For the reader who says that you can’t arrive at the position that the self doesn’t exist by argument, in fact the Gelug lineage of Tibetan Buddhists (the one in which the Dalai Lama belongs) believes that not only is logic helpful in this endeavour, it is essential. You must first convince yourself of the logic underlying the no self position before meditating on it. They liken it to taking a horse through a race course before a race. And the logic used, based on Tsongkhapa’s interpretation of Nagarjuna’s Introduction to the Middle Way, is extremely convincing. A great summary of it can be found in Guy Newland’s Introduction to Emptiness. The Dalai Lama’s How to See Yourself as You Really Are is a bit more bare bones.
However, I do agree with the reader that you and most of your other readers are misunderstanding what the absence of self infers. It doesn’t mean a zombie-like annihilation of personality. It simply means recognizing that the thought “me” refers to something that you believe to exist inherently, whereas nothing can be said to exist inherently. There is still a “me”, it’s just that it exists moment to moment. For a good discussion of this, listen to this Philosophy Bites podcast on a possible connection between Hume and Tsongkhapa. As to how the belief in an inherently existing self dominates our day-to-day existence, check out the YouTube video [seen above] by Sakyong Mipham, spoken word artist and son of Chogyam Trunkpa.
Another reader flags a recent podcast between Sam Harris and Joseph Goldstein:
Another practicing Buddhist:
The question of “does the self exist” troubled me for several years before I came to a place of peace. Buddhism says that nothing exists in a permanent state – the whole of reality is in a constant state of change. The English word used to describe this within Buddhist circles is Impermanence. Mountains erode, water evaporates, molecules change composition over time, and even the cells of our body are being replaced.
It was easy to see this when I looked at external things. My trouble was that I felt like no matter what my childhood memory was, “I” had always been there, and “I” would be here tomorrow too. After all, who is experiencing these things, if it’s not “me?” And so I struggled through meditation and reading the dharma, adhering to the Buddha’s advice to rigorously test every proposition put forth in the writings.
This impasse was finally broken when I began to realize that I was taking the first part – “not existing” – and ignoring the second part – “in a permanent state.”
The self, like the mountain, is a creation of forces outside it, subject to new forces every day that change its shape in varying degrees. From one small, indefinable moment to the next, the mountain, and the self, are different. We may build upon the past, or we may have a part of ourselves chipped away, but there is no part of us, or the mountain, that is safe from the expanses of time. We may maintain residues from previous experiences, and we may get new things heaped upon us. I will never forget my wife’s first miscarriage, or the death of my close high school friend, or the first time I kissed a girl, or the moment my daughter was born. But even these memories are constantly shaped and reshaped by new experiences and reflections. They happened to “me,” and they continue to happen to a different “me” every time I think about them.
When I stopped fearing my own “non-existence” and instead embraced how different life events had and would continue to shape me, the world slowly opened up. New tragic experiences are no less tragic, but a calming peace is generally present in spite of acute suffering. Somehow life seems a bit less sad.
Another connects the idea of the self not truly existing to my own attachment to Christian moral ideas:
As a former Catholic, I can identify with much of where you’re coming from in your writing, particularly with your fierce sense of morality. What I want to say here is that the idea that there is no inherently existing self is completely compatible with Christian belief. There is still a dependently arisen self from moment to moment that experiences things and acts with moral agency in the world.
On the other hand, saying as you do that the self is filled with God’s love and becomes more itself is fundamentally illogical. On the absolute level, in this present moment, there is nothing to become. There is no target to hit that has somehow been existing forever outside this moment. There is only you, as you are, right now, the you that exists in dependence upon all your previous moments. From a Christian point of view, where this takes us is particularly liberating, because it means that you can change. Given the right causes and conditions (the right training), you can develop more compassion, more love, more tolerance and so on, specifically because your self is empty of inherent existence. To paraphrase the great Nagarjuna, it is only because there is no inherently existing self that morality, even Christian morality, can work.
One more Buddhist:
I’m really enjoying your discussion of Sam Harris’ book, not so much because Harris has discovered something new, but because he talks about things seldom mentioned outside of Buddhist or Advaitic estoerica, which is my personal habitat. Still, he misses a few things, particularly because his agenda is to create a scientific-rationalist version of Buddhism for the modern West. I even approve of such efforts, but in his discussion of the notion of no-self in Dzogchen and Buddhism, he’s really missing the primary point.
In Buddhism, the doctrine of no-self is a major element of the overall viewpoint that is called “dependent origination”. In this view, all suffering begins with ignorance of our true nature, and proceeds from there to create a recurring loop of experience that cycles through all sorts of stages and realms of mind and body and cosmos, endlessly feeding upon itself in a kind of circular logical progression, like a snake biting its own tail. The entirety of the Buddhist teaching is aimed at breaking this cycle built on ignorance, so that the whole thing unravels, and all these illusions fall apart.
Understanding dependent origination in the most visceral of terms is the primary method for breaking this chain of ignorance. Thus, the very process by which this illusion of a personal, separate self is created, also becomes our primary weapon for breaking it down by interrupting that cycle at various key junctures. Because it is so dependent on each link in the chain moving on to the next, any break in the chain causes the whole thing to collapse. The teaching on no-self hits one of those junctures, and by gaining insight into the reality that we have no real intrinsic self, the whole chain of dependent assumptions built on that begins to fall apart.
However, it needs to be said that Buddha did not emphasize focusing on the “illusory personal self” link in the chain, in part because it was so subtle and hard to experientially relate to. Instead, he focused on things much more tangible and real to us: our felt sufferings and cravings. These two elements of the chain of dependent origination are much easier to relate to than abstract notions of a personal self, something it is hard not to simply take for granted. In fact, what Buddha generally pointed out is that what we call a “self” is really just a collection of desires, cravings, and sufferings, or our general sense of dissatisfaction. From all those desires and cravings, our personal sense emerges, as a reflection of our ignorance about these things.
That’s what the Four Noble Truths directly address: not no-self, but dukkha, or the pervasive sense of dissatisfaction and suffering that we cannot seem to escape except through temporary and partial respites; and tanha, or craving, the intense and unavoidable burning desire for escape from that feeling of dissatisfaction. These are things we can immediately relate to, without any abstraction or conceptual thought, whereas this ephemeral self-sense is much harder to find or maintain an approach towards.
The message that the Buddha really wanted to get across was a very visceral one: that our dissatisfaction and the craving for release from dissatisfaction drive all our sufferings in an endless loop, and they even create a corresponding self-sense that feels perpetually depleted, unhappy, and impossibly trapped in an existential cycle that seems inescapable, and thus we mistakenly conclude that the best we can do is find temporary pleasures or respites from this, and find ways to manage or minimize the inevitable sufferings.
Buddha’s revolutionary teaching was that contrary to what seems to be the case, there’s actually a way out of this, which is to see the whole picture of dependent origination, and to stop playing at that game at the most obvious places in that chain. Stop all activity based on craving for satisfaction for this illusory personal self. Stop chasing phantom pleasures and solutions and fantasies of relief and salvation. Stop believing in the nonsense our cravings lead us to believe in. That’s what meditation boils down to, and why it is so beneficial to us, if we do it as the Buddha recommended. Not as a way to fulfill our cravings for satisfaction, but as a respite from the endless cycles of craving for satisfaction that so torture us. In an odd way, a great bliss seems to naturally arise when we stop craving personal satisfaction. As the Buddha once said:
No earthly pleasure
No heavenly bliss
Equals one infinitesimal fraction
Of the bliss of the cessation of craving.
What Dzogchen and other direct approaches to meditation do is not a form of esoteric magic, it is simply break in this cycle, in which we cease to feed our mind and body’s craving for personal satisfaction, which drives most of us most of the time. Even a short moment of respite from this cycle produces great benefits of relief and relaxation that show us that there’s a real life beyond the craven pattern we have assumed to be necessary to our existence. And that’s what meditation is really all about; not merely some sort of good feeling that comes from sitting quietly, but a cessation of the ignorant activity that keeps us running like hamsters on the wheel of craving.
But even that relief can become something we crave and try to hold onto and conceptualize about and make the basis for a new, more spiritual self. Even science is simply something we can misuse as a better, more logical means to satisfy our cravings for a better self. And sometimes I think that’s what Sam is after, rather than freedom from craving itself. As if by holding onto this genuine insight, he can find some kind of actual satisfaction of his more ordinary craven mind’s desires. He’s certainly not alone in this; it’s part of the whole pattern to be understood, but it’s not enough to merely grasp, even experientially, the truth of no-self. One must also understand the much more obvious truths of craving and suffering.
That’s the hard part of Buddhism, because we all have our cravings and our personal needs for satisfaction, and we expect even Buddhism or meditation to address these and give us that satisfaction, just in a deeper and more effective way. But Buddhism says no, don’t fall for that trap either. Just sit – even sit in that total sense of frustration and lack of satisfaction and unfulfilled craving. Let that burn you up, until it burns itself out. That, then, is enlightenment. The cessation of that craving, that has been allowed to burn itself out, is the definition of Nirvana. That’s not the end of life; it’s in reality the beginning of real life, a life based on reality rather than the cycles of craving. It turns out that suffering depends entirely on that cycle keeping itself going, and so when it collapses, not only does our sense of personal, separate self burn out, but so does our suffering. The heart itself breaks open.
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