Zen 101

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Self: is it real?

With respect to all,

a preliminary exploration:

I have heard Buddhists argue there is no “self.” They argue that mental activity and the constructs derived thereby are an "illusion.” Not so. They confuse the Sanskrit Anatman, translated as “no-self” with no self, as is understood in contemporary English, but in fact these are two different things. The Buddha’s teaching on Anatman was directed at dispelling the idea that there was an independent “self,” or “soul” that might transmigrate. It was the springboard for his discussions of dependent co-arising, that frame that says everything is deeply interconnected and inter-dependent. He also tried to separate the material from the ideal, which is to say that our idea of something is our idea of something and that we ought not confuse the idea of something with the thing itself. But to say this does not deny the existence of the idea, only that idea and material are separate. So, if we say the self is an aggregate and it is impermanent, we are not saying it has no existence unless we are most narrowly defining “existence” as being in the realm of the material alone. To say that nothing exists independently, does not mean that an aggregate does not exist. Just so, to say that something is impermanent does not mean that it does not exist, only that its existence is in a constant state of change.

Just as energy can be measured, but has no form, so too, mental activity, thoughts, feelings, and, yes, the self has no form, but can be measured.

On an empirical level, thoughts and feelings exist as electro-chemical phenomena and can be mapped on brain scans. Just like we cannot see electricity, but can still feel its effects, so too, this aggregate we call the “self” as a construct has depth and can be grounded by empirical referents.

An illusion is, according to the OED, “the action of deceiving…an act of deception.” We tend to think that because something is not material it is not real, so we lead ourselves to believe that because thoughts, and the resultantant constructs of thoughts, are not material, they do not exist. This is a deception. We cannot see electricity. We do not even know what it actually is, but we would be deceiving ourselves if we thought that it did not exist as a result. Just stick your finger in an exposed light socket with current flowing. While I do not recommend this test, you will be shocked to find out that this immaterial, invisible, impermanent energy exists. Just so, the pain of someone saying something hurtful about us is no deception. We can measure its effects on our self esteem and self concept. So, while it has no material form, it does exist as a construct of thought and has a very real impact upon us.


There are people who when reading about Zen make the mistake of believing “emptiness” is “empty,” as a cup without coffee might be “empty.” This is an error. Empty is the English word chosen for some very strange reason to translate “shunyata.” From the Sanskrit sunya, shunyata has three levels of meaning which focus on appearance, impermanence, and according to Conze, liberation from the world around us. The basic thrust is that when we practice we begin to see all things manifest in relation to all other things and that nothing has an independent existence separate from other things. To be “empty” something, therefore, must be, even if it is an aggregate and constantly changing.


This is the crux of the matter. When we see through the veil of delusion to the essential non-dualistic reality of all existence, we realize just how powerful the Buddha’s teaching on the cause of suffering is. He saw that our insidious, ubiquitous, and subtle grasping is at the root of all of our suffering. How can we hold tight to the flowing stream? How can we wish with all of our might that our loved ones will not get sick or die? The essential nature of everything is twofold: it is inseparable from everything else and it is always changing. So, while we have a self, as does our loved ones, these manifestations are conditioned and are constantly changing. Attempting to hold someone or something in a form that is static and unchanging is derived from a poison we call greed.

The wonderful aspect of this is that we are all the same stuff. With practice we find that it is the operation of our mind and linguistic necessity, that create the conditions that separate us and cause us much suffering. Once we pierce this veil and see our true nature, words like you and me, we, us, them, are understood from a different starting point, the starting point of the Absolute.

If I am ocean, and a wave is formed from me, until that wave realizes its true home it will fear the shore. But once it realizes it is ocean, what is left to fear? Once this is realized, however, waves will talk to waves, they will need the convention of a language that is dualistic and deceptive. It is our practice, friends, that helps us maintain the clarity.

Be well.

Post a Comment