Posts tagged "selves"


At present, I write here infrequently. You can find my current, regular blogging over at The Deliberate Owl.

_several gold shiny buddha statues stacked in front of a set of box shelves_

I said I'd return to discuss a sutra that Khenpo Kalsang translated during the Tibetan monastery retreat I attended. Here's the scoop:

The self is a delusion

Khenpo Kalsang translated a sutra called Advice to a king for the group of us who were staying at the monastery. The sutra told the story of a king who encountered the Buddha and wished to kill him. The Buddha asked the king, "Conflict and fighting and killing cause exhaustion and suffering in this life. Why would you enjoy this?" The king, considering this, responded that he enjoyed fighting because he always conquered his enemies. The Buddha said, "Great king, these are very minor enemies--insignificant! There are much greater enemies that you should fight." He explained that the greatest enemy was not another man, or another country, but the clinging of self. He explained how one could fight this enemy with the six perfections and with selflessness. The king is convinced, and instead of killing the Buddha, becomes devoted to him.

The clinging of self, or self-cherishing, is one of the defilements. This means it is a cause of suffering (recall that if you manage to become free from suffering and the causes of suffering, you'll eventually reach nirvana). Simply put, one develops an attachment to the five aggregates (body, mind, feeling, perceptions, activities), and one fears losing the parts of the self through death, illness, hunger, cold, and so on. This is a problem. The way to triumph over self-clinging is to realize that the self, the "I," does not exist in reality.

The gist of the argument presented in this sutra is this: the self is a delusion because it is a construct based on the aggregates. We have names: names are labels, and so the name is not a self. The body is also not the self, because the flesh and blood are just like the walls of a house: that is, a combination of elements that are, if you break them down enough, no different than the elements that make up the walls of a house. The mind is not the self, because it has no matter form. Because self-clinging is based on these three things (name, body, mind), through this analysis, the personal self cannot be found. It's a delusion.

Something is missing here. Simply being unable to pinpoint the exact location of the self doesn't mean it's entirely a delusion. I'd agree, based on other readings, that there is no one physical thing responsible for the sensation of selfhood. There is no single structure in the brain that we can point to and say this is where "I" am. This is the where consciousness happens. But that's all the argument can say: that no one thing is responsible. The self could just be an amalgamation of things: the body, the mind, the interactions of these with the world. The five aggregates that compose a person. The agent and the environment. The self could just be the name we give this combination of things.

Other sutras and other pieces of the Tibetan Buddhist philosophy may better explain this delusion. But even if they do, I may still just fundamentally disagree with pieces of the philosophy. (E.g., that dualistic bit about the mind having no matter form.)

The take away message may be this: Whether or not the self is a delusion depends on your definition of "self." Go figure.


Afraid of losing ourselves

You and me, as conscious beings, we're special. We don't just move in the world, acting and reacting--we know we're here. We have selves (illusory as they may be). We are conscious of our existence. We also know we're not here forever.

"Every creature has fear," said Jared. "Even the non-conscious ones." "No," said Boutin. "Every creature has a survival instinct. It looks like fear but it's not the same thing. Fear isn't the desire to avoid pain or death. Fear is rooted in the knowledge that what you recognize as yourself can cease to exist. Fear is existential."

--- The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

You and me, as conscious beings, we're special. We can be afraid.


Scene: One of the last episodes of Series 2 of the new Doctor Who (the 10th Doctor) Characters:

  • Rose Tyler, companion of the Doctor as he travels through time and space
  • Jackie Tyler, Rose's mother


Jackie: Do you think you'll ever settle down?

Rose: The Doctor never will so I can't. I'll just keep on traveling.

Jackie: And you'll keep on changing. And in forty years time, fifty, there'll be this woman, this strange woman, walking through the marketplace on some planet a billion miles from Earth. She's not Rose Tyler. Not any more. She's not even human.

Except that's not how it works. If Rose changes, she won't be the same Rose her mother remembers (and perhaps this is what her mother is referring to). If Rose changes, she's still Rose. She's just progressing, changing, adapting, learning, growing, pick your favorite synonym, it's what everyone does as they progress through life. Are you the same person you were ten years ago?

I thought not.


Beautiful and good to eat

Deep down, maybe we all know we are, every one of us, a unique snowflake. But a lot of people, they don't want it to be true. They want all the snowflakes to melt together into one big puddle. They want to be able to share their subjective view of the world with everyone else. They want to be able to look at a sunset and know that what it's like for me to see the sunset is the same as what it's like for you to see the sunset.

Hey, we all want things we can't have. And in this case, science says no! Here's a piece of wisdom from David Brin's sci-fi novel Kiln People:

“We may use similar terms to describe a sunset. Our subjective worlds often correspond, correlate, and map onto each other. That makes cooperation and relationships possible, even complex civilization. Yet a person's actual sensations and feelings remain forever unique. Because a brain isn't a computer and neurons aren't transistors. It's why telepathy can't happen. We are, each of us, singular and forever alien..."

The amazing thing about people is that this fact doesn't deter us. We keep trying to share our sensations and feelings with each other. As Virginia Woolf writes in her book Orlando:

For it is a curious fact that though human beings have such imperfect means of communication, that they can only say “good to eat” when they mean “beautiful” and the other way about, they will yet endure ridicule and misunderstanding rather than keep any experience to themselves.

To be known

Maybe we're just stubborn. Maybe we're clinging to a shred of hope that science is wrong and someday, instead of just overlapping with pieces of each other, we'll be able to know what it's like to experience the sunset the way someone else does. Here's a passage from a favorite book of mine, Man Walks Into a Room by Nicole Krauss:

“When you're young, you think it's going to be solved by love. But it never is. Being close—as close as you can get—to another person only makes clear the impassable distance between you. . . .

"But see, the incredible thing about people is that we forgot,” Ray continued. “Time passes and somehow the hope creeps back and sooner or later someone else comes along and we think this is the one. And the whole thing starts all over again. We got through our lives like that, and either we just accept the lesser relationship—it may not be total understanding, but it's pretty good—or we keep trying for that perfect union, trying and failing, leaving behind us a trail of broken hearts, our own included. In the end, we die as alone as we were born, having struggled to understand others, to make ourselves understood, but having failed in what we once imagined was possible.”

“People really want that, what did you say, merging souls? Total union?” [Samson]

“Yes. Or at least they think they do. Mostly what they want, I think, is to feel known.

What do you think? Is the ultimate human goal to feel known and understood? And if that's the case, is the illusion of feeling known enough to compensate for never truly being able to share one's experiences with anyone else?