Non-Self: The Problem of Having a Self 1

Uposatha Day, Last Quarter Moon, February 26, 2011

The anatta [non-self] doctrine teaches that neither within the bodily and mental phenomena of existence, nor outside of them, can be found anything that in the ultimate sense could be regarded as a self- existing real ego-entity, soul or any other abiding substance. This is the central doctrine of Buddhism, without understanding which a real knowledge of Buddhism is altogether impossible. It is the only really specific Buddhist doctrine, with which the entire Structure of the Buddhist teaching stands or falls. – Ven. Nyatiloka

In summary of last week‘s discussion, the Self, and all other formations (compounded things) owe their existence at least in part to mind. This has a practical role in the task of tracking what is essentially intractable: a fluid contingently co-arisen reality, in which all things are simply reflections of other things, astonishing in its complexity and dizzying in the dynamic flux spreading forever this way and that. Mind tracks this by reifying or freezing the most stable and functional parts. In short, it replaces a bewilderingly complex reality with a simpler conceptual model and uses the simpler model to predict the behavior of the more complex system. Independently of mind there is nothing that could be identified as existing in, of and for itself, independently of the fluctuating contingencies, nothing with the solidity and confidence of the formations the mind gives rise to. This last thesis is what is called Emptiness.

The problem with all this from the Buddhist perspective is that the conceptual model is a delusion. One of the immediate costs of this conceptual form of human cognition is that it tends to be chunky, it is full of large solid things with properties and with relations to other large solid things. There is inevitably a gap between this model and the fluid reality it is trying to track, and we, as humans, once we take a stake in the reliability of compounded things, have to live with this relentless disappointing gap. In good times and bad, through thick and thin, come rain or shine, through birth, sickness, old age and death, through bearish and bull, something is always askew. This is suffering.

The Separate Self. We occupy this world of formations, and the formations we have the greatest state in are our own selves, polished up as fabrications of our own minds to become separate things existing on their own, independently of the rest of the world, yet at the same time subject for their well-being to various forces at work in the rest of the world.

While I think of myself as a functional whole, I end up chunky, like an elephant trying to walk through a glassware shop of a world, maintaining a consistency of identity and purpose, lacking the fluidly of, say, a gaggle of bunnies entrusted with the same task. But then, which of the bunnies would be me? Even while maintaining this chunky separate self I recognize that no one part of it is constant; I have a tooth extracted, I have a bridge installed to replace it. I learn a foreign language, I take up a meditation practice and my mind has shifted. I age and begin walking with a cane or wearing a hearing aid. The most constant thing in this body and mind is me, my own identity as me. Although my own existence as an independent thing is the fundamental working assumption in my life, I still have an uneasy feeling that I am not there at all, only parts, processes and functions. So I assume the existence of something I cannot see, maybe a soul, a constant essence, or a homunculus, a tiny man in a larger machine, you know, the guy who makes the decisions, sees what the eyes have seen, hears what the ears have heard and in general has all the experiences.

We learned last week how the world, even before we fabricate the formations to understand or describe it, tends to organize itself into functional patterns, and that when we later conceptualize as living beings have among their functions survival and reproduction, to which the function of cognition has adapted. My separate self exists in a world that presents dangers that threaten my survival or reproductive capacity, and at the same time presents resources that I can make use of to secure my survival or enhance my reproductive capacity. Therefore it is natural to think in terms of a fortress, what needs protecting and nourishing on the inside and the dangers and opportunities on the outside. This is probably where I was born as a fabrication: I am the one who is on the inside, where I can defend myself from dangers, and from where I can conduct raids to bring back booty. The world is neatly divided in terms of self and other, subjective and objective, never mind that my own body and mind are also other, and that what is other is a fabrication of my mind.

Luckily and this is in particular lucky for the prospect of Buddhist practice the human mind is quite resourceful, and though it has a strong tendency to become imprisoned in its own conceptualizations, producing an ironic correlation between degree of certainty and degree of delusion, we do not need to be; we are capable of clinging to the fabrication of self only loosely. For instance, teamwork involves the ability to submit certain physical and mental abilities, which we would normally think of belonging to or at least serving the self, unreservedly to a team function, most commonly of winning a game. A really hot basketball team, for instance, will consists of selfless players — who are, at least, able to remain selfless until the game is over players who, tall and gangling, do not each await each play asking his rigid self, “What’s in it for me?” or “How is this going to make me look good?” Effectively a new self, the team, can constitute itself from the bits and pieces of what will return to separate selves after the game.

The Scheming Self. The fortress self is the self of greed and hatred or aversion, seeking personal advantage in a (partially) fabricated world of dangers and resources. Fundamental evolutionary functions are to protect and exploit. Something the Buddha recognized is the role greed and hatred play in how we fabricate the world.

Greed, hatred and delusion, friend, make one blind, unseeing and ignorant; they destroy wisdom, are bound up with distress, and do not lead to Nibbana. AN 3.71

Love will find a way,” we say. Likewise, “cookies will find a way,” “beer will find a way,” and so on. They usually don’t. We interpret lust (in Buddhism a kind of greed) as a need and often abandon all wisdom to attain the object of our lust. Wisdom likewise gives way to anger (in Buddhism a kind of hatred). Perceived through angry eyes the object of our anger, even a close and beloved friend having become perhaps an obstacle to that for which we are greedy, easily turns into something demonic, at least until the anger subsides, losing all good qualities.

Here is a speculative account how delusions may arise on the heals of greed or hatred: If we desire some thing (or dislike some thing), then that thing in our fabricating mind becomes big, it loses its undesirable features and its desirable features grow (or it loses its desirable features and its undesirable features grow). The paths of causal relations that connect the object of desire to the self come alive as plans are considered for the acquisition of the object of desire (or aversion of the object of dislike). Whatever objects lie along those paths grow in prominence, as do their particular features relevant to our plans, while all else shrivels and disappears. Even people become instruments and nothing more, or else obstructions, which then become immediate objects of irritation then hatred, or appreciation then love. The result is that we now reside in a sparse and anxious world fabricated from our own self-centered and highly judgmental manipulations. It is particularly telling what drops out of the world as irrelevant to the self’s concerns. Careers, marriages and health are often neglected and discarded through lust. Even self-destructive behaviors are tolerated as people sacrifice physical health out of lust for food, drink, cigarettes and so on, and mental health out of lust for electronic entertainment, drugs and so on. People are often propelled by lust from one unhealthy and unhappy sexual relationship to another. The victimization of others through our plans, for instance in stealing what is desired, is often ignored. When the object of lust is not attained or is lost, revenge, violence and even murder can ensue.

Now, in the absence of such delusion people tend by nature to be kind, compassionate and generous toward one another, even the most ignoble ruffians. However, delusion quickly displaces virtue, permitting the most horrendous and unimaginable crimes, and it all comes from a misplaced thought, the belief in an separate self. What is worse, when confronted with their crimes, people often respond with another round of delusion to explain away or justify their behaviors. Most people are quite adept at this: “They had no business being there.” “Well, he had it coming.” “That’s not my problem.” “That is one more step toward relieving the world of surplus population.” “Cows don’t feel pain.” “It is a dirty job, but someone has got to do it.” “It is a matter of honor.” “That takes care of it once and for all.” “Oops.”

And this is only the beginning. Next week we continue the discussion of the Problem with Having a Self as we look at suffering and samsara.

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