Transcript: 12. Rupert Gethin on Buddhism and the Self

Peter speaks to Rupert Gethin about the no-self theory, and its implications for Buddhist ethics and meditation practices.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Let's go straight to the most philosophically challenging and counterintuitive contribution of Buddhism, which for my money is the no-self theory. In other words, we don't have any selves. I'm saying this is counterintuitive, but maybe how counterintuitive it is depends on what we mean by a self. Maybe you can start by saying what you thought they meant by the self when they were denying that we have selves, and why they were denying that we have selves. 

Okay, I think it seems pretty clear that when Buddhism denies the self, it's a reaction, a response to a particular idea of the self as expounded in early Indian thought, especially the Upaniṣads, where you have this notion of the ātman. The ātman is a Sanskrit word that means self. It's the ordinary word for self in Sanskrit. But in the Upaniṣads, the word ātman or self gets to be used or understood in a particular way. We are obviously at some level a flux or a set of different experiences, different feelings, different thoughts. The Upaniṣads, to some extent, ask this question of what underlies all these different thoughts, these different feelings we have. What ties all these things together? What is constant? And the answer is this self. The self is contrasted to the changing flux of experiences and feelings as that which is constant, that which doesn't change. That's the starting point of the Buddhist critique of self. In a sense, what Buddhism does is throw out a kind of challenge and say, well, yes, there is this changing flow of experiences, feelings, and so forth. Yes, we seem to be able to refer them back to some kind of constant, the self, that is the continuous, unchanging subject of these experiences. But when we introspect, what we find is not the self, but rather a specific experience or feeling or so forth. Basically, Buddhism is challenging us to identify or find this unchanging constant that underlies our experiences. And it's saying, well, where is that? In that respect, it's a precursor into the kinds of things we find in David Hume, in the way he talks about the self, the kind of challenge he lays down about the self as well. 

The upshot of that then is that if the listener, for example, listening to this now, thinks about their own experience, what they'll find is that they are experiencing listening to your and my voice, but they're not experiencing some further thing, which is a subject who's listening to the voice. Actually, it strikes me that the Upaniṣads, to some extent, admit that because they often, or at least in some of the Upaniṣads, it's admitted that the self is a kind of hidden, underlying subject, which is quite hard to access. I think that if I were the Upaniṣads or if I were a Vedic thinker and I wanted to reply to this, I would probably go after the Buddhist in two ways. The first way would be to focus on the identity or the self of the subject at a given time. Say, well, for example, I'm experiencing more than one thing right now. I might be listening to this podcast while running through a park, for example. I'm seeing the trees, but I'm also hearing our voices. And then there's identity over time. For example, I want to be the same person who's listening to the end of the episode who was listening to the beginning of the episode. Don’t Buddhists have a difficulty explaining both the unity of experience at a given moment, and also how it could be that one and the same person begins doing something and finishes doing that thing? 

Okay. I mean, first of all, I would say that Buddhists don't deny that there is an experiencing subject, i.e. that there is that kind of quality to experience that we have the sense of being a subject experiencing something. What they would deny is that that experiencing subject is a kind of constant, is a thing that is constant through time. It's rather a simple quality of experience. The trouble is that when you abstract experience, that quality is a kind of nothing. That quality is part of the flow of experience, but it's not a thing. It needs the objects of experience to be there. Without that, it's a nothing. So, the challenge that the Buddhist, I think, would make to the Upaniṣadic thinkers is to say, well, you're just using this sense of subject, but you can't really tell us anything about it. You're imagining, you're projecting onto it that it's a constant, separate, independent thing that is constant through time. But it's really just a particular quality, a particular aspect of what it is to experience, the sense of it. It's not a continuing thing in itself. Because without a particular experience, it's a kind of blank. It has no content. 

If all we have then is particular experiences aggregated, as they sometimes like to say, isn't there still a problem that we want to distinguish between one aggregate and another aggregate? There's the sensations and experiences you're having right now. You're looking at my face, lucky you, and I'm looking at your face. My seeing of your face is somehow together with my sensation of sitting in a chair, for example, whereas your seeing my face is together with a different sensation of sitting in a different chair. How can the Buddhists explain that we have different, if not selves, then different aggregates of experience, either at a time or over time? 

Okay, well, they appeal basically to a theory of causality, of causal connection between phenomena. So basically what they want to say is that you and I are basically a collection of mental and physical, if you like, phenomena, we'll call them, mental and physical events, to use a more neutral term, that are occurring in a causally connected cluster. The word ‘I’, when I use the word ‘I’, I am referring to a particular, if you like, aggregate, collection, cluster pattern of mental and physical events that is arising and falling continuously from moment to moment, and so is in a constant state of flux. So, it's the kind of causal connections; this pattern isn't random, it follows certain laws of causality. It's the causal connection between those events that gives the appearance when we experience things of a certain kind of unity. I guess one analogy might be that if you, I don't know, look at a color photograph in a magazine, superficially you look at the photograph and you see a picture of people standing in front of a scene with a mountain and so forth. But when you look at the picture closely, if you get out a magnifying glass, you see that there is just a kind of, well, it's just made up of dots of different colors. I mean, as I understand printing, they use just four colors and they get the whole range of things. But you see that it's just things, just these dots that come together and we project onto it; when we look at it from a distance, we don't see the dots, we see a picture of people and mountains and so forth. And we are a bit like that. When we think of ourselves and others, we don't see this flux, this pattern of mental and physical events, we see people kind of solid and constant, but that's not really what it's like as it were, not really what is there. 

We've been talking about this no-self theory as a Buddhist conception and certainly there are plenty of Buddhists who taught the no-self theory and talked in great detail about why it was correct. Is this one of these cases where we say that the Buddha wasn't a Buddhist, like Marx’s said not to be a Marxist: did he actually teach the no-self theory? Why do we think that this is something that should be associated with the Buddha in particular? 

Well, there is some kind of discussion about precisely what is said about the self in early Buddhist texts. That is, there is no place in the earliest Buddhist sources such as the suttas of the Pāli Canon where the Buddha categorically says there is no self. What he characteristically is represented as saying is this is not the self, this is not the self, this is not the self. So, whatever you can point to, we can't take it as a self. Now, some people have suggested that this means that the earliest Buddhist tradition, even maybe the Buddha himself, is leaving it open almost whether there is a kind of self. For me, I think this is perhaps to misunderstand what's going on here. I actually think this links into what is perhaps the greatest or the greater problem of the self for Buddhism. That is, Buddhism approaches the self in two ways. One is the kind of intellectual problem of the self, which is to some extent what we've been talking about so far. We can investigate through logic and reason this notion of the self and examine it: does it make sense? But the bigger problem for Buddhism is that the self is perhaps bound up with attachment, if you like. That is, when you say I have a self or this is myself, you are in effect trying to identify a part of the universe, as it were, a part of the world, that you can say this is mine and mine only. This is what I think is particularly problematic for early Buddhist thought. So that, it seems to me, is why there is this emphasis on saying this is not myself, this is not myself, this is not myself, because there's no one bit of the universe that you can point to and say that's mine, I have control of that, it'll be mine forever and ever. This is also, again, I think a response to the Upaniṣadic use of the word self. You might say that, for example, there is a modern, contemporary school of Buddhism in Thailand which says, well, actually we can call nirvana the self in some kind of way. But for mainstream Buddhism, there is almost a critique of the use of the word self, that to call something that it is impossible to kind of individuate and make personal and call your own in some individual personal way, to call that self is stretching the meaning of the word ‘self’. It's not normally how we use the word ‘self’. So, Buddhism wants to kind of deny that the word ‘self’ can have any ultimate, meaningful sort of referent, if you like, within the universe. 

Because you can't be selfish if you don't have a self. 

Well, that is precisely it. Yes, to have a self is inherently, in some sense, to be selfish and therefore the goal is to let go of self. And so sometimes in Buddhist discourses, you have to let go of both self and not-self, if you like. There's this kind of idea that if you get too attached to the notion that there is no self, it's a bit like you're still attached to self, as it were, by being attached because you're still preoccupied and caught up in the whole idea of ‘do I have a self, do I not have a self?’ 

I think there's a passage in the Pāli Canon where the Buddha said to have remarked that you can be attached to the idea of continuing to survive, but you can also be attached to the idea of being annihilated, which is maybe a slap at other ascetic traditions who are trying to achieve liberation in other ways. 

Yes, that sort of idea that you want to last forever or the idea that you want to blot yourself out is both premised on this word or this concept of a self-attachment to the self. 

This seems pretty clearly right that the no-self theory has crucially ethical implications. It strikes me though that there might be some unwanted ethical implications here too, because one of the things that we tend to think is really important in ethics and morality is moral responsibility. If you do something bad to me, then I'm allowed to hold you responsible for it still tomorrow or a week from now or whatever. And so if we go back to this issue about continuity over time, what you said before is that there's a causal relationship between the so-called skandhas, the experiences that constitute me right now and the ones that will constitute me a week from now. And I'm wondering whether that's really enough to undergird a really robust notion of moral responsibility because it seems like all you can really say is that ‘me’ in scare quotes a week from now has some kind of relationship with me now. But don't I need to be really genuinely the same agent, the same subject of action if I'm to be held responsible a week from now or for that matter if I'm to be held responsible for what I do now in my next life when I'm reincarnated? And, of course, the Buddhists don't reject that notion. 

Well, yes. I think clearly Buddhism has a problem there, I suppose. I mean, as you were saying earlier, there are perhaps two ways of thinking about personal continuity. One is this kind of, you were using the idea of the kind of glue that holds people together, holds the person together. So one is, one way of thinking about the glue is in terms of this constant, underlying, unchanging self that remains there. And the other is the causal connections that hold something together. So, I guess in sort of broad philosophical terms, there's a kind of substance theory of continuity versus a kind of causal process, a process view of continuity. Now, Buddhism is committed to continuity and it has to try and preserve some sense of continuity. The question is whether the causal connections are sufficient. I mean, at some level, you might say all Buddhism can say is, well, yes, they are, and try to articulate in a detailed and sophisticated way the way in which these causal connections work. You were asking earlier about the way Buddhist philosophy sort of responds to these problems and develops. I guess in one way that Buddhism develops and responds to these things is to try and throw the challenge back, back against its critics. Because I mean, there are critics from early period. I mean, already in the Pāli Canon, you've got people coming up and saying to the Buddha, ‘you teach the destruction of the self, you're a nihilist’. And the Buddha says, well, ‘no, this is a misunderstanding of what I'm doing’. So, one of the things Buddhism does is to use this concept of the middle way between the two extremes of what you might say are annihilationism and eternalism, which is a sort of word that is perhaps coined when we talk about Buddhist texts and a Buddhist understanding of this particular concept. So, one is extreme is that one person acts and the same person experiences the result, which is one way of explaining moral responsibility. The other extreme is one person acts, and a different person experiences the result. Now Buddhism claims that it avoids both these extremes and that it's the middle between those two extremes. And it explains this middle precisely by reference to the causal connections that hold things together. And traditionally this is dependent origination; this concept of dependent origination, these links between these things, this is meant to be the middle way between these two extremes. By reference to that, there is the claim that you've avoided the extreme that says one person acts, a different person experiences the results, the causal continuity is enough to answer the critic and say, well, actually it is in some sense, the same person experiencing the results. 

Just not in such a full-blown sense as the way the Upaniṣads want. Something else you've worked on a lot that I want to ask you about is meditation. And although that doesn't obviously seem to have anything to do with what we've been talking about, I was thinking that actually someone might wonder why a Buddhist would be interested in meditating because naively you might think that what you're doing when you're meditating is concentrating very closely on yourself. If you think about something like paying attention to your breathing, for example, it looks like maybe what you're trying to do there is really get in touch with yourself. In fact, people even say, I'm going off to do meditation because I want to find myself. How therefore can the Buddhist be so interested in meditation while denying the self? 

Well, the Buddhist starting point is the fact of suffering, this word dukkha. The fact that somehow we try to be at peace in the world. We try to find some way of being comfortable in the world. Yet this is elusive. It eludes us in various ways. Something's wrong in the world, as it were. What is our problem? Well, the basic premise here is that our problems arise because we don't see the world as it is. We don't really see what's going on, what's happening. We therefore seek ways of being happy, ways of being at ease in the world that are inappropriate, that do not fit with the way things actually work. Meditation is about, if you like, looking again at what's going on, examining what's going on. This examining of what's going on, I think, refers back to the two aspects we already mentioned about the theory of not-self. One is that we can criticize the notion of self from an intellectual and rational point of view. As even modern psychologists will say, we construct our own personal identities and we're very possessive of them, we feel threatened, and so forth. We become very emotionally attached to a particular notion of ourselves. So, even I can sit down and I can read a book on Buddhism, something about the Buddhist idea of no-self. And, to some extent, I might say, yeah, that makes some kind of sense. But then I can then put the book down and then straightaway get involved in some kind of argument with someone if someone criticizes the way I've done something or what I said. I can feel threatened and undermined and so forth. Although I've just said, oh yeah, I think there's no-self idea makes a lot of sense, it hasn't really affected me or changed me in any deep way. So, meditation is about actually looking inside and actually trying to, if you like, deconstruct our self in a more emotional and kind of psychological way, and yes, that can look a little bit like, if you like, navel-gazing, turning inward it is. But I suppose for Buddhism, it's a kind of necessary exercise because from a Buddhist perspective, we spend not just, as it were, one lifetime building up our notion of ourselves, our sense of self, but we built up this sort of sense of self and identity over many, many lifetimes. So, if you want to kind of dismantle that, it requires some work and meditation is an important part of that. 

And has meditation been important pretty much throughout the history of Buddhism, from the present day all the way back into the Pāli Canon? 

Well, it obviously depends a little bit on what you define precisely as meditation. I would say contemplative techniques of various sorts have always played some role in Buddhist practice, if you like, but it doesn't always mean that they involve sitting cross-legged, as it were, on the floor; meditative techniques are perhaps broader than that. 

It still seems, though, like a pretty striking difference between some of the philosophical traditions that we're familiar with in Europe, where you don't think of David Hume as meditating, even though he has some of the same points to make about the self that you were saying. 

Yeah, I mean, as I understand, David Hume comes to similar conclusions and then sort of, as it were, shrugs his shoulder and says, well, we might as well carry on living the way we do. Yes, I mean, I think perhaps these meditative techniques, I mean, they're not peculiar to Buddhism necessarily. They're something that are common to the Indian tradition in general, where philosophy is connected with the idea that in many schools there is something you have to do and practice and develop in order to realize these ideas. So, basically, you're searching for this liberating knowledge through which you can only ultimately you can get some sort of idea of what that might be like, but it's quite different from realizing it. You need to do something to realize it. 

Yeah, there's a distance between understanding the arguments and actually living out the conclusions that they bring you to and meditation would be supposed to help, would be to bridge that gap in a way. 

Yeah, I mean, within Buddhism, you have basically, I suppose, two aspects to meditation. Traditionally, these are called calm meditation and insight meditation. So, the basic idea is that, you know, ordinarily, as we go about our business in the world, our minds are a bit scattered. They're all over the place. You know, sometimes they're stiller than others, but there's a lot of jumble and thoughts and they're a bit chaotic, our minds, in other words. And if you want to, as it were, you know, well, even common sense tells us that, you know, when we're stirred up and distracted and not thinking clearly, we won't see the world properly. You know, if you're worked up and upset over, you know, a friend might say ‘well, calm down, tomorrow things will look better’. So, Buddhism goes with that idea, if you like, and not just Buddhism, Indian theories of meditation in general, sort of run with that idea and say, well, if you want to see what's going on, if you want to see the world clearly, you need to settle the mind first. You need to stop all this distraction, this chaos going on and just kind of bring the mind into a settled, peaceful state. So, this is calm meditation, where you gradually still the mind. And the basic technique for that is to take a simple object and try to focus on that to the exclusion of other objects with the idea that the mind will gradually become calmer and settle down. And as it becomes calm and settled, it becomes clearer. And this is often compared to kind of the impurities and mud stirred up in water, it gradually sinks to the bottom, and likewise the mind, the impurities sort of temporarily settle and sink to the bottom and the mind becomes clear, just like clear water. And once you have a mind that is clear, you can begin to examine what's going on. And this is where the second type of meditation comes in, which is the kind of insight meditation, where you look at very clearly everything you examine: your physical experiences, your emotional experiences and so forth, and just try to see them for what they are. So, this is insight meditation. And kind of mindfulness is a sort of link between both types of meditation traditionally, which is about a sort of clarity of mind holding these, examining, looking at what's going on. There's also some research, some discussion, which doesn't see so much light of day about sometimes the detrimental effects of meditation. There are various stories about people who walk off the street and do 10-day intensive meditation retreats, who've never done any meditation before, and sometimes actually come out of those feeling worse than when they went in, and sometimes having had quite traumatic experiences. What's interesting, I suppose, about those, but in some ways, of course, is that is what you would expect, because mindfulness or intensive meditation is precisely about deconstructing the self, and deconstructing yourself, your sense of self, is bound to be challenging. And this is why I guess within the traditional Buddhist framework, there is great emphasis on both the ethical framework and the religious framework. So, in the traditional Buddhist culture, the symbols of the Buddha, keeping the ethical precepts of the Buddha, help to ground you, help to make you feel confident that you're going somewhere that is desirable, going in a direction that is desirable. When you secularize mindfulness and strip away that sort of, if you like, support system, you might say it's not surprising that sometimes these things can be more traumatic and not just be as easy as they might be expected. 


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