By Koo Hao Wei
The Buddha taught non-self as the way to Nirvana. I argue that the widely held interpretation of non-self – there simply being no self – does not address the delusional self. On further inspection, this links the issue and implications of the non-self to that of false perceptions and introspection.
The Buddha taught that there is no self, tout court, because there are just impersonal constituents known as the five aggregates. They are “body, feelings, perceptions, mental transformations [and] consciousness”. These aggregates are independent of one’s self-identifying and the values conferred by one’s self-identity. For example, a conception of self would be to claim that “I enjoy tasting an ice cream because it is sweet”, but really, there is only a conjunctive interaction of impersonal elements (the five aggregates) resulting in the experience of sweetness. The “I” does not directly result in the experience of sweetness. Instead, it merely attaches a superficial value of enjoyability to the experience of sweetness produced during the interaction of impersonal constituents. The occurrence of this experience is what the “I” enjoys. Furthermore, a claim like “I always enjoy tasting an ice cream”, which suggests the self is capable of enjoyment, and that the “I” can always claim that “I…”, is false. This is because the impersonal elements constituting our existence creates fleeting experiences beyond the control of the self. The moment the conjunctive interaction of impersonal elements resulting in the experience of ice cream sweetness ceases, there is no more experience for the self to associate its attributive value of enjoyment. In this sense, there is “nothing genuine that the “I” denotes” at all. The Buddha’s argument for non-self can be satisfactorily presented as such:
P1: If there were a self it would be permanent, able to exert control over things and confer values onto things.
P2: Only the five aggregates are empirically attestable.
P3: None of the five aggregates are permanent, able to exert control over things and confer values onto things.
Conclusion: There is simply no self (or the negation of self).
Three key points can be drawn from the above argument. (1) In P1, the context of a self is constituted by the property of permanence. (2) In P2 and P3, it seems that the truth of human’s condition is evidential in the phenomenal world; the human being a part of the world as well. If this assumption is true, through observations of the world and introspection, one can come to a realization about such truth. (3) The argument is especially effective when dealing with individuals perceiving a persisting self as having the attribute outlined in P1. It brings to their attention (their awareness) a contrast contrary to their perception and introspection.
We should consider, however, a possible counterargument:
P4: To say that there is a self when there is in fact no self is delusional.
P5: To conceive of being without self when there is a delusional self is delusional.
P6: Non-self was taught to combat the delusion of self in P4, in that there is just no self.
P7: However, to apply the understanding of non-self – as simply the negation of self – to P5 is erroneous because it does not address the delusion in P4.
Conclusion: There is a problem of delusional self unaddressed based on P4-P7.
This clearly shows the logical consequence that non-self, as simply being the negation of self, is insufficient to address the delusion of self. Specifically, it does not address the type of delusional self stated in P5. This further provides a few insightful points worth noting. (1) The relationship between P1 and the idea of the negation of self is such that there is only simply the negation of self insofar as the kind of self involved is that of (or a variation of) P1. There is, however, no generality or that it is missing if the original argument of non-self was meant to solve all kinds of delusional self. The possible kinds of delusional self may be innumerable, but all we need to show is that it does not address one such kind. Conversely, if there can only be one kind of delusional self, then the original argument of non-self is insufficient to address it.
(2) Both P4 and P5 seems to be causally resulted by false perceptions and introspection prima facie. On the other hand, P5 seems to be caused by false perceptions and introspection that supersedes P4, such that you may be free of the problem of P4, but not for P5. If that is the case, then the Buddha’s argument of non-self could not completely solve the problem of false perceptions and introspection. All these point to a firm conclusion that non-self is simply the negation of self is not all-solving. If we are to expect non-self to be all-solving, then my analysis advises a revision or a supplementation of the Buddha’s original argument. Unfortunately, the veracity of my counterargument is contentious. To claim that the counterargument is necessarily true incurs the burden of proof of P5 which is, empirically speaking, impossible to prove. On the other hand, to dismiss the counterargument in its entirety will be counterintuitive. Given the case, my concession is that the counterargument is possibly true that there is a problem of delusion unaddressed based on P4 to P7.
The following detail justifies the value of the counterargument – as being possibly true – by showing that we lack conditions to completely avoid the problem of delusional self in P5. The unaddressed problem of delusional self stated in the argument could have been solved by either of these two conditions: (1) One never fails to know when there is and there is no self (in them). (2) One’s status of observing non-self can be inspected by other persons. The circumstance of our reality is that we lack both conditions. Our reality lacks condition (1) because, descriptively, our experiences are fallible moments vacillating between degrees of certainty and uncertainty, and diminished and heightened awareness about ourselves, but never absolutely, indubitably and infallibly certain or aware. Our reality lacks condition (2) because it appears as if a crude fact that can be demonstrated in the following typical scenario of perceiving another person. Suppose we attempt to examine the status of a monk’s observing non-self. What we can only see is the monk conducting himself in accordance with the principles of monkhood that have been transparently laid out for anyone to understand. Any further attempts to evaluate the monk’s status of observing non-self based on his conduct can only be done at an arbitrary basis. The following explanations will prove my point. Traditional Buddhism claimed that the first stage of Nirvana is the “‘blowing out’ (etymological sense of [N]irvana) of the flame of desire” which entails the cessation of a persisting self: “I desire”; desire predicates the “I”. Therefore, no desire means no “I”. This monk that we are attempting to observe eschew the desires of laypeople just as how the principles of monkhood demand, but is he without desires to us? We cannot be sure. Although he eschews the desires of laypeople, we can interpret his following of the Buddha’s teachings seemingly as a desire for liberation and Nirvana. If there is but one desire that remains within him, it is this desire. This in return seemingly indicates a delusional self; the “I” who clings onto the Buddha’s teaching. Is there or is there not a delusional self in this monk? We cannot be sure equally. This similar attitude appears to extend into reality when it comes to determining if various popular representatives of the Buddhist monastic body are indeed enlightened individuals. The lack of conditions (1) and (2) confirm that we are vulnerable to the problem of delusional self (P5) stated in the counterargument.
The lack of conditions (1) and (2) as attested by the corresponding experiences stated above indirectly corroborates the implication of the counterargument (see point (2)) that the argument of non-self could not solve the problem of false perceptions and introspection. If we recall the implication, point (2), that I had drawn from the argument of non-self, then we will realize that it is a contradicting account in comparison to the experiences corresponding to the lack of conditions (1) and (2). The implication drawn was that given P2 and P3, a human can come to realize the truth of things from perceptions and introspection because the truth is (and must be) evidentially present in the world (for the argument of non-self to work). However, the said experiences are such that a human is fallible in perceptions and introspection, seemingly impeding the condition promised in the implication in the first place. It seems that the cause of this impetus is regardless of whether if the truth is evidentially present in the world. This is because the very fallibility of human perceptions and introspection, can and will all the same, prevent the realization of an accessible or inaccessible truth of things. Therefore, it is either that the argument of non-self did not consider an impetus to accessing this truth at all, namely false perceptions and introspection, or, it did consider the impetus, but failed to anticipate its extent. In either case, the impetus clearly refers to the false perceptions and introspection of a human. The latter case, however, seems much more accurate about human condition given that P4 and P5 addresses false perceptions and introspection while P4 could not address the kind that is in P5. The three findings, namely the lack of conditions (1) and (2) and the experiences corresponding to them, together with the implication of my counterargument, point (2), weaves into a coherent edifice.
The analysis thus far generates an overall approach on addressing the problem of delusional self in P5 (suppose what was discussed thus far are accepted to be accurate): We can only attempt to solve the problem of false perceptions and introspection to solve P4 and P5 and all innumerable forms of delusional self that are possible (if they exist at all), not the other way around.
The assessment thus far is that the original argument of non-self is insufficient or lacks informative content to deal with the generality of delusional self. This is further complicated by the fact that we are marred by the vulnerability of false perceptions and introspection. And this would prevent us from dealing flexibly with the generality of delusional self. In order to solve a general delusion of self, one must solve the problem of false perceptions and introspection prima facie. This presents an impasse: can one achieve a proper observance of non-self and Nirvana? Perhaps this is what Buddhism is all about: finding self-deliverance within the impasse, employing a form of deviant logic that we have yet come to realize.
Collins, Steven. Selfless persons: Imagery and thought in Theravāda buddhism. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 1997. Print.
Siderits, Mark. “Buddha.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 17 Feb. 2011. Web. 22 Mar. 2017. <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/buddha/#CorTea>.
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