‘Self’ or ‘Not-Self’?

Self or Not-self?

-Rajesh Bajracharya

The strong reason for agreeing to this ‘not self’ position is not to claim that I have practiced meditation at the level that is being discussed in this course. I believe I am only a beginner yet to take the meditational courses or formal retreats to claim knowledge of such heights. But through little practice effort, it has constantly helped me evolve better each day in knowing myself from a new perspective.  

Principally Buddha talks about the four noble truth and rest could perhaps be taken as the explanation of the ultimate truth he is entitled for establishing – to rise to the awakened ‘not self’ in pure observation. Could it be that Buddha explains the cause of suffering as the delusion that tends to stick to one’s behaviors? The delusions which goes unnoticed and replicates into creation of “I, Me or Mine” characters should one not be ‘aware’ or willing to observe in mindfulness; are the root causes of suffering?

The notion of self, according to his discourse seems to be the result of ‘clinging’ to the five aggregates which includes conscience itself. Our conscience, the sense of ‘being’, derives from the transmission of sensual ‘forms’ through our bodily organs, triggers ‘feelings’ and makes up our ‘perception’ of worldly things. Through repetitions of these perceptions or feelings we seem to establish ‘mental impressions’ of these possessions as favorable or unfavorable controlled by the ‘conscience’. This fifth aggregate itself is nothing but a collected form of ‘knowledge’ which would not have its existence without the earlier four aggregates. These aggregates therefore look seemingly interrelated and even more proven with the development of modern psychology and the study of the human brain.

Here, I would like to present an argument in favor or ‘not self’ from two perspectives or the two examples as intended in this assessment, i.e., from the perspective of meditative mind and from the general perspective of a materialist. Here, when I mention ‘the perspective of meditative mind’, I still prefer to call this argument limited to, and arising from the basic ‘conscience’ level.

The strong reason for agreeing to this ‘not self’ position is not to claim that I have practiced meditation at the level that is being discussed in this course. I believe I am only a beginner yet to take the meditational courses or formal retreats to claim knowledge of such heights. But through little practice effort, it has constantly helped me evolve better each day in knowing myself from a new perspective.  

‘Not Self’ – The perspective of meditative mind:

Thus, agreeing to the facts that human life is full of suffering and clinging to sensual desires, the delusions that can result from the medium of the aggregates and its characteristics when we fail to observe them as impermanent and thus ‘unreal’, are convincingly the causes of suffering.

As a notion of the third noble truth – that cessation of suffering is possible – is therefore of great importance – which, I perceive to be the effort of awareness and realization of the “not self” state of mind practiced through meditation. Therefore, to know the possibility of cessation of the suffering, meditation and meditative state of the mind becomes a pathway shown by Buddha to be aware of the ‘not self’ as a basic knowledge towards the fourth noble truth. Arriving to this knowledge itself, if we reflect on ourselves, we are not the same person any longer. With the effort to ‘observe’ our own ‘experiences’ during meditation, we would realize that these experiences tend to cling on when we allow focus on it be it pleasant or fearful. These same ‘experiences’ seem to fade like water bubbles that come and go once we shift focus on being impartial towards them, allowing us to observe its’ impermanence more clearly. Here during this effort, we notice at least momentarily, that we are not the ‘self’ that was there a moment ago. In other words, a ‘new self’ was observed with this intended ‘consciousness’ and we realize the possibility observing the ‘not self’ state, the ‘detached’ state from the aggregates that Buddha seem to talk about. This, from the perspective of meditative mind means ‘rebirth’ to me as we aspire to detachment from the meaning of ‘self’ we knew earlier.

Moral and compassionate worldview arises as one starts to gain insight to impermanence of one’s own feelings and thus aware of ‘not self’ state. This awareness only helps in breaking away from clinging to an opinion or action that shall only worsen the situation by reestablishing one’s thoughts or action as “I, me or mine”. To come to this state of mind, one can notice, we have had transformed and let go of previous clinging itself which can be termed a ‘rebirth’ of oneself or non-existence of the previous self. Therefore, this non-existence of the previous self becomes the essential to further walk the right path – the eightfold path.

In this aspiration, we only tend to be more compassionate and the eightfold path presents itself which seems to help us continue our observation of mindfulness guided by ‘not self’ approach.  Based on this experience, the forth noble truth – the path of eliminating the suffering, the noble eightfold path appears as a welcoming standard practice which undoubtedly could stand out as a “perfect moral worldview” towards development of multiple beings benefiting from the noble truths. Existence of ‘not self’ therefore is acceptance of possibility of constant ‘rebirths’ of our karma.   

‘Not Self’ – General perspective of a materialist

From perspective of a materialist, one cannot believe in existence of God and the supernatural powers therein. Thus concept of ‘rebirth’ is not acceptable to a materialist. As a believer of materialism, if not an atheist, Buddhism is the only religion that one can be attracted to when we comes to quenching the thirst of understanding the world order due to its proximity in scientific worldview.

Buddhist worldview of the truth is a rebellion against the warfare of imperialism and the morality that drove the social culture of his time. He can be seen as the most materialistic intellectual who refused endurance of extremism in seekers of wisdom among intellectuals.  He redefined the moral and social practices by introducing four noble truths against the practices of blind faith dependent on external superiority or existence of supernatural god to end one’s sufferings.

The idea of ‘impermanence’ is still a relevant truth that prevails as we fail to have a common world order abiding us together in coherence. Witnessing the increased chaos of our existence in this pace of human development, we might as well agree, that we have moved way ahead of how the evolution and natural selection might have supposedly ‘designed’ our minds. One such example would be the growing conceits on the ‘perception’ and the ‘aggregates’ perhaps of the massive public in these modern times, that are driven towards intentions and desired outcomes laid out by the authoritative powers. If we look at public consumption of materialistic products, even the finding of science and technology are perhaps used to conceit us of our choices with our ‘self’ even realizing it. In other words, we live in a stage where our ‘self’ can be deceived.

Having said that, what would be the view of ‘not self’ look like to a materialist?

If we can take this as the truth and relate it to the first noble truth as existence of ‘suffering’, we can see that there are causes of it. I became a smoker and I’m now conditioned to remain a smoker even when I’m aware of its consequences because of the easy market access and social conditioning that allows my habit as individual choice. Here if we agree that during our attempts to quit, when we are tempted to smoke and we recall the smoking person as ‘not me’ it only helps. Accepting the existence of that ‘will to resist at the moment’ only helps in retaining the experience of ‘tobacco free’ self. Once we truly quit, we see ourselves as a ‘new person’.

From a materialist’s view, there are no rebirths and one might not be willing to see the idea of ‘not self’ in Buddhist worldview. However, if we can take our tobacco free personality as a ‘rebirth’ into a new self, I believe there are so many similar ‘rebirth’ we have gone through already. The changes in us at atomic level of cells, its growth and death, are ‘rebirth’ that allows us to evolve as new. Since these changes are there both at our conscious and unconscious level, we must admit that there is no true ‘self’ that exists. The only difference is if we are aware of these changes, it only helps in realizing the ‘right effort’ we make. As explained in Modular theory of mind that there might not be a certain self or doer as such in human brain, and that there are expressions by Buddhist monks that there are deeds but not doer – we might as well put right effort to live and help pass on better deeds. 

The practice of meditation and mindfulness based on four noble truths can only help us relate and know causes of our suffering, proceed towards cessation effort and realization of a better ‘rebirth’ of our ‘self’ if ‘not self’.      

 References and further readings:

  1. Buddhism and Modern Psychology,  by Princeton University (https://www.coursera.org/learn/science-of-meditation/home/info
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ary2t41Jb_I (Venerable Yifa: Do persons have souls)
  3. Principle 4 in “Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer,” by Leda Cosmides & John Tooby: http://www.cep.ucsb.edu/primer.html
  4. Robert Wright, The Moral Animal, chapter 13.
  5. Buddha, Buddhahood and Philosophy –  Late Tulsilal Amatya (Awaiting publication)

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