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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Essay: Implications of the Buddhist “no-self” concept

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Implications of the Buddhist “no-self” concept

From the book: Chum for Thought: Throwing Ideas into Dangerous Waters by David Satterlee

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Chum For Thought:
Throwing Ideas into Dangerous Waters


Implications of the Buddhist “no-self” concept


The Hindu concept of atman is the indestructible essential self, which is reincarnated in a series of corporeal physical existences.

The Buddhist concept of “an-atman” (or no-atman) refutes the idea of an irreducible unitary essence that sustains an existence. An-atman presumes total dissipation at death and rebirth as a new constitution from previous cause.

The implication of an-atman is that no thing or person is special. Wealth accumulated for the sole benefit of self or favored others is meaningless because we are not only related to all else, but are nothing but “all else.”

With the distinction of all things and selves being illusion, there is no need to cling or grasp for anything desired but perceived to be unobtained. In fact, the desire for things-not-had defines the dukkha (“suffering”) of the human condition.

Since the accumulation of ever-increasing possessions and the
satisfaction of ever-increasing desires is a meaningless pursuit of nothing, the purpose of life is to realize that truth.

This realization is the enlightenment that frees us from desire and fear, even the fear of death. This concept is echoed by Solomon, who after indulging himself in pleasure and productive work, declared that it had all been vanity and as futile as trying to grasp the wind.

As a practical matter, Buddhism does not ask that all its adherents become ascetic and renounce everything including their families. The key is to take the middle path, to live modestly in the world, and recognize the self as an illusion (or at least impermanent). The result is the conduct of life characterized by moderate ambition, moderate behavior, and moderate expectations.

To provide direction along this middle way, Buddhism offers the noble Eightfold Path. This path keeps one focused on right understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. By focusing on these very reasonable responsibilities instead of unfulfilled expectations, a Buddhist can live comfortably with the ongoing process of his life in this world.

Some ascetic aspirants seek to eliminate a sense of self through self-denial of property, comforts, family, and community. However, committing to achieve such a sense of personal extinction is demanding and ultimately impossible in most cases. Therefore, pursuing a life of severe denial could actually be considered as another form of seeking and grasping.

The middle path between total personal indulgence and severe deprivation has much to recommend it. A life that avoids ignorance, offensiveness, and unmastered emotions will certainly be more compassionate, peaceful, satisfying, and meritorious.

Accepting that one’s life simply arises from the confluence of events rather than assuming that your god is unhappy with you, personally, provides additional peace of mind. In American culture, adults advise each other to “go with the flow” and children are taught the song: “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.” The Buddha would be pleased.

Meditation can increase insight. As one discovers that they can observe with total awareness, it can be pointed out that no object that can be observed can be the actual observer. If you can watch your breath, the observer is not the breath. If you can watch your emotions arise and cease, the observer is not the emotions. The process can be continued until the bodily self is observed as subjectively as everything else arising.

Perhaps the path of meditative discipline is a subtle pointing-out exercise. The apt student may discern that working to follow a spiritual path and achieving progressive levels of attainment is, of itself, a form of grasping.

It is possible to come to a feeling of unity with all else and, discarding even that duality, simply know “I am” suchness. This kind of freedom, identifying with all-ever, cannot be subject to jealousy, fear, greed or any other form of suffering.

Returning to an-atman (not-self), the meaning of life is in the realization that all/always/already just is. Nirvana is not to be attained or achieved; it is to be realized.

Realization of Buddhahood is enlightenment. And, because there really is no self to realize personal nirvana, the effect of enlightenment is to contribute to the general compassionate transformation of all.
Why be a Buddhist,
when you can be the Buddha?”
Lama Surya Das