November 02, 2009

The self exists, it's just not as real as you think.

If a basic principle in Buddhism is non-self (anatta), is it incompatible with psychotherapy, which seems to be all about finding and understanding the self? The question is a little misguided, and in an ABC News NOW segment Buddhist psychiatrist Mark Epstein explains why: The self exists, it's just not as real as you think it is. You can watch the interview here.

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david lee's picture

Maura mentioned a helpful insight. "our borders are fluid","to function in this world, however, we have to have enough of a sense of cohering and enduring". Thanks for the reminder.

It's funny, even noticing the self's illusory nature, intellectually, doesn't weaken it's demanding attitude much. Visceral, meditative skill helps tho'. Good ol' meta-cognition.

Wally's picture

The things I see, hear, etc, are not me. I did not create them. They just happen. Then there are the things I think. I didn't invent the language I speak.. etc it just happens in this head.

This body is made of the food eaten and genes bestowed etc.

Clearly see that none of it is actually 'me'. 'The 'me' is just a thought... going on in the same place as all the other thoughts..

so what is called 'I' is just an emergent phenomenon. The result of whole lot of other parts.

It is not rocket science... quite the opposite actually.

Dead simple....

....And, nothing more than a perspective.

davechuck's picture

He's quite right that the self IS "real", as an orienting mental construct. And it IS "real" as a meaningful data structure, which DOES indeed manage to coherently model the cause and effect world.

He's also quite right that the self is NOT "really real" since it's not an substantial object or substance, nor are is it's causes or it's resonating effects, bounded.

The self is a concept. An event that is intimately, intricately interconnected to the changing shape of the flowing universe.

To me, the greatest benefit of Buddhist teachings has been, without a doubt, learning to look at the world from an entirely fresh, selfless perspective. And to try on continually fresher and wider perspectives. Emphatically not to follow tradition or faith doctrines.

pk's picture

I am no scholar of Buddhism - however, it seems to me that making such statements as the byline does - will ultimately lead more to difficulty than ease.

This is further supported when I read each comment, wherein it seems different concepts are being referred to. The question 'Does the self exist?' can only be argued/answered after (if) we agree on what the "self" and "existence" means or refers to. And as such, it seems to me that the discussion here is simply - in capsule- what the intellectual history of Buddhism has, in part, been; an attempt to delimit the terms 'self' 'not-self' 'real' 'exist' etc.

So even the statement " self exists, not just as we think it does" - is problematic - as it depends on our agreement of what the term "exists" denotes and connotes- and whether we are making a metaphysical or epistemological statement.

Mujaku's picture

Aye Justin, anything is possible--but the wheels of academia move oh so slow where dogma is often prized more than innovation. Presently, I tend to veer towards the Mahayana, although I like the Pali. The Nikayas offer much food for thought which I enjoy. You also might enjoy this from I.B. Horner one of the past PTS Presidents.

“The self (in thee), man, knows what is true or false.
Surely the noble Witness, sir, the Self,
You do misjudge, in that when sin is there
You do conceal the Self within the self...
Thus he who has the Self
As master, let him walk with heed, for whom
The world is master—shrewdly walk, for whom
Dhamma is master (as a) muser (let him walk).
Who lives as Dhamma bids him never fails."
(Anguttara-Nikaya i.149, from I.B. Horner's Early Buddhist Theory of Man Perfected, p. 145)

Best regards...

Justin Whitaker's picture

hehe.. well, I think Collins may have reason for angst if Perez-Remon represents what you claim he does. I still can't find anything of substance on the chap, perhaps you could fill me in? I just find lots of stuff on his book and then your twitter account :) I did find a GD Bond review of his and Collins' books from 1983 in which he says from the beginning that ONLY Collins' book breaks new ground in the study of anatta and that, regarding Perez-Remon "Although the author has done an admirable job of citing and discussing all the relevant texts on this matter, his interpretation of these texts and his thesis concerning atta are neither compelling nor necessary."

Perhaps I've not heard of Perez-Remon because he has been summarily dismissed by most who have read his book? Ahh, but the review does let us know that the book was a dissertation for the University of Bombay and openly wonders if there isn't some neo-Vedantic influence in Perez-Remon's reading back into early Buddhism.

But... We can appeal to authorities as much as we want and nothing is proven. For now, until my Pali is much, much better, I have to trust my experience with the scholars I know and know to be active in the latest debates and developments in the field. Those early interpreters are owed a great debt by us all, but if their views are shown to be false, it's best to let go of those views. And yet life is a perpetual view-machine, so maybe in another 80 years Gombrich, Gethin, Collins, Bond, Rahula, Siderits, and others will be shown to be wrong and we'll see that Mrs Rhys-Davids and I.B. Horner had it right all along...

Mujaku's picture

I am sure our modern scholars (of course not all) would find fault with any Buddhist scholar who speaks favorably of the self in Buddhism, for example, Dr. Hajime Nakamura who wrote:

"Thus, in early Buddhism, they taught avoidance of a wrong comprehension of non-âtman as a step to the real âtman. Of things not to be identified with the self, the misunderstanding of body as âtman is especially strong opposed. Foolish people comprehend their body as their possession...Buddhists of early days called this mis-comprehension "the notion on account of the attachment to the existence of one's body" (sakkâyadi.t.thi) and taught the abandonment of it (Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples, 90-91).

What generally is ignored in this discussions is the Buddha's treatment of the five aggregates (i.e., the psycho-physical) and their relationship with "the self" (attâ/atmâ). And maybe here we can find what the Buddha means by "the self" which is fairly obvious: the self is not anyone of these aggregates or attributes. Having said this, we have to keep in mind that these same aggregates are fungible with Mara the Killer; they're also perishable and suffering. In other words, they are not something I would want to identify with as my self—would you?

Another point worth bringing up, there is no evidence in the Nikayas themselves that the Buddha was attacking atman. There is not a single discourse in the Nikayas where the Buddha has a conversation with someone professing to have realized the atman.

That you can't find anything on Perez-Remon is astonishing. Have you tried the Internet? I discovered Perez-Remon in an angst ridden book review Steven Collins did in Numen at my local theological library a few years ago.

Make that 2 PTS Presidents for me. I.B. Horner. [wink...wink]

Justin Whitaker's picture

Mujaku, I'd be wary of Mrs Rhys Davids work to some extent. Many current scholars of early Buddhism continue to find certain flaws in her understandings.

Rupert Gethin, one of my MA Dissertation graders, oh, and current President of the Pali Text Society (PTS), places the atta discussion exactly in the context of European idiom, citing Hume as a Western thinker coming near the Buddha's idea (p.135 of The Foundations of Buddhism, on No Self). Then there's the monk, Ven Walpola Rahula, who likewise states, "According to Buddhism, our ideas of God and Soul [his translation of atta] are false and empty." (p.52 of What the Buddha Taught). Mark Siderits in Buddhism as Philosophy follows a similar line, closely reading the Milindapanha. Oh yes, and much of my current thinking comes straight from Gombrich's What the Buddha Taught (p.63 he says that the "Pali atta, like Sanskrit atman, is the reflexive pronoun" thus translating it as myself, yourself, etc.). PS, Gombrich is a former President of the PTS; that puts me at 2 PTS Presidents to your 1. ;)

And I can't find anything on this Perez-Remon fellow, where he studied, where he taught/teaches? What other books or articles he's written? It could be one of those slightly odd-ball books that we all should be wary of (there are plenty of those strewn across the highways of Buddhist academia).

There is a website out there with a Mahayana-Parinirvana Sutra in which the Buddha allegedly clearly claims there IS a Self. But these days I'll stick with the Theravada/Pali stuff for the basics... If someone digs up a Mahayana sutra or a Tibetan gter ma that claims that the historical Buddha never existed or that there is no samsara, I'll pretty much ignore that (or shelve it as an interesting oddity) as well.

Andrew G.'s picture

I have a very limited scholarly/philosophical background in Buddhism. However, I think Dr. Epstein's example of the glass existing yet already being broken is an excellent metaphor for the self. I mean, on some level I am existing right now as I type this, but just as surely as I exist I also do not. I am not existing eternally, but only momentarily, briefly, like a dissipating vapor.

Mujaku's picture

Mrs. C.A.F. Rhys Davids (1857–1942), an English Pāli language scholar & translator, not to mention the co-founder of the Pali Text Society, was no huge fan of the theory that Pali uses a possessive pronoun with the reflexive pronoun. She, in fact, wrote:

“The 'for the self' is, save by me, translated 'for yourselves'. The original is attânam, the accusative singular of attâ. And translators have sought to head off the question into one of Christian sentiment. We are here up against the difficulty of equating Indian with European idiom. The former uses no possessive pronoun with the reflexive pronoun. 'My-self' and the rest is never anything more than attâ – just that – in any 'oblique' case, genitive, &c. (The use of self in the plural was only a later usage.) 'Yourselves' is then wrong. We give it nowadays a 'less' in meaning, in that we have come, in our world and our day, to see in 'self' a less than we are or should be, i.e., an egoistic person. But in early India this less-in-self is unknown. Ignorant Buddhist to-day uphold the 'no-self' doctrine, largely because they see in self, 'selfishness'. Historically they are utterly wrong."(What Was the Original Gospel in ‘Buddhism’, p. 36–37).

I realize that some sects of Buddhism need to make the case that the Buddha denied the self but he never did as Joaquin Perez-Remon more than proves in his book, Self and Non-self in Early Pali Buddhism (an abridged dissertation).

Kevin's picture

Very interesting. I think Buddhism and psychotherapy are completely compatible, personally. Dr Scott Peck wrote a book called The Road Less Traveled and, while being a "self-help" book, it's modeled heavily after the Buddhist concept of the Four Noble Truths. The first lines of the book is "Life is difficult." Dr Peck wrote the book when he was a practicing Zen Buddhist and you can really tell as you read the book.

It's funny -- as a westerner, I can see how initially Buddhism appears to a society that is completely self-centered (sorry, bad pun intended). But I agree -- the self isn't something to annihilate. Conceptually, yes, you need to break down your perceptions of the self. But it's only to see what is truly there... not lose yourself... or your self... but rather to see what you are without the trappings of self- and societal expectations.

Justin Whitaker's picture

I figure I've written enough (perhaps too much!) here, so I've tossed up a post at my blog,

Justin Whitaker's picture

On second thought, yes, the Buddha does make wide use of the term atta as a reflexive pronoun: "nowhere is found one who is dearer than [one]self; in this way for others too the self is dear. Thus one should not harm others who loves [him/her]self." (Nevajjhagā piyataramattanā kvaci; Evaṃ piyo puthu attā paresaṃ, Tasmā na hiṃse paramattakāmo’’ti.) fom the Mallika sutta in SN I,3. But this should be read as making an ethical point rather than a metaphysical one: you [think] you have a self, and it is dear to you; this is also true of others, so develop metta/lovingkindness for all (as you do yourself).

In this way the Buddha uses the term in a practical or conventional manner. When speaking of the true nature of things, though, the above quoted sabbe dhamma anatta, along with anatta as one of the "Marks of Existence" should suggest clearly his teaching of no-self. This is as much of a categorical denial as I can think of. He doesn't deny the existence of the self to the wayward Brahmin (whose name escapes me at the moment) precisely because FOR HIM (this confused Brahmin) it would lead to a belief in annihilationism. So in that instance we have the Buddha's silence.

As for the necessary fiction of self; yes it probably is needed at some level, but at the point of awakening we are said to finally(!) let go of the "asmi mana" the conceit or mania of I AM. I suppose as long as we have the conceit of self, it's useful to act accordingly :)

Jamie G.'s picture

I'm glad Mujaku piped up... I love his blog!!!

Maura's picture

The interview clip was very interesting--I didn't catch the name of the interviewer, but he was well-prepared and asked good, key questions. My understanding is that the usual sense of self that we build up in the course of our lives often doesn't take into account the facts that we are totally interdependent with other beings of all sorts (our borders are fluid), and that we change from millisecond to millisecond. To function in this world, however, we have to have enough of sense of cohering and enduring (an example, if I'm not mistaken, of what Freud called a necessary fiction).

James Shaheen's picture

Many thanks for your comments!

It might be better to say--and Mark Epstein does--that the self is not what we think it is. It is often mistaken to be a permanent and unchanging essence (an eternal soul, for instance), an idea the Buddha refutes. Just try finding it. If seen as a navigational device or an organizing principle, though, the self--or ego, as the psychotherapists have it--doesn't contradict the Buddha's view. The self is dynamic and dependent upon ever-shifting conditions.

As for anatta: It is a fundamental Buddhist conceit; I wouldn't know how else to describe its role in Buddhist philosophy, and it is in good part what is revolutionary about the Buddha's teachings. True, the Buddha never categorically denies the existence of self; many people think he did, though, which is part of the point I was making.

Mujaku's picture

I would be very hesitant to say the basic principle in Buddhism is non-self (anatta/anatma). Certainly, if we go by poll numbers, many Buddhists believe the basic principle is non-self. But when we look to the Pali canon itself or the Mahayana canon the Buddha never categorically denies the self. Especially in the Pali canon, what appears to be the basic principle is the five aggregates (khandhas) cannot be our real self. Moreover, the Buddha says of each aggregate, "This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self." Such a statement on the part of the Buddha cannot be construed as a denial of self. Instead, he is denying that the aggregates are his self (they, in fact, belong to Mara the Evil One). Before the Buddha dies he goes so far as to say the self and the dhamma are to be our island and refuge!

Justin Whitaker's picture

Hmmm... Is that like saying a creator God exists, it's just not as real as you think? Sounds fishy. Perhaps skillful, but fishy nonetheless.

Sabbe dhamma anatta, all phenomena are not-self. Even nibbana is anatta. And all of samsara is associated with the 5 khandhas, which are the basis for all other dhammas. Where then, lies the self in Buddhism? (hint, next to unicorns and the creator God).