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Why There Is No Self: A Buddhist Perspective for the West

Buddhist theory doesn't deny your existence but it helps rid yourself of the myths that you live by

no self magic

Buddhism is famous for its doctrine of no-self (anātman).  Do Buddhists really believe that we have no self? Yes. Isn’t that crazy? No. Do you mean that none of us exist? No. But we don't exist as selves.  And to believe that you do exist as a self is a serious, albeit common, pathology. Let me explain.

The Buddhist doctrine of no-self is not a nihilistic denial of your reality, or that of your friends and relatives; instead, it is a middle way between such a nihilistic denial and a reification of the existence that you do have. That reification is instinctive, and then forms the basis for lots of bad religion and metaphysics, as well as for some really problematic ethical thought and conduct, all of which lead to a mass of suffering. Since Buddhism is all about the release from suffering (they call it nirvāa), and the belief in a self is regarded as a cause of suffering, extirpating that belief is a central project of Buddhist philosophy.

Let us begin by identifying the self whose existence is denied. It is the self that we instinctively regard as the core of our being.  It is the thing which continues as the same entity throughout our lifetime (and into the afterlife or next life if you believe in such things). It is the subject of our experience, the agent of our actions, the possessor of our body and mind, the bearer of our attributes and moral qualities, the ultimate referent of the word ‘I’.

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"There are perceptions, feelings, personality traits, physical parts, such as hands and a heart, but no self. These parts don't have a unity." 

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Buddhists claim that there is no such thing.  The denial has two dimensions—the diachronic and the synchronic.That is, Buddhists deny that anything retains its identity over time (this is the doctrine of universal impermanence), and that even at a given moment, there is no unity to who we are, and nothing in us that answers to the object of our habitual self-grasping. 

Let us begin with the impossibility of anything retaining its identity over time - the diachronic dimension. To see this point, it is useful to distinguish between strict identity and mere similarity. When we say that x is strictly identical to y, we say that x and y share all properties, that they are one and the same thing, perhaps under two different descriptions. So, for instance, Her Majesty the Queen of England is identical to the world’s best known breeder of Welsh corgis in this strict sense. You can't  meet one without meeting the other; you can’t kick one without kicking the other. It is not just that they look so similar, and each wear the same kind of hat.There is only one thing, under two descriptions.

But Her Majesty the Queen now and the young girl who was crowned in 1952 are not strictly identical to one another. They are similar in certain respects, but different in many others. One is much older than the other. One is married to Phillip; one is not. We call them by the same name, but that is because of relationships of similarity and causal continuity, not strict identity.There is no strict identity over time, because any two stages of the same continuum are of different ages, if nothing else, and so do not share all properties, and so are not identical.The fact that we treat individuals as literally the same despite changes over time is a confusion of identity with similarity and causal continuity, not a recognition of an underlying reality. 

But, you might say, even if I have no identity over time, I have an identity right now, a synchronic identity. There is something that is me.And it is a single, unitary thing. Buddhists, however, deny this. They urge instead that while you believe that there is a single unitary you, if only for a moment, there is nothing but a set of causally interrelated psychophysical processes and events that are in turn causally related to prior and succeeding such collections. There are perceptions, feelings, personality traits, physical parts, such as hands and a heart, but no self. These parts don't have a unity. You can take some away and still be you. You can replace some, and still be you. You can add new ones, and still be you. And if you take them all away, one by one, until there is no body and no mind left, there is no you remaining.

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"You imagine yourself not to be your body, but to have a body; not to be your mind, but to have a mind, not to be your experiences, but to have your experiences. That is, you imagine yourself to be some simple thing behind it all." 

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That is to say, you are not identical with those parts; nor are you different from them.Nor are you their owner or possessor, or something dependent upon them. You are a fiction that you and those around you have created.You imagine yourself not to be your body, but to have a body; not to be your mind, but to have a mind, not to be your experiences, but to have your experiences. That is, you imagine yourself to be some simple thing behind it all.

But, you protest, I never had any such silly idea at all. Who would ever think that s/he is anything other than a set of psychophysical processes? You, answers the Buddhist. And here is an easy way to convince yourself that you do succumb to the self-reification instinct, even if you recognize that it is a metaphysical error. Think of somebody whose body you’d love to have, for whatever reason. I have always wanted to have Ussain Bolt’s body, at his peak, for just about 9.4 seconds.Just to see what it feels like to go that fast. You probably have other desires.

In any case, I don't want to be Ussain Bolt. That would do me no good. He is already Ussain Bolt. I want to be me with Ussain Bolt’s body. That shows that I do not take myself to be my body, but to possess that body, because I can imagine (whether coherently or not) being me with a different body.

But how about my mind? Same thing. Imagine somebody whose mind  you would like to have for a little while. I would like Stephen Hawking’s. Just for a bit. So that I could understand general relativity and quantum gravity. It would be so cool. Again, I don't want to be Stephen Hawking. He already is, and that does me no good. I want to be me with his mind. That shows that (whether coherently or incoherently) I don’t imagine myself to be my mind, but to be its possessor, which could be the same self with a different mind. (And, by the way, I can desire to have both Bolt’s body and Hawking’s mind at the same time, so that I can see what it is like to understand quantum gravity while running 100 meters in under 10 seconds.)

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"Imagine somebody whose mind  you would like to have for a little while. I would like Stephen Hawking’s. I want to be me with his mind. That shows that I don’t imagine myself to be my mind, but to be its possessor." 

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That self—the one that owns but is not identical to the body and mind—that subject of experience and agent of action, is the self that we all instinctively take ourselves to be, but which Buddhist philosophers argue does not exist. Take away the physical and the mental, and nothing remains. So, even at a given moment, I am not a self.

Does that mean that I am nothing?Not at all. And here another distinction is helpful, that between a self and a person.We have seen what a self is supposed to be—the simple, continuing thing with which I identify.But a person is a different kind of thing: a continuum of causally related psychophysical processes that plays a role in the world.In fact, the word person, in English, captures this perfectly. The word comes from persona, a mask, or a role in theatre.

Selves, if there were such things, would be independent metaphysically real entities.  Persons are constructed, or designated by our own psychological and social processes, and reflect the role that we play for each other as individuals in a collectively constituted world, a world constructed in our experience and mutual action in response to our psychological, perceptual and social natures. Persons are complex, interdependent and impermanent, constantly changing and causally enmeshed with their environments. We are persons who take ourselves to be selves; and that is the Buddhist diagnosis of the root of our psychological problems.The solution to those problems, in this view, is to be found in stopping that reification and self-grasping.

What’s wrong with self-grasping?  Well, it creates a distorted view of reality, with each of us as selves at the centre of their own universe, and everything else arrayed around us as our objects. That leads in turn to selfishness, a view that it is rational to act in our own narrow self-interests, and anxiety about the preservations of the integrity and the welfare of the self. All of this leads to greed, anger, fear, conflict and general unhappiness.

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"The concept of the self creates a distorted view of reality, with each of us as selves at the centre of their own universe, and everything else arrayed around us as our objects." 

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How all of this works is a long story — too long to summarize here — and it is the burden of much Buddhist ethical theory and moral psychology to tell that story. But the basic idea is this: once I take myself to be this special kind of entity, I have a relationship to that entity of identity that I have with nothing else, and so it seems rational to give it special priority, and so on for everyone and their self. And so we get this crazy competition of interests between beings whose lives and interests are in fact completely interdependent.

When we experience ourselves as decentered persons, however, we experience ourselves as part of a larger network of others, whose interests we share, and whose pains and pleasures we share as well. This allows the cultivation of the set of virtues known in the Buddhist tradition as the brahmavihāras, or divine states.They are benevolence, care, sympathetic joy and impartiality.

Each is understood as a kind of detached concern for others not with our own interests and desires in view, but with theirs as the object of our state.  So, attached love is different from benevolence, because I wish well for the beloved because I love her, as opposed to because she deserves happiness; sympathetic joy is different from shared joy, because I rejoice in her happiness, not in the happiness that brings me. This is a Buddhist view of rational moral commitment grounded in selflessness.

So, I conclude, the Buddhist no-self doctrine is not a strange mysticism or nihilism; it is just common sense. It does not undermine agency or morality; it explains why agency and morality are possible; it should not provoke despair; it should enable confidence.


 

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Mirek Forbes on 08/03/2018 12:48pm

You do not want Stephen Hawking’s *mind* but his cognitive abilities, surely? Is the mind not the place where the character of thought sits, the result of the cognitive abilities combined with experience... and possibly the soul? Could it not be argued that the mind is where the physical and transcendent aspects of ourselves are held together?
I would argue that the mind refers to that beyond what we are able to put our fingers on, as it is not the frontal lobe of Stephen or the legs of Usain. The mind is held up by the frontal lobe and the legs, both dependent on those two parts yet beyond their functions. The self might not be ‘independent metaphysical entities’ but the combination of a metaphysical and a physical, only possibly in that combination.

Grasping the self I agree leads to selfishness and all the negative stuff you mentioned. Attempting domination over others and the world leads to negativity and bad things. But must we aim for annihilation of the self? Why not annihilation of selfishness?

Khris Loux on 22/02/2018 2:16am

Thank you for the indepth overview of Buddhist thinking on the Self.

There is a question that remains. If we strip away the belief that we are the body/mind/emotions then what remains to be sympathetic or loving?

Would it be truthful to say that what remains is the Self as consciousness or awareness?

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