Filed in History

Investigating the Buddha's World

Buddhist scholar and author John Peacocke talks with Tricycle about what we can learn by taking a close look at the language and philosophies of the Buddha’s time.

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It’s like asking if there a God or not. It leads you into the same essentialist trap. It does. By asking what is the nature of anything, you’re going to end up an essentialist if you answer the question. I make a comparison to Socrates in ancient Greek society. Socrates asks, “What is the good?” or “What is justice?” You might answer with an example, and Socrates will reply, “You’ve just given me an example. You haven’t told me what it is, what makes this example of the good or of justice good or just.

So Socrates, too, in the same way, is asking for essence.
Yes, and because he is ethically inclined, he asks, what is the good? Plato then takes it further, to the metaphysical: The essence of the good exists in the realm of the ideal, the realm of forms. The rest, the world of phenomena, is simply an imitation of the real thing, the essential thing that abides in an unchanging metaphysical reality.

© David Crowley

What is the Buddhist answer to metaphysical inquiry, then? The Buddha’s method is a phenomenological one. How does something appear, how does this thing that we call the self operate? He’s not asking, Is there a self or is there not a self? One possible answer is deterministic and eternalistic, and the other, nihilistic. So the Buddha is asking not so much what as how.

I should add that I feel “not-self”—anatta—is actually a much-misunderstood teaching. The Buddha is not saying that there is no self, which is an idea that I think in a Western context can be extremely dangerous.

Why? Because it’s nihilistic. The Buddha himself says it’s better to teach self than to teach annihilationism; given the choice, it’s better to teach that there is something because this leads at least to some kind of ethical responsibility. I think in our Western culture sometimes people have a very fragile notion of what the self is anyway, so to come along and tell them there’s no self could very destructive.

So from a phenomenological point of view, an early Buddhist point of view, how would “not self”—the term you prefer—be distinguished from “no-self”? It’s basically a question of the phenomenon that we are labeling “self.” What we can ask is: How does it operate? How does it work? The most primary analysis anyone gives in Buddhism is to describe the self in terms of the five khandhas—the “heaps,” or “aggregates,” in Pali—the components of self. Each heap, or aggregate, is a process—that is, it is not fixed but is changing. In order for self to arise, it must include form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. It is upon these five processes that the label of self is affixed. To take a couple of examples: Form, which includes all of the physical processes of the individual, is not-self because it is not under our control. Likewise, perception, which includes all our faculties of discrimination, together with the capacity of memory, is also not-self. This is because memory is extremely partial, in that we may remember events from many years ago but not recall what we did yesterday. With the onset of degenerative brain disease, our capacity to remember becomes severely impaired, with the result that we may even forget who we are! Similar arguments apply to the other khandhas. The self, therefore, according to this view, exists as a set of interrelated processes rather than as an unchanging thing; so rather than try to find an essence, the Buddha chooses to simply describe a phenomenon, avoiding the essentialist trap.

The Buddha describes the self as a composite of the khandhas; how does he describe the world of which that self is a part? Our everyday world of suffering—samsara—is described in terms of the mechanism that drives it: dependent origination (paticcasamuppada, in Pali), which is depicted most commonly as the Wheel of Life.

How was this different from prevailing ideas of the Buddha’s day? Well, take the Upanishads. Basically, the Buddha’s hijacking the language again. Ultimately, they all come down to the idea that really everything is dependent on something that’s outside of time and space: brahman. This direction of thought later becomes Advaita Vedanta—the nondual school. Advaita is basically an interpretation of the Upanishads offered by the Hindu thinker Shankara. In his view, brahman and atman are essentially the same thing—the term advaita literally means “not-two.” The pluralistic world offered up to perception, according to Shankara, is ultimately an illusion (maya). Only one thing really exists, and that is brahman; and brahman cannot depend on anything else for existence and also cannot change. But for the Buddha, there is nothing that arises ex nihilo, out of nothing. Everything arises out of previous causes and conditions, and the mechanism for this is dependent origination: out of this, that arises. This ceasing, that ceases. You’ve got this complex sense of, again, phenomenology, which is, the Buddha explained, our world with its predominant feeling tone: dukkha, suffering. However, dukkha also arises out of causes and conditions, and with the discernment of the causes and their elimination, dukkha will cease. And that is Buddhism’s fundamental psychological element.

You’ve suggested in some of your lectures that there is a strong resistance to Buddhist teachings of not-self even within the Buddhist traditions themselves, that there is sometimes an irresistible temptation to essentialize phenomena. Or, as you might say, to “self.” Where do you see this impulse within Buddhism? I see it in the formation of certain Mahayana ideas, particularly later ideas, when, for example, Buddhism arrives in China, and in Tibet. In some cases I see them almost smuggling the atman in through the back door somehow. For example, if you talk about Cittamatra philosophy, then you’re talking about the alaya vijnana, or “store of consciousness.” In some interpretations this sounds very much like a self. When you talk about, say, rigpa, the notion of pristine awareness—awareness without an object, the only true knower—it sounds very much like Advaita, which defines brahman as pure consciousness and the only knower.

Might this appear already in the Theravada tradition, this tendency? I think there can be a tendency in the Theravada to make things more orthodox, of making Buddhism much more doctrinal. This takes the form of a certain literalism about the teachings, the interpretation of metaphors in a literal manner, for example. Certain ideas get solidified, as can happen with an idea like rebirth.

What do you mean by “get solidified”? What is the danger of taking the teachings literally? I’m inclined to wonder how, in a Western context, we can make the best pragmatic use of the Buddha’s ideas, understanding them as something more than a doctrinal staple. According to many, for instance, you have to believe in rebirth to be a Buddhist. But there’s a tension here: Buddha exhorts us to investigate, yet rebirth is quite clearly something we can’t investigate. So what might it mean outside of its literal truth? How might we apply the ideas in a practical and meaningful way that makes our lives better and helps us to see things more clearly as they are? It is this practical dimension, based on both a historical and a phenomenological approach to the teachings, that I bring to my dharma teaching. This approach does not mean ignoring what the traditions say; it means examining what they have to say in the light of a close reading of the texts. We have to remember that the historical forms of Buddhism have all become “traditions,” and that these traditions, with their viewpoints, have often gone unquestioned. Such unquestioning acceptance seems to me diminish the challenging nature and dynamism of the Buddha’s teaching.

Images: © David Crowley

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Dr. Goulet's picture

It never occurred to me that Brahmins never referred to ethics in any way. It still makes sense that they would strive for excellence in their rituals for their karma to benefit, but what about life outside rituals? I've never thought about that. I wonder if they considered every action a ritual. Is that a possibility?

Dr. Robert Goulet