Tag Archives: no-self

Two types of “sweaters”

Which type of “sweater” are you?

No, I am not talking about round necks and V-necks. I am talking about when it comes to souls there are the religious-type and philosophical-type.

Religious-types sweat when they hear someone say there is no soul. In fact, there is no single word for this except soulless, but that do not mean without soul, but without passion. Actually, the only religion that explicit says there is no soul is Buddhism. But neither do they panic when they hear people talk about souls.

Philosophical-types also sweat when they hear this. They often equate soul or spirit with mind. But like the religious-type not all of them sweat. Only a certain type – the idealists and rationalists – who have trouble explaining the mind. Gilbert Rule called this a belief in the ghost in the machine. Particularly, if one claims to be a materialist, physicalist, or empiricist one gets looks of incredulity.

The struggle then has always been how one can explain a being works without a soul and/or mind. But why sweat when either way the being has continued to work, live and survive. In other words, don’t panic, take off that sweater, wear a T-shirt, and carry on. Life continues no matter what.

A note on “Emptiness” and “Non-self”

It should be noted, firstly, that the concept of Emptiness (shunyata) does not exist in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism. It is a Mahayana Buddhist term. The term closest to Emptiness in Theravada Buddhism is Non-self (anatman). So why these separate terms?

In Theravada Buddhism the Buddha’s teaching of Non-self is interpreted to mean only no essence of the self, the sentient being. Mahayana Buddhism interprets Non-self to mean all things, animate as well as inanimate. This is why Mahayana Buddhists to distance themselves from the term No-self by taking a word to cover the wider definition they believed the teaching of Non-self to mean.

This is why Form and Emptiness are spoken within the same breath in the Heart Sutra. Whether one accepts the Theravada or Mahayana is up to the individual. What is important is to know at least this difference exists in Buddhism. It is a matter of interpretation.

Question: Why have I only been in this perspective since I was born?

This answer is from a Buddhist and Kantian perspective. 

The “me” isn’t really a me but personality generating machine that believes in a me. I do mean machine because our body is what makes the perspective and not something else. 

If we were independent of the machinery that houses us then we would be ghosts in shells. The fact that few have claimed to see shell-less ghosts means likely we need the body to be who we are.

Is The Buddha a god?

The Buddha was born a prince. His mother died soon after giving birth to him. So there is no claim of divinity of any kind. He was an ordinary man with ordinary problems just like you and me. And therefore he is not a god. Nor should he be worshipped as such.

Buddhist iconography was something which arose after his death. And temples are not places of worship. Both of these are created to help us understand his teaching, the dharma, which is we alone can liberate ourselves from unhappiness through attention to the nature of one’s body and mind.

This then means that Buddhism is not about faith but practice. The practice espoused was to look after the mind as much as we look after our body. This Buddhists do through meditation. Meditation does not have any special powers as such but only allows one to focus the mind to see clearly what the mind and body are. Some kind of basic understanding is necessary of course, but essentially it is that everything is impermanent, without self and suffering. Nothing including Buddhism lasts forever. That includes the self which many people cling on to. The self is an illusion. And that is perhaps the greatest of all roots of our suffering. Understand that this is what existence is then we can proceed to find the happiness which does not diminish.

Trilakshana – the marks of existence in Buddhism

If ever there were important discoveries they are these.

The Buddha said there are three marks of existence – impermanance, suffering and no-self. Everything (yes, everything) in the world is impermanent. There are no exceptions to this. We suffer because we think there is something permanent. It doesn’t matter what that thing is, if one thinks it is permanent then we suffer the consequences for that belief. More often than not the thing we believe most to be permanent is the self. And The Buddha unequivocally states even this is impermanent.

Know that there is no self would end suffering which in turn leads to the understanding of impermanence.

But coming to this understanding is harder than it sounds. It usually takes years of training. When you have achieved this, though, rest assured you will be enlightened. Good to know, isn’t it.

Differance, No-self and ecological interconnectedness

In Buddhism, the understanding is that there is no-self (anatman), or rather, what we believe as the self is not what it seems to be. Put in another way, there is no concept of Soul as in the Western sense. And also because there is no belief in a soul there is no final resting place like Heaven. Life just extinguishes (nirvana). The Buddha came to this conclusion through thorough analysis of the conditions of life.

But if there is no Soul and Heaven then who or what is it that gives us our identity and purpose? It is a loaded assumption, of course, that there needs to be either or both in order to exist, much like the meaning of a word.

Jacques Derrida, that Deconstructionist, in his study of the structural linguistics of Saussure came up with the concept of differance. The spelling is not a mistake but an invented word to describe something which had no construction until then (Deconstructionists will tell you it is a non-concept). It is pronounced (in French at least) the same as ‘difference’, the word it relates, but also differs, to it at the same time. It is also related to ‘defer’ in meaning. Playful was this man.

Saussure had brought to light two important properties of language. First, is that a word (signifier) and the thing it represents (signified) are completely arbitrary (see sign). There is no reason why any word should represent any object. If that be the case then the name of an object would be same in all languages. But there is no such determination in language. Some may argue that certain words are imitations of the object or concept (eg. gong, bang) but even then this does not determine that it will be the same across languages.

The second property is that a word gains its identity from its difference to other words. A symbol, therefore, only means something because it is in a system of signs. So, for example, to add an extra letter to English alphabet would mean nothing unless it plays a role within the system of the English language. Similarly to introduce a new word into a language doesn’t guarantee its use. That can only be done through agreement by at least two people of the language in question.

What Derrida did with this structural linguistic concept was to take it to its logical conclusion. So if there is nothing but differences within the system, it must necessarily mean that they do not have an inherit meaning or definition. And this is what is meant by Derrida when he says meaning is ‘deferred’, that words cannot come to full and independent meaning. He says words are forever partially marked by absence.

But, as far as I can tell, the Derrida’s concept of differance was only limited to the study of signifiers, or words. It seems logical, to me, to extent this also to the entire system of signifieds, to see meaning as created from the difference between all objects.

And so, if we extend this to the concept of No-self and see it is like the concept of differance, we will see they are similar in that they both believe that no internal meaning is possible. Or to go by the deconstruction logic, what we call the self relies on everything else for its definition.

And in a similar vein interconnectedness in ecology works in the same way, that nothing independently exists, but that everything is part of the intricate web of life. All three areas of thought seem to have a commonality. They dif(f)er only by their choice of words or path to the conclusion.