The Goal of Selflessness in Buddhist Philosophy.
This essay wishes to explore the goal of
realisation of selflessness in Buddhist teaching. I shall explore theories
of ontology, perception and soteriology in relation to this aim, in three
areas of Buddhist literature – Theravada, Mahayana, and The Abhidharma.
The philosophical concerns I wish to address are non-essentialism, and
process ontology/metaphysics, concerns that become problematic when
delineated within the limitations of a subject-predicate language
structure. But as the goal of Buddhism is to realise selflessness, these
limitations become the very obstacles that must be surmounted in order to
achieve the aim.
I shall follow a chronological order in my essay
with regard to developments in thought, beginning with Theravada textus
receptus, early commentators lived eight or nine centuries after the
Buddha, and five hundred years after tradition indicates the first orally
transmitted texts were written down for the first time. The most recent
texts end with Nagarjuna and the Mahayana or middle way.
The early Pali canon of Buddhist texts, the sutras,
or aphorisms, talk about things as though they are merely
conceptualisations or labels – prajnapti-matra. It may be a mistake
to regard this view as Idealist, because it may also be argued that the
Pali canon also discusses a pluralist and realistic ontology. The Buddha
appears to have been more concerned with the how of relationships,
not with the, what of perceptual phenomena. Therefore, we may regard
the ontology of early Buddhist thinking as process ontology – things that
may said to exist are in an ever changing and continuous flow.
This view is applied to the conception of self or
atman. The Buddha denies that there is a self and therefore
advocates a view of anatman or no self. The illusion of an abiding
self is the very source of all Human dissatisfaction, and therefore must be
removed. Such is the goal of Buddhist teaching, the teaching of Anatman.
There is an argument from impermanence to support
the notion of no self. Here, the personality is analysed and described as a
series of five psychophysical elements or Skandha. It is argued that
non of these skandhas is permanent – none of them, as with individual
desires, last a whole lifetime. There is an immediate problem with this
view with respect to the pre-supposed Buddhist doctrine of re-birth.
The problem of re-birth was inherited from a
prevailing contemporary Brahminical view, and dealt with in the sutras the
In discussing how the Buddha viewed his reality,
language itself becomes problematic because of its limiting subject-predicate
form. However, the Pali canon displays the Buddha using skill in means, and
clever allegory to overcome innate linguistic constrictions, imagery and
cultural beliefs of competing views, whether they be religious or
philosophical. This skill creates problems for those who adopt a literalist
approach to the sutras. As Gombrich argues, we must be clear about when and
how the Buddha – taken as an individual who may represent a received body
of texts – is using skill in means and allegory to explain and transform
the conceptions of a myriad of listeners. The prime example of this is the
Buddhist use of the doctrine of re-birth - karma.
Karma is transformed in the Pali canon from its Brahminical
origins of ceremonial sacrificial obligation to the process of becoming
oriented away from that very Brahmin doctrine and towards an understanding
of impermanence. Thus, in the fire sutra for example, the language, imagery
and cultural beliefs of the Brahmin are replaced by a competing description
of the five skandhas. Thus, the problem of a pre-supposed self, undergoing
the round of re-birth may be explained as a complex causal series of
The series may be viewed as one thread or stream
with old elements being replaced by new ones continuously. It is now
possible to replace any stream imagery in competing Brahminical texts with
a reifying Buddhist doctrine of no self – a skandha stream.
With an understanding that there is a rational explanation
for no self, it is now possible to move from a state of re-orientation away
from previously held views and towards a determined effort of conceptual
change on the part of the pupil Buddhist.
This challenge emphasises the role of language in
the way we understand our perceptions of phenomenon. The way our language
works is fundamental to the way in which we conceptualise phenomenon – an
area much explored by the Abhidharma.
While a nominalist may argue that there are no
Universal essences in the Buddhist corpus, it is also arguable that each
individual has the potential to experience the Buddha state for
him/herself, and then be unable to use language to convey exactly how the
unconditioned is. Thus, grasping at an explanation merely adds to the
problem of a conceptualised self rather than helping remove it as an
illusion. Such grasping has lead to the literal interpretation of sutras in
an inappropriate way. For example, the allegory of the raft as a method
towards understanding the Buddha’s teaching which is then not required once
enlightenment is gained has generated some confusion. The question may be
asked if there is an abiding self, which exists beyond the five skandha of
personality analysis. The Buddha refused to answer this question directly
because no answer can be delivered without using a language inherently
conditioned with inappropriate conceptualisations. It is the inability to
recognise that personality analysis is but a tool used to dismantle deeply
embedded notions of self that leads to questions of a self beyond its
The Abhidharma tradition extended the
analysis of personality to include all phenomenal experience. Thus,
language becomes that from which social fictions arise – we use language to
navigate the conventional world of inter-subjectivity, but there is a
correspondence with the unconventional world of the Buddha that must be
explored through analytical categorisation of basic things. It may be
argued that this approach begins a long and arduous process away from the
spirit of the Theravada. As explained in the last section, analysis
was intended to be used as a means to an end – an end which justified using
skill in means to root out inappropriate views.
The Abidharma suggest that there are no wholes.
Thus, if we take as an example that of a motorcycle, we recognise that we
use one word to describe a complex series of relationships that may be
explained in a vast number of different ways. The working motorcycle has
one configuration that works best and that is a motorcycle in good running
order. But the same motorcycle may be configured in a bad way – one that
will not work. The question of which motorcycle is fundamentally real is
independent of our personal wants, needs and interests. In Buddhist
analysis we see reductionism at work – there is a concerted search for that
which may be said to be fundamental.
There are two truths in Buddhist reductionism: A
statement is ultimately true if and only if it corresponds to the
facts and neither asserts nor entails the existence of any conceptual
fiction. A statement is conventionally true if and only if it is
assertable in accordance with the standards of common sense (with common-sense
standards understood as deriving from successful practice).
An example of these two truths is explored in, Milindapanha.
40. Here, King Milinda feels he understands well that there are no
persons. However, the King still asks the question of Nagasena if the same
persons cohere over time? Nagasena answers ‘neither.’ Milinda reasons that
the baby and the adult are two different people. But if this is so, the
student and the graduate would be two different people also, and so the
graduate would not be deserving of his/her qualification. Also, there would
be a problem prosecuting a criminal if the same person did not both commit
the crime and serve the administered sentence.
The apparent contradiction is explained in terms
of the two truths: There are new skandhas in the phenomenal stream
and not new persons. Conventional truth indicates that the law must apply
to both as a continuous entity. Unconventional truth says there are
different states of one body. Thus, process ontology can explain phenomena
as existing in terms of continuous, analysable processes and not essential
natures of permanent substances.
Another example of process ontology is that of
the oil lamp – the oil lamp shines all night long, but, the flame is not
one continuous flame throughout that duration, rather, it is a causal
series between a succession of flames - a process. However, it is
convenient to speak of one light. In this way, Ultimate truth explains
conventional usage, and this explanation may be equally applied to persons
– there are no persons, merely a skandha stream.
The Abhidharma regard dharmas to be the
part-less parts or fundamental aspects of acquaintance. Dharmas are
therefore the fundamental category of analytical reductionism. For the
dharmas to fulfil their proposed function, it is clear that they can not be
broken down into more constituent parts. It is also clear that they must
have no borrowed properties and be intrinsic to them - Svabhava. (Sva
– self. Bhava – nature.) Thus, returning to the example of the
motorcycle, the term motorcycle refers to an ordered arrangement or
configuration. Therefore, the term motorcycle is not indicating a
real entity for the Abhidharma. Conceptual fictions are open to
inter-subjective verification, but dharmas, being Svabhava, and therefore
nominal by definition, must only be known by acquaintance.
Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmamoko-sabhasya, or treasury of metaphysics. 4.2b – 3b illustrate
the subject. Here, Vasubandhu explores a version of representationalism
that states that our perceptual experience is of rupa dharmas, (The
Buddha spoke of five skhundas – four rupa dharmas – physical, and one nama
dharma - mental.) We are aware of mental representations and then infer
external reality from them. A rainbow is a good example of what Vasubandhu’s
representationalism entails; the representations we are aware of would be
the rainbow itself as externally existing – however, all we are really
aware of is the refraction of light waves, or, in the analogy, rupa
dharmas. Therefore, the rupa dharmas (water droplet refraction) we are
aware of generate the representation of an external reality (rainbow).
There is a theory of impermanence, which negates
a causal link between objects in Vasubandhu’s representationalism. The
theory itself relies upon the assertion that nothing really moves because
conditioned things are momentary. Assuming this is correct, Vasubandhu then
feels it is appropriate to further assert that nothing lasts long enough to
be able to move. If this assertion itself is correct, then our perceptions
would be of a static succession of representations of physical objects
which then give rise to the appearance of motion.
If this is so, then a further time lag argument
suggests that the representations we experience, and the dharmas generating
that experience are not the same. Therefore, we are living in a world of
mental awareness or representations of what once was.
As it is not possible for us to causally
influence the world of our perception – we are living in a mental awareness
of the past – the absence of objects are not caused but come into being as
new dharmas. Thus, if we smash a pot with a stick, we experience NOT the
absence of a pot, rather the rise of potshards. The moral consequences of
the series of dharmas we experience are due to karmic influence of our
Vasubandhu later developed a form of subjective
idealism as a move towards achieving nirvana or selflessness. In this
move, the nama dharma is dropped and only the remaining four rupa dharmas
remain. Thus, the relationship between representations and an external
reality is negated. However, a problem immediately arises with regard to thirst.
If the thirst or desire for an external object is replaced by an
indistinguishable thirst for a representation, then nothing has been
Vasubandhu uses a contrast notion of ‘me’
to distinguish between out there and in here to remove this
objection. It may be argued that knowledge of the real situation reveals
that the idea of the grasped, (the object thirsted or desired) may
be denied. Thus, it is possible to deny the grasper also. Thus, a
false belief in me is undermined.
Mahayana - Madhyamaka tradition.
The Mahayana or middle way tradition
begins to challenge the Abhidharma extreme analytical account. However, the
analytical approach is still valued for its soteriological project in that
it is believed a thorough understanding of the dharmas will help overcome
the illusion of self.
Nagarjuna’s primary text, Mulamadhyanakakarilkas, or fundamental verses
on the middle way presents a doctrine of emptiness as the negation of
essential natures. Sunyata, nisvabhava – devoid of intrinsic nature
or nothingness - is a radical alternative to previous interpretations
regarding nirvana, because according to the Abhidharma for example, there
is a two tier ontology at work – dharmas with svabhava, and conventional
description. However, Nagarjuna suggests that nothing is ultimately real.
It must be stressed that Nagarjuna’s position
does not imply metaphysical nihilism. However, this misconception regarding
svabhava is important for reasons that are associated with the argument
that there is no one argument which may be presented for all things being
empty: If nothing is ultimately real, then there cannot possibly be one
argument to prove svabhava. Thus, all competing views regarding ultimate
reality can be shown to be unworkable according to the Madhyamaka.
This view, if it may be correctly referred to as
a view, suggests that there is no ultimate reality independent from
conventional reality. In chapter V of Mulamadhyanakakarilkas there
is an analysis of the Dhatus. There are said to be six Dhatus, the
first regarding space, and analysis of space is said to be applicable to
the other five. Verse 1 states the defining characteristic prior to
concept. Verse 2b states that nowhere does there at all obtain an existent
without a characteristic. This suggests that all defining characteristics
be supplied, because the idea of a blank existent is logically incoherent.
Verse 3 states that if a defining characteristic
already exists for a Dhatu, then we cannot supply another one, as this
would lead to an infinite regress explaining how the additional defining
characteristics work upon their bearers.
Verse 4 concludes that both defining
characteristic and bearer are impossible, therefore, in verse 5 Nagarjuna
concludes that there are no intrinsic natures.
A realist may counter that Nagarjuna’s position
relies on linguistic distinctions. If the relationship between linguistic
constructions and ultimately real things is disrupted, then there is no
hope of talking about ultimate reality.
However, Nagarjuna illustrates that this is not
so. In an analysis of atoms, space does not obstruct while atoms do.
Therefore, in order for atoms to obstruct each other there must be a
non-obstructing space between them, and this space is part of the
definition of solidity. Therefore, we provide the definitions and there are
no intrinsically definable natures by reason.
In chapter I of Mulamadhyanakakarilkas
there is an analysis of the conditions or causation. Here, Nagarjuna
states that things that exist did not cause themselves, nor from another,
nor from nothing.
As an example, one may understand that a seed
sprout is not revealed in prior soil, seed, warmth, moisture, etc. – and
these are the conditions. Candrakirti and Bhavaviveka comment upon
this argument in the following way:
Perhaps one of the prior conditions is the same
as the seed sprout? But then this would already be the svabhava of the seed
sprout, and experience shows us this is not the case.
Are we dealing with magic - there must be an
explanation for future expectations - thus, action, kriya may
proceed when appropriate conditions are assembled. Nagarjuna asks if the
causal power has conditions, and this is the same question that began the
analysis. If another causal power or necessary connection is called for,
then there is the beginning of an infinite regress.
This position is very similar to that of Hume –
all we have are our expectations from previous experience. Nagarjuna
suggests that causation is a construction and convention not sensible in
terms of ultimate truth. Therefore, the conclusion is that we are
projecting our own wants, needs and desires onto experience.
In chapter XV of Mulamadhyanakakarilkas
there is an analysis of svabhava. Svabhava is shown to be dependent
upon causation, but causation is a construction. The conclusion to be drawn
is that there cannot be any dharmas with their own intrinsic natures. From
verse 18 onwards of chapter XV, the middle path is declared to be emptiness.
Thus, it is possible to say that samsara is just as empty as
ultimate reality and therefore the same as nirvana in being another aspect
of one thing: emptiness.
He who sees dependent co-origination sees this: The co-arising and
the destruction of suffering, and the path.
This essay has explored some of the philosophical
concerns regarding the goal of selflessness in Buddhism. Initially,
concerns regarded the psychological re-orientation of competing religious
and philosophies away from notions of an essential self, and towards
counter intuitive views regarding no self and theories of impermanence.
With the systematising of the Pali cannon came an
increase in the conceptual analysis of texts and a move towards
reductionism. This move lead to forms of representationalism and
phenomenalism, as seen in the texts of Vasubhandu, with a danger of
re-asserting an essential dharma. The eventual move towards Nagarjuna’s
idealism may be viewed as a move towards the original Buddhist position of
non-essence, while avoiding possible charges of metaphysical nihilism.
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