Non-Self: The Problem of Having a Self 2

Uposatha Day, New Moon, March 4, 2011

A mind overcome with unskillful qualities borne of greed, aversion and delusion, his mind consumed, dwells in suffering right in the here and now, feeling threatened, turbulent, feverish, and at the breakup of the body, after death, can expect a bad destination. AN 3.69

The self is born from functional behaviors that ensure survivability of an ongoing process, behaviors that protect from a dangerous world, and exploit resources of the world. It arises with greed and ignorance as a fabrication, a compounded thing, dependent on mind. We for the most part dwell in a world of our own fabrication, a world populated with selves, and a conceptual framework to make sense of it, a framework that leans toward seeking personal advantage. Now the first Problem with Having a Self is that the Self is a schemer and is capable of great harm while failing to recognize the harm it produces. We discussed this last week. This week I take up dukkha, personal suffering, and samsara, the round of birth and death where we really get stuck.

The Suffering Self. The world can appear as a candy shop full of delicious sights, sounds and tastes that we want to make ours. We begin a life of toys, electronic gadgets, later power tools, fast cars, fast women, fast food. From a young age our consumer culture, with its relentless marketing of Stuff, cheers us on. The second problem with having a self is that we begin to have a stake in things. We seek to possess that for which we are greedy, and to maintain and protect it from loss. We seek to avoid or get rid of that which we hate and to keep it distant. And of course we have a stake in ourselves, which we seek not only to maintain and protect, but to enhance, to make special and distinct.

So what is wrong with living like this? All of these things are compounded, they are fabricated as tractable islands of stability in a swirling whirling world of relentless change. The world as it really is out-paces our fabrications, and as a result one by one we see everything we hold dear slip away from us, and what we fear intrude, all too soon. We experience life as trying to hold on to a handful of sand and watching it run through our fingers. Things decay, they wilt, they die, they disappear, our once shiny new possessions, our good fortune, our fame, our friends, our loved ones, even our own body’s and our own minds all slip away, and even before they do we experience the insecurity that they will. Nothing is good enough, nothing lasts. It can’t, because our fabrications are always unrealistic ideals. This vexing ever-present gap, this lack, between our fabrications and the way things really are, is unsatisfying, it is tense, it is anxious, it is painful, it is suffering, dukkha. Alongside impermanence and unsubstantiality (non-self), suffering is the middle of the Three Seals of Existence, the stuff of all compounded things.

“Monks, the All is aflame. What All is aflame? The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame. Consciousness at the eye is aflame. Contact at the eye is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging & death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs.” SN 35.28

However, we are slow witted and don’t see the problem. It is as if everything we touch is red hot and burns our fingers, we feel the pain but, puzzled about its source, we continue to handle and pass things around anyway. Our minds deceive us; in spite of abundant evidence of our folly we continue to be seduced by the shiny fabrications and fail to realize that they are, in fact, unreliable, painful and insubstantial.

A man who is greedy for fields, land, gold, cattle, horses, servants, employees, women, relatives, many sensual pleasures, is overpowered with weakness and trampled by trouble, for pain invades him as water, a cracked boat. Snp 4.1 Kama Sutta

More than that, we want even more! Our common diagnosis of the dissatisfaction we are feeling is not that we need to let go of our stake in things, but that we simply do not yet have enough. Silly us. Never reaching the point of enough, the point of contentment, we distract ourselves increasingly with parties, games, public entertainment and private sexual intrigue. There is enthusiasm, laughter, thrills but there is always tension underneath. We get fat and drink too often, and still we cannot wash the lack away. We love and, while briefly rousing, there is no peace to be gained, either we stop or they stop and it turns to tragedy, sometimes hatred, depression, suicide, murder. Tension is the stuff of our lives, our sense of lack only grows, we even begin to lack kindness for those close to us, our feelings are blocked, we are emotionally dead. This is what Thoreau must have meant by “living a life of quiet desperation.”

There is no satisfying sensual desires, even with the rain of gold coins. For sensual pleasures give little satisfaction and much pain. Having understood this, the wise man finds no delight even in heavenly pleasures. The disciple of the Supreme Buddha delights in the destruction of craving. Dhammapada 186-187.

Eventually we die cheated and bitter because the promises of compounded things from which our stake in them arises, have been repeatedly broken. It was all meant to be so perfect.

The Samsaric Self. It is through craving and pursuing thinks, through having a stake in things, that the fortress self takes shape. I start to divide the world into Good and Evil, based on the fabrications I like and those I dislike, what is reassuring and what is threatening, what is an instrument for me and what is an obstacle, who likes me and who dislikes me. There is *Me* at the center of a network of causality that includes these other elements and tends to exclude anything else. The rest of the world has become irrelevant, we become indifferent to it. This becomes the realm of my schemes.

In my neediness, learn to scheme, present myself favorably, exhaust myself at work, eliminate competition, sometimes steal or lie, whatever it takes to satisfy those needs. I begin to build up stature, to become somebody, somebody with money and influence, somebody with a distinct character, a career path, a lifestyle, snazzy clothes. Then when I thought I would feel happy with what I have become instead I feel all the more threatened, since we now have so much more personal identity to lose and to protect than before. The stock market, the kid riding his bike past my shiny new car, the gossiping voices that suddenly become quiet as I enter the room, the storm in the county where I enjoy my weekend cabin, my irritable boss, all become threats that I counter with a larger portfolio, a two-car garage, a more loyal network of friends, an insurance policy, a position of more authority. Feeling decreasingly secure, I have been slurped into the vortex of … Samsara.

My greed and hatred entangles me more and more in a web of unskillful impulses and habits and entangles others in the same, as others try to match my greed lest I take what they have or might want, try to match my hatred in self-defense, and seek revenge where my plans are most fruitful. Envy, resentment at the injustice, stealing a client, angry words. As my greed robs and impoverishes others and my fear and insecurity turns to hate and arouses fear, the world punches back, it tries to bring down what I have accomplished. All the while my search for personal advantage has set a poor example for others, destroying trust and ideals and turns others’ reserves of skillful intentions to cynicism. On the other hand, I seek alliances with others, friendships, insofar as they are of mutual self-interest, letting down my guard enough to engages in exchanges, treaties and cooperative endeavors from which we both benefit.

As my samsaric life takes shape, it begins to express itself in characteristic patterns of behaviors. As such I become noted perhaps for my greed for material things, perhaps for my anger, perhaps for my inclination toward malicious gossip, perhaps for my restlessness as I become desperate for satisfaction, perhaps for my envy or jealousy, perhaps for my sexual affairs or for overeating or over-drinking, perhaps for my defensiveness and fear. As I act out any of these qualities I suffer, all the more when it becomes the emotional tenor of my life, and the lens through which I perceive reality. I find myself living in a realm of my own making, in fact, one of the following realms:

  • Animal Realm. This is the somewhat frantic, restless state that arises in response to the habit of turning all impulses (lust, greed, anger, jealousy, vengefulness, torpor, etc.) into action without reflection. A person of a passionate disposition lives in a world which pulls him this way, then that way, keeping him forever restless, unable to get his coordinates.
  • Hungry Ghost Realm. This is a state of constant lack or dissatisfaction that arises from the habit of trying to satisfy greed. A person of greedy disposition likewise lives in a miserly world, one that withholds what she seeks, who can never get enough.
  • Angry Titan Realm. This is the state of fury directed at all obstacles to one’s ambitions, that arises from the habit of acting out of anger. A person of angry disposition, who thinks angry thoughts, who acts repeatedly on his anger, lives in a world that is increasingly threatening, that is frightening and uncooperative or specifically conspires against him, and encourages even more anger in response.
  • Hell Realm. This is the extreme, overwhelming state in which greedy or hateful impulses have completely lost any bounds.
  • Deva Realm. This contrasts with the above. It is the comfortable, often complacent state relatively untouched by greed or hatred, in which one’s needs are satisfied. A person of a kindly disposition lives in a world of ease, where no personal needs are unmet, where others, even if not acting in an ideal manner, are forgivable.
  • Human Realm. This is a mixed state in which greed or hatred are present, but in which deliberate mastery of one’s emotional states are also possibilities. This is the best realm for Buddhist practice.

Not only do habit patterns shape the emotional tenor of one’s life, but they actually begin to impact health and physical appearance. We are all aware that habitually angry people (titans) are subject to heart disease and other stress-related illnesses. They also take on the characteristic appearance of angry people; they enter a cocktail party and people immediately begin shuffling over to the other side of the room. They tend to look like Klingons. For denizens of Hell this is all the more so. Animals and hungry ghosts take on the effects of overconsumption, such as plumpness. Upturned noses, downturned brows, scowls, these become etched on people’s faces. These habit patterns begin also to shape the successes and failures in one’s life; people would rather do business with a deva than an animal, a human is more likely to have her act together than a hungry ghost. These habit patterns even to a large extent determine who your friends are; people attract others like themselves, or sometimes repel those unlike themselves. We fabricate our world at many levels.

Not only will self-based habit patterns, attitudes and emotions determine your health, physical appearance and social context, but they will replicate themselves in others. For instance, your present alcoholism may still persist a century from now, in your great grandchildren, or in the great grandchildren of your current drinking buddies, and may have been alive in your great grandfather or in the great grandfathers of your drinking buddies. There is some evidence that humans absorb behaviors simply by observation. So, it is common that if a parent smokes, the child will grow up to smoke, if the parent is abusive, the child will grow up to be abusive. If the parents are studious and like to snack, the child will grow up studious and disposed toward snacks. The scheming suffering samsaric self you may have become will, in this sense, tend to replicate itself in your children and in others around you.

Institutional Samsara. I’ve mentioned the capacity scheming suffering samsaric people have for creating alliances, friendships, cooperative agreements, and such. These often further coalesce into street gangs, armies, vigilante groups, sports teams, fan clubs, business partnerships, guilds, clubs, corporations, political parties, unions and governments. The Buddha pointed out how greed and anger give rise to war between armies. The military becomes an institutionalization of hatred, or more properly aversion, aversion toward threat and aversion toward obstacles to greed. Humans generally make their institutions in their own image, only generally more so. Since institutions are becoming increasingly influential in human affairs it might be useful to consider their role in samsaric existence

American courts are fond of treating corporations as people, so it is worth taking them as an example to see how they actually are very much like selves. For-profit corporations are hungry ghosts, an institutionalization of greed, in fact boundless greed where contentment is not an option. This statement is not intended as a value judgment; they are actually structured with these functions in mind. A for-profit is a collaboration among stockholders, expecting returns on investment. and at the same time also institutionalize delusion insofar as they are chartered by governments to have limited liability for the consequences of their activities, such as harm to encountered populations or environments. (British corporations tend even to put the word “Limited” in their names, where American corporations use simply “Inc.” German corporations are clearest, adding “GmbH,” which stands for “Gesellschaft mit beschraenkter Haft,” i.e., “Company with limited Liability.”) This is quite deliberate: Early corporations were instruments of colonial expansion. Current American legal precedent even requires that corporations protect stock-holders’ interests prior any other interests.

For-profit corporations are thus legally constituted as greedy selves, that ignore, by law, anything that is not self-serving. Of course most corporations produce a product or service for sale to customers, so out of self interest they also engage in collaborative exchanges and must cultivate amicable relations with their customer base, just as greedy people will cultivate friendships, and often provide them with quality products in return for their money, so the public perception of most corporations is often positive. However, the harm committed in the operations of often shockingly aggressive corporations is abundantly documented. In short, they operate as designed.

An alarming property of human institutions is that they tend to take on a life of their own, often in spite of the intentions of the people involved. It is puzzling, for instance, that Burma, perhaps currently the most pristinely Buddhist country in the world, is ruled by a brutal military government, who are almost all ostensibly Buddhists! It is more apparent that corporations will do this. For instance, a CEO who neglects stockholder interest out of concern for migrating caribou, say, or for the damage a new monopoly would cause to the proper functioning of free markets, is commonly ousted and replaced by one who will focus entirely on profits. The second CEO takes on part of the character of the corporation and will suffer for it.

Naturally since institutions are selves walking amongst us, they influence the thoughts and behaviors of others. A particularly vexing modern development within human institutions, afforded by technologies of mass communication, are public relations and marketing. Now, the problem with the marketing paradigm from a Buddhist perspective is that it generally relies on provoking the very factors of greed, hate and delusion, and in particular a delusive view of the self that underlies human scheming, suffering and samsara. It produces a society in which Buddha’s words, The All is aflame … aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion,” are still true, but now someone is spraying gasoline from the air. Not only is the appeal of fabrications promoted, a set of values and attitudes that promote a self-enhancing consumer lifestyle is instilled in the culture. By Buddhist reckoning we should expect this to lead to a society which suffers enhanced levels of stress, anxiety, restlessness, despair, anger, fear, greed, envy, ill-will, and slimey behavior. Statistically I suppose this would be reflected in high levels of drug, alcohol and antidepressant use; suicide; divorce rates and crime. Still, most troubling about the power of public relations and marketing is that with too much exposure you live no longer in a world of your own fabrication, but in a world of someone else’s fabrication, fabricated for their own ends, not yours.

Aaaall of this comes from a misplaced thought, the simple belief in an separate self. A little fabrication is a dangerous thing. We now see why, recognizing this perhaps for the first time in human history, the Buddha placed anatta, non-self as “the central doctrine of Buddhism, without understanding of which a real knowledge of Buddhism is altogether impossible.” Next week we turn to anatta in Buddhist practice, how we put what we have learned about anatta to work to alleviate the consequences of this misplaced thought, to end the harm we do others in the name of Self, the harm we do ourselves and the relentless suffering that shadows our lives.

One Response to “Non-Self: The Problem of Having a Self 2”

  1. moe219 Says:

    Did you write all this? This is great!


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