I feel that in any discussion of the self, the definitions of what we mean by "the self" can always become muddled as we are still only in the frontiers of discovery regarding consciousness, what it is, or what it means to have consciousness, or be conscious. Therefore, as this essay deals heavily with ideas of the self, or the lack thereof, please be patient if definitions waver and employ some level of suspension of belief in order to better appreciate the overall ideas discussed.
The Buddha describes the self as the essence of a person. It is the part of a person that is non-changing, though the individual does change. The self is enduring and strives to continually endure, regardless of change in the individual, including that of death. However, the Buddha denies that there is such a self. In his book, Buddhism As Philosophy, Mark Siderits defines the Buddhist view of the self as, “the essence of a person—the one part whose continued existence is required for that person to continue to exist” (32). However, there is no one part of a person that seems to fall into this category. Take something like the human brain. While much research has been done in neuroscience, it is evident that the brain is continually changing (Pascual-Leone et al 383). Siderits goes on to say that it is likely that there is no part of an individual that must continually exist in order for that person to continue in existence (34). There is constant change. The Buddha tells us, however, that in order for there to be a self it must endure, or be eternal. However, there is no definition of what the self is, or can be—only what it cannot be through the idea of enduring. It then follows that something that can fit into the different skandha's that the Buddha lay's out—that of body, perception, ones volition, and conscious awareness—that that thing could be considered the self. This definition of the self then can be seen as the solver of Suffering, enlightenment. It can then be understood that what the Buddha discovered is correct, but his definitions were not. We can see the self through observing nature—or the universe—and its ability to allow things, essences, to endure. There are many ways the physical universe allows for this, through a scientific understanding of connections that can be made within existence.
In Albert Camus' essay, “They Myth of Sisyphus,” where he discusses the notion of the ancient Greek tale of Sisyphus, a man doomed to roll a large rock up a hill only to have it roll back down once at the top. The Buddha's discussions on non-self help support the suffering Sisyphus endures and Camus' treatment of how one can overcome suffering—resolving the existential crisis suffering brings. However, there is one major distinction between the two. The treatment of suffering in “The Myth of Sisyphus” allows for a mastery over it. Acknowledging the suffering as a part of existence brings a moment “when man glances backward over his life . . . returning to [one's] rock . . . he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate . . . combined under his memories eye and soon sealed by his death” (Camus 123). It is not his ability to call upon memory, but that he has memories, or events that are shared with other's. His importance is not only in the life that he led or the actions he performed, but in the lives that he affected, (or in the case of Sisyphus the lives affected through his story). In this, existence can be viewed as the effects humanity brings upon each other; the “self” is that of empathy, or relations. Therefore, the self is viewed through the relationships that can be made, and a responsibility in keeping those relationships not only alive, but alive in memory.
The self cannot only be accounted for through human connections, but through the physicality of the universe. And so, perhaps, viewing the self should not be on such a narrow bases as one human or one being, but the whole of beginnings, or the whole of “all things.” The seventeenth century philosopher, Benedict de Spinoza wrote in his book, The Ethics, on substances. “By substance I understand what is in itself and is conceived through itself, that is, that whose concept does not require the concept of another thing, from which it must be formed” (1). In other words X—or in this case the Self—is a substance if you don't need to look outside the idea of X in order to explain it. Spinoza later labels this substance “God in nature” (10). His ideas, in essence, are the same as the Buddha's non-self. The Buddha says that if there were a self, it would not tend towards destruction (Siderits 38), but that it would be enduring. Spinoza sees this same dilemma but looks at all nature as God. Or rather, all things perceivable as God, as it is essential in his philosophy that the only substance that can exist is the substance of all things—God. For the buddha, we can replace the word “God” and put in its place “Self”.
In this idea of the self is the ability to look for the self not only within one of the skandhas, but in all. The skandha vijnana describes an objects awareness, or its consciousness and we can see this through humanities awareness of the universe. Through the many species and races of intelligent life the universe is aware of itself and will continue to be aware of itself through the notion of energy, and how it can neither be created nor destroyed. The author, Dan Simmons, in his essay on writing well, “Zen and the Art of Writing Well,” says, in regards to this idea,
“We have become one of the universe’s eyes and hearts and minds by which the universe can contemplate itself. The mistake there is to start believing that you, part of that observing We, are somehow more important or central than the universe we are so imperfectly designed to observe. It is as if one photoreceptive cell in one’s eye were to suddenly believe that it was the pinnacle of all evolution and the darling of creation simply because it can receive the impression of a photon.”
This self, we can begin to understand is all encompassing, and not simply that of individual beings. Furthermore, we see that impression must be accompanied with expression. It is through one's expression that we are able to understand the impressions of the universe—or rather, the expression given through the universe's structure allow for impressions of the self.
The skandha sankharas, that of habit, desire, volition, etc., can be viewed in a multitude of ways. They can again be expressed through those things of intelligence, or through the “habits” of the universe. Such as laws or those unchanging aspects that govern how the universe works.
Further, the Buddha teaches that the self is unchanging. “Anything dependent on what is not-Self much itself be not-Self.” (Edelglass et al 270). The self, in the case of Spinoza's God in nature, or the entirety of the universe can be explained through the underbelly of cause that brings the universe about. Those laws of physics that govern the universe allow for its diversity, while yet, remaining unchanged and constant.
It therefore seems that the Buddha's understanding of the self was too narrow. It is a broader view of the self that allows a greater importance, or even a necessity of empathy; it allows for empathy to play a major role within the whole view of what the self can contain, or the notion that the universe is a self. One that is enduring, and whose purpose and essence (the underlining structure) is non-changing (laws of nature, etc). While the facets, or “personality” is continually progressing forward.
1. Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays. New York: Vintage, 1991. Print.
2. Simmons, Dan. "Zen and the Art of Writing Well." Dansimmons.com. N.p., June 2008. Web. 09 Mar. 2014.
3. Pascual-Leone, Alvaro, Amir Amedi, Felipe Fregni, and Lotfi B. Merabet. "The Plastic Human Brain Cortex." Annual Review of Neuroscience 28.1 (2005): 377-401. Print.
4. Spinoza, Benedictus De. Ethics. Trans. E. M. Curley. London: Penguin, 1996. Print.