Sunday, August 11, 2013


How well do you know your ‘self’? Well enough to know that your ‘self’ does not exist? Please read on.

More and more psychologists, psychotherapists and counsellors are drawing upon the insights of Buddhism to better understand the nature and activities of the human mind. In my own therapeutic practice, I apply, quite eclectically and unashamedly, ideas and teachings from a number of different traditions, both Eastern and Western. A pragmatists, all I am interested in is results---and changed lives.

When we turn to Buddhism we discover that its ideas, teachings and practices espouse a psychological realism that expressly acknowledges the reality of cognitive and other mental processes. The mind is seen as both relational and ‘extended’ to situations in the external world. Yes, mentality belongs to the spatio-temporal world along with everything else such that a person’s mental things and processes are not wholly internal to that person.

In addition, Buddhism views a person as being a human body-mind as a whole, that is, an autonomous and dynamic system that arises in dependence upon the natural world as well as human culture. So-called ‘consciousness’---not so much an entity in its own right but a dynamic, ever-changing process---emerges when the mind and the body cohere. The physical body is essential for the emergence of the mental, but having said that, Buddhism has never regarded the body and the mind as being separate. Mind is said to ‘extend’ into the body, with the body also ‘extending’ into the mind.

When Buddhism uses the word ‘illusion’ it does so in a special way. Referring to a thing as an ‘illusion’ does not mean that the thing does not exist. It simply means that the thing in question has no separate, independent, unchangeable and permanent existence. Buddhism psychology aims to treat what Buddhism often calls an 'illusory [or a 'false'] mind' (that is, a mind characterized and dominated by wandering, oppositional and discriminatory thoughts) with a view to bringing into manifestation a 'true [or 'pure'] mind' (being a mind which is not in opposition to itself).

Buddhist psychology teaches the doctrine that ‘self is illusion,’ and that belief in the existence of some supposedly permanent and substantial ‘self’ or soul is a delusion. t There is no actual ‘self’ at the centre of our conscious---or even unconscious---awareness. The ‘self’ does not exist---at least it does not exist in the sense of possessing a separate, independent, unchangeable, material existence of its own. In words attributed to the Buddha, whether ‘past, future, or present; internal or external; manifest or it actually is ... “This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am’” (Majjhima Nikāya I, 130). Buddhist scriptures are very firm on this teaching of ‘not-self’ (anattā):

Even as the word of ‘chariot’ means
That members join to frame a whole;
So when the groups [the ‘five aggregates’] appear to view,
We use the phrase, ‘a living being.’  (Milindapantha, 133.)

Just as the word ‘chariot’ is but a mode of expression for axles, wheels, chariot-body, pole, and other constituent members, placed in a certain relation to each other, but when we come to examine the members one by one, we discover that in the absolute sense there is no chariot; … in exactly the same way the words ‘living entity’ and ‘Ego,’ are but a mode of expression for the presence of the five attachment groups [again, the ‘five aggregates’ (see below)], but when we come to examine the elements of being one by one, we discover that in the absolute sense there is no living entity there to form a basis for such figments as ‘I am,’ or ‘I’; … .   (Visuddhi-Magga, 133-34.)

Our so-called consciousness goes through continuous fluctuations from one moment to the next. As such, there is nothing to constitute, let alone sustain, a separate, transcendent ‘I’ structure or entity. We ‘die’ and are ‘born’ (or ‘reborn’) from one moment to the next. Whence comes our sense of ‘I-ness’? To quote Robert C Lester, author of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia:

The ‘I-ness’ or selfhood of man, perceived as unchanging --- his sense of individual being in time, having experiences --- is an unwarranted extension or assumption from experience to experiencer, from knowledge to knower, thought to thinker.

No wonder Jesus exclaimed, ‘I of myself can do nothing’ (Jn 5:30). Perhaps he understood the illusory nature of the ‘self.’


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