Monday, 2 November 2009

Self, No-self, Psychology and Buddhism

Ha! Thanks for that last post Shonin Justin. I just came across the same over at the Tricycle blog. I posted some comments there and then over at my blog, but figured it's good grist for the Progressive Buddhism mill as well.

In the interview, Epstein says, roughly, that the self is real, it's just not really real. Tricycle editors picked up on that in their title:

The self exists, it’s just not as real as you think.

My response(s) follow, slightly edited.
Hmmm… Is that like saying a creator God exists, it’s just not as real as you think? Sounds fishy. Perhaps skillful, but fishy nonetheless.

Sabbe dhamma anatta, all phenomena are not-self. Even nibbana is anatta. And all of samsara is associated with the 5 khandhas, which are the basis for all other dhammas. Where then, lies the self in Buddhism? (hint, next to unicorns and the creator God).

On second thought, yes, the Buddha does make wide use of the term atta as a reflexive pronoun: “nowhere is found one who is dearer than [one]self; in this way for others too the self is dear. Thus one should not harm others who loves [him/her]self.” (Nevajjhagā piyataramattanā kvaci; Evaṃ piyo puthu attā paresaṃ, Tasmā na hiṃse paramattakāmo’’ti.) fom the Mallika sutta in SN I,3 (#8). But this should be read as making an ethical point rather than a metaphysical one: you [think] you have a self, and it is dear to you; this is also true of others, so develop metta/lovingkindness for all (as you do yourself).

In this way the Buddha uses the term in a practical or conventional manner. When speaking of the true nature of things, though, the above quoted sabbe dhamma anatta, along with anatta as one of the “Marks of Existence” should suggest clearly his teaching of no-self. This is as much of a categorical denial as I can think of. He doesn’t deny the existence of the self to the wanderer Vacchagotta precisely because FOR HIM (this confused Brahmin) it would lead to a belief in annihilationism. So in that instance we have the Buddha’s silence. (SN 44:10)

As for the necessary fiction of self; yes it probably is needed at some level, but at the point of awakening we are said to finally(!) let go of the “asmi mana” the conceit or mania of I AM. I suppose as long as we have the conceit of self, it’s useful to act accordingly :)

I'm curious about the apparent streak of neo-Puggalavadins or Attavadins (those who teach that there is a person, or there is a self) in contemporary Buddhist circles. I suppose it has to do with our cultural fascination with the self: liberating it, actualizing it, helping it. If you're trying to gain self-liberation, self-actualization, or self-help you're probably off on a wild-goose chase. Much like trying to have a conversation with an omniscient, benevolent, creator God.

Check out the Sabbasava sutta. There the Buddha lists 16 unwise reflections:
1. What am I?
2. How am I?
3. Am I?
4. Am I not?
5. Did I exist in the past?
6. Did I not exist in the past?
7. What was I in the past?
8. How was I in the past?
9. Having been what, did I become what in the past?
10. Shall I exist in future?
11. Shall I not exist in future?
12. What shall I be in future?
13. How shall I be in future?
14. Having been what, shall I become what in future?
15. Whence came this person?
16. Whither will he go?
Now, as I mentioned in my first response above, any questioning into the self is thus pretty fishy. BUT, it could perhaps be skillful for some people. Just as in the Tevijja Sutta, where the Buddha tells young Brahmins that he'll teach them "the way to union with Brahma" and in fact teaches them ethics and meditation toward awakening, we perhaps could tell people we'll help them "discover their true self" only to lead them, through ethics and meditation, to the understanding of no-self. I'll leave you with one last snippit from the Pali sources (many thanks to Thanisarro Bhikkhu for compiling some Pali sources on Anatta):
“Monks, where there is a self, would there be (the thought), ‘belonging to
my self’?”
“Yes, lord.”
“Or, monks, where there is what belongs to self, would there be (the thought),
‘my self’?”
“Yes, lord.”
“Monks, where a self or what belongs to self are not pinned down as a truth
or reality, then the view-position—‘This cosmos is the self. After death this I will
be constant, permanent, eternal, not subject to change. I will stay just like that for
an eternity’—Isn’t it utterly & completely a fool’s teaching?” — MN 22
To say that this is a denial of only a certain kind of self seems to me to miss the point. It's like, to reiterate the above, saying that the Buddha only denied a certain kind of creator God, and thus perhaps there is one after all for Buddhists. Any view of self, it seems, is going to spiral into wasted time and effort trying to understand, fix, help, whatever, it (unless, again, guided by a wise teacher toward the understanding that there is no self). Similarly, views of God can be played with (as in the Tevijja sutta) by the wise, in order to bring others to an understanding of ethics, meditation, and wisdom (aka the Buddha's 3-fold path).

But in the hands of the unwise, people like me, speculation on the self or God is just likely to waste time.. how many gods can dance on the head of a pin? Oh, I'm sorry, that was angels. I'll have to speculate on that in a future post.


  1. As the Buddha realized, unwise people like you and I are easily distracted by all of this alluring nonsense, speculation, and distraction and so cannot concentrate on the way to liberation. As the Sutta Nipata so forcibly reminds us,"The way to liberation is to train yourself to live in the present without wanting to become anything.Give up becoming this or that, live without cravings, and experience the present moment with full attention, then you will not cringe at death or seek repeated birth." Ah, but is it not easier to get lost in word play and building air castles?

  2. "Is that like saying a creator God exists, it’s just not as real as you think? Sounds fishy."

    It's not that you don't exist, it's just that you don't exist in an absolute sense - you are not independent, you don't exist 'from your own side', you are not permanent. In other words you are not and don't have an atman. Instead we exist in a provisional, contingent sense as an aspect of this impermanence.

  3. And now Tricycle has a post that is much more un-self-y:

    Count Sneaky - great thoughts (and great name). Do you know where in the Sutta Nipata that is? I'd love to have that handy. Thanks!

    Shonin Justin - sounds like a move to the more sensible "2 Truths" doctrine and Madhyamaka ("from your own side"). Well said.

  4. I suppose it comes down to whether the word 'self' is being used to refer to a provisionally existing psychology, physical form and sense of identity (which are real) or to the literal belief in a separate, independent, continuous existential entity (which is unreal).

    The two truths:
    Conventional truth: "Samsara > Nirvana, Beings > Buddha, Self / Other, Being / Nonbeing etc"
    Ultimate truth: "Nope"
    Reality: "..."

  5. Not being a scholar, I don't always mark the pages.
    However, I will go back in my translation of the Pali
    scriptures and find it for you. We must keep the teachings fresh in our minds and not become distracted by non-essentials. Thanks. Count Sneaky