The Urban Dharma Newsletter - May 29, 2007
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In This Issue: No Self / Not Self?
1. Who am I?
2. Not Self
3. Anatta / From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
4. No self or Not self? / Article by Ajaan Thanissaro Bhikkhu
5. Buddhism and the Self / Hane Htut Maung,
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All my life, I always wanted to be somebody. Now I see that I should have been more specific. - Jane Wagner
1. Who am I?
One of the most challenging teachings of Buddhism is that relating to the idea of 'not self' or anatta. Whereas both Christianity and Islam have the notion of an individual soul, and whereas Hinduism has the idea of atman, Buddhism offers a different perspective altogether. Buddhism argues that there is no such thing as a permanent self or soul, a very difficult notion to grasp, even on a conceptual level, let alone realizing it experientially. But if there is no such thing as a permanent self or soul, then the obvious question is who is this person that eats, drinks, breathes, thinks, forms relationships and has a career? Who am I?
2. Not Self
The first two marks of existence are relatively straightforward. The Buddha=s teaching on not self is much more challenging and requires us to look at who we are as individuals in a radically new way. Unlike other religions, Buddhism states that there is no such thing as a permanent self or soul. Instead, each individual is made up of five factors that are subject to change. He referred to these as the five >heaps= (or khandhas). These are: material form (the body and its constituents), feeling (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral), perception (the operation of the senses), mental formations (thoughts but also decision making), and consciousness (our sense of being alive).
These factors interact with each other and make up what we are as individuals. In no way, says the Buddha, should we think of these as constituting a permanent self. In training his disciples, the Buddha explained to them that a skilled and disciplined follower regards material form thus: >This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.= He regards feeling thus: >This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.= He regards perception thus: >This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.= He regards mental formations thus: >This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.= He regards consciousness thus: >This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.=
He encourages them not to think that they will exist after death as permanent, everlasting, eternal. On the other hand, the Buddha did not teach that death is the end of things the moment of death is the moment of rebirth. In one Buddhist scripture, the process is described in the following way: 'the first act of consciousness in the new existence is neither the same as the last act of consciousness in the previous existence, nor is it anotherY.Milk once milking is done, turns after some time into curds; from curds it turns into fresh butter, and from fresh butter into ghee. Would it now be correct to say that the milk is the same thing as the curds, or the fresh butter, or the ghee?'.
What happens from life to life is a constant evolving B for better or worse, (depending on our actions). Just as we are not the same person as an adult that we were as a child, so we change from life to life, the quality of our circumstances determined by our previous actions. Note, however, that part of mental formations is volition or will. Within each personality there is ability to make decisions which are like a rudder directing the course of our lives. The decisions we make can be good or bad, but we have that freedom.
3. Anatta / From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
In Buddhist philosophy, anatta (P~li) or an~tman (Sanskrit) refers to "non self" or "absence of separate self". One scholar describes it as "...meaning non selfhood, the absence of limiting self identity in people and things...". What is normally thought of as the "self" is in fact an agglomeration of constantly changing physical and mental constituents ("skandhas"). This concept has, from early times, been controversial amongst Buddhists and non Buddhists alike and remains so to this day. In the Pali suttas and the related ~gamas (referred to collectively below the nikayas) the Buddha repeatedly emphasizes not only that the five skandhas of living being are "not self", but that clinging to them as if they were an immutable self or soul (~tman) gives rise to unhappiness.
Another understanding of anatta (as enunciated by the Buddha in the Mahayana "Tathagatagarbha" scriptures) insists that the five "skandhas" (impermanent constituent elements of the mundane body and mind of each being) are indeed "not the Self", since they are doomed to mutation and dissolution, but that, in contrast, the eternal buddha nature deep within each being is the supramundane True SelfCalthough this realisation is only fully gained on reaching awakening ("bodhi").
Anatta, along with dukkha and anicca, is one of the three dharma seals, which, according to Buddhism, characterise all phenomena.
Anatta in the Nikayas
The Buddhist term an~tman (Sanskrit) or anatta (Pali) is used in the suttas both as a noun and as a predicative adjective to denote that phenomena are not, or are without, the Soul, the ontological and subjective self (atman).
Specifically in sutra, anatta is used to describe the nature of any and all composite, consubstantial, phenomenal, and temporal things, from the macrocosmic, to microcosmic, be it matter as pertains the physical body or the cosmos at large, including any and all mental machinations which are of the nature of arising and passing. Anatta in sutra is synonymous and interchangeable with the terms dukkha (suffering) and anicca (impermanent), and all three terms are often used in triplet in making a blanket statement as regards any and all phenomena. AAll these aggregates are anicca, dukkha, and anatta.@
Anatta refers to the absence of the permanent soul as pertains any one of the psycho physical (namo rupa) attributes, or Khandhas (skandhas, aggregates). In Samyutta Nikaya 4.400, Gautama Buddha was asked if there Awas no soul (natthatta)@, which it is conventionally considered to be equivalent to Nihilism (ucchedavada). Common throughout Buddhist sutra is the denial of psycho physical attributes of the mere empirical self to be the Soul, or confused with same. The Buddhist paradigm as regards phenomena is ANa me so atta@ (this/these are not my soul), nearly the most common utterance of Gautama Buddha in the Nikayas.
Logically so, according to the philosophical premise of the Buddha, the initiate to Buddhism who is to be Ashown the way to Immortality (amata)@ [MN 2.265, SN 5.9], wherein liberation of the mind (cittavimutta) is effectuated through the expansion of wisdom and the meditative practices of sati and samadhi, must first be educated away from his former ignorance based (avijja) materialistic proclivities in that he Asaw any of these forms, feelings, or this body, to be my Self, to be that which I am by nature@. Teaching the subject of anatta in sutra pertains solely to things phenomenal, which were: Asubject to perpetual change; therefore unfit to declare of such things >these are mine, these are what I am, that these are my Soul=@ [MN 1.232]
The one scriptural passage where Gautama is asked by a layperson what the meaning of anatta is is as follows: [Samyutta Nikaya 3.196] At one time in Savatthi, the venerable Radha seated himself and asked of the Blessed Lord Buddha: AAnatta, anatta I hear said venerable. What pray tell does Anatta mean?@ AJust this Radha, form is not the Soul (anatta), sensations are not the Soul (anatta), perceptions are not the Soul (anatta), assemblages are not the Soul (anatta), consciousness is not the Soul (anatta). Seeing thusly, this is the end of birth, the Brahman life has been fulfilled, what must be done has been done.@
The nikayas state that certain things (5 aggregates), with which the unlearned man identifies himself, are not the Soul and that is why one should grow disgusted with them, become detached from them and be liberated.
What has Buddhism to say of the Self? "That's not my Self" (na me so atta); this, and the term "non Self ishness" (anatta) predicated of the world and all "things" (sabbe dhamma anatta; Identical with the Brahmanical "of those who are mortal, there is no Self/Soul", (anatma hi martyah, [SB., II. 2. 2. 3]). [KN J 1441] Anatta is never used pejoratively in any sense in the Nikayas by the Buddha, who himself has said: [MN 1.140] ABoth formerly and now, I=ve never been a nihilist (vinayika), never been one who teaches the annihilation of a being, rather taught only the source of suffering, and its ending@
The phrase anatmavada is not found in the nikayas, existing only in Theravada and Madhyamika commentaries.
AWhatever form, feelings, perceptions, experiences, or consciousness there is (the five aggregates), these he sees to be without permanence, as suffering, as ill, as a plague, a boil, a sting, a pain, an affliction, as foreign, as otherness, as empty (suññato), as Selfless (anattato). So he turns his mind away from these and gathers his mind/will within the realm of Immortality (amataya dhatuya). This is tranquility; this is that which is most excellent!@ [MN 1.436]
An~tman in other Indian traditions
The term anatman is found not only in Buddhist sutras, but also in the Upanishads and lavishly so in the writings of Shankara, the founder of Advaita Vedanta. Anatman is a common via negativa (neti neti, not this, not that) teaching method, wherein nothing affirmative can be said of what is Abeyond speculation, beyond words, and concepts@ thereby eliminating all positive characteristics that might be thought to apply to the Soul, or be attributed to it; to wit that the Subjective ontological Self Nature (svabhava) can never be known objectively, but only through Athe denial of all things which it (the Soul) is not.@
Students of Buddhism often encounter an intellectual quandary with the teaching in that the concept of anatta and the doctrine of rebirth seem to be mutually exclusive. If there is no self, no abiding essence of the person, it is unclear what it is that is reborn. The Buddha discussed this in a conversation with a Brahmin named Kutadanta.
There have been a number of attempts by various schools of Buddhism to make explicit how it is that rebirth occurs. The more orthodox schools claim that certain of the dispositions or psychological constituents have repercussions that extend beyond an individual life to the next. More innovative solutions include the introduction of a Pudgala, a "person", which functions comparably to the atman in the rebirth process and in karmic agency, but is regarded by its advocates as not falling prey to the metaphysical substantialism of the atman.
Others seek a proxy not for the atman but for Brahman, the Indian monistic ideal that functions as an atman for the whole of creation, and is in itself thus rejected by anatta. Such a solution is the Consciousness only teaching of the Yogacara school attempt to explain the seeming paradox: at death the body & mind disintegrates, but if the disintegrating mind contains any remaining traces of karma, it will cause the continuity of the consciousness to bounce back an arising mind to an awaiting being (i.e. a fetus developing the ability to harbor consciousness).
Some Buddhists take the position that the basic problem of explaining how "I" can die and be reborn is, philosophically speaking, no more problematic than how "I" can be the "same" person I was a few moments ago. There is no more or less ultimacy, for Buddhists, between the identity I have with my self of two minutes ago and the identity I have with the self of two lives ago.
A further difficulty with the anatta doctrine is that it contradicts the notion of a path of practise. Anatta followed to its logical extremities rejects the reality of a Buddhist practitioner able to detach him/herself from clinging.
Main article: pratitya samutpada
Buddhist teaching tells us that all empirical life is impermanent and in a constant state of flux, and that any entity that exists does so only in dependence on the conditions of its arising, which are non eternal. Therefore, any Self concept (attanuditthi) sense one might have of an abiding Self or a soul is regarded as a misapprehension; since the conceptualization of the Self or soul is just that, and not an ontological apprehension of same.
Much of modern Buddhism holds that the notion of an abiding self is one of the main causes of human conflict, and that by realizing the nonexistence of our perceived self, 'we' may go beyond 'our' mundane desires. (Reference to 'oneself' or 'I' or 'me' for Buddhists is used merely conventionally.)
That the denial of the empirical person or self (This person so and so, Bob, Sue, etc.) in Buddhism is not in question; that self "goes to the grave"
Rather than directing his listeners to discover Atman, the Buddha taught that all clinging to concepts and ideas of a self are faulty and based on ignorance. The five aggregates of form, feelings, perceptions, mental fabrications and consciousness were described as especially misleading, since they form the basis for an individual's clinging or aversion. He taught that once a monk renounces his clinging for all the five aggregates, through meditative insight, he realizes the bliss of non clinging, and abides in wisdom. The Buddha clearly stated that all five aggregates are impermanent, just as the burning flame is inconstant in one sense, and that knowledge or wisdom is all that remains, just as the only thing constant about a flame is its fuel, or purpose.
Controversially, there has been and continues to be a minority of Mahayana Buddhists who understand the Buddhist doctrine of "non Self" ("anatta"/"anatman") as relating solely to the ephemeral elements (the five "skandhas") of the being and not to the hidden and undying "Buddha Principle" ("Buddha nature") taught by the Mahayana Buddha to exist within the depths of each person's mind (see section on Anatta in the Tathagatagarbha Sutras below).
Theravada Buddhism and anatta
According to Theravada the Buddha chose not to assume the existence of an eternal self or soul (atman), although, as found in sources, from the Pali Canon he would refer to the existence of a conventional self subject to conditional phenomena and responsible, in the causal moral sense, for karma.
The Buddha was silent to the questions of the paribbajako (wandering ascetic) Vacchagotta of AIs there a self?@ or AIs there not a self?@ [SN.5:44,10] because this was an antinomy based question which The Buddha always rejected (is it, is it not, is it both, is it neither). When Ananda later asked about his silence, the Buddha said that to affirm or deny the existence of an eternal self would have sided with sectarian theories and have disturbed Vacchagotta even more.
The Buddha's teachings were directed to the principles of causality; not in a negative, nihilistic way of non reality, but rather by showing why it is and how to see it integrated positively in the causal relationships of the mental physical factors of the experience of life. Causal relationships were detailed in the Buddha=s analysis of dependent origination and idappaccayata (lit. AThis is founded on that@).
All processes are impermanent Y All processes are afflicted Y All phenomena are not >Self=; when this is seen with knowledge, one is freed from the illusion of affliction. This is the pathway to purity.
B Dhp. 20. 227 B 279
This analysis is applied to knowing the interplay of senses within the mental physical factors just as they are. It is a careful analysis of these realities in terms of their changefulness, instability or un satisfactoriness and that these lack inherent personal identification. And this leads to wisdom (prajña, pañña), cessation of craving (nirodha), and to liberation (nirvana) of the will/mind (citta).
This empirical (namo rupic) person is actually nothing more than an evolution of natural elements and latent tendencies of consciousness, held together by a thread of memory running through an ever changing experience of reality.
Therefore the goal of the Buddhist contemplative is to develop freedom of the will/mind (citta) from entanglement with things as they seem; through the delusions of desire and consequential self identity with events, resultant fear, aversion and projected hopesCto awaken to things as they are; coming home to a natural understanding of reality with ones given abilities at work in an ever changing evolution of experience. AThe mind (citta) is cleansed of the five skhandhas (pañcakkhandha)@ [Nettippakarana 44]
Anatta in the Tathagatagarbha Sutras
The understanding of an~tman / anatta expressed in the Mahayana scriptures known as the "Tathagatagarbha sutras" (as well as in a number of Buddhist tantras) is distinctive: the doctrine presented by the Buddha in these texts claims to clarify that it is only the impermanent elements of the sentient beingCthe "five skandhas" (changeful constituent elements of mind and body)Cwhich are "not the Self" ("an~tman"), whereas the truly real, immanent essence ("svabh~va") of the being is no less than the "tathagatagarbha" ("buddha matrix") or the "buddha principle" ("buddha dh~tu", which is popularly rendered in English as the "buddha nature"), and is inviolate and deathless. In the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha discloses that the basic non Self teaching is given to those of his followers who are still in their spiritual infancy, as it were, and unable to digest the full, final and culminational Dharma of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, whereas the teachings of the tathagatagarbha are intended for those followers who have "grown up" and are capable of absorbing the undiminished Truth. The tathagatagarbha, the immortal element or essence within each being, is termed the "true Self" or the "great Self" by the Buddha in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra. It is said to be essentially free from rebirth and always remaining intrinsically immaculate and uniquely radiantConly awaiting discovery by all beings within the depths of their own minds. In the Tathagatagarbha Sutra, the Buddha tells of how, with his buddha eye, he can actually see this hidden "jewel" within each and every being: "hidden within the kleÑas [mental contaminants] of greed, desire, anger, and stupidity, there is seated augustly and unmovingly the Tathagata's [Buddha's] wisdom, the Tathagata's vision, and the Tathagata's body [...] all beings, though they find themselves with all sorts of kleÑas, have a tathagatagarbha that is eternally unsullied, and replete with virtues no different from my own".
Moreover, the Buddhist tantric scripture entitled Chanting the Names of Mañjusri (MañjuÑr§ n~ma sa g§ti), as quoted by the great Tibetan Buddhist master, Dolpopa, repeatedly exalts not the non Self but the Self and applies the following terms to this ultimate reality:
* "the pervasive Lord" (vibhu)
* "Buddha Self"
* "the beginningless Self" (an~di ~tman)
* "the Self of Thusness" (tathat~ ~tman)
* "the Self of primordial purity" (Ñuddha ~tman)
* "the Source of all"
* "the Self pervading all"
* "the Single Self" (eka ~tman)
* "the Diamond Self" (vajra ~tman)
* "the Solid Self" (ghana ~tman)
* "the Holy, Immovable Self"
* "the Supreme Self"
Thus, the "non Self" doctrine receives a fresh presentation in the Tathagatagarbha sutras (and in certain tantric texts) as a merely partial, incomplete truth rather than as an absolute verity.
4. No self or Not self? / Article by Ajaan Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff)
http://here and now.org/IMSB/pages/not self.html
One of the first stumbling blocks that Westerners often encounter when they learn about Buddhism is the teaching on anatta (in Sanskrit: anatman), often translated as no self. This teaching is a stumbling block for two reasons. First, the idea of there being no self doesn't fit well with other Buddhist teachings, such as the doctrine of karma and rebirth: If there's no self, what experiences the results of karma and takes rebirth? Second, it doesn't fit well with our own Judeo Christian background, which assumes the existence of an eternal soul or self as its basic presupposition: If there's no self, what's the purpose of a spiritual life? Many books try to answer these questions, but if you look at the Pali Canon the earliest extant record of the Buddha's teachings you won't find them addressed at all. In fact, the one place where the Buddha was asked point blank whether or not there was a self, he refused to answer. When later asked why, he said that to hold either that there is a self or that there is no self is to fall into extreme forms of wrong view that make the path of Buddhist practice impossible. Thus the question should be put aside. To understand what his silence on this question says about the meaning of anatta, we first have to look at his teachings on how questions should be asked and answered, and how to interpret his answers.
The Buddha divided all questions into four classes: those that deserve a categorical (straight yes or no) answer; those that deserve an analytical answer, defining and qualifying the terms of the question; those that deserve a counter question, putting the ball back in the questioner's court; and those that deserve to be put aside. The last class of question consists of those that don't lead to the end of suffering and stress. The first duty of a teacher, when asked a question, is to figure out which class the question belongs to, and then to respond in the appropriate way. You don't, for example, say yes or no to a question that should be put aside. If you are the person asking the question and you get an answer, you should then determine how far the answer should be interpreted. The Buddha said that there are two types of people who misrepresent him: those who draw inferences from statements that shouldn't have inferences drawn from them, and those who don't draw inferences from those that should.
These are the basic ground rules for interpreting the Buddha's teachings, but if we look at the way most writers treat the anatta doctrine, we find these ground rules ignored. Some writers try to qualify the no self interpretation by saying that the Buddha denied the existence of an eternal self or a separate self, but this is to give an analytical answer to a question that the Buddha showed should be put aside. Others try to draw inferences from the few statements in the discourse that seem to imply that there is no self, but it seems safe to assume that if one forces those statements to give an answer to a question that should be put aside, one is drawing inferences where they shouldn't be drawn.
So, instead of answering "no" to the question of whether or not there is a self interconnected or separate, eternal or not the Buddha felt that the question was misguided to begin with. Why? No matter how you define the line between "self" and "other," the notion of self involves an element of self identification and clinging, and thus suffering and stress. This holds as much for an interconnected self, which recognizes no "other," as it does for a separate self; if one identifies with all of nature, one is pained by every felled tree. It also holds for an entirely "other" universe, in which the sense of alienation and futility would become so debilitating as to make the quest for happiness one's own or that of others impossible. For these reasons, the Buddha advised paying no attention to such questions as "Do I exist?" or "Don't I exist?" for however you answer them, they lead to suffering and stress.
To avoid the suffering implicit in questions of "self" and "other," he offered an alternative way of dividing up experience: the four Noble Truths of stress, its cause, its cessation, and the path to its cessation. Rather than viewing these truths as pertaining to self or other, he said, one should recognize them simply for what they are, in and of themselves, as they are directly experienced, and then perform the duty appropriate to each. Stress should be comprehended, its cause abandoned, its cessation realized, and the path to its cessation developed. These duties form the context in which the anatta doctrine is best understood. If you develop the path of virtue, concentration, and discernment to a state of calm well being and use that calm state to look at experience in terms of the Noble Truths, the questions that occur to the mind are not "Is there a self? What is my self?" but rather "Does holding onto this particular phenomenon caused stress and suffering? Is it really me, myself, or mine? If it's stressful but not really me or mine, why hold on?" These last questions merit straightforward answers, as they then help you to comprehend stress and to chip away at the attachment and clinging the residual sense of self identification that cause it, until ultimately all traces of self identification are gone and all that's left is limitless freedom.
In this sense, the anatta teaching is not a doctrine of no self, but a not self strategy for shedding suffering by letting go of its cause, leading to the highest, undying happiness. At that point, questions of self, no self, and not self fall aside. Once there's the experience of such total freedom, where would there be any concern about what's experiencing it, or about whether or not it's a self?
5. Buddhism and the Self / Hane Htut Maung, BA Hons. (Cantab) King=s College, University of Cambridge
Among the most poorly understood of the Buddhist teachings is the anatta doctrine, often translated, perhaps misguidedly, as >no self=. There are several reasons why this doctrine causes so much difficulty. Firstly, discourses in the Pali Canon, the earliest records of the Buddha=s teachings, show the Buddha to have been vague about what this doctrine actually asserts, and so there is much uncertainty about how it should be interpreted. Secondly, the interpretation of this doctrine as the metaphysical assertion that there is no self appears nonsensical and incompatible with many other Buddhist teachings. Thirdly, the interpretation of this doctrine, not as a metaphysical assertion, but as a practical strategy to free oneself from attachment, appears to be in conflict with the emphasis that is placed on the ego in Western psychology. In this essay, I aim to confront some of these issues. I shall defend the view, as put forward by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, that the Buddha taught the anatta doctrine as a practical strategy, rather than as a metaphysical assertion, and that it ought to be translated as >not self=, rather than >no self=. Furthermore, I shall give my arguments against the interpretation of this doctrine as a metaphysical assertion, and propose, in line with Dr Edmond Holmes, that the belief in the self is, in fact, justified in Buddhism.
As I have mentioned, there is much uncertainty about how the doctrine of anatta should be interpreted. This owes itself to the fact that the Pali Canon itself does not address how it ought to be interpreted. In fact, it is significant that when asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer whether there is a self, the Buddha refused to answer. Despite this, many writers, including the Orientalist Dr Rhys Davids, have treated the anatta doctrine as a metaphysical assertion that there is no such thing as the self, but I argue that this interpretation is mistaken. Rather, I follow the view, as proposed by Thanissaro Bhikkhu in his article, ANo self or Not self?@ (1996), that the anatta doctrine is no more than a practical strategy to free oneself from attachment.
When asked by the Venerable Ânanda why he did not answer Vacchagotta=s question, the Buddha stated that answering such a metaphysical query would not be conducive to Vacchagotta=s quest for liberation. Perhaps the Buddha thought that Vacchagotta=s spiritual immaturity would lead him to misinterpret the answer in a way that would bring him further attachment. After all, the Buddha emphasised that one must not blindly believe the words of another to be fact, but should experience the phenomena oneself to discover what is fact. Dr Edmond Holmes likens this attitude to that of Socrates in Plato=s Phædo, when he takes the view that the soul is immortal, but emphasises that one must realise this oneself, instead of accepting the words blindly. It is apparent, from the plain fact that he was asking the Buddha such a naïve question, that Vacchagotta himself had not discovered the nature of the self, and so, seeing this, the Buddha refused to give an answer. He later explained to the Venerable Ânanda that giving an answer to his question would only bring Vacchagotta confusion, since his naïve mind would misunderstand the answer, and this, in turn, would have adverse effects on his struggle for liberation.
In contrast, when asked by Mogharaja how one must view the world if one is to go beyond death, the Buddha does not hesitate to answer. He tells Mogharaja that one must not identify oneself with or be attached to phenomena that are not self. Here, the Buddha is not making an ontological assertion, but is teaching a technique of perception aimed at liberating oneself from the attachment to conditioned phenomena, by learning that they are not self. The fact that the Buddha gave a very clear answer to Mogharaja=s practical question but refused to answer Vacchagotta=s metaphysical question suggests that the anatta doctrine is not an ontological assertion, but a practical strategy for the attainment of liberation.
According to the Pali Canon, the Buddha remained quiet about the metaphysics of the self. Therefore, to interpret the anatta doctrine as an ontological assertion would be unjustified. In fact, I argue that it is not only unjustified, but also nonsensical and incompatible with many other Buddhist teachings. For example, Thanissaro Bhikkhu notes that the denial of the self is incompatible with the doctrine of rebirth: what is it that experiences rebirth? By the same token, I argue that the denial of the self is incompatible with the doctrine of nibbana: what is it that realises nibbana? Furthermore, Thanissaro Bhikkhu argues that to deny the self is to devalue the purpose of a spiritual life altogether: in the struggle for liberation, what is it that is being liberated?
It has often been said that a personality is made up of several impermanent khandhas, and that these are ever changing in a perpetual state of flux. This idea is not unique to Buddhism, but has also been expressed in Western philosophy. For example, Richard Swinburne (1984) notes that one=s body is in a continual state of material flux, for cells inevitably die and are continually replaced by new ones. David Hume, in his Treatise of Human Nature, notes that one=s mental state is no more than a bundle of different perceptions that are always changing. Hence, it has been argued that a person at one point in time is neither exactly the same nor completely different from what the person was at another point in time, regardless of whether these two points in time are both in the same life or each in different lives. Some have interpreted this idea as removing the need for a self in the Buddhist metaphysical picture, and have attempted to explain rebirth along these lines, but I argue that this proposal is flawed. I do not dispute that one=s personality is made up of several factors that are in a perpetual state of flux. After all, the physical matter of one=s body is always being lost and replaced, and one=s mental state is always changing. However, there is the question of what is subjectively experiencing this physical body and these mental contents. What is experiencing the rebirth? This question becomes even more necessary when one=s physical body and mental contents are no longer present, namely in nibbana. If the impermanent factors that constitute a personality no longer subsist, what is left to experience nibbana?
Some have also claimed that the concept of the self is an illusion, but I argue that this, too, is fallacious. Again, one may ask: what experiences the illusion? Some readers may bring to mind Descartes, who argued in his Meditations that one can doubt the reality of the external world on the grounds that it may be no more than an illusion, but one cannot possibly doubt one=s own existence as a thinking being, for the fact that one is doubting inevitably implies that one exists. Indeed, it is conceivable that the phenomena that manifest in one=s experience are illusions, but to dismiss the self as an illusion is senseless, for a subjective self is what is needed to experience the illusion.
What is made apparent by these issues is that for phenomena to be realised, it is implied that they are realised in some kind of existence. This, I argue, is what the self is: the unconditioned subjective existence by which phenomena are experienced, or, in other words, consciousness. In line with an earlier work by the author (Maung, 2006), I argue that this is what Hume=s bundle of perceptions, the experience of the body=s material flux, and the experience of nibbana exist in. I have hoped to show, in this section, that the denial of the self is metaphysically fallacious. Furthermore, I argue that its incompatibility with other Buddhist teachings not only emphasises the interpretation of the anatta doctrine only as a practical strategy, but also justifies the belief in the self in Buddhism.
In fact, there may be more to justify the belief in the self in Buddhism. Although the Buddha refused to answer Vacchagotta=s question about the self, Dr Edmond Holmes, in The Creed of Buddha, proposes that it can be inferred, from his silence, that the Buddha knew that the self exists. Holmes= reasons for why the Buddha remained silent are the same as mine: Vacchagotta was spiritually immature and had not fully grasped the concept of the self, and so he would have misinterpreted the answer if the Buddha had told him that there is a self, and become bewildered as a consequence. Furthermore, Holmes argues that if the Buddha had not believed in the self, he would have answered Vacchagotta=s question uncompromisingly and without hesitation, for the materialistic implications of such an answer are simple to interpret, but the fact that the Buddha did not answer the question shows that this could not be the case. Holmes argues, therefore, that the Buddha=s silence was an indicator that he believed in the self and considered its transcendental nature to be beyond the comprehension of Vacchagotta=s naïve mind at that stage in his spiritual development.
It is also significant that a tenet of Northern Buddhism, which is said to be the teaching given by the Buddha to his arahants, is that of the existence of an unconditioned self, or Tathagatagarbha, within all beings, which is fundamentally eternal. Furthermore, it is taught that the rejection of the Tathagatagarbha doctrine is metaphysically wrong, and linked to adverse kammic consequences. This, again, validates the belief in the self in Buddhism, and suggests that the anatta doctrine is only a practical strategy to achieve liberation.
In conclusion, it appears that Thanissaro Bhikkhu=s proposal that the anatta doctrine is not meant to be interpreted as a metaphysical assertion is entirely reasonable, for not only is the denial of the self metaphysically fallacious, but, as I have alluded to in the preceding paragraph, metaphysical assertions affirming the existence of the self are also present in Buddhism. Instead, I advocate the idea that the anatta doctrine is a practical strategy that involves letting go of one=s attachment to the conditioned khandhas, through realising that they are impermanent, and, therefore, not self. As the Buddha told Mogharaja, if one is to be liberated, one must not identify oneself with or be attached to phenomena that are not self. Under this view, it would be wrong to construe the self as something tangible, comprised of the conditioned khandhas, for these are mundane: the truth would be to identify the self as unconditioned, eternal, and irreducible, for this is the existence within which phenomena are realised.
Bhikkhu T. (1993). AThe Not Self Strategy@. Insight, 1994.
Bhikkhu T. (1996). ANo Self or Not Self?@ in Bhikkhu T (1999), Noble Strategy: Essays on the Buddhist Path. Metta Forest Monastery.
Davids CAFR. (1912). Buddhism: A Study of the Buddhist Norm. London: Williams and Norgate.
Descartes R. (1641). Meditations.
Holmes E. (1908). The Creed of Buddha. New York: John Lane.
Hume D. (1739). A Treatise of Human Nature.
Maung HH. (2006). Consciousness: An Enquiry into the Nature of the Self. North Carolina: Lulu Press.
Shoemaker S, Swinburne R. (1984). Personal Identity. Oxford: Blackwell.
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