Monday, March 29, 2010

Going Against The Stream: The Not-Self Teaching of the Buddha

The Buddha is alleged to have said, in regard to the Dhamma he discovered, the following: “This Dhamma that I have attained is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise.” (MN: 26; 19, Ariyapariyesana Sutta, Bodhi, 2005: 69) He is also reputed to have said that his teaching and yogic practices “go against the stream.” (Levine, 2007: 17) By this it is meant that much the Buddha teaches, and what he asks us to practice, goes against the stream of our conditioning: the biological, environmental, cultural, and social conditioning we are all heirs to. His Dhamma is often what we might call, “counter-intuitive.” For instance, when we experience anger, the conditioned (natural) reaction to the discomfort and pain of anger is to either attempt to repress it or express it. Both strategies are designed to “get rid of it”: to avoid feeling the anger. But the Buddha suggests the third, counter-intuitive approach of feeling the anger non-reactively, in order to investigate its characteristics. In seeing the true nature of anger, he tells us that we can free ourselves from anger and find the freedom to creatively respond to the situation.
Most students do not want to hear this. They find it difficult to understand how opening to experience, just as it is, can ultimately lead to freedom. But of all the difficult to understand, subtle and profound teachings of the Buddha, perhaps none has presented as much difficulty as his teaching of anatta or not-Self. The idea that there is no Self to be found in phenomenal experience seems so counter-intuitive to most people that it borders on the nonsensical and irrational. But most of this difficulty is due to unquestioned assumptions, as well as misconceptions and misunderstandings of experience. The Buddha offers the teaching of anatta in order to question these assumptions and to make clear the misconceptions and misunderstandings through the yogic practice of mindfulness meditation.

Perhaps the most basic unquestioned assumption people tend to hold that is challenged by the teaching of not-Self is that they have a Self and they know what it is. Until they are asked what it even means to say “I have a Self,” or “I am a Self,” they have rarely given it much thought. When finally asked, they tend toward statements referring to an “inner life.” Cognitive scientists have shown that the felt sense of an “inner life” is based on a fundamental distinction between what they call the Subject and one or more Selves. “The Subject is the locus of consciousness, subjective experience, reason, will, and our ‘essence,’ everything that makes us who we uniquely are. There is at least one Self and possibly more. The Selves consist of everything else about us – our bodies, our social roles, our histories, and so on.” (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999: 268) For most people, what Lakoff and Johnson call “the Subject” is what they mean by the “Self.” Often, they distinguish this “Self” as their “True Self” from their “small self.”

Cognitive science seems to say that this “Subject/Self,” or as I notate it, “Self/self” distinction is far from arbitrary, but in fact expresses apparently universal experiences of an “inner life.” The metaphors for conceptualizing our inner lives are grounded in universal experiences (from learning how to manipulate and control objects as well as our body, to the disparity we may feel between our conscious values and the values implicit in our behavior, to the inner dialog and internal monitoring we engage in) that appear to be unavoidable, arising as they do from common experience. What is most revealing about this is that each metaphor conceptualizes the Self (Subject) as being person-like, with an existence separate and independent from the self (body/mind/social roles etc.). Thus the Self takes on a metaphysical import.

“…the very way that we normally conceptualize our inner lives is inconsistent with what we know scientifically about the nature of mind. In our system for conceptualizing our inner lives, there is always a Subject that is the locus of reason and that metaphorically has an existence independent of the body. … this contradicts the fundamental findings of cognitive science. And yet, the conceptualization of such a Subject arises around the world uniformly on the basis of apparently universal and unchangeable experiences. If this is true, it means that we all grow up with a view of our inner lives that is mostly unconscious, used every day of our lives in our self-understanding, and yet both internally inconsistent and incompatible with what we have learned from the scientific study of the mind. (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999: 268)

The neuroscience researcher, Antonio Damasio, in The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, describes how the sense or feeling of an inner self that is conceptualized as “an observer, a perceiver, a knower, a thinker and a potential actor” arises. (Damasio, 1999: 10/11) Briefly, he asserts that first there is a totally unconscious “interconnected and temporarily coherent collection of neural patterns which represent the state of the organism, moment by moment” which he calls the “proto-self.” Then, a “second-order nonverbal account occurs whenever an object modifies the proto-self.” This “core self can be triggered by any object” but it too is transient, ceaselessly recreated for each and every object with which the brain interacts. (Damasio, 1999: 17/174)

However, the traditional notion of self is linked to identity and the collection of unique facts that characterize a person. Damasio calls this the “autobiographical self” that depends upon “autobiographical memory that is constituted by implicit memories of multiple instances of individual experience of the past and of the anticipated future.” (Damasio, 1999: 174) Each of the two higher order “selves” requires the lower order ones in order to manifest.

"When we discover what we are made of and how we are put together, we discover a ceaseless process of building up and tearing down…. It is astonishing that we have a sense of self at all, that we have – that most of us have, some of us have – some continuity of structure and function that constitutes identity, some stable traits of behavior we call a personality….

… the brain reconstructs the sense of self moment by moment. We do not have a self sculpted in stone and, like stone, resistant to the ravages of time. Our sense of self is a state of the organism, the result of certain components operating in a certain manner and interacting in a certain way, within certain parameters. It is another construction, a vulnerable pattern of integrated operations whose consequence is to generate the mental representation of a living being." (Damasio, 1999: 144/145)

From this apparently universal and inescapable intimation of an “inner self,” the notion of an indwelling “ghost,” “spirit,” or “soul” became part of many folk traditions. (Feuerstein, 1996: 17) In India, this led to the concept of the Ātman defined by Georg Feuerstein as:

“Self” or “self.” Since Sanskrit does not have capital letters, the context alone determines whether the empirical self, or ego personality (jīva) or the transcendental Self is intended…. The word ātman, though primarily a reflexive pronoun, has been used to denote the transcendental Self since the time of the ancient Upanishads. As such it is a key concept of Hindu metaphysics, notably Vedānta and Vedānta-based schools of Yoga…. The problem is that the Self is by definition not within reach of the mind and the senses…. As the archaic Brihad-Āranyaka-Upanishad (3.7.23) declares in a well-known passage, the Self cannot be grasped because it is the grasper, the seer of everything. In other words, the Self reveals itself only to itself. Hence the Shiva-Samhitā (1.62) states: “The renouncer of all volition certainly beholds the Self in the Self by the Self.” (Feuerstein, 1997: 42)

We are not who or what we think we are. This is the evidence of scientific research, as well as the hypothesis and assertion of the Indian religious/spiritual/yogic imagination. As Stephen Cope summarizes it, “the single most pervasive theme in yogic scriptures and folktales: Our true self remains deeply hidden, incognito, submerged beneath a web of mistaken identities.” (Cope, 1999: xix)

At the time of the Buddha, as it is now in many spiritual traditions, the spiritual quest was seen primarily as the search for, the realization of, and the liberation of one’s “True Self” (Sanskrit ātman; Pāli atta) from the misidentification with the “small self.” As we have seen from the above, the sense of an “inner life” led to the postulation of such an entity thought of “as a person’s permanent inner nature – the source of true happiness and the autonomous ‘inner controller’ of action.” (Harvey, 2001: 79)

"To feel that, however much one changes in life from childhood onwards, some essential part remains unchanged as the ‘real me’, is to have a belief in a permanent Self. To act as if only other people die and to ignore the inevitability of one’s own death, is to act as if one had a permanent Self. To relate changing mental phenomena to a substantial self which ‘owns’ them – ‘I am worried… happy… angry’ – is to have such a Self concept. To identify with one’s body, ideas, actions, etc., is to take them as part of an ‘I’ or Self-entity." (Harvey, 2001: 79)

The Buddha too, agreeing with the larger Indian tradition, taught that we are not who or what we think we are. However, he differed from them in saying that the Self sought by his contemporaries did not exist. By analyzing what we consider as a ‘being,’ ‘individual,’ an ‘I’ or a “self,” the Buddha came to the startling, counter-intuitive understanding that no such permanent, unchanging, independent, autonomous entity can be found to exist.

What he found is that what we call a ‘being’ or ‘self’ is in fact a combination of ever-changing physical and mental forces or energies, which may be divided into five groups or aggregates (pañcakkhandha). (Rahula, 1974: 20) They are the ‘form aggregate,’ the ‘feeling aggregate,’ the ‘perception aggregate,’ the ‘volitional formations aggregate,’ and the ‘consciousness aggregate.’ The Buddha says: “So long as I did not directly know as they really are the five aggregates subject to clinging in four phases, I did not claim to have awakened to the unsurpassed perfect enlightenment…. But when I directly knew all this as it really is, then I claimed to have awakened….” (SN 22:56; III 58 – 61, Bodhi, 2005: 335)

In directly knowing the four phases of form, its origin, its cessation and the way leading to its cessation (and the same for the other four aggregates), the Buddha saw that all five aggregates are impermanent and conditioned, dependently arising upon causes and conditions and falling away with the falling away of causes and conditions. The view of “self” or “identity view” arises when the “uninstructed worldling” takes form as self, or self as possessing form, or form as in self, or self as in form. These same four possibilities are possible for each of the other four aggregates. When one does this with any one or any combination of the aggregates, identity view comes to be.

The Buddha offered a critique of this by saying that if any individual aggregate or combination of aggregates were self, they would not lead to affliction, and it would be possible to control them saying “Let my form be this; let my form not be this… let my feelings… let my perceptions… let my volitional formations… let my consciousness be this; … not this.” (SN 22:59; III 66 – 68, Bodhi, 2005: 341)

In another teaching, the Buddha compares form (the body) to a lump of foam; feeling to a water bubble rising and bursting on the surface of water; perception to a shimmering mirage; volitional formations to the trunk of a banana tree; and consciousness to a magical illusion. He says a wise person “with good sight” would inspect, ponder and carefully investigate these phenomena and would come to see each of them as “void, hollow, insubstantial.” He ends by saying that when this ‘emptiness’ of any essential core or substantiality is truly seen, the practitioner becomes disenchanted with the aggregates, which leads to dispassion and thus the release of grasping and clinging. And through dispassion, the mind is liberated. (SN 22:95; III 140-42, Bodhi, 2005: 343 – 345)

The Buddha’s not-Self teaching does not deny the conventional usages of the word ‘self’ as in reflexively speaking of ‘yourself’ or ‘myself.’ What we call a ‘being’ or a ‘self’ in this conventional manner is simply a consensual, convenient name or label we apply to the collection of the five aggregates, each and every one of them impermanent and constantly changing. There is nothing behind the changing flux, no permanent substance or entity that can be rightly called ‘I.’ There is an empirical ‘self,’ but no metaphysical ‘Self’ to be found. This is the ‘autobiographical self’ Damasio speaks of.

"A ‘person’ is a collection of rapidly changing and interacting mental and physical processes, with character-patterns recurring over some time. Only partial control can be exercised over these processes; so they often change in undesired ways, leading to suffering. Impermanent, they cannot be a permanent Self. Suffering, they cannot be an autonomous true ‘I’, which would contain nothing that was out of harmony with itself. While nirvāṇa is beyond impermanence and dukkha, it is still not-Self. Though it is unconditioned, it has nothing in it which could support the feeling of ‘I’-ness, for this can only arise with respect to the conditioned khandhas and it is not even a truly valid feeling there." (Collins, S., 1982, Selfless Persons: Imagery and Thought in Theravada Buddhism, pp. 98 – 9, as cited in Harvey, 2001: 80).

It is clear from the preceding that the Buddha, and the Buddhist tradition accepts the existence of a conventional, empirical ‘self’ understood to be the unique aggregation of physical and mental factors (the khandhas) that are individually and collectively impermanent, ever-changing, dependently conditioned. What is not accepted is that there exists within or without these physical and mental factors a permanent, independent, autonomous Self, individual or ‘I.’ There is no mover behind the movement; no thinker behind the thought.

This all seems to agree with the most contemporary findings of cognitive and neuro-science, as shown above. Science helps explain how the feeling that “Self” exists can arise based upon conditions. The Buddhist tradition also offers an explanation. Mahāyāna Buddhism built upon the not-Self teaching to emphasize the ‘emptiness’ of all phenomena of any self-nature (sva-bhava). That all phenomena are empty of self-nature means they are all inter-dependently arisen. That all phenomena are inter-dependently arisen means they are empty of self-nature. Contemporary physics tells us that because all phenomena are ‘coreless,’ each part of the universe contains the whole and each part depends on all the other parts. An object’s mass – it’s resistance to movement – comes from the influence of the entire universe. (Ricard, M. & Thuan, T., 2001: 70)

In the book, The Quantum and the Lotus, we ‘sit-in’ on a discussion between Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and Trinh Xuan Thuan, a professor of astrophysics. In an interesting and very telling exchange, Ricard begins:

R: Phenomena are interdependent because they coexist in a global reality, which functions according to mutual causality. Phenomena are naturally simultaneous because one implies the presence of the other. We are back with ‘this can only be if that also exists; this can change only if that also changes.’ Thus we arrive at an idea that everything must be connected to everything else. Relationships determine our reality, the conditions of our existence, particles and galaxies.

T: Such a vision of interdependence certainly agrees with the results of the experiments I’ve just mentioned…. This is extremely disturbing for physicists.

R: I think that we have a good example here of the difference between the scientific approach and Buddhism. For most scientists, even if the global nature of phenomena has been demonstrated in rather a disturbing way, this is merely another piece of information, and no matter how intellectually stimulating it may be, it has little effect on their daily lives. For Buddhists, on the other hand, the repercussions of the interdependence of phenomena are far greater.
The notion of interdependence makes us question our basic perception of the world, and then use this new perception again and again to lessen our attachments, our fears, and our aversions. An understanding of interdependence should demolish the wall of illusions that our minds have built up between ‘me’ and ‘the other.’ If not only all inert things but also all living beings are connected, then we should feel deeply concerned about the happiness and suffering of others…. Thus knowledge of interdependence leads to a process of inner transformation, which continues throughout the journey of spiritual enlightenment.

T: So the interdependence of phenomena equals universal responsibility. What a marvelous equation! It reminds me of what Einstein said: “A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.’” (Ricard & Thuan, 2001: 71 – 72)

The not-Self teaching offered by the Buddha is not meant to be a philosophy to adopt, a belief to accept or simply a ‘good idea.’ It is not, even, as such, a denial of the existence of a permanent Self. Like the body of the Buddha’s teaching, the not-Self teaching is meant primarily as a practical teaching aimed at the overcoming of attachment because the clinging and grasping after phenomena that are by nature impermanent, and ever changing, causes pain (dukkha) and is itself painful.

To grasp at not-Self and emptiness as concepts, failing to see that the teaching is just the means to accomplish the task Einstein refers to in the quote above, to break through what Georg Feuerstein calls “the Self-contraction,” can lead to much confusion and suffering. “In the Maharatnakuta Sutra, the Buddha says: ‘It is better to be caught in the idea that everything exists than to be caught in the idea of emptiness. Someone who is caught in the idea that everything exists can still be disentangled, but it is difficult to disentangle someone who is caught in the idea of emptiness.’” (Hanh, 1993: 33)
To engage with the teaching of not-Self, we must first bring into awareness what we may have unconsciously identified with as Self. Apparently, cognitive science shows us that all human beings develop a sense of some ‘inner self’ behind their thoughts, feelings, emotions, perceptions, consciousness and actions. This sense of self arises so naturally that we rarely question it. Once we bring the unquestioned assumption into the light of inquiry, we are then asked to carefully, mindfully observe all experienced phenomena until we can see for ourselves that nowhere can be found any such entity.

Many people, when they hear the Buddha’s teaching on not-Self and emptiness find this frightening and disturbing: “You mean I will cease to exist?” But as I’ve attempted to make clear in this paper, such a question itself is based upon the false assumption that an ‘I’ ever exists at all. The Buddha did not teach, as many spiritual traditions do, that we must destroy the self, but that this idea of a self is illusory to begin with, based upon ignorance of reality. When this ignorance eases, so too does our misperception of self. When that has been clarified, there is no basis for fear. Through continual practice we get to taste ‘drops of emptiness,’ intimations of freedom from the attachment to self. Either through many such ‘tastes,’ or through an intense and deep draught, one’s life may be transformed. Ultimately, it isn’t a matter of letting go of self or the idea of self, but rather, the idea itself dissolves, letting go of ‘you.’

The final step of the Ānāpānasati Sutta is patinissaggā, meaning to throw back or to give back. We give back or return everything to which we have been attached. The Buddha tells us that the highest understanding is to take nothing as self or belonging to self. In describing this step, Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu says “Throughout our lives we have been thieves. All along, we have been stealing things that exist naturally, that belong to nature, namely, the sankhāra. We have plundered them and taken them to be our selves and our possessions…. Don’t claim anything to be ‘I’ or ‘mine’ ever again!” (Buddhadāsa, 1997: 97)

Bodhi, B., 2005, In The Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the P āli Canon, Boston, Wisdom Publications

Buddhadāsa, B., 1997 Mindfulness With Breathing: A Manual for Serious Beginners, Boston, Wisdom Publications

Cope, S., 1999, Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, NYC, Bantam Books

Damasio, A., 1999, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, NYC, Harcourt Brace & Company

Feuerstein, G. 1997, The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga, Boston, Shambhala

Feuerstein, G. 1996, The Philosophy of Classical Yoga, Rochester, VT, Inner Traditions International

Hanh, N., 1993, Thundering Silence: Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Catch a Snake, Berkeley, Parallax Press

Harvey, P. ed., 2001, Buddhism, London, Continuum

Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M., 1999, Philosophy In The Flesh: The Embodied Mind and it’s Challenge to Western Thought, NYC, Basic Books

Levine, N., 2007, Against the Stream: A Buddhist Manual for Spiritual Revolutionaries, NYC, Harper Collins Publishers

Rahula, W., 1974, What The Buddha Taught, NY, Grove Press

Ricard, M. & Thuan, T., 2001, The Quantum and the Lotus, NY, Three Rivers Press


Anonymous said...

Very nicely articulated! I am also so glad to see you use Not-self rather than no-self, as the distinction is an important one, and a point of confusion for many. Excellent article!

Dana Nourie

streamentry said...

I am realizing more and more to a deeper level how important is the teaching of non-self, selfless or impersonal nature of all dukkha and human experience. This teaching is particularly useful for gently detaching from long-term emotional and physical pain and trauma. Peace

Poep Sa Frank Jude said...

"streamentry," thanks for your comment. It is indeed a great "enl-ightening-up" when the realization that there is not a hard and fast 'self' one must continually construct and maintain.

Note, however, that I do think it better to think of anatta as "not-self" more than "non-self." That there is an 'empirical self,' or what Damasio refers to as an "autobiographical self" I think cannot and should not be denied. BUT, what that 'self' is, is a flow, a process and not an entity or thing. Thus, "not-self."

I hope this adds clarity to my point and that it can allow for a deepening of the 'gentle' letting go of duhka!

Thanks again for visiting this blog; I hope you'll continue to check in and comment as moved!


Anonymous said...

I’m puzzled by Damasio’s autobiographical self. It comes by definition near to the traditional notion by which the self is a collection of unique facts that characterize the person.

Frank Jude, you write that there is nothing behind the changing flux , no permanent substance that can be called «I». I agree. It’s not behind the flux. But it does arise out of the flux of proto-self and core-self. Right? After having thought about Damasio’s proto-self, core-self and autobiographical self, it seems to me that his biographical self is exactly that which is permanent. You write that Buddhist tradition does not accept that within these physical and mental factors (proto- and core-self) exists a permanent self (autobiographical self). Don’t you think that within Damasio’s concept, there exists such a permanent self?

How does Damasio’s permanent self differ from that which the Buddhist tradition says it does not exist ? Of course, the scientific picture paints a picture within which the autobiographical self arises based upon conditions (proto-self and core-self). But nonetheless, these changing conditions create something permanent, at least from childhood until our end. But how could this insight into this process dissolve our fear of ceasing to exist?

I think it is not correct to say that it is a false assumption that an « I » exists. But this «I» is something other than we thought it is. It is not immortal, it is not a thing, but it is a process (autobiographical self) that arises out of conditions (proto-self and core-self). But we still experience this « I » or self. So how should our fear of ceasing be diminished?

Poep Sa Frank Jude said...


Damasio's "autobiographical self" is a construct. By definition, a construct (what the buddha called a samskara or 'formation') is conditioned and thus NOT an independently existent entity. Note the passage I quoted from Damasio:

"When we discover what we are made of and how we are put together, we discover a ceaseless process of building up and tearing down…. It is astonishing that we have a sense of self at all, that we have... some continuity of structure and function that constitutes identity, some stable traits of behavior we call a personality….

… the brain reconstructs the sense of self moment by moment. We do not have a self sculpted in stone and, like stone, resistant to the ravages of time. Our sense of self is a state of the organism, the result of certain components operating in a certain manner and interacting in a certain way, within certain parameters. It is another construction, a vulnerable pattern of integrated operations whose consequence is to generate the mental representation of a living being." (Damasio, 1999: 144/145)

There is nothing permanent about it! It is constantly changing (one example is how every time you remember something from your past, the memory itself is changed!) and contingent upon the neuronal processes of the proto and core selves.

That this SENSE of a self arises from conditions is exactly what the buddha taught as opposed to the idea that a real existent self exists "behind the changing flux" and Damasio says the same thing here.

Damasio is saying that no-thing is permanent; the autobiographical self itself is always changing from birth to death.

I think your concluding question is answered in the final three paragraphs of my essay. Please re-read and if your question remains, feel free to reply again!

Anonymous said...

Frank Jude,

thanks for the clarifications. I think I´ve got it.

And to my concluding question, after thinking about it again, I think you mentioned the core of the teaching of not-self when you point out in your article: "Through continual practice we get to taste ‘drops of emptiness,’ intimations of freedom from the attachment to self."

I will see what I will experience through my practice of zazen in meditation and daily life.

Clover said...

This is really a great read for me. Thank you for publishing articles having a great insight stimulates me to check more often for new write ups. Keep posting!


Poep Sa Frank Jude said...

Thanks for your support, Clover. Writing is a solitary endeavor, so it's nice to know some people are reading and finding these posts helpful.