A Buddhist makes the claim that the self does not exist. In Sanskrit this is called anâtman. In other words my notion of I or myself is an illusion.
When people first hear this, they are astonished. How can anyone deny they exist? Don’t we have our own thoughts and feelings? Don’t we act in ways we choose? No, the Buddhist sees you as having no genuine identity, no selfhood of your own.
According to this Buddhist view, there is no self or soul which could survive the death of the body. A human person is simply a transient bundle of energies which come together briefly and then separate.
Before rejecting the Buddhist view out of hand, perhaps we need to ask whether there might be some element of value in it? After all, appearances can be misleading. The sun rises and sets apparently circling the world. But this is a fallacy. The pleasures of the body appear to offer the best enjoyment in life. But they soon pall and become boring if over-indulged in.
We can forget ourselves
We speak of sometimes forgetting ourselves. Usually I am concerned about the way others see me. But if I were to angrily lose my temper then this sense of self is forgotten. I’m too busy expressing an emotion.
Some times we may acknowledge our limitations and humbly seek guidance. Is this not an example of forgetting one’s ego?
Another example of forgetting ourselves is the experience of meditation. In a state of higher consciousness, meditators see their thoughts, but they become convinced that they the person meditating is in some sense not the thing that generated the thoughts. They forget themselves.
We can be selfless
The sense of selfhood can also be said to not exist in states of compassion or generosity. In selfless thinking the idea of oneself is forgotten and put to one side because one is compassionately focused on the needs of those suffering hardship or pain.
How very different this state of mind is from that of the self-centred person who may indulge in the fantasy that he or she is more important or attractive than others. Or those people who fancy they deserve special treatment.
The Buddhists would say that our lives are about extinguishing the flames of desire which only cause suffering. What people say is self needs emptying out.
A human being it is argued consists of no more than various energies such as bodily form, sensations, thoughts, and feelings. None of these, Buddhists say are permanent or can be controlled. For example we cannot prevent our physical body ending at death. And so they say there is no self.
It is true that any beginner starting to meditate will confirm how impossible it is to feel responsible for and control the mind chatter that goes on at the fringe of awareness.
Also I can acknowledge that my thoughts are not my own: they come from various influences around me. Ideas, sentiments, even fantasies seem to come unbidden.
However, I would argue that I can still identify myself as an observing self who can be aware of all this mental stuff without owning it.
Individual free choice
I can go along with the suggestion that all images, feelings, ideas, sentiments originate somewhere beyond me. And that I can take no credit for them. In other words I haven’t a self in the sense of one that has life of itself. Instead I see myself as a mere receptacle who receives a flow of good and bad influences that come from elsewhere.
Yet I would say there is a me – a self – that makes personal choices.
I feel inwardly free to choose between different ideas, between different interests, and between different ideologies. And in so doing aren’t I making such personal choices my own. Part of me?
Even if the idea of self were an illusion, it seems to me to be a necessary illusion. Without such a sense of me how could I take responsibility for my personal choices?
Don’t habits of conduct also form as we make the same choice in similar situations? Choices about for example being patient or impatient, truthful or insincere, generous or mean.
In other words character traits form as we face the ordinary choices of daily life. I make deeper ideas my own as I reflect on various ways of thinking and choose between them. Eventually I will adopt certain basic stances to life, an overriding interest in something that I have come to really value. Perhaps a dominant love of composing uplifting music, or wanting to be famous in order to receive the acclaim of fans, or of doing my job well to the satisfaction of my boss and customers. Whatever the ruling interest is, doesn’t it define me as a person? This is me. This is what I stand for. This is who I want to be.
Conclusion about Buddhist anâtman
I feel I am a receptacle of sensations, thoughts, emotions that come to me. They flow into me. I don’t create them.
It follows that an awareness of myself as being the origin of this mental life is an illusion.
But I think this notion of a separate self is a necessary illusion. One that allows me to make choices and take responsibility. By exercising free choice don’t we gradually form character? And why shouldn’t such a character last beyond time and place? Beyond physical death. Whatever its quality.
I act as of myself but believe that any good in me comes from a higher source working in me and by me. I therefore conclude that no one’s life is self-existent.
The journey of life is letting go of oneself – one’s self-reliance, one’s pride, one’s egoism. For me to be spiritual is being open to, and thereby united with, the universal Self in contrast with the delusion of our separate selves.
Copyright 2017 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems