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Buddhist Ideas about No-Self and the Person Martin Verhoeven Abstract: The author argues that the doctrine of no-self, although fundamental to Buddhist teaching, is widely misunderstood as a form of nihilism. The essential teaching is that all phenomena, including the human self, are composites and that, therefore, they have no permanent essence of their own. The Buddha did not, however, discount the experience of a self; on the contrary, he held that our attachment to self is the ultimate cause of suffering. This paper was presented to the fourth annual Northern California Chan/ Zen-Catholic Dialogue, January 2006. It appeared in Religion East & West, Issue 6, October 2006. Mere suffering exists, no sufferer is found; The deeds are, but no doer of the deeds is there; Nirvana is, but not the man that enters it; The path is, but no traveler on it is seen. —from the Visuddhimagga, XVI Be a person of the Way With no mind; Although you’re a person, There’s no self. . . . When the Way of being a person is perfected, Buddhahood accomplishes itself. —Chan Master Hsüan Hua

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he idea that no permanent self is to be found in the basic elements of our experience is at the heart of the Buddhist path to liberation. The anātman doctrine taught by the Buddha proclaims the impersonality of all living phenomena of existence: there is no self, nothing belongs to a self. In the Buddhist teaching, no being has any enduring essence or personality; everyone, even the Buddha, exists in name only. The name merely refers to a congeries of psycho-physical elements which arise and vanish from moment to moment, carried along from beginningless time on a turning wheel of lives. Indeed, the first stages

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of enlightenment are marked by a direct and deep understanding that our sense of “I” is not what or how we imagine it to be—solid, enduring, inviolable, and autonomous. Rather, it is a habit-formed construction held together by craving, clinging, aversion, and attachment. Despite its central importance, the concept of no-self generates more confusion and misunderstanding than almost any other Buddhist idea. “I just can’t seem to wrap my mind around no-self!” is a remark I frequently hear from beginning students. In fairness, so thorny is the doctrine of no-self that if one could easily wrap the mind around it, I suppose one would already be a Buddha. To a large degree the problem is one of unique differences in language, culture, and psychology, as they apply East and West. In talking about the “self,” it must be remembered that the Buddha was referring to a concept, ātman, as it appeared in the Hindu Upaniṣad tradition. Contrary to what was asserted by the Brahmins, the Buddha held that the “self” conceived as a permanent, stable, eternal, and unchanging entity does not exist anywhere. At the risk of over-simplifying a highly complex idea, we could say that the different notions of ātman all referred to abstract ontological dimensions of the individual—the “self” of cosmic consciousness that identifies with the universe. All were thought to be something like an abiding entity, a “soul,” “inner self,” or “higher self” that was unconditioned, permanent, and self-existing. In other words, ātman referred primarily to a presumed philosophical and metaphysical entity, not to a psychological and empirical concept of “self” used in contemporary Western discourse. But at another level, the problem is directly related to a universal experience that goes beyond cultural or linguistic differences: First, what, if anything, in this world is stable, fixed and independently abiding? Secondly, “who” or “what” am I? Am I my body? My mind? Some combination? If so, “who” or “what” exists before I am born? “Who” or “what” remains after body and mind depart? Even when examining man, or the person, in an empirical and immediate way, the idea of “self” is both scientifically and philosophically problematic. No matter how diligently we search, an enduring entity we call “self” remains elusive. It turns out that wrapping one’s mind around “self” is no less formidable than wrapping one’s mind around no-self. The Buddhist doctrine of no-self states that neither within the physical and mental phenomena of existence, nor outside of them, can anything be found that in the ultimate sense might be regarded as a selfexisting, real ego-entity, a soul, or any other abiding substance. Lacking a permanent and independent nature, nothing in the world exhibits any

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form of unchanging reality. The implications of this teaching might be clarified by stating it another way, first as it applies to dharmas, that is, to phenomena, and second as it applies to people. (However, it should be remembered that the two are inseparably interwoven, as the “world” and “self” are interdependent). First, “all phenomena are devoid of self” (sarva dharma anātman) means that all things lack a nature of their own (svabhāva). All phenomena of the world lean on each other in a vibrating dance of constant flux. As all things arise and fade away governed by the ebb and flow of changing conditions, nothing exists independently; everything relies on something else, ad infinitum. Because all phenomena arise and exist interdependently (pratītya-samutpāda), they are fundamentally “empty” (śūnya). And because they have no substantial, self-existing nature, they are characterized as “not self,” or more precisely, as having the condition of “nonessentiality.” No-self and emptiness then indicate “no nature of its own” (nihsvabhāva), meaning that there is nothing that is of itself immutable, firm or lasting: nothing we can observe has a fixed form that is subject neither to arising or passing away. This is why the Buddha said to Ānanda: “Empty is the world, empty is the world:” “In what way, venerable sir, is it said, ‘empty is the world?’” “It is, Ānanda, because it is empty of self and what belongs to self that it is said, ‘empty is the world.’”1 Second, as concerning people, the “self” or “me” is also a conditioned entity and therefore, like all other phenomena, insubstantial and empty. Self is devoid of self. Our own condition is one of nonessentiality. “Me” and “mine” also lack substantiality—I am born, mature, age, and vanish —and ultimately, as Shakespeare lamented, “Nothing ’gainst time’s scythe can make defense.” But from the Buddhist point of view, we are “empty” and “not-self” well before we decline and die. All along, there has been no self, only a series of transitory phenomena which cannot be held or stayed, much like a river, as Heraclitus observed. This early Greek philosopher pointed out that when one steps into a moving river, pulls out one’s foot, and steps in again, the river has moved on and is in fact a different river.2 Self and me are words that refer to an illusion or mirage that exists only as long as it is grasped at. We like to think we have some enduring core essence—a self or a soul—which is the subject of our experiences, like someone sitting in a theater watching a movie projected on a screen. We feel our self or ego to be a witness of what happens, like a moviegoer. But the Buddha insisted this so-called self is merely a bundle of physical and mental phenomena kept going by ignorance and desire. Issue 10, October 2010

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Buddhism, then, does not advance a concept of a permanent self. Human beings tenaciously cling to a mistaken idea of self, and this in turn gives rise to pride, selfishness and attachment to self. That which holds continually to the idea of self is sometimes termed mānas. As this doctrine applies to the ego, or “me,” it is alternately rendered as the teaching of “impersonality.” Breaking free of this confused attachment to a large degree marked the successful completion of the Buddha’s journey to “enlightenment.” With such hard-won insight into the truth of no-self came an end to suffering and entry into a state of profound peace, that is, nirvana. This state is often mistakenly understood to mean “extinction.” It is true that with the realization of nirvana, the transitory psycho-physical elements which constituted the Buddha’s false personality disappeared without a trace. Just as all the mangoes attached to a stem bearing a bunch of mangoes undergo the fate of that stem if it is broken, so the body of the Tathagata has broken what leads to existence. As long as his body lasts, gods and men will see him. On the breaking up of the body, at the end of his life, gods and men will see him no more.3 However, as this passage carefully points out, the Buddha does not say there is nothing, only that what is is not accessible to the eyes. In another related passage this important distinction is drawn even more clearly. Just as the flame touched by the wind goes toward stillness, goes from sight, so the sage delivered from his names and bodies [or the five impure aggregates] enters stillness, goes from the sight of all. . . . He who has attained stillness, no measure can measure; to speak of him there are no words. What the mind might conceive vanishes. Thus every path is closed to discussion.4 This subtle distinction is not theological hair-splitting. It conveys a psychological and spiritual insight that lies at the heart of the Buddhist idea of self and person. There is, it appears, a concept of permanence in Buddhism associated with the state of nirvana, but it is not self or anything a self can possess. Paradoxically, nirvana is the condition no-self; it exists but is free of a self. We will return to this paradox later. The Anatta-Lakkhana Sutta (Discourse on the Characteristic of NoSelf) was the second core teaching that the Buddha preached to his first five disciples after his enlightenment. When the disciples heard this teaching, they became Arhats (the word literally means “worthy of respect” and refers to enlightened persons below the stage of Buddhahood). So important is this teaching to a proper understanding and practice of

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Buddhism that it is considered a false view (ātma-dṛṣti) to hold that there is an abiding self or substance—that is, to claim the self is real and permanent, when it is in fact an aggregate composed only of five elements (skandhas)—and if one holds false views, one cannot completely eliminate suffering and realize nirvana. Right views (samyag-dṛṣti), which constitute the first step of the Eightfold Path, consider as imaginary even that higher sense of a supra-mundane self or soul which Hindus called ātman. O Bhikkhus, when neither self nor anything pertaining to self can truly and really be found, this speculative view: “The universe is that ātman (Soul); I shall be that after death, permanent, abiding, everlasting, unchanging, and I shall exist as such for eternity”—is it not wholly and completely foolish? 5 No-self is arguably the central teaching of Buddhism. All the remaining Buddhist doctrines, to one degree or another, may be found in other philosophic systems and religions, both Eastern and Western. But the anātman doctrine as the Buddha taught it and meant it to be used is specific to Buddhism. The singularity of this concept might also partly explain why it is widely misinterpreted as either a kind of nihilism or as a denial of causality. It is simply lost in translation, because there are no ready equivalents for rendering the concept into other systems of thought and language, either of East or West, then or now. Unlike Indian Brahmanic schools and Western philosophy, Buddhism avoids talking about existence in terms of noumenon or metaphysical substance, for the simple reason that human beings lack the cognitive power to recognize such things; they do not have the ability to discern an eternal and unchanging matter or being, nor anything else, which transcends both time and space. All we can know and observe is subject to arising, abiding, change, and extinction. It is the phenomenal—that which is located in time and space—that can be understood by means of sensation and perception; thus, it is within the phenomenal that we come to recognize and evaluate our lives. This attention to the “here and now” as the ground of awakening is wonderfully explicated in the famous Potthapādasutta.6 Here, the search for truth beyond what one can confirm or deny by one’s own direct knowledge is compared to a young man’s falling in love with a beautiful young girl who exists only in his dreamy imagination. Speculating on the metaphysical and noumenal is of no benefit to the goal of religious practice, at least in the orthopraxic tradition, which is the understanding and elimination of suffering (duhkha). Emancipation from suffering can only come through observing things as they really are; looking for Issue 10, October 2010

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emancipation apart from “the ground under one’s feet” is useless. The great seventh-century Chinese Chan master Hui Neng put it this way: Bodhi [enlightenment] exists in this world, not apart from it. Searching for bodhi apart from this world Is like looking for a hare with horns.7 Thus, the Buddha limited his teachings to what would lead to calming, knowledge, enlightenment, and nirvana. Everything else is but speculation. He refused to discuss certain things not because he lacked answers, but because ruminating over them did not contribute to deliverance. For example, when Phaluguna, who believed in the existence of a soul and personality, asked: “What is the being that touches, feels, desires, and grasps?” The Buddha replied: “I deny that there is any being that touches, feels, desires, and grasps.” Conversely, when Vatsagotra, who no longer believed in the existence of a soul, asked whether it were true that the self did not exist, the Buddha refused to answer in the negative “in order not to confirm the doctrine of the ascetics and Brahmins who believe in annihilation.”8 This is also the reason for the famous parable of the poison arrow.9 In this story, the Buddha scolds his disciple Malunkyaputta for obsessing over classical metaphysical mind-twisters. The Buddha stresses that as a teacher he only explains the Four Noble Truths: Suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the way leading to the cessation of suffering. . . This is useful, is fundamentally connected with the spiritual holy life, is conducive to aversion, detachment, cessation, tranquility, deep penetration, full realization, nirvana.10 Generally speaking then, Buddhism concerns itself exclusively with the phenomenal world—a world in which all phenomena are conditioned and in a state of constant change. The unceasing flux and the seemingly contingent nature of existence are experienced as a bittersweet state: one of pain and suffering accompanied by fleeting joy and pleasure. As this goes on day to day, life to life, it is called saṁsāra—that which “keeps going.” The release from this cyclical unsatisfactory state is nirvana. Two renditions of this teaching—one philosophical, one poetic—appear in the following verses. All phenomena are truly impermanent, Subject to the dharmas of arising and decay. What has arisen ends in destruction. Their cessation is ease.

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Colors are fragrant, but they fade away. In this world of ours, no one lasts forever. Cross the deep mountains of conditioned things today, There will be no more shallow dreaming, no more intoxication.11 It is not surprising, then, that Chan/Zen meditation practice often centers on the investigation of the question “Who?”—the “who” or “I” that is at the center of the problem of suffering and the ending of suffering. It would also seem that this questioning of the self is related to the “great doubt” which is generated by most forms of Chan/Zen practice. “Great doubt” precedes “great enlightenment” in this meditation exercise, which culminates in breaking through into an understanding of this conundrum of “self” or “who.”12 So goes the Chan/Zen riddle: Who is me? I am who? You ask me, I ask “who?”13 What we commonly call “me” or “I” in Buddhism is seen as a mindbody phenomenon consisting of five elements, or skandhas: physical forms (rūpa), feeling (vedanā), perception (sañjñā), impulses (saṁskāra), and consciousness (vijñāna). These psycho-physical elements are the basis for a false and illusory sense of “self”—false and illusory because all are characterized by impermanence, suffering, and the absence of any inherent nature of their own. The Buddha elaborated: Monks! Form is impermanent. That which is impermanent is painful. That which is painful is [the result of a false idea of] self. One who is without self knows, “This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.” Thus should it be rightly regarded and considered. Monks! Feeling is impermanent. . . . Perception is impermanent. . . . Mental constituents are impermanent. . . . Consciousness is impermanent. . . . Thus should it rightly be regarded and considered.14 Stated in the more frank language of the Chan/Zen School, the skandhas are “nothing more than a heap of snot and a puff of wind.” Led astray by a belief in a personality (satkāya-dṛṣti), the ordinary person considers his physical form, the first of the five skandhas, as the Self, or alternately—the Self as possessing physical form, physical form as present in the Self, and the Self as present in physical form. This confusion repeats itself with the other four skandhas.15 No-self is sometimes termed śūnya (empty) or śūnyatā (emptiness). Chan/Zen Buddhism uses the term wu (“without” or “non-being”) in Issue 10, October 2010

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the same sense. As used in all these ways, however, emptiness and nonbeing do not imply nothingness or nihilism; the terms simply indicate that all phenomena are devoid of permanent, self-existing status. In the Buddha’s time, as now, there were a variety of doctrines running along a continuum between two poles: eternalism and nihilism. The Buddha adopted neither position. At one pole were those who argued for a divinely created and directed universe with the promise of eternal and immortal happiness for a permanent soul or self. At the other pole were teachers who based their doctrines on the concept of no-self. Popular non-Buddhist views of no-self so closely approximated the Buddha’s teaching that many students during the Buddha’s time accepted these teachings as Buddhistic. They diverged, however, in significant ways. Buddhists called these other teachers of the doctrines of no-self the Six Teachers or the Heretical Teachers. A summary of three of these teachings will suffice here. One of them, that of Purāṇakaśyapa, argued that there is neither merit nor sin, neither goodness nor evil; that all actions are of no effect because everything is solely an object, a natural thing with no self or any quality beyond base material reality. Another teacher, Makkhaligosala, denied that causality governs our lives and actions. Life rolls on and unfolds by itself, and nothing we can do makes any difference; good and bad are merely playful hoaxes, and therefore no cause or power can quicken or alter this. Such evolutionary determinism encouraged either amorality or a fatalistic and apathetic indifference. Still another teacher, Ajita Keśakambali, insisted that there is absolutely nothing. People are just aggregates of elements, there is only illusion and emptiness, and although we name things, in reality there are no such things. This outlook on no-self effectively made its followers feel at ease in that they neither had to behave rightly nor restrain themselves, and there was no reason to feel sorrowful or happy about anything. At death all ends in silent extinction. Elements of this view, an extreme form of nihilistic relativism, are similar to some elements of postmodernism. The Buddha’s doctrine of no-self does not imply this kind of nihilism. He himself never denied the existence of the person or the significance of self-cultivation. He only held that this entity was not a permanent self or eternal soul, and moreover, that clinging to it was the source of suffering. Mention of self in the ordinary, conventional sense of the word appears throughout the Buddhist literature. This concept of the ordinary “self” according to the conventional modes of expression is sometimes given as pudgala, meaning the personality or the individual, and sometimes given as being (sattva), or even as self (ātman). But all

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such terms designated a personal entity, and according to the Buddha were mere names for mind-body combinations which were temporary even though subject to rebirth. This distinction helps to clarify a modern misconception that the doctrine of no-self is self-negating and nihilistic. Buddhists use terms that in the ordinary way, but not in any metaphysical sense, convey a conventional sense of self. For example, in the phrase “Thus have I heard,” spoken by Ānanda at the beginning of many of the sutras, the “I” is simply the ordinary I or self. So too, in verse 160 of the Dhammapada: “Self is the lord of self: for who else could the lord be? By a fully controlled self one obtains a lord, who is hard to gain.” In his final instructions to his disciples, the Buddha spoke of a personal self, not an eternal self: Monks, be islands to yourselves, be a refuge to yourselves, and take refuge with no other. Make the Dharma your island, the Dharma your refuge, and no other.16 Similarly, in “The Ten Transferences,” Chapter 25 of the Avatamsaka Sutra, we are told that a Bodhisattva reflects that “self” and all living beings are conditioned phenomena, mere “deluded thoughts,” and yet we still refer to them in the ordinary manner: The Bodhisattva clearly understands that no living beings are born, Nor are there any living beings who turn and flow [in birth and death]. Although there are no living beings which can be spoken of at all, We simply follow worldly custom in falsely referring to them.17 This everyday usage is what the monk Nāgasena tried to convey in his dialogue with the Greek king Menander.18 The monk explained that we use the name Nāgasena to designate a temporary arrangement of elements, not a permanent individual, just as chariot is a name given for the sake of convenience to a loose combination of various parts (wheels, axle, and harness, made of leather or wood, etc.). Neither a chariot nor Nagasena themselves have any abiding essence that can be found. Each functions, but neither has the substantial existence that the name implies. The illusory self, the presumption of an ontological entity behind and in charge of all our experiences, is just that: a presumption, a conjecture. There is mental functioning—thoughts, perceptions, habits, volition, feelings, consciousness, etc.—but these can be accounted for without a self. And while Buddhism, like modern psychology, offers a rich and complex analysis of psychological functions and states of mind—contact, feeling, perception, volition, attention, vitality, distraction, agitation, tranquility, discursive thought, and equanimity, to name a few,19 yet neither Issue 10, October 2010

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Buddhism nor modern psychology makes any claim for the ultimate reality of these functions. More recent psychological theory is tending to sound much like traditional Buddhist thought in suggesting that self is a conceptualized abstraction, a constructed identity. The rather complex and specialized Buddhist use of the term ātman, or self, has been generally misunderstood by Western interpreters. Translators’ over-literal renderings have not helped, and in cultures centered on notions of the autonomous, rights-bearing individual, a misunderstanding of the Buddhist concept of no-self can be sufficient to reduce Buddhism to a life-denying nihilism that would negate human personality, repress the feelings, and dismiss the worth of the individual. Such misconceptions caused Carl Jung, in his initial encounter with Buddhist doctrine, to remark, “Buddhism is a radical denial of life.” Once Jung better understood the teaching of no-self, he not only recanted this view but actively embraced Buddhism. He wrote: It was neither the history of religion nor the study of philosophy that first drew me to the world of Buddhist thought, but my professional interest as a doctor. My task was to treat psychic suffering, and it was this that impelled me to become acquainted with the view and methods of that great teacher of humanity, whose principal theme was the chain of suffering, old age, sickness, and death.20 To consider that nonexistence of a metaphysical self means the loss of a psychological, empirical self is to slide into the nihilism that the Buddha warned against. (To assert, however, that this everyday self constitutes more than a temporary conditioned name and form, that behind it or within it there is a permanent metaphysical self, strays into eternalism, which the Buddha also warned against.) But without an empirical, personal self, who would undertake a spiritual practice? Who would end suffering and attain nirvana? All of the exhortations to follow the moral precepts, advance along the Eightfold Path, and perfect deeper states of mindfulness are directed to this person. The ordinary person, with all of his or her flaws and imperfections, is nevertheless the raw material for awakening. Awakening means understanding the truth of no-self, since that understanding is an indispensable precondition for escaping the grip of our habitually conditioned pattern of reflexive desire and grasping that lies at the root of all suffering. Such understanding involves more than mere intellectual apprehension; it entails personal transformation. It would be fair to say that, unlike other Buddhist teachings, where the doctrine guides and informs one’s practice, the teaching of no-self is the other way around: only disci-

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plined practice can reveal the true meaning of the doctrine. Practice and understanding build upon each other, but so strong is the clinging to a notion of self that only direct seeing can dispel it. Buddhism, especially as it is practiced as a living tradition, thus places a great deal of stress on self-cultivation that will perfect one’s human qualities; only then can one reach enlightenment. The obstacles in the path to enlightenment are not, after all, abstract metaphysical puzzles but very real human faults: greed, anger, ignorance, pride, doubt, wrath, enmity, hypocrisy, worry, jealousy, deceit, arrogance, harming and hurting others, indolence, and stinginess, to name a few. In meditation practice, for example, part of the discipline is to observe the workings of our mental states, the seemingly ceaseless rise and fall of our feelings, afflictions, thoughts, impulses, urges, fears, memories, and perceptions. By neither reacting to nor repressing them but simply noticing them, we begin to get some sense of their transitory and insubstantial nature, as well as the absence of any permanent self that can be found in them. For those engaged in this practice, the result is liberating. Moreover, a relatively sound and stable psychological makeup is essential for successful practice. The absence of such is a disqualification for “going forth” into the monastic life. That mental and emotional soundness is a criterion for admission to higher ordination should remove any misconception that the psychological dissociated personality, or even more the severe forms of loss of self-identity associated with psychosis or schizophrenia, could in any way be construed as advantageous predispositions to spiritual self-cultivation—even less as near-enlightenment. In actual spiritual practice, the abstract concepts of no-self and emptiness get translated into the more concrete expressions of nonattachment and nonhindrance. All of this comes about through direct insight, not philosophical posturing. Otherwise the idea of nonattachment stirs up fear; notions of emptiness and no-self create anxiety. The famous Heart Sutra describes the acquisition of this liberated state as follows: When the enlightened being Avalokiteśvara was practicing the profound perfecting of wisdom, he illumined the five skandhas and saw they are all empty, thereby crossing beyond all suffering and difficulty. . . . Relying on this perfect wisdom, the enlightened being’s mind is unimpeded, and because there is no hindrance he is unafraid and able to leave upsidedown dream-thinking far behind, ultimately [gaining] nirvana! 21 This state of unqualified freedom that results from the direct insight into the emptiness of self also marks the end of all suffering and fear. In the Chan/Zen School this is described as “only in putting down the false Issue 10, October 2010

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can you pick up the true.” The condition of no-self is further linked to the arising of the “four infinite states of mind” of kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. The realization of the state of no-self thus clearly suggests a personality not repressed, but rather free from selfishness and narrow self-seeking; unencumbered by negative emotions such as fear, anger, jealousy, and hatred; and disinclined to displays of flattery, insult, and arrogance. Thus, the epigrammatic expression cited in the beginning of this paper: “When the Way of being a person is perfected, Buddhahood accomplishes itself.” The cultivation of anātman within the Buddhist tradition then is not self-withdrawal, but self-correcting. Use of the terms kuśala and akuśala as criteria for charting one’s spiritual practice and understanding affirms this important point. Kuśala refers to all those mental factors and functions that are positive and wholesome and tending toward goodness, blamelessness, insight, wisdom, and liberation. Akuśala refers to mental activities associated with greed, craving, hatefulness, anger, folly, lack of moral sensibility, unwholesomeness, delusion, and anxiety. The Buddha advised the Kalamas that “only when one knows for oneself that such and such is kuśala or akuśala” can one reliably advance or retreat and be certain that one is on the right path.22 So, in Buddhism, rectifying the personality is not only the means and the end of right practice but to a large degree its measure. In guiding his disciples on the path to enlightenment, the Chan Master Hui Neng instructed them that in “taking refuge”—in undertaking to become a Buddhist disciple and practitioner—they should “take refuge with the true Buddha,” by which he meant they should cultivate their humanity. To take refuge is to rid your essential nature of egotism and unwholesome thoughts as well as of jealousy, obsequiousness, deceitfulness, contempt, pride, conceit, wrong views, and all other unwholesome tendencies whenever they arise. To take refuge is to be always aware of your own transgressions and never to gossip about other people’s good or bad traits. Always to be humble and polite is to have penetrated without obstruction the essential nature.23 Paradoxically, the perfecting of one’s humanity, not its repression, is the path to Buddhahood. The accomplished person is “empty of self” and thereby enters the unattached, unbound, liberated state of compassionate wisdom, where nirvana and the world of suffering, saṁsāra, inexplicably unite. The enlightened person is in the world but not of the world, enters the fire but is not burned, is like the lotus in the water, unsullied by the mud.

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The Buddhist concept of no-self has posed problems for Western thinkers. Simply within the Buddhist context, the idea of no-self seems to call into question the very basis for the belief in karma and rebirth. If there is no self, then what or who is subject to the reward or retribution that result from acts, according to the workings of karma? Moreover, if there is no permanent self, what or who is reborn? The teaching of no-self also seems to challenge Western views of the soul, immortality, ethical responsibility, reward and punishment after death, and even free will. The Buddha’s answer to the question concerning karma was simple, though not necessarily clear to intellect only. Both the doer and the deeds are, ultimately, empty phenomena, subject to arising, abiding, declining, and disappearing. As the fifth-century Pali commentary the Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification) expresses it: No doer of the deeds is found, No one who ever reaps their fruits; Empty phenomena roll on: This view alone is right and true. And while the deeds and their results Roll on, based on conditions all, There is no beginning can be seen, Just as it is with seed and tree.24 They are, however, at the same time very real. Our deeds have no eternal, abiding nature, but as long as we continue to act from selfish desires and attachments, we are bound to the consequences of our actions. Freedom from the inexorable sway of causality comes from mastering its workings, not from denying them; it comes from conquering the self, not from either extremes of indulging it or repressing it. Nirvana is a condition where self no longer rules, where ignorance and defilement (kleśa) have been “extinguished.”25 Nirvana is, as the Buddha said, the end of suffering, not of existence. This helps address the question, “If there is no self, who gets reborn?” There is rebirth, yet ultimately, as the Buddha said, “The world is empty of a self and anything belonging to a self.” What gets reborn, what passes from existence to existence during the “long night of saṁsāra” is not a permanent, stable, eternal, and unchanging soul or self, which is nowhere to be found, but the series of the five psycho-physical phenomena called skandhas, which are ever subject to change and rebirth. These, real but impermanent, are not a self and do not belong to a self. Issue 10, October 2010

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These reflections also shed light on another question that invariably arises when the doctrine of no-self is discussed: “If there is no self, then who attains nirvana?” Western interpreters struggled and still struggle to make sense of this question. Nirvana has been alternately rendered as “nothingness” or as “extinction.” The word nirvana does mean “to blow out” (as a fire) or “the condition of being blown out.” As described above, however, nirvana is the state in which the fire of the defilements, not of existence itself, has been extinguished. The Buddha was notably circumspect in discussing what this highest state entails. Perhaps this was so because the almost instinctive human tendency to regard everything through the myopic lens of “me and mine” is so strong. Any elaboration on nirvana risked whetting the very thirst (tṛṣṇā) for immortal self and its eternal bliss that drives the turning wheel of saṁsāra. While the Buddha refused to discuss nirvana in ways that implied a “self” who enters or enjoys it, he did not deny that he had attained it. There is a sphere which is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor air, which is not the sphere of the infinity of space, nor the sphere of the infinity of consciousness, nor the sphere of nothingness, nor the sphere of either perception or nonperception, which is neither this world, nor the other world, neither sun, nor moon. I deny that it is coming or going, enduring, death, or birth. It is only the end of suffering.26 Such a view of the person or self seems counterintuitive and ambiguous. But as neuroscientists are discovering, so does much of what we find in exploring the elusive terrain of self. One of the more interesting theories in neuroscience currently gaining ground holds that our experience of the world is active, not passive; that we manipulate what we see and experience with our emotions and actions. Reality, so to speak, is not “out there” or “in here” but somewhere in between and highly interactive. Moreover, if we do not manipulate the world, we see nothing. Once we stop attending to any given aspect of the world, interacting with it, and projecting our own limitations onto it, it drops back into indistinctness, almost as if it is not there. The world and the self, from this point of view, are a mutually interactive grand illusion. This all sounds very Buddhist. In the end, we are left with something of a riddle: ultimately, nothing of what we experience of “reality” or of the “experiencer” is permanent, substantial, or unchanging. This view could easily lead to a profound sense of futility and despair were it not for the promise of the third and fourth of the Four Noble Truths (that suffering may be ended and that the Path is the way to end it). But without that teaching, the prospect of

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a world in which there is nothing lasting and no self that that outlasts death may serve to discourage people from following any spiritual path and even from adhering to basic morality.27 The Buddha must have seen how easily the teaching of no-self could be misconstrued as nihilistic and could lead to despair and hopelessness. He explicitly countered such misunderstanding by proclaiming, There is an unborn, unarisen, uncreated, unconditioned; if there were no unborn, there would be no release for what is born, arisen, created, conditioned.28 The Buddha steered a delicately nuanced middle course: he neither espoused nihilism nor encouraged any speculation about a “paradise” that might exist outside of space and time and that an immortal self could look forward to and eternally enjoy. He simple stated that there is suffering, it has a cause, it can be ended, and there is a Path that leads to ending it. But the nature and content of nirvana and of the Buddha’s state he refused to discuss or describe, except in the most vague and metaphorical language—language he openly dismissed as borrowed, inadequate, and ultimately false. Whatever state lies beyond the end of suffering and also, necessarily, beyond the reach of the self and all the self can imagine, no amount of thinking or study could reveal. By its very nature, or more precisely because of our own lack of enlightenment, it must remain inaccessible to the thoughts, language, feelings, imagination, and longings of the self and what belongs to self. Much like the prisoners in Plato’s allegory of the cave who mistake shadows on the wall for reality, we ordinary living beings, according to the Buddha, are lost “in a dense forest of ignorance, blocked and obstructed.” We are imprisoned in a narrow cave-dwelling of the skandhas, chained by the fetters of our own cravings, fears . . . so swallowed up in the view of self that we spin and flow in the whirlpool of birth and death . . . so confused and dazed [by self] that like blind men without guides we constantly mistake dead ends for exits.29 The Buddha’s nirvana can be known directly only with “the awakening to the truth of no-self.” The Avatamsaka Sutra describes it as a state beyond all duality, without beginning, middle, or end; it cannot be expressed in words and is beyond time. This Buddha’s state that is born of wisdom Is difficult to express, difficult to accept. It is not thought; it leaves the path of the mind. Issue 10, October 2010

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The skandhas, realms, places30 are not its gateway. The wise know that intellect cannot reach it. Like traces of a bird in an empty sky, So difficult to express, so hard to discern . . . Incomprehensible to mind and thought— But from compassion, kindness, and the power of vows These states appear and one can enter them: Gradually there is perfection of the mind— Wisdom’s practices are not reflection’s realm. Such states as these are difficult to perceive. They can only be known, not expressed. Only through a Buddha’s power are they proclaimed: Receive them with all reverence.31  Notes 1. Saṃyutta Nikāya 35:85; IV 54. 2. The Buddha also used the analogy of a river to illustrate the transitory and insubstantial nature of the body and mind: “Let us suppose the Ganges sweeps along a mass of foam and that a man with keen sight perceives, observes, and attentively examines it. He will find that the ball of foam is empty and insubstantial, with no real essence. In the same way, if it is observed, corporeality will be seen to be empty and insubstantial with no real essence and it is the same for the other four Aggregates. . . . ‘The body is like a ball of foam, feelings are like a bubble of water, perceptions are like a mirage, volition is like the trunk of a banana tree [i.e., without a core], and consciousness is like a ghost’ (Samyutta Nikāya 22:95; III 140-2). 3. Dīgha Nikāya I, 46. 4. Suttanipātta 1074–6. 5. Majjhima Nikāya I, 38. 6. Potthapadasutta in The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya, ed. Maurice Walshe (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 1987), 159–70. 7. The Sixth Patriarch’s Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra, with the commentary of the Ven. Master Hsüan Hua (San Francisco: Buddhist Text Translation Society, 1977). 8. Saṃyutta Nikāya II, 13; IV, 400. For this contrast I am indebted to the excellent essay by Etienne Lamotte, “The Buddha, His Teachings and His Sangha,” in The World of Buddhism: Buddhist Monks and Nuns in Society and Culture, eds. Heinz Bechert and Richard Gombrich (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1984). Lamotte quite correctly points out that such contrasting statements by the Buddha have been misconstrued as contradictions, whereas they really exhibit upāya (skillful means) within a soteriological tradition that aimed at existential liberation from suffering, not intellectual orthodoxy. From the outset the Buddha exhorted his followers to cultivate nonattachment, employ upāya and avoid dogmatism. The

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Buddhist Ideas about No-Self and the Person Dharma offered a soteriological method, an expedient medicine prescribed to counter a variety of spiritual ailments. Once cured, natural health returned (that is, one’s inherent Buddha nature) and the medicine could be discontinued and even discarded. The fluid and flexible nature of Buddhism thus seems to stem more from design and less from default. Thus, the Belgian scholar Lamotte notes, “The Buddha often tried to adapt his teaching to the intellectual and moral dispositions of his listeners. To those who did not believe in the afterlife but believed everything disappears at death, he discoursed on immortality and predicted a fruition in different universes (Anguttara I, 134); to Phalguna, who believed in the eternity of the self, he taught the nonexistence of a person as a thinking and fruition-incurring being (Saṃyutta Nikāya II, 13). This might be said to be a contradiction [my emphasis]; it is, however, not the least so, but merely skillful means (upāya). From the remedial point of view, the Buddha, who is the healer of universal suffering, varied the remedies according to the diseases to be cured; to the sensuous, he taught the contemplation of the decomposing corpse; to vindictive and hate-filled men, he recommended thoughts of goodwill regarding those close to one; to the deluded, he advised study on the subject of dependent origination. We should never forget that the omniscient Buddha is less a teacher of philosophy and more a healer of universal suffering: he imparts to every person the teaching which suits them best.” Lamotte’s essay may be found in Buddhist Hermeneutics, ed. Donald S. Lopez, Kuroda Institute Studies in East Asian Buddhism (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988), 21. 9. The story is told in the Cula-Mālunkyā Sutta as follows: “One day Mālunkyāputta got up from his afternoon meditation, went to the Buddha, saluted him, sat to one side, and said: ‘Sir, when I was all alone meditating, this thought occurred to me: there are these problems unexplained, put aside and rejected by the Blessed One. Namely, (1) is the universe eternal or (2) is it not eternal, (3) is the universe finite or (4) is it infinite, (5) is soul the same as body or (6) is soul one thing and body another thing, (7) does the Tathāgata exist after death, or (8) does he not exist after death, or (9) does he both (at the same time) exist and not exist after death, or (10) does he both (at the same time) not exist and not not-exist. These problems the Blessed One does not explain to me.’” The Buddha declines to answer Mālunkyāputta’s questions, however. He compares the questions to those asked by the wounded man in the parable, as follows: “Suppose, Mālunkyāputta, a man is wound by a poisoned arrow, and his friends and relatives bring him to a surgeon. Suppose the man should then say: ‘I will not let this arrow be taken out until I know who shot me; whether he is of the warrior caste, or of the priestly caste, or of the trading and agricultural caste, or of the low caste; what his name and family may be; whether he is tall, short or of medium stature; whether his complexion is black, brown or golden; from which village, town or city he comes. I will not let this arrow be taken out until I know the kind of bow with which I was shot, the kind of bowstring used, the type of arrow, what sort of feather was used on the arrow and with what kind of material the point of the arrow was made.’ Mālunkyāputta, that man would die without knowing any of these things. Even so, Mālunkyāputta, if anyone says: ‘I will not follow the holy life under the Blessed One until he answers these questions such as whether the universe is eternal or not, etc.,’ he would die with these questions unanswered by the Tathāgata.’”

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Martin Verhoeven The Buddha explains that the holy life does not depend on these views. Whatever opinion one may have about these problems, there still is birth, old age, decay, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and distress and also nirvana. He concludes: “Why, Mālunkyāputta, have I not [answered these questions?] . . . Because it is not useful, it is not fundamentally connected with the spiritual holy life. . . . Then, what, Mālunkyāputta, have I explained? I have explained dukkha, the cause of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha, and the way leading to the cessation of dukkha. Why, Mālunkyāputta, have I explained them? Because it is useful, is fundamentally connected with the spiritual holy life, is conducive to aversion, detachment, cessation, tranquility, deep penetration, full realization, Nirvana. Therefore I have explained them.” 10. Ibid. 11. From the Mahāparinirvāna Sutra (Sutra of the Great Decease). The passage quoted is attributed to the words spoken in sorrow by the deity Indra on the death of the Buddha. Quoted in Kogen Mizuno and J. W. de Jong, Essentials of Buddhism: Basic Terminology and Concepts of Buddhist Philosophy and Practice (Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Co., 1996), 122. 12. The Chan/Zen expression is as follows: “Great doubt, great enlightenment. Small doubt, small enlightenment. No doubt, no enlightenment.” This phrase appears in the Pushou of Linji Chan monk Xueyan Zuqin, entitled Wu-xuzangjing (Supplement to the Canon), vol. 122:257a. It was an exhortation apparently given to Xueyan by his teacher, Chuzhou, who told him that his progress was slow due to insufficient doubt. Chuzhou did not cite original sources for this expression but represented it as deriving from the oral tradition. For more on this see Hae Soon Shim, Gaofeng Yuanmiao’s (1238–1295) “Three Essentials”: The Nature and Function of Doubt in Chinese Kanhua Meditation,” unpublished MA thesis at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, 2005. 13. Verse of exhortation for Chan practice from Master Hsüan Hua. 14. Saṃyutta Nikāya. 15. Majjhima Nikāya I, 300; III, 17. 16. Cakkavatti-Sīhanāda Sutta (The Lion’s Roar on the Turning of the Wheel), 27. 17. From the verse section of the Fifth Transference in the “Chapter on Ten Transferences” from the Avatamsaka Sutra (Roll 25). Translation by the author. 18. Known as the “Questions of King Menander” (Milindapanha) quoted in H. C. Warren, Buddhism in Translations: Passages Selected from the Buddhist Sacred Books (New York: Atheneum, 1963 [1896]), 128–35. Also found in W. T. De Bary, ed., The Buddhist Tradition in India, China & Japan (New York: Modern Library, 1969), 21–5. A similar use of the chariot analogy appears in The Book of Verses (Sagāthāvagga, chap. 5, Bhikkunisaṃyutta; 10 Vajīra), where the nun Vajīra defeated Mara’s attempt to frighten her out of meditation by reciting the following verse that allows her to see even Mara as just another “heap of sheer formations. Here no being is found.” The verse: “Just as, with an assemblage of parts, the word chariot is used, so, when the aggregates exist, there is the convention ‘a being.’” 19. For a more comprehensive treatment see, Vasubandhu, Shastra on the Door to Understanding the Hundred Dharmas (Talmage, Calif.: International Institute for the Translation of Buddhist Texts, 1983). 20. I have been unable to track down the original source of this quote from Jung’s collected works. It appears in Praised by the Wise: Famous Men and Women Comment

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Buddhist Ideas about No-Self and the Person on the Buddha and His Teachings, ed. S. Dhammika (Singapore: Buddhist Research Society, n.d.). 21. Ven. Master Hsüan Hua, The Heart Sutra and Commentary, with Verses without a Stand, trans. Ron Epstein and David Rounds. (San Francisco: Buddhist Text Translation Society, 1980), 1. 22. Anguttara Nikāya 3:65; I 188–93. 23. The Sixth Patriarch’s Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra, 1. 24. Buddhaghosa, Visuddhimagga: The Path of Purification, trans. Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli (Seattle: Buddhist Publication Society, Pariyatti Editions, 1999), XIX, 19, 622–3. 25. The term kleśa generally refers to any mistaken thought, action, or habit that obstructs our attainment of enlightenment. Besides hindering awakening, they result in mental and physical distress, and thus are often translated as “afflictions.” Alternate translations include: defilements, hindrances, yokes, chains, fetters, outflows, raging streams, ties, bonds, cankers, poisons, arrows, jungle, tangle, and excess. 26. Udāna 8:3; 80–1. 27. Perhaps this is why Buddhists hold that belief in a self is not directly a cause of wrong-doing. One who believes in a self wishes for happiness in this life and the presumed next, and as a result lives a wholesome life in the hope of ensuring a favorable rebirth either in the heavens or as a person. However, this erroneous view of a permanent self becomes an obstacle to spiritual realization (ending suffering and attaining nirvana) because it builds upon rather than uproots desire and the source of craving—a view of self. Taking a tiny ball of dung between his fingers, the Buddha said to a monk: “The belief in the existence of a permanent, stable, eternal, and unchanging Self, be it as tiny as this ball of dung, would ruin the religious life which culminates in the perfect destruction of suffering” (Saṃyutta Nikāya III, 144); he also said: “With regard to this, I see no adhesion to that view which would not engender in him who adheres to it grief, lamentation, suffering, anguish and despair” (Majjhima Nikāya I, 137–8). 28. Udāna 8:3; 80–1. 29. From the Avatamsaka Sutra, chap. 26, “The Ten Grounds,” here describing the Bodhisattva on the Second Ground, “Leaving Filth.” Author’s translation. 30. “The skandhas, realms, places” is a reference to the psycho-physical phenomena of existence, or conditioned reality as seen and experienced (and to some extent created) through ignorance and craving that arise from a view of self. The skandhas are: form or corporeality, feeling, perception, volition or habitdriven actions, and consciousness. The second skandha, feelings, results from contact between six internal organs and six external objects, which together form the Twelve Places. The six internal organs are: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. The six external objects are: sights, sounds, odors, tastes, touch, and mental objects. Perception, the third skandha, is related to the six external objects; volition, the fourth skandha, is the reaction of the will to the six objects. Consciousness, the fifth skandha, grasps at the attributes of the six objects, forming six kinds of consciousness. They are: visual consciousness, auditory consciousness, olfactory consciousness, gustatory consciousness, tactile consciousnes,s and mental consciousness. Added to the above Twelve Places, they make up what are called the Eighteen Realms (dhatu). In short, the whole field of living experience is defined by the Buddha in terms of the subtle, unceasing

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Martin Verhoeven and largely unexamined interaction of the skandhas, the twelve places and the eighteen realms. 31. From the ºverses from the “Chapter on the Ten Grounds” (Talmage, Calif.: Buddhist Text Translation Society, 1980).

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