Tuesday August 1, 2006
A couple of weeks ago, in a post on Loving Kindness, I suggested that the idea of self-cherishing is one that is important for ethics, despite Buddhist teachings on anatta or non-self. I want to follow up my earlier post with a few more thoughts on this seeming paradox. But first, I’ll quote from the text that prompted these thoughts, drawn from the Udana. The passage, in a slightly different translation from that on the previous post, is as follows:
Searching all directions
with one’s awareness,
one finds no one dearer
In the same way, others
are fiercely dear to themselves.
So one should not hurt others
if one loves oneself.
(Raja Sutta Translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
In this passage, the fact of one’s own self-cherishing is taken as simply that: a fact. We cherish ourselves. We want to be happy. We do not want to be harmed. It is through recognising the depth of this self-cherishing, and through recognising that others cherish themselves every bit as fervently as we do ourselves, that it is possible to develop an ethical sensibility. This seems to make sense, but the problem of how this squares with the idea of anatta or “no self” in Buddhism does not thereby disappear. So what is going on here? The paradox can be resolved, I think, by understanding what function the “no self” doctrine is serving, at least in the early texts. In his excellent How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings, Richard Gombrich writes:
In western languages, the Buddha is presented as having taught the doctrine of ‘no soul’. What is being denied – what is a soul? Western languages are at home in the Christian cultural tradition. Christian theologians have differed vastly over what the soul is. For Aristotle, and thus for Aquinas, it is the form of the body, what makes a given individual person a whole rather than a mere assemblage of parts. However, most Christians conceive of the soul, however vagulely, in a completely differnt way, whcih goes back to Plato: that the soul is precisely other than the body, as in the common expression ‘body and soul’, and is some kind of disembodied mental, and above all, moral, agent, which survives the body at death. But none of this has anything to do with the Buddha’s position. He was opposing the Upanisadic theory of the soul. In the Upanisads the soul, atman, is opposed to both the body and the mind; for example, it cannot exercise such mental functions as memory or volition. It is an essence… Once we see what the Buddha was arguing against, we realise that it was something very few westerners have ever believed in and most have never even heard of. He was refusing to accept that a person had an unchanging essence. Moreover, since he was interested in how rather than what, he was not so much saying that people are made of such and such components, and the soul is not among them, as that people function in such and such ways, and to explain their functioning there is no need to posit a soul. The approach is pragmatic, not purely theoretical. ( How Buddhism Began Delhi: Munishiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd. 1996 15-16)
If we follow Gombrich’s reading, the Buddha is refuting a metaphysical doctrine – that of the Upanisadic theory of the soul. This is not to say that he is making a metaphysical claim of his own. In talking of the absence of atman, the Buddha is merely saying that the idea of such an entity does absolutely nothing, in a pragmatic sense, to throw light on the constitution of human beings. It does nothing to help us understand this self of ours, or the selves of others.
Rather than positing a metaphysical theory of what it is to be human, it is possible to see the teaching on anatta as a break with metaphysical concerns. If we give up on refined and abstruse doctrines of soul, we can return to a closer attentiveness to what actually happens, what goes on, in this body and mind, in this physical frame of ours that is so very fragile. And when we pay attention to this, we find that, yes, we are concerned with ourselves, we do fear hunger, heat and cold, wounding, we do long for comfort, ease and the kindness of others. It is only then – when we have renounced our concerns with heady metaphysics and returned to the tenderness and the fragility of human experience, that we can begin to see clearly that others, too, suffer as we suffer, that they too long for a kind word or gesture.
I’ll sum up by quoting Jayarava, who posted on this topic over at the Jayarava Rave some months ago:
Selflessness then need not say anything about whether or not we have a self, or an ego, but it does point to an attitude which seeks the benefit of others. Self-preoccupation… is best tackled by becoming aware of other people as people. And for that we need to have a sense of selfhood.
Comments are turned off for this article.
Today's Most Popular
The Inferno of the Living: Thursday April 5, 2007
Catholicism, Calvino and life in the inferno.
Meditation as Natural History: Monday January 7, 2008
Meditation, natural history, and medieval books of beasts.
Life Without Free Will: Friday September 1, 2006
The lights are on, but there’s nobody at home…
Human Practices: Tuesday January 16, 2007
Things lost – and gained – in translation.
Oi! Are You Looking at My Triangle?: Tuesday March 6, 2007
Attachment to triangles.
Religious Offences: Thursday December 21, 2006
Religion, offence and public life.
Kluginess: Wednesday June 3, 2009
Thought’s on Gary Marcus’s book “Kluge”
Football and Renunciation: Wednesday June 14, 2006
Do football and Buddhism mix?
Texts, Bones and Early Buddhists: Monday October 27, 2008
Life and literature in accounts of early Buddhism.
On Moral Evolutionism: Wednesday July 26, 2006
Are we better than we used to be? Are we worse? Thoughts on morality and history.
Zen, Brains and Making Friends With Your Own Head: 10 Nov, 2008
It’s a complicated business having a brain.
Lies in Which not Everything is False: 10 Sep, 2008
Stories – they are nothing but a pack of lies.
The Sutras of Abu Ghraib: 30 Oct, 2007
Aidan Delgado on Buddhism, ethics and the war in Iraq.
Baboon: 06 Jun, 2006
Feeling like a grumpy old baboon?
Meditation as Unphenomenology: 07 Feb, 2008
Meditation, cartography and the territory of the mind.