there is really nothing to be gained by fighting and resisting that fact, then that acceptance, insofar as one can muster it from time to time, will probably feel better than getting worked up into a frenzy over that over which one has no control.

That is how the doctrine of anātman makes sense to me today. Who knows what sense it will make tomorrow?

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Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Sunday, June 24, 2018 at 20:54

Posted in Buddhism

3 Responses

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  1. Everything is revisable. Suffering is inevitable. Just live with it. While I cannot dispute these thoughts,
    there is one thing that is indisputable. Like Woody Allen, your commentary was most enjoyable when you were incredibly funny. I miss the WIT!

    Frank Maglietta

    Monday, June 25, 2018 at 16:45

  2. Wit is an interactive process. The trouble wit writing an essay without an interlocutor is that one tends to become witless. Alas, that has become my condition, for which I apologize.

  3. Hello Daymati. It’s always good to read your interpretation of things, and to laugh with your humour. One thing however that puzzles me here is your apparent interpretation of klesa-nirodha as the cessation of suffering. My understanding of the term is that it refers to the eradication of the klesas, the defilements of greed, hatred and delusion. And also, that what early or primitive Buddhism promises is the removal of the ‘second arrow’, the psychological suffering that we all experience at the mere mention of pain, disease and death, not the removal of ordinary physical suffering. Even that, however, it seems to me, can be significantly reduced by the dharma practitioner, both as regards his own-being and by lessening and even halting his infliction of pain upon others.

    As for the Buddha’s teaching of anatman, I wonder if I am over-simplifying – though I am certainly not denying the fact of our almost, though, I believe, not quite complete indebtedness to others for what I call ‘myself’ – when I regard it as chiefly attributable to the Buddha’s seeing through the then prevalent idea that all beings had inside themselves a part of the eternal Brahma or Brahman – a part called the atman that was obscured in the ordinary person through ignorance of their divine source. Then of course there followed in due course the attempt at the deconstruction of the self by the Abhidharmists. Despite all these attempts at debunking the self, however, I find it a very useful idea. It keeps me going!

    With warm wishes, or cool ones if they would be more appropriate in today’s Utah!

    Ashvajit

    Ashvajit

    Monday, July 16, 2018 at 07:17


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