Buddhism and Moral Coherence

MetaethicsWhat do we mean when we say that something is morally wrong? Theists have no problem answering this question: morally wrong acts are those that contravene God’s intentions for how human beings ought to behave. Non-theists, however, are stuck with more of a problem in defining what “morality” and “ethics” (I’m using the terms interchangeably) are. Our conceptions of morality need grounding in some larger conception of what life is all about, and it’s here where contemporary non-theistic attempts to ground ethics are most likely to founder.

Some post-Enlightenment Western philosophers (e.g., David Hume) have argued that statements about morality are really just statements of personal sentiment and preference rather than statements of fact. In other words, the statement that “murder is wrong” means nothing over and above the statement “Ugh! Murder. Don’t do it.” This belief that moral statements are merely sentiments is called “emotivism.”

Other post-Enlightenment Western philosophers, seeking a more solid ground than emotivism in which to root moral statements, have successively tried — and failed— to ground morality in either rationality (Emmanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative”) or utility (Jeremy Bentham’s “greatest good for the greatest number”). Contemporary Scottish-born philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre suggests, however, that all philosophical efforts to ground morality in something other than sentiment are doomed by our modern commitments to a secular, scientific view of Nature which excludes meaning, purpose, or telos from its materialist description of the way things are.

MacIntyre argues that David Hume’s famous dictum that there’s no way to logically get to “ought” statements from “is” statements is, strictly speaking, not true. For example, if a watch always tells the right time we can reasonably conclude that the watch is a “good” watch. We can conclude that the watch is “good” because the very definition of a watch tells us what a watch is for. Watches, by definition, have a purpose; they are “for” something. Things that conform to and fulfill their aim can be said to possess “goodness” in a way that’s based on more than sentiment.

Classical philosophers like Aristotle, and medieval philosophers in the Aristotelian tradition like Maimonides and St. Thomas Aquinas thought that human beings, too, had a purpose. For Aristotle it was a telos or “final end” intended by Nature — man’s telos was fulfilled by developing one’s intellectual and moral virtues so as to achieve a state of eudaemonia, often translated as “human flourishing” or “well-being.”  For St. Thomas, man’s purpose was to live in accordance with God’s intentions for who we are to be and with Natural Law as established by God. Modern science, however, doesn’t countenance the belief that Nature possesses final ends, purposes or intentions. Within the confines of science’s world-view, moral statements are left hanging in air, ungrounded in anything that might make them intelligible. Moral statements, to mean anything, must have some standard that lies beyond mere sentiment and preference because different human beings believe and express a diversity of conflicting sentiments and preferences, and this diversity of sentiments precludes any rational means of resolving moral disputes. Without an external standard, Hitler’s moral judgments are no better or worse than your own.

Contemporary American philosopher Thomas Nagel argues that the consensus scientific account of how we came to be cannot account for three essential human qualities: consciousness, reason, and value. He suggests that only some combination of panpsychism and telos can account for how we humans got to be the way we are. He believes that consciousness must originate in some form of panpsychism, and that, additionally, something about the laws of Nature must not only permit, but also encourage the timely emergence of increased complexity, consciousness, reason, and value. Nagel believes that Nature has a story to tell, and that it’s something like “the universe is waking up.” Nagel’s controversial book, Mind and Cosmos (2012), was widely criticized, but it’s really a modest exploration of the kinds of problems the current scientific paradigm is incapable of successfully resolving.

As humans we’re, first and foremost, conscious beings, and our consciousness is riddled through-and-through with intentions, purposes, motives, and reasons; the kinds of things that Nature is allegedly devoid of. Value is an immediate property of consciousness. We immediately perceive a sunset as “beautiful”; we don’t need to think it over. We immediately understand that the statement “there’s no unicorn in this room” is “true”; we don’t need to reason it out. We immediately know that rescuing a child who’s fallen into a well is “right”; we don’t need to morally deliberate over it. While reason shapes and extends our immediate intuitions about beauty, truth, and goodness, and while we seek logical grounds for resolving value conflicts, our initial perception of value is inherent in consciousness itself. It’s a phenomenological given. That’s not to say that morality existed prior to human consciousness. No one accuses lions of immorality for killing their prey. But once human consciousness arises, beauty, truth, and goodness come along for the ride. While our specific apprehensions of what’s beautiful, true, or good change from culture to culture, era to era, and across one’s lifespan, the value realms of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness universally persist, in much the same way that languages may vary from culture to culture and era to era, but Language itself is a human universal.

Evolutionary biologists wrongly believe they’ve a good candidate for a mechanism that can account for the emergence of morality. They point out that social animals like ants, wasps, and humans are among the most successful species on our planet. They say that sociality conveys evolutionary advantages that allow Nature to pay a premium for the modulation of in-group competition and the enhancement of in-group altruism. As compelling as this argument is, it can only explain why acts of cooperation and mutual aid are “useful,” but never why they’re “right.” When we say that something is “right,” we intend something different than saying that it’s beneficial for survival. We rescue that child drowning in the well, not because we hope others will do the same if it were our child, but because it’s the “right” thing to do. Moral underpinnings that emphasize reproductive fitness take us only so far. We need an explanation for “rightness” that goes beyond social and biological utility. For example, the history of our own culture suggests an evolution in moral values marked by a gradual process of inclusion of “others” onto the list of those to whom moral duties are owed, e.g., people of color, women, infidels, homosexuals, transexuals, unborn children, cetaceans, primates, elephants, endangered species, factory farmed animals, and so on. This gradual extension involves the spread of a standard of rightness that’s utterly divorced from in-group fidelity and reproductive fitness. It marks, in fact, the slow abolition of the very distinction between in-groups and out-groups, a distinction that’s necessary for any successful genetic account of evolution. While the spread of this evolving morality may eventually save us from extinction by nuclear holocaust, climate change, or some other unforeseen Anthropocene disaster, its salutary effect for our future can’t account for its present-day emergence. Evolution doesn’t permit the future to influence the present or the past.

But if science as currently construed is incapable of giving a coherent account of the-way-things-are that includes what we know best and most intimately, namely consciousness, purpose, value, and meaning, and if we’re no longer capable of or willing to believe in a Deity, what options are left to us? I want to address the question of whether Buddhism can provide a framework in which moral statements can again make coherent sense. In doing this, I’m not claiming any superiority or exclusivity for a Buddhist solution, only exploring whether a Buddhist solution is possible, and if so, what if might be. In a series of provocative essays, David Chapman has recently argued that mainstream Western Buddhism is incapable of providing any such framework. I think he’s wrong, and I see this essay as part of an ongoing conversation about whether and how Western Buddhism can, in fact, address ethical issues.

There are a number of possible strands within the Buddhist tradition which might allow for such a solution. The first is the classical Buddhist idea of karma as the determinant of the realms of rebirth and of sila (ethics) as part of the triumvirate of sets of practices (along with meditation and wisdom) leading to liberation and enlightenment. This is an idea that is already present in the earliest known strata of Buddhist thinking as preserved in the Pali canon. In this scheme, moral behavior plays a role in both determining more desirable rebirths and, ultimately, in attaining enlightenment, or freedom from future rebirths. This scheme answers the question of “why behave morally?” with an appeal to freedom from suffering in this and future lives, and to a final release from any and all suffering that is our natural ultimate destination if only we knew it. Actions are moral if they create good karma and lead us towards these ends. This formulation is somewhat problematic for moderns who no longer believe in rebirth and freedom from rebirth, but it retains some attenuated force as a kind of Aristotelian path towards eudaemonia, if not to complete and perfect enlightenment.

There are two other strands of Buddhist thought, however, that suggest a different sort of Buddhist solution to the issue of contemporary moral incoherence. The primary Buddhist elements in this second framework are the twin notions of Dependent Origination and the Bodhisattva Path. These are notions that only reach their fullest expression in historically later strands of Buddhist thought within the Indian and Chinese Mahayana traditions.

Dependent Origination, especially in its Madhyamaka (i.e., “emptiness”) and Huayan (i.e., “interpenetration”) formulations, emphasizes the process-relational nature of reality. All “things” (I use the word “things” advisably because there are no “things” in this model, only seamlessly interrelated processes, mutually affecting and transforming each other over time) immediately and intimately co-participate in the emergence of each moment of reality. Dependent Origination implies that the human qualities of consciousness, reason, and value are inherent in Nature, the outgrowth of the integral functioning of the universe, and not simply ghostly flukes residing somewhere between our ears and behind our eyes.

The Bodhisattva Path offers a telos, a final end, for us and Nature: we’re here to help all beings awaken, and because of Dependent Origination, the whole of reality supports us in this endeavor. It’s not just our endeavor, it’s the Universe’s. As the 13th Century Japanese Buddhist monk Eihei Dogen might say, “earth, grasses and trees, fences and walls, tiles and pebbles” co-participate in our enlightenment, our enlightenment transforming space and time as we co-awaken with the whole of reality. Within this non-dual framework, our purpose is to cultivate wisdom and compassion. It’s this purpose that provides an external standard for judging the morality of actions: Actions that help ourselves and others to actualize wisdom (i.e., the realization of emptiness, impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, non-self, and non-duality) and facilitate mindful awareness, non-harming, compassion and non-grasping are moral. Actions that detract from it are immoral. We instantiate this moral process in all of our activities, e.g., in meditating, raising and educating children, dealing wisely and compassionately with others, being mindful in speech and behavior, exercising restraint in our desires, and so on. In After Virtue (1981), Alasdair MacIntyre argues that morality achieves coherence through embeddedness within a cultural matrix of supporting practices, narratives and traditions. Buddhism happily provides all three.

Unfortunately, these general Buddhist principles fail to provide a means for resolving conflicts between specific moral intuitions. What if, in saving the baby drowning in the well, we’ve saved the baby Hitler? What if a compassionate action helps one person but disadvantages another? What if an act of mercy towards a perpetrator leaves an injured party aggrieved? What if saving an endangered species creates economic hardship for people living nearby? The answers to these sorts of questions often entail a resort to some kind of moral calculus, as if all goods could be measured against each other on the same scale, when in fact they are, often enough, incommensurable. While in Buddhism compassion trumps everything else, the primacy of compassion can’t resolve the question of “compassion towards whom?” when people are differentially affected by actions. All philosophies face this problem of what to do when “goods” conflict. Sometimes we just have to face the tragic implications of how life is structured with something approaching resignation or grace. Buddhist principles can anchor our ethics in a telos, but in and of themselves, can provide only minimal guidance on how to settle these disputes. Since Buddhism never developed its own tradition of critical ethical investigation, it may sometimes have to allow non-Buddhist philosophers to come to its aid with their ungainly mix of consequentialist, utilitarian, deontological, and virtue ethics to help think things through. Deciding what’s right is often complicated, but that doesn’t have to mean that the notion of “right” itself needs be incoherent.

The problem with this second Buddhist solution is that one has to buy it’s premises for it to work. Not everyone can do so. Materialists, for example, could never buy into the premise that we have a purpose, or that our purpose is part of a larger narrative of everything “waking up.” As a result, Western Buddhism has secular adherents who try to fit significant portions of the Buddhist project into a materialist frame. For secularists, the end point of Buddhist practice is again some version of eudaemonia, and the active Buddhist ingredients contributing to this eudaemonia include elements of mindfulness and compassion. Their answer to the question, “why be mindful or compassionate?” needs be a utilitarian one: it contributes to one’s feeling happier and facilitates one’s capacity to make others feel happier. This probably provides sufficient reason for many people to engage in secularized Buddhist practice; after all, who wouldn’t want to be happier? What it doesn’t provide is a reason why the Buddhist path to happiness is superior to everyone just taking some Valium. The secular response to this requires a theory of why some types of happiness are superior to others, and this requires a theory of what human beings are for, and how they’re supposed to be—just the sort of thing that secularists tend to shy away from.  For example, in his book Flourish (2011), positive psychologist Martin Seligman posits a model of eudaemonia that includes the five factors of positive emotion, engagement, accomplishment, relationship, and meaning. It’s not a bad list, but it begs the question of “why these factors and not others?” since it lacks a larger theory of what human beings are for. Seligman defines meaning as “belonging to and serving something you believe is bigger than oneself.” This definition suggests that we’re all free to find our own meaning — that one person’s meaning is as good as another’s, whether one is a Bodhisattva, a Fascist, or an acolyte of the Islamic State. Whatever makes you feel you’re part of some larger story. You can see the inherent problem: we’re left with no way to establish a hierarchy of goodness within the universe of possible meanings. Secularized accounts can never adequately address questions of goodness without grounding the concept in some larger theory of what our lives are all about. That means acknowledging that human lives are, in fact, about something.

Everyone, knowingly or not, has a metaphysics. A materialist metaphysics can’t account for consciousness and value, and leaves our lives devoid of meaning. Materialism suggests our lives aren’t about anything — they’re just accidental byproducts of physical processes. Materialism can’t be empirically proven or disproven, any more than pan-psychism or teleology can. It’s just more or less useful, and depending on your point of view, more or less credible.

I think the Buddhist story has something special to contribute to our survival as a species. It clarifies our deep interrelationship with all beings and with Nature, clarifies our moral duties towards all beings without exception, and encourages us to move beyond the fragmented individualism and consumer mentality that are the twin scourges of modern Western society. As our fragile species lurches toward the possibility of extinction, we moderns are increasingly the inheritors of a conflicting set of historical grievances and irreconcilable world-views, while simultaneously the possessors of technologies that extend our ability to inflict exponentially greater harm on each other. Our current moral incoherence will not let us muddle through. Something very much like Buddhist ethics seems increasingly urgent if we’re going to make sufficient progress in resolving these conflicts to survive as a species. The Buddhist solution, however, requires us to think differently about Nature and our place in it. It also requires us to assume something very much like the Bodhisattva ideal — the belief that there’s a more enlightened way to be than the way-we-are-now (however we construe “Enlightenment”) and that an engaged, compassionate regard for others is an indispensable component of that enlightened way.

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Self and Not-Self

Vacchagotta, a wandering mendicant, visited the Buddha and asked him if there was such a thing as “self.”  The Buddha didn’t answer him but just sat silently.  Vacchagotta then asked if there was “no self.”  The Buddha was again silent, and Vacchagotta left with his curiosity unsatisfied.  Ananda, the Buddha’s personal attendant, was puzzled by the Buddha’s silence and asked him to explain. The Buddha replied:

“Ananda, if I…  were to answer that there is a self, that would be conforming with those priests and contemplatives who are exponents of eternalism.  If I … were to answer that there is no self, that would be conforming with those priests and contemplatives who are exponents of annihilationism.  If I … were to answer that there is a self, would that be in keeping with the arising of knowledge that all phenomena are not-self?”

“No, lord.”

“And if I…  were to answer that there is no self, the bewildered Vacchagotta would become even more bewildered: ‘Does the self I used to have now not exist?'”     — Ananda Sutta [1]

Anatta, or “not-self”, is a frequently misunderstood Buddhist concept. Let’s clear up three common misconceptions about it right off the bat.  Buddhism doesn’t deny you exist, deny you have a personality, or imply you shouldn’t have an “ego.” What Buddhism does deny is a false conception of the self:  a self that is separate-unto-itself and unchanging.

In its narrowest sense, anatta is a denial of the Vedic conception of atman, an unchanging soul which transmigrates and which, according to the ancient Vedic formula, shares an identity with Brahman, or the godhead.  More broadly, anatta is descriptive of all conditioned phenomena, not just the self, and corresponds to the Mahayana idea of śunyata or emptiness: nothing possesses an unchanging self-nature.

The self can be compared to a whirlpool in the ocean.  A whirlpool is a distinctive feature of the ocean: it’s visible, tangible, and measurable.  It’s real.  It exists.  On the other hand, at any given moment the water that makes up the whirlpool is different from the water that comprised it a moment before, and from the water that will comprise it a moment later.  The whirlpool is a pattern that retains a discernible identity while it continues to exist.  At any given time, there is no separation between the whirlpool and the ocean.  It makes no sense to say that the whirlpool is “here” and the ocean is “there.”  Whirlpooling is a feature of the ocean.

It’s the same with the self.  The self exists as a pattern: a pattern of behavioral response. But that pattern is always in some degree of flux.  While I am always, in some sense, the same person, I am different now than I was at age three, and different from the way I will be at age eighty.  My intellectual capacity and memory will decline as I age.  My tastes and opinions may change as well.  While we are a relatively enduring pattern, we are also constantly changing: learning, developing, maturing, declining.  We also change depending on the situation we find ourselves in.  We behave differently at work, at home, in the bar, and in the zendo.

We are also inseparable from the world around us.  Our skin connects us to the world, rather than separating us from it.  It excretes, transpires, absorbs. We are constantly taking in the environment as we breathe, drink, eat, listen, watch, and feel.  We are constantly returning parts of ourselves to the environment as we sweat, excrete, exhale, and communicate.  Our body is constantly shifting state in response to the environment: its temperature, brightness, noisiness, novelty, and complexity.  Our minds are also inseparable from the world.  They are made up of memes [2] and schemas [3] learned from parents, teachers, peers, opinion makers, and the media, and through our interaction with the world.  We are like the whirlpool and the ocean: there is no place where we stop and the world begins.  This is our self: changing and interconnected.

Synchronic and Diachronic Self Obervation

In meditation we observe the present moment.  This is what can be called synchronic observation, as opposed to diachronic observation where we study phenomena over time. In any given moment or succession of moments we can observe a flux of sensations, sounds, smells, thoughts, images, memories, but no self.  Meditation reveals a world of sense objects and a process of knowing, but nothing solid we can call a self.  The Scottish empiricist philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776), came to the same conclusion as the Buddhist meditators about this:

“For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception….  I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.”

When we observe human behavior (including mental behavior) over longer periods of time, however, a different picture emerges.  We can observe regularities in thought and behavior that recur over time and across situations that are typical for a given individual, at least over a circumscribed time period of months and years.  These regularities are what we mean when we talk about personality, character, and the nature of self. [4]

Jeffrey Rubin discussed the difference between synchronic and diachronic views of the self in “Close Encounters of a New Kind: Toward an Integration of Psychoanalysis and Buddhism. [5] Rubin compared synchronic observation to looking through a microscope, and diachronic observation to looking through a telescope.  He argued that neither method provided what he called “immaculate perception:”

“The self (or anti/no-self) that they “discover” is intimately related to how they investigate it. The telescopic approach to self-experience employed by many psychoanalysts yields a substantial self shaped by a particular history. Examining self-experience microscopically as Buddhist meditation does, reveals the fluid and unfolding nature of identity, the way we are shaped anew, moment-by-moment.  We need a bifocal conception of self that realizes that the self is both a substantial, embodied, historical, agent as psychoanalysis suggests, that perceives, chooses, and acts, and a fluid, uncongealed process that is created afresh by changing states of consciousness in the present.  Each conception of self is useful in particular circumstances.”

Why is any of this important?  Thanissaro Bikkhu has argued that the Buddha’s intention in discussing anatta was not to make an ontological or metaphysical point about the existence of the self, but to make a soteriological point about how to relieve suffering. How then does a belief in a skin-encapsulated, isolated, unchanging self lead to suffering? Here’s one answer from a (slightly altered)  book chapter [6] I wrote a few years back:

“There are real existential and ethical consequences that flow from our erroneous view of selfhood.  On an existential level, the existence of this inner self separates us from the rest of creation; we believe we are different from stars, rocks, ferrets and daisies; we believe ourselves to be this free mental thing that stands outside of materiality and causality.  When we experience ourselves as a process that is one with the universe, however, our sense of existential loneliness and estrangement drops away. Our sense of existential estrangement underlies some of our most destructive behavior.  When we harm the environment or another being we feel we are harming something other than ourselves.  When we wake up to our existential continuity with Being, we realize that when we harm others we are harming ourselves….

We are always worrying about the status of this self as if it was a currency whose value was floating in a free market:  “What’s the value of my self at this moment?”   In contemporary free-market societies the self seems to fluctuate in value from moment to moment.  The resulting insecurity means we are always trying to enhance our value through the accumulation of wealth, power, and status, through the pursuit of perfection, through ceaseless defensiveness and self-promotion, and through the defeat and humiliation of our rivals.  The anxious self, worried about its own insufficiency, is at the root of most human cruelty….

There are also psychological consequences to our erroneous view of the self.  Our clinging to a separate, enduring self can become a false refuge from existential anxiety and can impede a genuine awakening to our human condition. We often hear exhortations from within the self-help community to “express ourselves,” “love ourselves,” “be our true selves,” and “discover ourselves.” These exhortations have genuine value when they encourage the undoing of habitual self-abnegation, self-hatred, or self-obliviousness. They become hindrances, however, when they encourage glorification of the self, or pursuit of the self as an end-goal in life…  The Buddha believed that trying to take refuge in insubstantial, transient, and ultimately unsatisfying things was the root cause of human suffering. The belief that “if only I had this I would be happy” is reborn in the human heart in each and every moment: “If only one had more money”, or “a better job,” or “a better partner,” or was “more beautiful,” or “talented,” or “healthier,” and so on, ad infinitum. This belief in psychological rescue and refuge in ultimately unsatisfying things leads us to waste our lives in their pursuit, or leads us to berate and hate ourselves for failing to obtain or be them.

The Buddha believed that if one clearly saw that the self for what it was, one would not cling to self, and that this would assist one in ending suffering…   One would not take pride, for example, in being intelligent, and use that personal characteristic as a way of feeling either existentially sufficient or superior to others.  Intelligence is not a static, fixed thing: we act intelligently one moment and stupidly the next. Intelligence is not permanent: at any moment it can be impaired by age, injury, or disease.  Intelligence is also not “ours;” we cannot take credit for it:  It is a function of our parents’ genes, adequate nutrition, gifted teachers, the inculcation of good study habits, and the knowledge passed on to us from past generations. So there is no reason to cling to it: it is something that is here due to previous causes and conditions and is ephemeral. It is the same with every trait that we take to be part of the self: our kindness, our beauty, our courage, our strength.  All of it is due to causes and conditions, and will vanish with changing causes and conditions; none of it is ours.  We can be happy it is here, but it can’t be our refuge.

Not that the self is all bad.  All human beings above a minimal level of intelligence develop a sense of self, regardless of culture.  It’s also clear that they do so at a very early age, although the sense of self continues to elaborate and develop across the life span.  The universality of the self suggests that we are biologically predisposed to develop one, and that this self must have important survival value for us as a species. This sense of self and agency are also deeply imbedded within language which has a semantic structure based on the distinctions between actor, action and object.  While some think that our sense of self grows out of the semantic structure of language, it seems more likely that a proto-self emerges prior to language acquisition, and that both the self and the semantic structure of language have similar roots in the structure of human experience given our biological makeup and our interaction with the world.

Some of the earliest roots of the self lie in mammalian behaviors such as territoriality, possession, and the social structure of the pack.  It’s easy to intuit the survival values of those behaviors and their role in natural selection.  It is also easy to tie identity formation to the welfare of the family and clan; identity is in part determined by the reflected appraisals and ascribed roles of family and clan, and in turn serves as a locus of social responsibility for parents and teachers as they enculturate the child.

The fact that we are biologically predisposed to view things in a certain way, and that it might be useful to do so for some purposes, doesn’t mean that it is the only, or even the most useful, way to view things.  We are biologically predisposed to see objects as solid, and it is in many ways useful to do so; but objects are mostly empty space, and viewing them as solid prevents us from making other kinds of use of the material world.  It looks to us as if the Earth is flat and that the sun moves around it; for most purposes that suits us well, but it is woefully inadequate for other purposes.  As our social and intellectual evolution progresses, and as our species continues to interlink across the globe and reach beyond it, and as we begin to alter our environment and genetic makeup in radical ways, and as we develop technologies that can lead to our own extinction, prior ways of seeing things may no longer serve us. In our ancestral world of open space and small competing clans with only limited powers of control and destruction, the old view of self and other may have been good enough.  Now, perhaps, a view of understanding what connects us, the unity of all things, a vision of inter-being, becomes imperative if we are to survive as a species.

One further problem with a false view of self is that it can prevent us from growing psychologically and spiritually.  We can mistakenly believe that our narratives about ourselves are our true indentity, and not see them for what they are: just stories. Often we can be hemmed in by inadequate narratives that preclude and hamper our ability to change.  If one sees onself as inferior, or deficient, or “an addict,” or a “mental patient,” or “a victim,” for example, one may buy into that definition.  If you are woefully deficient in some way, there is nothing you can do about it.  You just have to suck it up.  Personal growth requires us to let go of old stories and definitions and try on new identities.  The less intensely one clings to a particular identity, the greater the potential for growth and change.

The Buddha, in neither endorsing self nor not-self in response to Vacchagotta’s questions, came awfully close to the four-fold denials of Nagarjuna, the second century poet-yogi-philosopher.  We can always count on Nagarjuna to take things one step further, so it’s fitting to end this post with Nagarjuna’s take on self and not-self:

“It is said that “there is a self,” but “non-self” too is taught. The buddhas also teach there is nothing which is “neither self nor non-self….”   Everything is real, not real; both real and not real; neither not real nor real: this is the teaching of the Buddha.”  –Nagarjuna, Mulamadhyamikakarika (Stephen Batchelor trans.)

Everybody got it?

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  1. [1] Samyutta Nikaya 44.10, translation by Thanissaro Bikkhu
  2. [2] Minsky, M. (1988). The Society of Mind. Simon and Schuster: New York
  3. [3] Piaget, J. (1953). Origins of Intelligence in the Child, London: Routledge & Kegan
  4. [4] Over the centuries Buddhism itself came to recognize that the synchronic view of mental processes was insufficient, and the concept of the alaya-jijnana, or “storehouse conciousness,” developed to provide continuity over time.  See, for example, Waldron, W.S. (2003). The Buddhist Unconscious: The Alaya-Vijnana in the Context of Indian Buddhist Thought. Routledge: London.
  5. [5] Rubin, J. (2003). Close Encounters of a New Kind: Toward an Integration of Psychoanalysis and Buddhism.  In Segall, S. (2003). Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings. SUNY Press: Albany, NY.
  6. [6]On Being a Non-Buddhist Buddhist: A Dialogue With Myself in Segall, S. (2003). Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings. SUNY Press: Albany, NY.