No-self

A portrait of no-self? Nah, the Invisible Man.

In November 27th’s post, the Dalai Lama and Nagarjuna both stated that the doctrine of no-self (anatman) will sometimes cause fear, with a somewhat extreme example offered by the Dalai Lama of a man shaking when he was given the teaching. In most cases, however, we see that this fear manifests itself as resentment, or obliviousness, and often, as confusion or doubt about the doctrine.

Some who have a hard time grasping this concept are just dealing with inner resistance. With others, it may be a case of not being able to get past what they perceive to be nihilistic aspects. And in other cases, it is simply a matter of poor teaching and/or poor learning.

I think most people who have been exposed to Buddhist teachings understand impermanence and interdependence, at least on some level.  Nearly all Buddhist schools teach about the doctrine of dependent origination. On the other hand, some groups focus on concepts other than the traditional core concepts.

The Soka Gakkai (SGI), for instance, favors such Tendai concepts as esho funi (the oneness of life and environment), shiki shin funi (oneness of body and mind), shobutsu-funi (oneness of living beings and Buddhas), meigo-funi (oneness of delusion and enlightenment), and zen’aku-funi (oneness of good and evil).

Each one of these contains the word funi that, according to the SGI Dictionary, is “an abbreviation of nini-funi, which indicates “two (in phenomena) but not two (in essence).” This points to non-duality, how things may appear to be separate, but are not, instead they are, figuratively speaking, one. It also points to interdependency, the inter-connectedness of things.

These teachings are perfectly valid and illuminating, but in a way, it’s a case of putting the cart before the horse. Without a prior understanding of how the entity of human life fits in the grand scheme of things, it is difficult to have a very deep appreciation of interdependence.

The teachings are there, though. If one looks for them. Ichinen sanzen (three-thousand worlds in a single life-moment) is another way of expressing emptiness and the 10 Worlds and their Mutual Possession is essentially the same as Dependent Origination. Focus on less well-known concepts may be due in part from the SGI’s (and Nichiren traditions in general) desire to set their form of Buddhism apart from the rest of the pack, so to speak. Or it could simply be the Tendai influence. In any case, basic concepts that in most traditions are the starting point, may be obscured.

SGI President Ikeda has on occasion discussed, however briefly, the concept of “no-self”, as in this passage from Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death: Buddhism in the Contemporary World:

We cannot deny that a sense of “self” or ego is necessary for a fulfilling life, but Buddhism firmly points out that there are considerable dangers in the attachment to the idea of “self” as the whole of all that exists. By contrast, Buddhism teaches that the road to liberation from the sufferings of birth and death lies in our awakening to the far broader life that lies beyond the confines of the finite self.

Here the focus is on the “far broader” aspect of life. The way this is phrased, one might be tempted to think that it is inferring the existence of some sort of super-self that “lies beyond the confines of the finite self.” Yet, those with some understanding of no-self will infer the broader context to be the whole matrix of interdependence.

Language or semantics is the root cause for misunderstandings between Buddhist traditions. Whenever I read criticism, say from someone on the Zen side, toward, say, Tibetan Buddhism, or vice versa, it tells me that they have not gotten beyond the appearance of the words to see what’s really there. To me, there is no radical difference between Zen and the Tibetan Gelug school. They’re saying the same thing, just using different words. I could say the same thing about several other traditions as well.

Speaking of semantics, here is an interesting question and answer with the Dalai Lama (from my transcript of teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland, UCLA 1997):

Q: When people ask if Buddhists believe in soul, I don’t know how to answer them. It seems that they are asking about spirit, a belief in a higher power than the ordinary human being’s consciousness. Is the biggest problem semantics?

A: There is probably an element of semantics. Although I use the English word ‘spirit’ or ‘soul,’ I must admit that I do not really know the full implications of these English terms. However, when Buddhists talk about whether or not there is ‘self’, we must take into account the context in which this discourse on no-self takes place. Within the historical context of Indian Buddhism the discourse is about whether or not atman [Brahman concept of a permanent self that is one essence with Brahma or god.] exists. By rejecting atman, Buddhists are not rejecting existence or any basis on which the natural sense of ‘I’ or ‘I am’ arises. Buddhist are not rejecting that. What is being rejected, in the anatman theory, is the metaphysical concept where atman is said to be a metaphysical reality that is eternal and permanent. The problem arises for certain philosophers to accommodate that never-ending continuum with the transient nature of life.

Certainly your point that sometimes the difficulty being semantics is very true. If we were to understand by the word ‘soul’ a basis upon which the natural sense of thoughts of ‘I am’ arise within the individual being, then we could say that soul exists. However, if one understands by the word ‘soul’ a metaphysical reality, like the atman theory, and is independent of mind and body, independent of mental and physical aggregates, something  that is self-sufficient, autonomous, and so on – then, of course, that concept is not tenable in Buddhist thought.

From the Buddhist point of view, ‘self’ or ‘soul’ is not a substance but a stream of consciousness. All that actually exists is a series of states of consciousness, one of which may be a consciousness of those states, but no one of which may be viewed as the true self, something that is permanent, abiding, everlasting. If we think we possess a self that is immortal, to which we should be true, that we must serve and promote, then we are only deceiving ourselves.

Poussin described it in this way: “There is not a self, a permanent substantial unity, but there is a person to be described as ‘a living continuous fluid complex’ which does not remain quite the same for two consecutive moments but which continues . . .” This continuum stretches over an infinite number of existences, bridging an infinite number of births and deaths, without becoming completely different from itself or being conscious of the previous rounds in the cycle.

Regardless of whether or not one believes in the cycle of birth and death or rebirth, the no-self concept is still valid. Instead of an infinite number of existences, think of it as an infinite number of moments. The personality and sense of “I” that we cling to so tightly is not tenable as a permanent entity regardless of whether it’s a matter of one lifetime, or many.

The question that comes up a lot is that if there is no self or soul, then what transmigrates through the cycle of birth and death? The answer is as indicated above, but if it does not seem clear, perhaps that’s because we are not asking the right question. For the majority of Buddhist thinkers of the past, the real question was how is karma carried over into this life and future lives.

The question was resolved by positing this continuum of consciousness. That’s the short answer. I’ll present the long (or longer) answer in tomorrow’s post.

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