The Buddhist cure is radical all right: it goes right to the root, radix, of the matter: desire. But eschewing a salutary horticulture, it e-rad-icates the root. That is like curing a disease by snuffing out the life of the diseased. The problem is not desire, but misdirected desire. The solution is not the uprooting of desire, but its proper direction.
In other posts I have sketched the Buddhist doctrine of 'No Self.' I now consider an early Buddhist argument for it. Here are the words of Buddha according to the Anattalakkhana Sutta, his second discourse, the Sermon on the Mark of Not-Self:
The body [rupa], monks, is not self. If the body were the self, this body would not lend itself to dis-ease. It would be possible (to say) with regard to the body, 'Let my body be thus. Let my body be not thus.' But precisely because the body is not self, the body lends itself to dis-ease. And it is not possible (to say) with regard to the body, 'Let my body be thus. Let my body not be thus.'
Buddha then goes on to argue similarly with respect to the rest of the five aggregates or categories of personality-constituents (khandhas, Sanskrit: skandhas), namely, feeling (vedana), perception (sanna), consciousness (vinnana), and mental formations (sankharas). All are claimed to be not-self. Thus we are told that feeling afflicts us and is not amenable to our control, whence it is inferred that feeling is not one's self, not one's own inner substance. The tacit premise of this enthymematic argument is that one's self would have to be something over which one would have complete control. The tacit premise is that the self is something wholly active and spontaneous and self-regulating. And it is clear that something wholly active will not suffer: to suffer is precisely to be afflicted by something external over which one has no control. To suffer is to be passive. An agent in excelsis is an impassible agent. (In the West, impassibility became one of the divine attributes.)
After arguing that each of the personality-constituents is outside of our control and brings suffering, Buddha argues that each of the constituents is impermanent and for this reason as well is lacking in self-nature. The over-all argument of the Anattalakkhana Sutta may therefore be reconstructed in a generalized form as follows:
1. If anything were the self, then it would have two properties: it would not be liable to disease, decay, destruction or change generally, and it would be self-determining, i.e., it would have complete control over itself. 2. But nothing in our experience has either of these two properties, not the body, or feeling, or perception, or consciousness, etc. Therefore 3. Nothing in our experience can be identified as the self.
I have structured the argument so that it is not only valid in point of logical form, but also has plausible premises. (A charitable reconstruction can aim at nothing less.) Thus the addition of 'in our experience' in premise (2) makes this premise more plausible than without the addition. But this gain in plausibility exacts a price: the conclusion (3) cannot then amount to the unrestricted anatta doctrine according to which nothing at all is a self or has self-nature. It is one thing to say that nothing in our experience can be identified (veridically) as a self, and quite another to say that there is no self.
The Pali Buddhist, of course, wants to arrive at the conclusion that there is no self at all, that nothing at all has self-nature. I would insist, however, that one cannot validly move directly from (3) to
4. Nothing can be identified as the self: there is no self at all.
For it may well be that the existence of a (transcendental) self that is not experienced is a necessary condition of establishing that whatever is experienced is not a self. After all, if I come to see that my body, feelings, perceptions, and so on cannot be identified as my very self, then it is presumably I myself who come to this insight. If I come to reject body-identification, feeling- identification, etc. as false self-identifications, then presumably there must be at least the possibility of a true self-identification, even if only of the tautological form, 'I am I.' If every self-identification were false, then 'I am I' would be false. But that is either a contradiction, or implies that there is nothing that body, feelings, etc. are distinct from, which is again incoherent. For if 'I am not this body' is true, then in some sense I must exist as that from which my body is distinct. The first-person singular pronoun cannot be wholly referenceless if it is to be true, as it is true, that I am not my body, my feelings, my thoughts, the pain in my neck, etc.
Furthermore, if anyone needs and desires liberation, it is presumably in every case I myself who needs and desires it, and I myself who, if all goes well, achieves it, and indeed achieves it on the basis of my own insight into my non-identity with any of the five khandhas or with the psychophysical complex composed of them. The self who needs, desires, and possibly attains liberation is obviously distinct from each of the khandhas and from the psychophysical complex. My body, obviously enough, cannot come to realize its non-identity with itself, for the simple reason that it is not distinct from itself. The same holds for each of the khandhas, and for the lot of them taken together.
And to suppose that no one desires, needs, or attains liberation would appear to make hash of the whole Buddhist system of soteriology. Buddhism is an existentialist system in roughly Kierkegaard's sense: it is the salvation of the "existing individual" that is the unum necessarium and sole desideratum. It is therefore arguable that the existence of a transcendental self is a cognitive and soteriological presupposition: it is presupposed if there is to be the insight that no object of experience is veridically identifiable as one's very self, and it is presupposed if there is to be something that is saved from the samsaric predicament.
The gist of the control argument is this. There is no evidence of a self since nothing with which we are acquainted is immutable, and nothing with which we are acquainted is something over which we have complete control.
But this raises an obvious question: Isn't the standard for selfhood being set unattainably high? The argument isd tantamount tosaying that if I am not God or a god, then I am not a self. Arguably, God to be God must be impassible; but must a self to be a self be impassible?
For a richer and more rigorous development of this theme, see W. F. Vallicella, "No Self? A Look at a Buddhist Argument," International Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 4 (December 2002), pp. 453-466
A friend refers me to a rather poor article, "The Dalai Lama, the Pope, and Creation," in which the dubious claims of the Dalai Lama are ineptly rebutted by a Catholic journalist. We read:
Beyond the complex world of nature, Buddhism asserts a fundamental “nothingness.” Buddhist thought sees as illusory all distinction between beings. As the Dalai Lama writes in The Universe in a Single Atom, “According to the theory of emptiness, any belief in an objective reality grounded in the assumption of intrinsic, independent existence is untenable. All things and events, whether material, mental or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence.”
This is one of the central pillars of Buddhism, the doctrine of anatta (Pali), anatman (Sanskrit), 'no self.' The idea is that nothing, or at least nothing in the realm of samsara, has self-nature, substantiality, own-being, ontological independence, even relative ontological independence. And that includes persons (selves). You and I are not independent existents. The distinction between us is illusory. From the point of view of Christian metaphysics, this cannot be right. God is an uncreated self, and we are created selves. Although we depend for our existence on God, this fact is thought to be compatible with our genuine (though dependent) existence as self-same individuals numerically distinct from other such individuals.
It is not enough to pit worldviews against one another. You have to get down to the nitty-gritty of trying to resolve the dispute by careful analysis and argument. There is no reason to be sanguine about the success of such an enterprise, but you are no philosopher if you do not make the attempt.
I will now argue against the anatta doctrine by arguing that the conscious self cannot be a Heraclitean flux of instantaneous entities but must be an individual that remains self-same through the flux of its conscious states.
Suppose my mental state passes from one that is pleasurable to one that is painful. Observing a beautiful Arizona sunset, my reverie is suddenly broken by the piercing noise of a smoke detector. Not only is the painful state painful, the transition from the pleasurable state to the painful one is itself painful. The fact that the transition is painful shows that it is directly perceived. It is not as if there is merely a succession of consciousnesses (conscious states); there is in addition a consciousness of their succession. For there is a consciousness of the transition from the pleasant state to the painful state, a consciousness that embraces both of the states, and so cannot be reductively analyzed into them. But a consciousness of their succession is a consciousness of their succession in one subject, in one unity of consciousness. It is a consciousness of the numerical identity of the self through the transition from the pleasurable state to the painful one. Passing from a pleasurable state to a painful one, there is not only an awareness of a pleasant state followed by an awareness of a painful one, but also an awareness that the one who was in a pleasurable state is strictly and numerically the same as the one who is now in a painful state. This sameness is phenomenologically given, although our access to this phenomenon is easily blocked by inappropriate models taken from the physical world. Without the consciousness of sameness, there would be no consciousness of transition.
What this argument shows is that the self cannot be a mere diachronic bundle or collection of states. The self is a transtemporal unity distinct from its states whether these are taken distributively or collectively.
Another example is provided by the hearing of a melody. To hear the melody Do-Re-Mi, it does not suffice that there be a hearing of Do, followed by a hearing of Re, followed by a hearing of Mi. For those three acts of hearing could occur in that sequence in three distinct subjects, in which case they would not add up to the hearing of a melody. (Tom, Dick, and Harry can divide up the task of loading a truck, but not the ‘task’ of hearing a melody, or that of understanding a sentence.) But now suppose the acts of hearing occur in the same subject, but that this subject is not a unitary and self-same individual but just the bundle of these three acts, call them A1, A2, and A3. When A1 ceases, A2 begins, and when A2 ceases, A3 begins: they do not overlap. In which act is the hearing of the melody? A3 is the only likely candidate, but surely it cannot be a hearing of the melody.
For the awareness of a melody involves the awareness of the (musical not temporal) intervals between the notes, and to apprehend these intervals there must be a retention (to use Husserl’s term) in the present act A3 of the past acts A2 and A1. Without this phenomenological presence of the past acts in the present act, there would be no awareness in the present of the melody. But this implies that the self cannot be a mere bundle of perceptions externally related to each other, but must be a peculiarly intimate unity of perceptions in which the present perception A3 includes the immediately past ones A2 and A1 as temporally past but also as phenomenologically present in the mode of retention. The fact that we hear melodies thus shows that there must be a self-same and unitary self through the period of time between the onset of the melody and its completion. This unitary self is neither identical to the sum or collection of A1, A2, and A3, nor is it identical to something wholly distinct from them. Nor of course is it identical to any one of them or any two of them. This unitary self is given whenever one hears a melody.
Now consider a synchronic example, the hearing of a chord. Hearing the major chord C-E-G, I hear that it is major, and hearing the minor chord C-E flat-G, I hear that it is minor. How is this possible? The hearing of the major chord cannot be analyzed without remainder into an act of hearing C, an act of hearing E, and an act of hearing G, even when all occur simultaneously. For to hear the three notes as a major chord, I must apprehend the 1-3-5 musical interval that they instantiate. But this is possible only because the whole of my present consciousness is more than the sum of its parts. This whole is no doubt made up of the part-consciousnesses, but it is not exhausted by them. For it is also a consciousness of the relatedness of the notes. But this consciousness of relatedness is not something in addition to the other acts of consciousness: it includes them and embraces them without being reducible to them. Once again the unitary self is given: it is given whenever we hear a chord.
There is also this consideration. Phenomenologically, mental change is not existential change, but alterational change, or in a word, alteration. Existential change, as when something comes into being or passes away, is not a change in something, or at least it is not a change in the thing that suffers the change: a thing that ceases to exist is no longer available to be that in which this change occurs, and a thing that comes to exist is not available prior to its coming to exist to be that in which this change occurs. We express this by saying that there is no substratum of existential change. Alteration, however, requires a substratum: alteration occurs when numerically one and the same individual is in different states at different times.
Pali Buddhism, with its interconnected doctrines of radical impermanence and universal selflessness, implies that that ultimately there is no alteration, that all change is existential change. For alteration requires substrata of alteration, and substrata are incompatible with anatta. But if mental change were existential change, there could be no consciousness of it. If the pleasant visual sensation simply passes out of existence to be replaced by the painful auditory sensation, then there is a change all right – a change in the way things are – but not a change of which there could be any consciousness in the one in whom the change occurs. Furthermore, there would be no awareness of dukkha – the starting point of Buddhist soteriology – because there would be no possibility of a perceived contrast of the dukkha-state with the earlier sukha-state (the pleasant awareness of the sunset).
To be aware of the change from the pleasurable state to the painful one, I must endure through the change. Therefore, since there is consciousness of mental change, mental change is alteration and thus requires a substratum that is numerically identical across the change. The point was appreciated by Kant, who wrote that “A coming to be or a ceasing to be . . . can never be a possible [object of] perception.” (CPR A 188 = B 231)
What this shows is that there is direct awareness of the self as that in which the two distinct states are united. The fact of experienced mental change refutes the anatta doctrine. There is not just an awareness of one state followed by an awareness of a second; I am aware of myself as the transtemporal unity of the two states. Unity, of course, is not identity: so talk of the unity of the pleasurable and painful states is consistent with their numerical distinctness. The self, therefore, is directly given in the experience of mental change; but it is of course not given as a separate object wholly distinct from its states. It is given in and through these states as their transtemporal unity. The self is not one of its states, nor the sum of all of them, nor something wholly distinct from all of them; the self is their self-unifying unity. Thus one must not think of the substratum of mental change as wholly distinct from its states. It is not like a pin cushion into which pins are stuck. A pin cushion without pins is conceivable; a self without conscious states is not. The self is not an unconscious something that supports consciousness; it itself has the nature of consciousness. Consciousness/self-consciousness is a sui generis reality that cannot be understood in terms of crude models from the physical world.
The problem is not that we conceptualize things, but that we conceptualize them wrongly, hastily, superficially. The problem is not that we draw distinctions, but that we draw too few distinctions or improper distinctions. Perhaps in the end one must learn to trace all distinctions back to the ONE whence they spring; but that is in the end. In the beginning people must be taught to conceptualize, discriminate, and distinguish.
A superficial Zen training that attacks the discursive intellect in those who have never properly developed it does a great disservice.
With reference to your recent post 'Reininger Contra Buddhism' you might be intrigued by chapter 5 of D. T. Suzuki's Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist where he talks about trishna at length and states:
"The later Buddhists realized that tṛiṣṇā was what constituted human nature--in fact, everything and anything that at all comes into existence--and that to deny tṛiṣṇā was committing suicide; to escape from tṛiṣṇā was the height of contradiction or a deed of absolute impossibility; and that the very thing that makes us wish to deny or to escape from tṛiṣṇā was tṛiṣṇā itself. Therefore, all that we could do for ourselves, or rather all that tṛiṣṇā could do for itself, was to make it turn to itself, to purify itself from all its encumbrances and defilements, by means of transcendental knowledge (prajñā). The later Buddhists then let tṛiṣṇā work on in its own way without being impeded by anything else. Tṛiṣṇā or "thirst" or "craving" then comes to be known as mahākaruṇā, or "absolute compassion," which they consider the essence of Buddhahood and Bodhisattvahood." (Section XI)
I suspect that his unusual interpretation was possibly influenced by his documented reading of Eckhart and Swedenborg, as much as any Buddhist sources, but I found it interesting to read such a famous Buddhist figure interpreting trishna in this way.
Robert Reininger, Philosophie des Erlebens, p. 227:
Gegen Buddhismus: Trishna nicht ertoeten (ausloeschen), sondern durch Ueberhoehung in den Dienst des Vernunftwillens stellen -- sonst fehlt diesem die lebendige Kraft, die nur der Daseinsbejahung eignet (A 751, 1932).
Against Buddhism: Trishna is not to be killed or extinguished, but elevated and placed in the service of the rational will. Without this sublimation, the rational will lacks the vital force appropriate to the affirmation of existence. (tr. BV)
Trishna is Sanskrit for desire, thirst. Central to Buddhism is the notion that the suffering and general unsatisfactoriness of life is rooted in desire, and that salvation is to be had by the extirpation of desire. Reininger's point is one with which I wholly agree. The goal ought not be the extinction of desire, but its sublimation. Desire as such is not the problem; the problem is misdirected desire. Properly channeled and sublimated, desire provides the motive force for the rational will.
See my "No Self? A Look at a Buddhist Argument," International Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 4 (December 2002), pp. 453-466.)
Nirvana, n. In the Buddhist religion, a state of pleasurable annihilation awarded to the wise, particularly to those wise enough to understand it. (Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary, c. 1911)
Although intended sardonically, there is a serious point here to which Maurice Blondel alludes in the following quotation:
. . . if there is a salvation it cannot be tied to the learned solution of an obscure problem. . . It can only be offered clearly to all. (Action, p. 14)
It might be fruitful for someone to develop a comparison of Buddhism and Christianity on this point. Buddhism is a religion of self-help: "Be ye lamps unto yourselves, etc." Trouble is, how many attain the Goal? And if only a few renunciates ever attain it, how does that help the rest of us poor schleps? By contrast, in Christianity, God, in the person of the Word (Logos) made flesh, does the work for us. Unable ultimately to help ourselves, we are helped by Another. And the help is available to all despite their skills in metaphysics and meditation. (By "do the work for us," I of course do not mean to suggest the sola fide extremism of some Protestants.)
Obviously, what I have just written is but a crude gesture in the direction of a whole constellation of problem-clusters. For example, a thorough comparison would have to go into the role of the Bodhisattva as a sort of helper of samsarically-bound 'schleps.'
I have long been fascinated by forms of philosophical refutation that exploit the overt or covert self-reference of a thesis. To warm up, consider
1. All generalizations are false.
Since (1) is a generalization, (1) refers to itself. So if (1) is true, then (1) is false. On the other hand, if (1) is false, as it surely is, then (1) is false. Therefore, necessarily (1) is false. It follows that the negation of (1), namely, Some generalizations are true, is not just true, but necessarily true. (1) is self-refuting and its negation is self-verifying. Some generalizations are true is an instance of itself which shows that it itself is true: one instance suffices to verify a particular generalization.
There are those who dismiss arguments like this as quick and facile. Some even call them 'sophomoric,' presumably because any intelligent and properly caffeinated sophomore can grasp them -- as if that could constitute a valid objection. I see it differently. The very simplicity of such arguments is what makes them so powerful. A simple argument with few premises and few inferential moves offers few opportunities to go wrong. Here, then, is a case where simplex sigillum veri, where simplicity is the seal of truth. Now consider a more philosophically interesting example, one beloved by Buddhists:
2. All is impermanent.
(2) applies to itself: if all is impermanent, then (2), or rather the propositional content thereof, is impermanent. That could mean one of two things. Either the truth-value of the proposition expressed by (2) is subject to change, or the proposition itself is subject to change, perhaps by becoming a different proposition with a different sense, or by passing out of existence altogether. (There is also a stronger reading of 'impermanent' according to which the impermanent is not merely subject to change, but changing.)
Note also that if (2) is true, then every part of (2)'s propositional content is impermanent. Thus the property (concept) of impermanence is impermanent, and so is the copulative tie and the universal quantifier. If the property of impermanence is impermanent, then so is the property of permanence along with the distinction between permanence and impermanence.
In short, (2), if true, undermines the very contrast that gives it a determinate sense. If true, (2) undermines the permanence/impermanence contrast. For if all is impermanent, then so is this contrast and this distinction. This leaves us wondering what sense (2) might have and whether in the end it is not nonsense.
What I am arguing is not just that (2) refutes itself in the sense that it proves itself false, but refutes itself in the much stronger sense of proving itself meaningless or else proving itself on the brink of collapsing into meaninglessness.
No doubt (2) is meaningful 'at first blush.' But all it takes is a few preliminary pokes and its starts collapsing in upon itself.
Michael Krausz ("Relativism and Beyond: A Tribute to Bimal Matilal" in Bilimoria and Mohanty, pp. 93-104) arrives at a similar result by a different route. He writes:
Paradoxically, because all things are contexted, the idea of permanence cannot be permanent. But it does not follow that in the end all things are impermanent either, for impermanence too is contexted and it too finally drops out of any fixed constellation of concepts. (101)
Krausz invokes the premise,
3. All things are contexted.
Krausz writes as if (3) is unproblematic. But surely it too 'deconstructs' itself. Just apply the same reasoning to (3) that we applied to (2). Clearly, (3) is self-referential. So (3) cannot express an invariant structure of being. It cannot be taken to mean, context-independently, that every being qua being is contexted.
Note also that if (3) is true, then every part of (3)'s propositional content is contexted: the universal quantifier, the concept thing, the copulative tie, and the concept of being contexted are all contexted. What's more, the very contrast of the context-free and the context-bound is contexted.
In short, (3), if true, undermines the very contrast that confers upon it a determinate sense, namely, the contrast between the context-free and the context-bound. For if all is contexted, then so is this contrast and this distinction.
(3) collapses in upon itself and perishes for want of a determinate sense. And the same goes for all its parts. Copulative Being collapses into indeterminacy along with every other sense of Being: the existential, the identitative, the veritative, the locative, the class-theoretic. Being ends up with no structure at all. If Being and Thinking are one, as Father Parmendides had it, then the collapse of Being brings Thinking down with it.
Clearly, we are sinking into some seriously deep shit here, and it is of the worst kind: the formless kind, crap that won't own up to its own crapiness, the kind that deconstructionists, whether Continental or Asian, like to serve up. It is stuff so unstable that one cannot even say that it stinks. Do we really want to wallow in this mess?
Wouldn't it be better to admit that there is an Absolute?
Biblia Vulgata: Si autem Christus non resurrexit, inanis est ergo praedicatio nostra, inanis est et fides vestra.
King James: And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.
Orthodox Christianity stands and falls with a contingent historical fact, the fact of the resurrection of Christ from the dead. If he rose from the dead, he is who is said he was and can deliver on his promises. If not, then the faith of the Christian inanis est, is vain, void, empty, delusional.
Compare Buddhism. It too promises salvation of a sort. But the salvation it promises is not a promise by its founder that rests on the existence of the founder or on anything he did. For Christianity, history is essential, for Buddhism inessential. The historical Buddha is not a savior, but merely an example of a man who saved himself by realizing his inherent Buddha-nature. The idea of the Buddha is enough; his historical existence unnecessary. 'Buddha,' like 'Christ,' is a title: it means 'the Enlightened One.' Buddhism does not depend either on the existence of Siddartha, the man who is said to have become the Buddha, or on Siddartha's becoming the Buddha.
Hence the Zen saying, "If you see the Buddha, kill him." I take that to mean that one does not need the historical Buddha, and that cherishing any piety towards him may prove more hindrance than help. Buddhism, as the ultimate religion of self-help, enjoins each to become a lamp unto himself. What is essential is the enlightenment that one either achieves or fails to achieve on one's own, an enlightenment which is a natural possibility of all. If one works diligently enough, one can extricate oneself from the labyrinth of samsara. Oner can achieve the ultimate goal on one's own, by one's own power. There is no need for supernatural assistance.
Is this optimism justified? I remain open to Christianity's claims because I doubt the justification of self-help optimism. One works and works on oneself but makes little progress. That one needs help is clear. That one can supply it from within one's own resources is unclear. I know of no enlightened persons. But I know of plenty of frauds, spiritual hustlers, and mountebanks.
Both Buddhism and Christianity are life-denying religions. But while Christianity denies this life for the sake of a higher life elsewhere and elsewhen, Buddhism denies this life for the sake of extinction. The solution to the problem of suffering is to so attenuate desire and aversion that one comes to the realization that one never existed in the first place. Some solution. And yet there is much to learn from Buddhism and its practices. They are the two highest religions. The two lowest are the religions of spiritual materialism, Judaism and Islam, with Islam at the very bottom of the hierarchy of great religions.
Islam is shockingly crude, as crude as Buddhism is overrefined. The Muslim is promised all the crass material pleasures on the far side that he is forbidden here, as if salvation consists of eating and drinking and endless bouts of sexual intercourse. Hence my term 'spiritual materialism.' 'Spiritual positivism' is also worth considering. The Buddhist is no positivist but a nihilist: slavation though annihilation.
Admittedly, this is quick and dirty, but it is important to cut to the bone of the matter from time to time with no mincing of words. For details see my Buddhism category.
Note: By 'orthodox' I do not have in mind Eastern Orthodoxy, but a Christianity that is not mystically interpreted, a Christianity in which, for example, the resurrection is not interpreted to mean the attainment of Christ-consciousness or the realization of Christ-nature.
Buddhism and Christianity both enjoin self-denial. But Buddhism is more radical in that it connects self-denial with denial of the very existence of the self, whereas Christianity in its orthodox versions presupposes the existence of the self: Christian self-purification falls short of self-elimination. Nevertheless, there are points of comparison between the 'No Self' doctrine of Buddhism and the Christian doctrine of the self.
In his Combattimento Spirituale (1589), Lorenzo Scupoli writes:
You my mind, are not mine: you were given me by God. Neither are the powers active within me -- will, with its energy -- mine. Nor does my feeling, my ability to enjoy life and all my surroundings belong to me. My body with all its functions and requirements, which determine our physical well-being, is not mine either....And I myself belong not to me, but to God. (Unseen Warfare, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995, p. 172)
Apart from the references to God, this meditation of Scupoli, of which the above is merely an excerpt, bears a striking resemblance to the one contained in the Anattalakkhana Sutta. Buddha there examines each of the khandas, body, feeling, perception, etc., and concludes with respect to each of them that "This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am." In Scupoli we encounter virtually the same litany: body, feeling, mind . . . of all of which it is true that "This is not mine, etc." Of course, nothing depends on the exact taxonomy of personality-constituents. The point is that however one classifies the constituents of personality, no one of them, nor any combination of them, is veridically identifiable as one's very self. I say 'veridically,' since we do as a matter of fact (falsely) identify ourselves with all manner of item both within us (feelings, memories, etc.) and without us (property, progeny, etc.) But these false self-identifications are part of what our ignorance/sinfullness consists in.
Thus Scupoli (who I take to be a representative Christian, and who is of interest here only as such) and Buddha agree with respect to the (negative) thesis that nothing in one's experience is veridically identifiable as one's very self. Thus nothing that we ordinarily take to be ourselves (our bodies, our thoughts, feelings, memories, etc.) can in truth be one's self. But there is also similarity in their reasoning. One way Buddha reasons is as follows. If x (body, feeling, perception, etc.) were my very self, or were something that belonged to me, then I would have complete control over x. But it is evident that no x is such that I have complete control over x. Therefore, no x is either my self or anything that belongs to me. This could be called the 'complete control' argument. Scupoli has something similar: Let us remember that we can boast only of something which is a direct result of our own will and is done by us independently of anything else. But look how our actions proceed. How do they begin? Certain circumstances come together and lead to one action or another; or a thought comes to our mind to do something, and we do it. But the concurrence of circumstances does not come from us; nor, obviously, is the thought to do something our own; somebody suggests it. Thus, in such cases, the origin or birth of the thought to do something cannot or should not be an object of self-praise. Yet how many actions are of this kind? If we examine them conscientiously, we shall find that they almost all start in this way. So we have nothing to boast of. (174)
This passage suggests the following argument: One cannot justifiably take pride in anything (an action, a physical or mental attribute, etc.) unless one originates it 'independently of anything else.' But nothing is such that one originates it in sublime independence of all else. Therefore, one cannot justifiably take pride in anything.
But does this amount to an argument against the self? It does, given the Buddhist assumption, crucial to the reasoning in the Anattalakkhana Sutta, that a self is an entity that has complete control over itself. Such a self could justifiably take pride in its actions and attributes. For it would be their fons et origo. So if one cannot justifiably take pride in any of one's actions or attributes, then one is not a self. Pride is one of the seven deadly sins precisely because the proud person arrogates to himself a status he lacks, namely, the status of being a self in the sense in which this term is employed in the Anattalakkhana Sutta.
In sum, both Buddha and Scupoli are claiming that no one of us is a self for the reason than no one of us is in complete control of any of his actions or attributes. No one of the things which one normally takes to be oneself or to belong to oneself (e.g., one's body, habits, brave decisions, brilliant insights, etc.) is such that one has originated it autonomously and independently.
The main difference between Buddha and Scupoli, of course, is that the latter maintains that God gives us what we do not have under our control. Thus for Scupoli, what we do not have from ourselves, we have from another, and so have. But for Buddha, what we do not have from ourselves, we do not have at all.
An abbreviated version of the following paper was published under the same title in The Proceedings of the Twenty-First World Congress of Philosophy, vol. 9, ed. Stephen Voss (Ankara, Turkey), 2006, pp. 29-33.
According to Buddhist ontology, every (samsaric) being is impermanent, unsatisfactory, and devoid of self-nature. Anicca, dukkha, anatta: these are the famous three marks (tilakkhana) upon which the whole of Buddhism rests. I would like to consider a well-known Buddhist argument for the third of these marks, that of anatta, an argument one could call ‘The Chariot.’ The argument aims to show that no (samsaric) being is a self, or has self-nature, or is a substance. My thesis will be that, successful as this argument may be when applied to things other than ourselves, it fails when applied to ourselves.
Vanity of Duluoz, Book Thirteen, X, pp. 274-276, ellipses and bold emphases added:
. . . .Mad Dog creation has a side of compassionate mercy in it . . . we have seen the brutal creation send us the Son of Man who, to prove that we should follow His example of mercy, brotherly love, charity, patience, gave Himself up without murmur to be sacrificed. Otherwise we would have taken his example lightly. Seeing that He really meant it right down to the cross, we are impressed. [. . .] But we cant be redeemed "unless we believe," it says, or follow His example. And who can do that? Not even Count Leo Tolstoy who still had to live in a "humble hut" but on his own lands even tho he had signed over his "own lands" of course to his own family, and had the gall then, from that earthly vantage point of vaunt, to write The Kingdom of God is Within You. If I, myself, for instance, were to try to follow Jesus' example I'd first have to give up my kind of drinking, which prevents me from thinking too much(like I'm doing in awful pain this morning), and so I'd go insane and go on public debt and be a pain to everybody in the blessed "community" or "society." And I'd be furthermore bored to death by the knowledge that there is a hole even in Jesus' bag: and that hole is, where He says to the rich young man "Sell everything you have and give it tothe poor, and follow me," okay, where do we go now, wander and beg our food off poor hardworking householders? and not even rich at that like that rich young man's mother? but poor and harried like Martha? Martha had not "chosen the better part" when she cooked and slaved and cleaned house all day while her younger sister Mary sat in the doorway like a modern beatnik with "square" parents talking to Jesus about "religion" and "redemption" and "salvation" and all that guck. Were Jesus and young Mary McGee waiting for supper to be ready? While talking about redemption? How can you be redeemed when you have to pass food in and out of your body's bag day in and day out, how can you be "saved" in a situation so sottish and flesh-hagged as that? (This was also the hole in Buddha's bag: he more or less said "It's well for Bodhisattva sages and Buddhas to beg for their food so as to teach the ordinary people of the world the humility of charity," ugh I say. No, the springtime bud I talked about with rain dew on its new green, it's the laugh of a maniac. Birth is the direct cause of all pain and death, and a Buddha dying of dysentery at the age of eighty-three had only to say, finally, "Be ye lamps unto thyselves" -- last words --"work out thy salvation with diligence," heck of a thing to say as he lay there in an awful pool of dysentery. Spring is the laugh of a maniac, I say.
If there is divine light, sexual indulgence prevents it from streaming in. Herein lies the best argument for continence. The sex monkey may not be as destructive of the body as the booze monkey, but he may be even more destructive of the spirit. You may dismiss what I am saying here either by denying that there is any divine light or by denying that sexual indulgence impedes its influx, or both. But if you are in the grip of either monkey I will dismiss your dismissal. Why should I listen to a man with a monkey on his back? How do I know it is the man speaking and not the monkey?
Poor Kerouac got the holy hell beaten out of him by the simian tag-team. The Ellis Amburn biography goes into the greatest detail regarding Kerouac's homo- and hetero-erotic sexual excesses. His fatal fondness for the sauce, for the devil in liquid form, is documented in all the biographies.
It is not that the lovable dharma lush did not struggle mightily in his jihad against his lower self. He did, in his Buddhist phase in the mid-fifties, before the 1957 success of On the Road and the blandishments of fame did him in. (Worldly $ucce$$/Suckcess is an ambiguous good.) I've already pulled some quotations from Some of the Dharma which offers the best documentation of Jack's attempt to tread the straight path to the narrow gate.
One lesson, perhaps, is that we cannot be lamps unto ourselves even if the Tathagata succeeded in pulling himself up into Nirvana by his samsaric sandalstraps. To the vast run of us ordinary "poor suffering fucks" a religion of self-help is no help at all. The help we need, if help there be, must come from Elsewhere.
Martin Boober -- with all his fancy veins sticking out of his forehead he still wont face the final truth -- of Nil Substantum -- the Jews are proud of being a "person" -- as tho it was some great achievement -- The old Hasidic saying "For my sake the world was created" reflects the Jew's profound inability to detach himself from ego-self-belief -- the final depersonalized Aryan Indian blank truth and highest perfect final fact of Everything-is-Emptiness is beyond their best scribes -- Yet, in truth, one must know there are no Jews no Indians, nothing to discuss, only everything's alright forever and forever a n d f o r e v e r . . . .
After his Buddhist phase, Kerouac makes his way back to Christianity which is a 'middle path' between the nihilism of Buddhism and the thisworldly positivism of Judaism.
I am appreciating Kerouac month. Here is something on Buddhism in Buber's I and Thou that may be of use.
Nor does he [Buddha] lead the unified being further to that supreme You-saying that is open to it. His inmost decision seems to aim at the annulment of the ability to say You . . . . All doctrines of immersion are based on the gigantic delusion of human spirit bent back into itself -- the delusion that spirit occurs in man. In truth it occurs from man - between man and what he is not. As the spirit bent back into itself renounces this sense, this sense of relation, he must draw into man that which is not man, he must psychologize world and God. This is the psychical delusion of the spirit. ( pp.140-141 / part 3 : Tr.Kaufmann, Ed: T&T Clark Edinburgh 1970)
Thank you for reminding me of these Buber passages which I had planned eventually to discuss. The context of the above quotations is a section of I and Thou that runs from pp. 131 to 143. Here are some quickly composed thoughts on this stretch of text.
In this section Buber offers a critique of Buddhism, Hinduism and other forms of mysticism (including Christian forms such as the one we find in Meister Eckhart) which relativize the I-Thou relation between man and God by re-ducing it (leading it back) to a primordial unity logically and ontologically prior to the terms of the relation. According to these traditions, this primordial unity can be experienced directly in Versenkung, which Kaufmann translates, not incorrectly, as 'immersion,' but which I think is better rendered as 'meditation.' As the German word suggests, one sinks down into the depths of the self and comes to the realization that, at bottom, there is no self or ego (Buddhism with its doctrine of anatta or anatman) or else that there is a Self, but that it is the eternal Atman ( = Brahman) of Hinduism, "the One that thinks and is." (131)
Either way duality is overcome and seen to be not ultimately real. Buber rejects this because the I-Thou relation presupposes the ultimate ineliminability of duality, not only the man-God duality but also the duality of world and God. Mysticism "annuls relationship" (132) psychologizing both world and God. (141). Verseelen is the word Kaufmann translates as 'psychologize.' A more suggestive translation might be 'soulifies.' Mysticism drags both God and the world into the soul where they are supposedly to be found in their ultimate reality by meditation. But spirit is not in man, Buber thinks, but between man and what is not man. Spirit is thus actualized in the relation of man to man, man to world, man to God.
At this point I would put a question to Buber. If spirit subsists only in relation, ought we conclude that God needs man to be a spiritual being in the same way that finite persons need each other to be spiritual beings? Is God dependent on man to be who he is? If yes, then the aseity of God is compromised. A Christian could say that the divine personhood subsists in intradivine relations, relations among and between the persons of the Trinity. But as far as I know Trinitarian thought is foreign to Judaism. Anyway, that is a question that occurs to me.
The "primal actuality of dialogue" (133) requires Two irreducible one to the other. It is not a relation internal to the self.
Buber is not opposed to Versenkung as a preliminary and indeed a prerequisite for encounter with the transcendent Other. Meditative Versenkung leads to inner concentration, interior unification, recollectedness. But this samadhi (which I think is etymologically related to the German sammeln) is not to be enjoyed for its own sake, but is properly preparatory for the encounter with the transcendent Other. "Concentrated into a unity, a human being can proceed to his encounter -- wholly successful only now -- with mystery and perfection. But he can also savor the bliss of his unity and, without incurring the supreme duty, return into distraction." (134)
Buber's point is that the mystic who, treading the inward path, arrives at the unitary ground of his soul and experiences sat-chit-ananda (being-consciousness-bliss) shirks his supreme duty if he merely enjoys this state and then returns to the world of multiplicity and diremption. The soulic unity must be used for the sake of the encounter with God.
Buber seems to be maintaining that Buddhist and other mysticism is an escape into illusion, an escape into a mere annihilation of dual awareness for the sake of an illusory nondual awareness: "insofar as this doctrine contains directions for immersion in true being, it does not lead into lived actuality but into 'annihilation' in which there is no consciousness, from which no memory survives -- and the man who has emerged from it may profess the experience by using the limit-word of non-duality, but without any right to proclaim this as unity." (136)
Buber continues, "We, however, are resolved to tend with holy care the holy treasure of our actuality that has been given us for this life and perhaps for no other life that might be closer to the truth." (136-7, emphasis added)
This prompts me to put a second question to Buber. If there is no other life, no higher life, whether accessible in this life via Versenkung or after the death of the body, and we are stuck with this miserable crapstorm of a life, then what good is God? What work does he do if he doesn't secure our redemption and our continuance beyond death? This is what puzzles me about Judaism. It is a worldly religion, a religion for this life -- which is almost a contradiction in terms. It offers no final solution as do the admittedly life-denying religions of Buddhism and Christianity. Some will praise it for that very reason: it is not life-denying but life -affirming. Jews love life, this life here and now, and they don't seem too concerned about any afterlife. But then they don't have the sort of soteriological interest that is definitive of religion. "On whose definition?" you will object. And you will have a point.
When I think of the vibrant bond between Sal and Dean, I am reminded of Buber's I-You . Kerouac's restless spirit sought always to renew the I-You in Neal and in life; Both became submerged in I-It. (Minding the final paragraphs of On the Road)
Well, both Kerouac and Cassady were brought up Catholic and so were steeped in the ultimate duality of man and God; but both occupied themselves with mysticism with its dissolution of the ultimacy of I-Thou. And so perhaps we can say that the spiritual lives of both involved an oscillation between I-Thou and I-It.
In the Benares sermon, Buddha cites, among the causes of pain, the thirst to become and the thirst not to become. The first thirst we understand, but why the second? To long for nonbecoming -- is that not to be released? What is meant here is not the goal but the way as such, the pursuit and the attachment to the pursuit. -- Unfortunately, on the way to deliverance only the way is interesting. Deliverance? One does not attain it, one is engulfed in it, smothered in it. Nirvana itself -- an asphyxia! Though the gentlest of all.
I am reminded of Ramanuja's rejoinder to Shankara: "I want to taste sugar, not become sugar." If salvation is destructive of all individuality, what could it be worth? If, on the other hand, salvation is merely entry into a Hinterwelt that reproduces in improved form features of the hic et nunc -- as on the puerile Islamic conception of paradise as endless disporting with black-eyed virgins -- then (i) what rational person could believe in it, and (ii) how could it solve the fundamental problems that plague us here below? They would simply be reproduced in the hinterworld.
I'll give this problem a name. It is the problem of elaborating a conception of salvation that avoids both annihilationism and reduplicationism.
From Some of the Dharma, Viking 1997, p. 175, emphasis added:
No hangup on nature is going to solve anything -- nature is bestial -- desire for Eternal Life of the individual is bestial, is the final creature-longing -- I say, Let us cease bestiality & go into the bright room of the mind realizing emptiness, and sit with the truth. And let no man be guilty, after this, Dec. 9 1954, of causing birth. -- Let there be an end to birth, an end to life, and therefore an end to death. Let there be no more fairy tales and ghost stories around and about this. I don't advocate that everybody die, I only say everybody finish your lives in purity and solitude and gentleness and realization of the truth and be not the cause of any further birth and turning of the black wheel of death. Let then the animals take the hint, and then the insects, and all sentient beings in all one hundred directions of the One Hundred Thousand Chilicosms of Universes. Period.
Nature is the cause of all our suffering; joy is the reverse side of suffering. Instead of seducing women, control yourself and treat them like sisters; instead of seducing men, control yourself and treat them like brothers. For life is pitiful.
Hit the makeless null. Whether or not individuality is destroyed now, it will be complelely destroyed in death. For all things that are made fade back to the unmade. What's all the return-vow hassle, but a final metaphysical clinging to eternal ego-life by Mahayana Thinkers. An intellectualized ego-attachment to taskhood. Hinayana, nay Ecclesiastes, is best.
In his response to me, Asher points out something I wouldn't dream of denying, namely, that Siddartha Gautama recommended a middle path between extreme asceticism and indulgence. That's true, but pertains only to the means whereby desire as such is to be conquered. The fact remains that for Buddhism desire as such is the problem, as opposed to misdirected desire, desire for unworthy of objects.
It's October again, Kerouac month at MavPhil. Perhaps I will post a quotation a day throughout this wonderful month that always passes too quickly -- as if bent on proving the vain and visionary nature of phenomenal existence.
Jack Kerouac finished Some of the Dharma on 15 March 1956. The Dharma Bums was published in 1958. By 1959, Kerouac was moving away from Buddhism. On 10 June 1959 he wrote to Philip Whalen:
Myself, the dharma is slipping away from my consciousness and I cant think of anything to say about it anymore. I still read the diamond sutra but as in a dream now. Don't know what to do. Cant see the purpose of human or terrestrial or any kinda life without heaven to reward the poor suffering fucks. The Buddhist notion that Ignorance caused the world leaves me cold now, because I feel the presence of angels. (Some of the Dharma, Viking 1997, editor's introduction.)
(This entry touches upon some themes discussed with greater rigor, thoroughness, and scholarliness in my "No Self? A Look at a Buddhist Argument," International Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 4 (December 2002), pp. 453-466.)
For Buddhism, all is dukkha, suffering. All is unsatisfactory. This, the First Noble Truth, runs contrary to ordinary modes of thinking: doesn't life routinely offer us, besides pain and misery and disappointment, intense pleasures and deep satisfactions? How then can it be true that sarvam dukkham? For the Buddhist, however, what is ordinarily taken by the unenlightened worldling to be sukha (pleasure) is at bottom dukkha. Why? Because no pleasure, mental or physical, gives permanent and plenary satisfaction. Each satisfaction leaves us in the lurch, wanting more. A desire satisfied is a desire entrenched. Masturbate once, and you will do it a thousand times, with the need for repetition testifying to the unsatisfactoriness of the initial satisfaction. Each pleasure promises more that it can possibly deliver, and so refers you to the next and the next and the next, none of them finally satisfactory. It's a sort of Hegelian schlechte Unendlichkeit. Desire satisfied becomes craving, and craving is an instance of dukkha. One becomes attached to the paltry and impermanent and one suffers when it cannot be had.
There is more to it than this, but this is the essence of it. The thing to note is that the claim in the First Noble Truth is not the triviality that there is a lot of suffering in this life, but that life itself, as insatiable desiring and craving for what is unattainable to it, is ill, pain-inducing, profoundly unsatisfactory, and something to be escaped from if possible. It is a radical diagnosis of the human predicament, and the proposed cure is equally radical: extirpation of desire. The problem for the Buddhist is not that some of our desires are misdirected; the problem is desire itself. The soulution, then, is not rightly-ordered desire, as in Christianity, but the eradication of desire. The root of suffering is desire and that root must be uprooted (e-radi-cated).
Although Buddhism appears in some ways to be a sort of 'empirical religion' -- to hazard an oxymoron -- the claim that all is suffering involves an interpretation of our experience that goes well beyond the empirically given. Buddhism, as a development from Hinduism, judges the given by the standard of the permanent. Permanence is the standard against which the ordinary satisfactions of life are judged deficient. Absolute permanence sets the ontological and axiological standard. The operative presupposition is that only that which is permanent is truly real and truly important. But if, as Buddhism also maintains, all is impermanent, then one wonders whence the standard of permanence derives its validity. If all is impermanent, and nothing has self-nature, then the standard is illusory. If so, then we have no good reason to reject all ordinary satisfactions.
For Buddhism, the fundamental problem is suffering in the radical sense above explained, and the solution is entry into nibbana by the extirpation of desire, all desire (including even the desire for nibbana), as opposed to the moderation of desire and its redirection to worthy objects. I reject both the diagnosis and the cure. The diagnosis is faulty because incoherent: it presupposes while denying the exstence of an absolute ontological and axiological standard. The cure is faulty because it issues in nihilism, as if the goal of life could be nonexistence.
I am talking about primitive Buddhism, that of the Pali canon. Attention to the Mahayana would require some qualifications.
So one reason I am not a Buddhist is that I reject the doctrine of suffering. But I also reject the doctrines of impermanence and 'no self.' That gives me two more reasons.
But I should say that I take Buddhism very seriously indeed. It is deep and sophisticated with a rich tradition of philosophical commentary. Apart from its mystical branch, Sufism, I cannot take Islam seriously --except as a grave threat to other religions and indeed to civilization itself. But perhaps I have been too much influenced by Schopenhauer on this point.
Over lunch today the Buddhist claim that all is impermanent came up for discussion. Let’s see how plausible this claim of impermanence is when interpreted to mean that everything is always continuously changing in every respect. We need to ask four questions. Does everything change? Do the things that change always change? Do the things that always change continuously change? Do the things that change change in every respect?
What is idolatry? I suggest that the essence of idolatry lies in the illicit absolutizing of the relative. A finite good becomes an idol when it is treated as if it were an infinite good, i.e., one capable of satisfying our infinite desire. But is our desire infinite? That our desire is infinite is shown by the fact that it is never satisfied by any finite object or series of finite objects. Not even an infinite series of finite objects could satisfy it since what we really want is not an endless series of finite satisfactions -- say a different black-eyed virgin every night as in popular Islam's depiction of paradise — but a satisfaction in which one could finally rest. "Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee." (Augustine) What we really want, though we don't know it, is the absolute good which is goodness itself, namely God. This idea is common to Plato, Augustine, Malebranche, and Simone Weil.
It is a curious fact that a man who has no time for his own wife easily finds time for the wife of another. Not valuing what he has, he desires what he does not have, even though at some level he understands that, were he to take possession of what he now merely desires, the pattern would repeat itself: he would again desire that which he does not possess over that which he does possess. He should learn to appreciate what he has.
The Buddhists have a saying, "Conquer desire and aversion." But this goes too far: desire and aversion are not to be conquered or extirpated so much as chastened and channeled. They are to be mastered. Without self-mastery, the highest mastery, there can be no true happiness.
This post is a continuation of the line of thought in Emptiness, Self-Reference, and Assertibility, a post from the old blog which in due course will be revised and deposited here. There you will find a brief explanation of anatta. Retortion was explained in recent posts. See the contents of the Retortion category. What happens when we apply retortion to the anatta doctrine? Consider the unrestricted anatta thesis (unrestricted in the sense that it applies to absolutely everything including nibbana)
The anatta (Sanskrit: anatman) doctrine lies at the center of Buddhist thought and practice. The Pali and Sanskrit words translate literally as 'no self'; but the doctrine applies not only to persons but to non-persons as well. On the 'no self' theory, nothing possesses selfhood or self-nature or 'own-being,' perhaps not even nibbana 'itself.' If a substance is anything metaphysically capable of independent existence, then perhaps we can interpret the anatta doctrine as a denial of the existence of substances. The 'no self' theory would then imply that in ultimate reality there are no substances: what we ordinarily take to be such are wrongly so taken. A pervasive ignorance (avijja) infects our ordinary view of the world. It is not an ignorance about this or that matter of fact, but one about the ontological structure of the world and of ourselves in it. This structural ignorance could be described as 'original ignorance.' For it lies at the origin of our uneasy and unsatisfactory predicament in this life in roughly the way in which original sin lies at its origin on a Christian scheme of things.
Karl Marx in his Theses on Feuerbach protested that the philosophers have merely interpreted the world in various ways, when the point is to change it. (Die Philosophen haben die Welt verschieden interpretiert; aber es kommt darauf an, sie zu veraendern.) His century-mate, Soren Kierkegaard, at the opposite end of the political spectrum, but sharing Marx’s disdain for mere theory, might have said that the point was to change oneself, to become oneself. Both thinkers were anti-contemplative and anti-speculative, but in such wildly divergent ways! The social activist Marx denied interiority by trying to merge the individual into his species-being (Gattungswesen) while the existentialist Kierkegaard fetishized interiority: “Truth is subjectivity” (Concluding Unscientific Postscript).