As it says at the beginning of this text, the teaching of no-self is a tough one to come to terms with. It’s one of the most anti-intuitive notions Zen students eventually come across, and it takes some investigation and experimentation to begin to pick apart. Zen priest and prolific Zen author Brad Warner walks us through his own perspective in his signature offbeat way and attempts to explain the wider Buddhist perspective on the question of the no-self that itself is steeped in pre-Buddhist Indian philosophy. This excerpt is from a chapter called ‘Note to Self: There is No Self’ from his book, Don’t Be a Jerk.
There probably is not one teaching in the entire Buddhist canon that causes more confusion than the teaching of no-self. The existence of a self is taken as a given by pretty much every religion and philosophy, apart from Buddhism. In fact, the idea of no-self is so difficult that there are even sects of Buddhism that find work-arounds to redefine self and try to sneak it in through the back door somehow.
When I first encountered this idea of no-self, I conceived of it the way most people do when they first come across it. First off, it seemed completely absurd. It was the denial of something that I could clearly see for myself was true.
You can deny the existence of the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot. You can tell me there’s no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny. But the existence of self? Come on! That’s obvious. René Descartes proved the existence of self with a simple five-word formula: “I think, therefore I am.” End of argument. Self must exist because here I myself am, thinking of things and writing them down, and here you yourself are reading them. Who else could be doing these things if it wasn’t my self and your self? How could anyone with any common sense at all deny that?
But okay. I was game to try…
It would be ridiculous to insist that the aspects of our experience indicating that we were autonomous individuals with our unique history, personality and point of view simply do not exist. I have my own credit cards and driver’s license, which you cannot use. I know the password to my Wi-Fi at home, and you do not. I remember things that happened in my life that I could not possibly convey to you, even if I tried my hardest. I have opinions that you do not and probably a few you couldn’t even comprehend, the same way I cannot fathom why some people hold the opinions they hold. All this and more applies to you as well and to every human being or animal who has ever lived.
When Buddhists talk about no-self they are not saying all the foregoing is false, nor are they saying it’s all true but that we have to utterly destroy these aspects of who we are. Rather, they are saying that applying the idea of self to this real stuff is a mistake.
The word used in early Buddhist writings for the concept of self is atman. Atman was an idea propagated by many Indian philosophers and is similar to the Christian idea of the soul. It starts from the sense of “I am” that all of us experience. This “I am” feeling is taken as evidence that there is a permanent abiding something in us that remains stable and constant throughout the changes we experience. Thus the soul you had as a four-year-old child is the same soul you have today. This soul is different from the body because even though the body clearly changes, the soul does not. Many philosophers further extrapolate that the soul survives the death of the body. This makes sense if we accept the basic idea of the soul. If you believe that the soul remains unchanged while the body ages, it follows that the soul is not the body and it therefore follows that the soul could go on even after the body decays and dies.
The Buddha completely rejected this idea. First of all, he noticed that what we refer to as the soul or the atman does change. Our personalities do not remain static throughout our lives. We mature internally as well as externally. The Buddha did not accept the idea that body and mind were two different kinds of substance.
Yet something experiences the world uniquely in the case of each one of us. You are reading this book. Somehow my thoughts about self are being conveyed to you across time and space. My thoughts are not exactly the same as yours, or you wouldn’t have bought this book. You are not me, and I am not you. What are we to do with that except say that you have a self, and so do I? Even if we don’t accept the idea of the immortality of the soul or the idea that mind is made of some kind of ethereal substance that is different from matter, we have to accept that your mind and my mind are not the same mind. Otherwise we wouldn’t need to have conversations or read books or watch movies or listen to music in order to access each other’s thoughts and feelings.
Most of us only ever experience that way of looking at things. No that’s not exactly right. Most of us are taught that looking at things this way is the only correct way of understanding the world. I think everyone experiences the other side of the equation at some point in their lives. As children, our sense of self is much more fluid than it becomes later. We also have moments of transcendence when the barriers between ourselves and others fade away. Sometimes this happens during sex. Sometimes it happens in large public gatherings like concerts or sporting events. Sometimes it happens in religious services and ceremonies. We all know about this other side of human experience, but we are conditioned to disregard it. Or we imagine that it only happens at rare, special times and places. We miss the fact that this transcendence is actually continuously happening throughout every moment of every day.
Meditation practice helps make this clearer. Moments of transcendence and oneness no longer seem like anomalies. You start to notice that your individual identity and the identity of the universe itself are not two separate things.
Certain Indian philosophers who meditated took this as evidence that the individual atman was part of a supreme atman that was basically the soul of the entire universe. They called this super-atman “Brahman.” And just to confuse those of us outside India, they also called certain people who preached this idea Brahmin and named their chief god Brahma. Be that as it may, this Brahman is said to be sat-chitananda, or “being, consciousness, and bliss.”
Yet, like the atman, Brahman is supposed to be something apart from the material universe. The Buddha could see no reason to believe in the existence of something beyond the material universe. It’s not that he thought matter was the only thing there was. Rather, he saw that matter and the immaterial were different aspects of the same unified reality. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.
From: Don’t be a Jerk