Unpacking the Self

Tuesday August 1, 2006

Unpacking the Self

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
than oneself.
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.

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#1 · Karma

2 August 2006

I very much appreciated what you say here. There is a similar concept in Judaism to loving-kindness, chesed. I notice that at times when I’m struggling with sharing loving-kindness with someone, it is because I am really struggling with loving-kindness with myself. Also, I notice that when those around me are suffering, that I also suffer; when those around me have freedom from suffering, I suffer less.

#2 · Buddhist Connect

4 August 2006

I am glad you did this post because this is a new discussion topic on Buddhist Connect (http://www.BuddhistConnect.com ) as well.

I agree with the quote by Rave. You must empty your ego to focus on others and what they need. Also, I believe it is important to love yourself, because if you can not take care of yourself (emotionally, physically, spiritual, etc). how are you able to care for others?

#3 · melinda

6 August 2006

this message is so true. it seems people are so easily able to direct fault on others with fury. western education challenges self awareness and inward thought.

fear of god is fear of self. it hurts to see so many angry.
#4 · Jayarava

11 August 2006

Hi Will,

Been swamped with other stuff lately and not reading ThinkBuddha (for shame!). The idea that Anatta exists in this special context of the Upanishadic Atman doctrine is one that needs emphazising!

Funnily enough the Tathagatagarbha doctrine smuggled the idea of a eternal essential self into Buddhism – one major sutra even uses the Atman terminology for it.

Thanks for reading, and happy birthday. Hope that something is recoverable from you dead hard-drive!


Thanks and a belated Happy Birthday!

#5 · Bill Jenkins

24 July 2007

Hi Will,
Great site. The apparent paradox regarding anatta/atman has been occupying my thoughts for some time. A while ago, something popped into my head – namely, my DNA doesn’t change (if I understand correctly). So there is something unique about each one of us, unchanging and permanent. Agreed?

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