The Self

A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

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9. Behold the Self


1.     Awareness of Self

The philosophical idea of Monism is of utility to meditation. When the philosopher proposes that matter, mind and spirit must eventually be One, he/she does so because this theory seems like a logical conclusion from all the data of experience and thought. But for someone engaged in meditation, this idea has a more practical intent: it informs him/her that all common distinctions are ultimately unnecessary to meditation, even artificial impediments to it, since they disturb the natural rest of the psyche, i.e. they are psychologically pointless and fatiguing.

In truth, it is more accurate to say that the distinction between soul and mind-and-body is at first psychologically valuable, too, in that it allows us to focus on the non-phenomenal soul alone, while regarding the phenomena of body and mind as mere distractions relative to that object of meditation. Once this level has been mastered, and we become adept at strongly intuiting the self in the midst of mind-body events, it becomes wise to transcend all such separation, and view self-awareness as a distraction, too.

We may distinguish four senses or levels or types of “self-awareness” in the course of spiritual development:

  1. The lowest form of self-awareness is that of the narcissist. Here one focuses on aspects of one’s body and mind, of one’s life and history, etc., that are either pleasing or displeasing, confusing this “ego” construct with one’s self. This is a sort of egotistic and egoistic indulgence devoid of reflection, an unconscious and unintelligent existence.
  2. At a higher level of self-awareness, one begins to look upon the preceding level with some degree of criticality. Here, one realizes that one’s behavior thus far has been stupid and unseemly, and one makes some effort to improve and correct it. This is a start of spiritual consciousness, tending towards a more wholesome understanding of who one is.
  3. In a later stage, one realizes the distinction between: the non-phenomenal soul on the one hand, and the phenomenal body-mind complex on the other. As this realization develops, and one dissociates oneself more and more from the body and mind, and one associates oneself progressively more with the soul – one’s value system and behavior patterns are radically changed.
  4. But even the latter evolution is not final, because the soul one identifies with there is the individuated soul, whereas one has to eventually realize the universal soul; or, as some prefer to put it, the non-soul (i.e. non-individual soul). Although the individual soul is already realized to be non-phenomenal, it is still restrictive in scope; only when such limits are transcended, one attains true self-awareness.

For monotheists, this last stage corresponds to full consciousness of God; for Buddhists, it signifies enlightenment, realizing the Buddha-mind or emptiness. Thus, meditation proceeds by broadening and internalizing consciousness, tending gradually towards a holistic consciousness and a deep understanding of self.

The problem of identifying with one’s real self could be viewed as a linguistic problem, to some extent. When you feel pangs of hunger, do not think “I am hungry” but think “my body is emitting pangs of hunger”; or when you feel some emotion, do not think “I am sad (or happy)” but “my mind is manifesting waves of sadness (or happiness)”. Likewise, in similar circumstances – use language with precision, or at least be peripherally aware of the more accurate description of experience. Avoid bad habits, and do not confuse linguistic shortcuts with phenomenological formulations.


2.     Meditation on the Self

Why (as is evident in the course of meditation) are inner and outer silence and stillness so difficult to attain? Because through our imagining visual or auditory phenomena (e.g. daydreaming or humming a tune), or indulging in emotions (such as joy and sadness, or physical feelings), or intending non-phenomenal thoughts (including attitudes, resolutions, likes and dislikes, and other postures of the will), or thinking verbal thoughts (mentally or out loud), or engaging in various bodily actions (in pursuit of sensations or other causes of mental events) – we are constantly producing mind.

This compulsive production of mental content could be considered as the main way we generate and perpetuate our ego (or false self). Without such mental furniture, the ego effectively disappears, leaving behind a gaping hole. That is, to even momentarily stop such mental production, achieving silence and stillness, is to come in contact with the underlying true self[1] sought in meditation.

All our inner and outer babbling and restlessness is, in this perspective, just a pretext to obtain and maintain the (illusory) comfort and security of having a more substantial ‘self’. The insubstantiality and elusiveness of the true self seems somewhat frightening to us, and so we work hard trying to produce a more substantial and manifest expression or substitute.

Meditation on the (true) self is daring to venture out into the empty internal space of egolessness. It is the adventure of inner space travel, more daunting perhaps than outer space travel.

Rather than dismiss the self on ideological grounds (as some people do, wishing to seem profound or fashionable), it is important to meditate on the self. This meditation consists in observing how we actually regard our self.

The sense of ‘I’ or ‘me’ is perhaps first of all physiological – consisting of the inner and outer sensations I have of ‘my’ body, including touch sensations, smells, tastes, sounds and sights. At first, I naïvely associate myself fully with these sensations. I do not regard them as objects relative to some more central self; they simply are me. I cannot at first conceive of me as someone other than the person associated with this body, this face, this voice, this way of moving, and so on. It is only at a later stage, by means of intellectual reflection, that I can reject that instinctive view as inadequate. I may for instance argue that a person can lose an arm or leg, yet still remain the same person.

I may then look for my self within more psychological aspects of my experience. Most of us attach great importance to our emotions and valuations; they feel like true expressions of our deeper self. Our desires and fears, our joys and anger, and so on, all seem to intimately describe us. Yet, as we go through life, we may realize that all such self-expressions are not indispensable; we may change emotions, appetites and affections, yet still consider we are the same person somehow.

We may then seek to identify more precisely with our cognitions and volitions. By cognition, is meant the relation we have to apparent objects, whatever their status or nature seem. By volition, is meant the force through which we seem to determine physical actions (moving arms and legs, making facial expressions, etc.) and mental actions (imaginations, thoughts, valuations). But even here, if we reflect philosophically, we soon realize that although such acts may be expressions of some deeper self, they cannot be equated to it, because they noticeably vary in orientation and content.

The effective self must therefore be something more ‘abstract’. But this abstraction cannot be in the way of a concept, for a concept would not suffice to explain how I know myself to be the author of particular actions at a given time – a concept can only declare me the occasional author of kinds of actions. Therefore this abstraction must be assumed and recognized to be something non-phenomenal that is directly experienced. Hence, the idea of apperception or intuition of self.

Once this idea is philosophically understood, as here explained, one can with an effort of attention, become more conscious of one’s actual intuitions of self. These intuitions are generally present in everyday consciousness, but being very fine they require particular attentiveness. The most effective way to learn to notice the precise focus of self is in the course of sitting meditation, when one is maximally calm and contemplative.

Note well here: our knowledge of the self is direct and experiential; philosophical analysis only serves to eliminate inappropriate or incoherent views about the self, which interfere with our positive intuition of it. We intellectually disown what cannot logically be the self, so as to open the door to refined discernment of the self.

Thereafter, meditating on the self more precisely, one will at first identify it as the Subject of cognitions and the Agent of volitions (including valuations); this is an individual self. At a higher or deeper stage, if one perseveres in meditation and other virtues, one may realize and get to contemplate the universal self (or so we are taught by many traditions).

On the basis of the preceding insights, I would recommend the following as an effective meditation on the self[2]:

Turn your gaze on yourself; with eyes open, with eyes closed.

Anything phenomenal you see, hear, sense or feel is not you.

Think, without words: “this is not me”; move on from it.

What is left? Look for yourself. Do you find anything?

This meditation could be characterized as a ‘method of the residue’. It consists in eliminating from consideration sensory or mental experiences that cannot rightly be identified with the self (since it is non-phenomenal); we are then left only with the intuitive experience of it. Practice of this technique increases one’s sensitivity to apperception, teaching us to be aware of something always present in us to which we usually pay little attention because we are blinded to it by the more noticeable phenomenal percepts.


3.     Behold the Mind

Judging by a collection of essays attributed to Bodhidharma[3], the latter’s teaching of Zen meditation was quite introverted. He keeps stressing the futility of physical acts and rituals, and stresses the necessity of “beholding the mind”, to achieve enlightenment/liberation. This message is repeated throughout the volume in various words. For instance:

Responding, perceiving, arching your eyebrows, blinking your eyes, moving your hands and feet, it’s all your miraculously aware nature. And this nature is the mind. And the mind is the buddha… Someone who sees his own nature finds the Way… is a buddha.” (P. 29.)

The implication here is that buddhahood (ultimate realization) is not something far away, like the peak of a high mountain difficult to climb. It is something close by, attainable by a mere change of outlook. That is, the separation between samsara and nirvana is paper-thin: on one side, you are in samsara, and on the other, in nirvana. In his words:

Seeing through the mundane and witnessing the sublime is less than an eye-blink away. Realization is now. (P. 113.)

The transition is not to be achieved by elaborate external deeds, but by acute attentiveness. Thus, he states:

People who seek blessings by concentrating on external works instead of internal cultivation are attempting the impossible. (P. 95.)

Even so, in view of the ambiguity of the word “mind” the advice to behold the mind remains somewhat difficult to understand precisely. For “mind” (to my mind) in the largest sense includes every aspect of the psyche:

  1. The real self (or soul or spirit), which stands as Subject of all acts of consciousness (i.e. awareness of any sort) and the Agent of all acts of volition (will) and valuation (valuing or disvaluing anything). This ‘entity’ is without phenomenal characteristics (“empty” in Buddhist parlance), and so intuited (apperceived) rather than perceived, note well.
  2. The faculties or inner acts of that self – viz. consciousness, volition and valuation. These intentional expressions of the real self are also in themselves devoid of any phenomenal aspects, and so intuited rather than perceived. Here, we must carefully distinguish between the fact (or relation) of consciousness and the content (or object) of consciousness[4], as well as distinguish the Subject who is conscious from the particular act of consciousness. And similar distinctions apply to volition and valuation.
  3. The illusory self (or ego), a collection of body and mind phenomena that the real self habitually delusively (at least partly delusively) identifies with itself. This composite ‘entity’ includes a multiplicity of changing mental phenomena (i.e. mental projections, memories, imaginations, concepts, verbal descriptions, emotions) and physical phenomena (sensations, sense-perceptions, physical feelings), and is ordinarily confused with the real self. The ego is constantly crystallizing in our mental outlook, if we do not work hard to oppose this seemingly natural tendency[5].
  4. The physical infrastructure of the psyche and its workings; i.e. the nervous system, including the brain, spine and nerves, the physiological characteristics of humans that are involved in sensory, motor and emotive functions. This is one sense or aspect of the term “mind” as colloquially used; it is sometimes the intent of the more specific term “unconscious mind”. It is appropriate to refer to these physical structures and events as pertaining to the mind, insofar as they apparently constitute the interface between the material and the mental and spiritual domains; the mind is supported and fed by them and acts on the body and the world beyond it through them.

Note the difference between the last two of these factors of the psyche. The third refers to inner phenomena, a private subjective self-perception (which thereafter may have social ramifications), whereas the fourth refers to objective phenomena (knowable only from the outside, even for the body’s owner).[6]

Now, when he recommends our “beholding the mind” Bodhidharma is obviously not referring to the third aspect of the psyche, the perceived (phenomenal) aspect; the ego is (rightly) the bête noire of the Buddhist.

He does sometimes seem to be referring to the fourth aspect of mind, the mystery of the mind’s wordless power over the body; for instance, when he states that no deluded person “understands the movement of his own hands and feet,” or more explicitly put:

…every movement or state is all your mind. At every moment, where language can’t go, that’s your mind[7].

But mostly, Bodhidharma seems to be referring to either the first or to the second of the above-listed factors – i.e. to the intuited (non-phenomenal) aspects of the psyche.

If you can simply concentrate your mind’s inner light and behold its outer illumination, you’ll dispel the three poisons and drive away the six thieves once and for all. And without effort you’ll gain possession of an infinite number of virtues, perfections and doors to the truth. (P. 113.)

Sometimes, his emphasis seems to be on the real self; as when he writes: “No karma can restrain this real body” (p. 21), “Awaken to your original body and mind” (p. 31); “Your real body has no sensation, etc.” (p. 39), or further (emphasizing the non-phenomenal nature of the real self):

The buddha is your real body, your original mind. This mind has no form or characteristics, no cause or effect, no tendons or bones… But this mind isn’t outside the material body… Without this mind we can’t move. The body has no awareness. (P. 43.)

Sometimes, it seems to be on the acts of consciousness, and the related acts of volition and valuation, of that real self; for example:

Language and behavior, perception and conception are all functions of the moving mind. All motion is the mind’s motion. Motion is its function… Even so, the mind neither moves nor functions, because the essence of its functioning is emptiness and emptiness is essentially motionless. (Pp. 43-44.)

All this gives me the idea of a meditation consisting of ‘awareness of awareness’. In this meditation, one focuses on the one who is aware (oneself) and/or on the fact of awareness (as distinct from its content). Whatever material or mental[8] phenomenal objects come to our attention, we simply ignore them and rather pay attention to our being conscious of them. The objects come and go during the meditation, but the Subject and consciousness endure and are focused on persistently.

It may be suggested that the emphasis ought to be on the awareness rather than on the one aware, for there is a danger in the latter case that one may get fixated on an ego representation of self rather than on the real self. Moreover, my experience is that meditative insight seems to hit a peak when the impression of self seems to disappear; one seems to face the surrounding world unburdened by an extraneous presence. Thus, even if the self is not really absent (since it is being conscious), it is best to behave as if it does not exist. For this reason, we should describe this exercise more narrowly as meditation on awareness.

Be mindful of the miracle of your being aware, or of your awareness as such, whether directed outward or inward. Bodhidharma says: “Buddha is Sanskrit for what you call aware, miraculously aware[9]. The sense of wonder when observing consciousness is, he clearly suggests, essential to enlightenment[10]. Cultivate this wonderment. Don’t take consciousness for granted, making it invisible to itself. Realize the marvel that one thing (you) can see another (whatever you look at, including yourself). Wow! How can such a thing be?

At first, such meditation requires effort; but one can eventually reach an effortless level of concentration that may be characterized as contemplation. Note well that the true object of such meditation on awareness itself is not phenomenal – it has no visual or auditory or tactile or gustatory or olfactory qualities. It is truly spiritual and purely immaterial, and is for this reason likened to a transparent empty space.

Of course, it is not much use to take note of one’s awareness just momentarily; one has to persevere in that effort for some time. At the same time, one should beware of making this a “gaining idea”[11], i.e. of letting such effort become a distraction in itself. One cannot grab hold of results in meditation, but must proceed gently, with some detachment.

I have personally tried such meditation on awareness repeatedly lately, and it seems to be an effective way to discard passing perceptions, fancies and thoughts, and attain a more dilated and contemplative state of mind. Although I cannot yet claim to have had the lofty experience of beholding the mind that Bodhidharma recounts, I have found it worthwhile.


4.     The Buddhist No-Soul Theory

One of the major and distinctive theses of Buddhism is the theory of “no-soul” – (or anatta in Pali, anatman in Sanskrit). This is part of a larger thesis that nothing has a real essence, the individual soul or self being here conceived as a special case of the concept of essence, i.e. as the essence of a person.

The Buddhist no essences doctrine arose in reaction to a thesis, labeled “Eternalism”, which was apparently normative in Indian philosophy at the time, that ‘things’ consist of eternal, unchanging ‘essences’, substantial and causally independent entities. Similarly, with regard to the special case of souls.

The Buddhist no essences doctrine was based on the assumption that the belief in such “essences”, including in particular the belief in souls (as the essences of our bodily and mental existences), is the root cause of our imprisonment in samsara (i.e. our fundamental ignorance and suffering), so that its abandonment would put us in nirvana (i.e. enlighten and liberate us).

There has been a theory very similar to Eternalism in Western philosophy, namely the “Monadology” of Gottfried Liebniz. This was of course an extremist ontological idea, due to a simplistic reading of predication as stating that the predicate is literally “contained in” the subject. That is, that whatever is predicable of anything must be “part of its nature”, and therefore inextricably intrinsic and peculiar to it – so that the world is composed of a multiplicity of eternal substances each of which is an island onto itself.

Opposite such inaccurate philosophy, the Buddhist counter-theory would indeed prima facie appear to be a laudable improvement. But, I submit, the Eternalist theory serves Buddhism as a convenient philosophical ‘red herring’. It is surely not the commonsense or scientific worldview (which are effectively ignored by Buddhism); and the Buddhist rebuttal constitutes another extremist position (in the opposite direction), which altogether denies the reality of any essences by allegedly reducing everything in the world to an infinite crisscross of mutual dependencies (the co-dependence or interdependence theory).

Although Buddhists would protest that their thesis is not the opposite extreme, viz. Nihilism, but a middle way between those two extremes, it is hard to see how we might reasonably not judge it as an extreme view. It is true that there are two, nay three, Buddhist positions in this context. One, attributed to the Theravada branch, of ultimately a total void (extinction in meditation); another, attributed to the mainstream Mahayana branch, of an ultimate original ground (an underlying universal spiritual substance of sorts, albeit one piously declared ‘void’ or ‘empty’); and a third, claimed by Zen adepts, of neither this nor that, i.e. fence-sitting between the previous two positions (hence, more ‘middle way’ than them).

Of these three, the said mainstream Mahayana option would seem the least Nihilistic, in that it admits of some sort of real existence – viz. the existence of the “original ground”. Logically, however, this Monist thesis (to which I personally tend to adhere) should logically be classed as an Eternalist philosophy of sorts, since the original ground is beyond impermanence. Impermanent appearances continuously bubble forth from it, but it is everywhere and ever one and the same calm fullness. Thus, the other two Buddhist theses, which are more clearly anti-Eternalist, can reasonably be viewed as Nihilist rather than middle way.

The commonsense view (to which most of us adhere, consciously or not) is rather noncommittal on such issues. It is truly a middle way, without prejudice. It does not draw any such general conclusions offhand. It neither reduces everything to independent substances nor reduces everything to mutually dependent non-substances, but remains open to there being perhaps a bit of both these extreme scenarios present in the real world, and other options besides. At a more scientific level, this common view becomes the “laws of nature” approach – the idea that there are various degrees of being and forms of dependencies, which (in the physical domain, at least, and possibly in the mental domain to some extent) are best expressed through quantitative formulas.

In such ordinary viewpoint, there seems to be some concrete ‘substance(s)’ in the world, but not everything is reducible to this concept. Furthermore, substantial things need not be individually permanent, but change is possible from one form to another. However, Physics does assume as one of its basic premises a law of conservation of matter and energy – i.e. that the total quantity of physical substance is constant. Moreover, that which is impermanent lasts for a while. Things that exist must exist for some time (some more, some less) – they cannot logically be so impermanent as to “exist” for no time at all.

Anyway, the concept of essence is certainly not, in our commonplace view, equated to that of substance. Essences are rarely substances, but usually structures or processes that seem to be generally and exclusively present in the phenomena at hand, and so are used to define them. Essences are usually abstractions, i.e. rational insights or concepts, rather than concrete percepts or objects of perception. Abstraction claims validity of insight without claiming to be literally within reality; though it depends on a Subject to occur, it in principle correctly interprets the Object. One cannot deny abstraction as such without resorting to abstractions – so such a skeptical position would be logically untenable.

In the Buddhist view, in contradistinction, the apparent or alleged essences of things are conventional, or even purely nominal, and souls are no exceptions to this rule. By “conventional” (and all the more so by “nominal”) is here meant that we, the people who believe in essences or souls, project this idea onto reality, whereas reality has in fact no such thing in it. In Buddhist epistemology, people ordinarily use their mind conventionally (or under the bad influence of words) in this manner, projecting onto reality things that are absent in it.

How (we may ask) do we know that reality is not as it appears to the ordinary mind? We know this, according to this theory, through enlightened consciousness. Thus, Buddhist epistemology, while invalidating ordinary consciousness, affirms the optimistic idea that we can transcend it and see things as they are. This can, incidentally, be compared and contrasted to Kantian epistemology, which likewise claims our phenomenal knowledge to be imperfect, but distinctively puts the perfection of ‘noumenal’ knowledge beyond our reach. While this theory of Immanuel Kant’s is inconsistent with itself, the Buddhist theory is not so in that respect.

Still, note well the difference between ordinary ‘abstractionism’ and Buddhist conventionalism or nominalism. For the Buddhists, as in Kant, our minds invent abstractions without any objective support; whereas in ordinary rational epistemology, abstraction is an act of rational insight – i.e. it does record something objective, which is not a pure figment of the imagination.

In addition to the said epistemological explanation or rationalization of its no-soul thesis, Buddhist philosophers propose various ontological claims and arguments. According to them, all things, including apparent souls, lack essence, because they are impermanent and discontinuous. They say this can be readily observed, and that in any case it can be logically argued – as well as being evident to anyone who is enlightened.

With regard to observation, they claim (much like David Hume later) to have looked for a soul everywhere within themselves and never found one. The soul is therefore (to them) an illusion of conventionally minded people – who are deluded by their ego (bodily and mental appearances of selfhood) into believing that there is something (i.e. someone) at the center of all their experience and thought.

But we must note that this is of course not a pure observation of an absence of soul, but a generalization from a number of failures to positively observe a soul. The generalization of negation could be right, but it does not have quite the same epistemological status as a positive observation. There is nothing empirically or logically necessary about the no-soul claim. At least, not from the point of view of an unenlightened person; and it is hard to see how an enlightened person could avoid equal reliance on generalization.

Moreover, we can fault their inference and larger argument by pointing out that it is absurd to look for the soul in the phenomenal realm (i.e. with reference to perceived sensible qualities, like sights, sounds, odors, savors, tactile feelings, whether mental or physical), if the soul happens to be a non-phenomenal entity (something intuited, which has in itself no phenomenal aspects).

It is worth additionally clarifying that, though our soul is a non-material, spiritual substance at the center of a multitude of mental and physical phenomena, it is not their “essence” or defining character. Our soul is “us”, our self – the subject of our cognitions and agent of our volitions and valuations. It is an intellectual error to try and identify us with things that are only associated with us. We are not one with or part of our minds and/or bodies, but something beyond them, though in their midst, cognizing and interacting with them in various ways.

With regard to impermanence, Buddhists apparently consider that, since our soul always has an apparent beginning (our birth) and end (our death), it is necessarily illusory. In their view – reflecting the general assumption, it seems, of ancient Indian philosophy, what is temporary (or passing) is necessarily illusory; only the permanent (or eternal) is real. Moreover, in their view, nothing is eternal – by which they mean, surely, that nothing phenomenal is eternal; for they certainly believe in the eternity of enlightenment or of the underlying “nature of mind” or “ground of all being” – even if they affirm this universal substratum to be ultimately “empty”.

But this viewpoint can be contested. To be real is to be a fact, i.e. to occur or have occurred. How long or short this fact is or was or will be is surely irrelevant to its status as a fact. An illusion is something that is or was thought to be but is not or was not. To identify reality with eternity and illusion with impermanence is to confuse two separate issues. I have never come across a convincing argument why such equations ought to be made. Surely, one can imagine eternal illusions and transient realities. Thus, we should consider that the issue of the soul’s persistence, i.e. whether the soul is eternal or as short-lived as the body and mind evidently are, has nothing to do with its reality or illusion.

The Buddhist argument against the soul also appeals to the general idea of discontinuity, i.e. the idea that everything changes all the time, and so nothing can ever be pointed to as “one and the same thing” from one moment to the next. This idea is presented as an observation – but it is clearly a mere hypothesis, an abstraction extrapolated from an observation. Given the observed fact of change, one can equally well suppose that some sort of continuity underlies pairs of moments. Since all we actually experience are the successive moments, the issue as to whether some residue of each moment is to be found in the next is open to debate. Thus, to speak of discontinuity is already to assume something beyond observation.

Furthermore, even given a seeming discontinuity, we cannot draw a definite conclusion that there really is discontinuity – let alone that this is true in all cases. Discontinuity is an abstraction from experience; it is not a pure object of experience. Additionally, the concept of universal discontinuity remains always somewhat open to doubt, because it is an inductive assumption – at best, a mere generalization. Moreover, the internal consistency of this concept is unsure, since it implies a permanence of discontinuity across time. That is, if we regard abstraction as necessarily implying some sort of continuity (whether of the object or of the subject), the concept of discontinuity is self-contradictory when taken to an extreme.

This insight is especially pertinent in the case of the soul, which is here both subject and object. We could not possibly claim to know for a fact that the soul is discontinuous (i.e. a succession of discrete momentary souls), because such a statement claims for the soul to the ability to transcend discontinuity sufficiently to see that the soul is discontinuous. That is to say, to make such a claim, the soul (as subject) must be present in the time straddling two or more of its alleged merely momentary instances or segments (i.e. the soul as object). This is clearly a self-contradiction. Thus, the Buddhist argument in favor of the thesis that the soul is non-existent does not survive serious logical scrutiny.

Another Buddhist claim regarding the soul is that it is subject to “dependent origination” or “conditioning” – i.e. that its actual existence, as a unit of being, as a fact – is impossible in isolation, is only possible in relation to all other things (which are themselves similarly interdependent). However, this theory – that everything in the universe could only exist in the presence of everything else in the universe, and that a smaller universe (holding just one of those things, or some but not all of them) is inconceivable – is just a speculation; it is not proved in any way.

Moreover, we could again ask whether this theory is consistent with itself. If it is, like all sublunary things, something dependent or conditioned – and it surely is so, notably with reference to human experience and thought – how can it be claimed as a universal and eternal truth? Any claim that the relative is absolute seems paradoxical and open to doubt. There has to be something absolute to anchor the relative on. To claim everything dependent on everything else and vice versa is still to claim this big soup of interdependent things to be an independent thing. And if this in turn is not an irreducible fact, something else must be. There is no way to be an absolute relativist!

The belief that something can be “both A and not-A”, or “neither A nor not-A”, seems to be the essence of all mysticism (in the pejorative sense). The claim to make no claim is itself a claim – there is no escape from this logic. To claim that everything is illusory is to claim this as a fact – i.e. as something that is not illusory. To claim there is nothing, no person, at the core of our being might seem superficially at first sight logically possible, i.e. not self-contradictory – until we ask just who is making the claim and to whom it is addressed. Inanimate objects are not concerned with such issues. A non-self can neither be deluded nor realize its delusion. Any occurrence of cognition, valuation or volition implies a self.


5.     Self and Enlightenment

The phenomenal self. When Buddhists speak of one’s ‘consciousness’ or ‘mind’ they are often referring to what could be described as one’s sphere of experience at any moment. Moment after moment, all around the central point where cognition actually takes place, there is a cloud of phenomena: bodily sensations and sentiments, appearances of surrounding sights and sounds, and mental images and sounds, verbal and non-verbal thoughts, and moods. It is important during meditation (and eventually, beyond it) to get to be and to remain aware of this totality of variegated experience, and to realize the great weight of this experience in one’s life.

According to Buddhists, this phenomenal mass is all there really is to one’s life – and thence they conclude that there is no self. This phenomenal cloud, they claim, is what we call the self, it is the whole of the self. Moreover, according to the Yogacara school, this cloud is only mind (since, they argue, all experience is necessarily mediated by consciousness). But I beg to differ on such views – and claim that we must pay attention to the center of that sphere of experience too.

At the center is the self, the one who is experiencing. This Subject experiencing the changing phenomenal objects is the real meaning of the word self. It is a non-phenomenal entity, who is not experienced outside itself, but is known to itself by intuition. That is the soul or spirit. Buddhists philosophers deny it, but I am not convinced by their reasoning. Even so, I am convinced that Enlightenment is (as they claim) the central goal of human existence – the meaning of it all.

The Jewish core value is, of course, service of God, i.e. fulfilling the commandments given in the written and oral Torah. But, it seems to me, the higher one tends spiritually, the better one can fulfill such a mission. Enlightenment means the perfection of wisdom. So there’s no contradiction between these values. The more perfect the tool, the better it does the job.

The value of Enlightenment. The Buddhist idea of Enlightenment (boddhi) is one of its great contributions to human aspiration and inspiration. I would like Judaism to more consciously value and pursue this goal, through meditation. Of course, Judaism would never accept the idea that Enlightenment makes one a ‘god’. I agree with this crucial caveat.

There are some significant points of similitude between the Judaic-Christian-Islamic group of religions and the Hindu-Buddhist group. One point all (or at least some schools in all) might agree with, is the notion that we are all rooted in an infinite God or Original Ground and that we will all one day return to this Source. Indeed, these grand religions may be viewed as teachings on how to prepare for or accelerate such a return.

Now, both groups would consider that when an individual human manages somehow to merge back into God (or whatever the Source is called), God remains unaffected, i.e. nothing has been added to Him. From the latter’s viewpoint there was never separation, no breach of unity. Where the two groups would differ, however, is in the status acquired by an individual who fuses with the Deity. The religions of Indian origin would regard such a person as having become a ‘god’, or even identified with the one and only God; whereas the Middle Eastern religions would consider the individual as ceasing to exist as a distinct entity.

I would refer to the tacit image of a drop of water flowing back into the ocean: certainly, that drop loses all ‘personality’, and moreover it becomes a mere part of and does not become equated with the ocean as a whole.


Drawn from Logical and Spiritual Reflections (2008), Book 4, Chapters 3, 4, 7, 10 & 11; Book 5, Chapter 8 (part).



[1]           This is often referred to by Buddhists as the non-self, or more paradoxically still as the non-existent self. But it would be more accurate to characterize it as the non-phenomenal self, to distinguish it from the phenomenal self (self in the sense of ego).

[2]           This exercise is comparable in effect to the “original face” koan.

[3]           The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma, consisting of four essays. Like the translator, Red Pine, I assume their author is indeed Bodhidharma; but who the genial author(s) is/are, is ultimately not very important: some human being(s) had this interesting teaching to transmit to us. I notice that D. T. Suzuki, in his First Series of Essays in Zen Buddhism, (pp. 178), mentions six (not just four) Bodhidharma essays as quite well-known and popular in Japan today. While acknowledging the Zen spirit of all those essays, Suzuki considers only two of them as likely to have been written by the first patriarch of Zen.

[4]           There is no awareness without content (i.e. object); one is here aware of another act of awareness whose content is in turn something else.

[5]           Meditation is precisely the most effective tool for overcoming our built-in tendency to ego formation. Even so, one may at any moment fall back into old ego habits; for example, the other day a young woman looked at me in a certain way, and I found myself flattered and captivated.

[6]           In this regard, it is important not to confuse the latter ‘objectivity’ with an exclusive standard of truth, as do certain modern “scientists”. Such Behaviorism, advocated under a pretext of positivism or radical empiricism, is a non-scientific ideological stance that would more accurately be described as narrow or extremely materialist. It is epistemologically fallacious, because its proponents deliberately ignore a major portion of common personal experience (viz. introspective data), and formulate their theories on the basis of an arbitrary selection of experiential data (viz. physical phenomena). Really, what this anti-phenomenological doctrine signifies is that the convenience of certain low-level laboratory technicians is to be elevated to the status of a philosophy of mind! The psychological motive behind this doctrine is an ailment that afflicts more and more people nowadays: it is a deep personal fear of introspection – i.e. of confronting the mental and spiritual aspects of one’s psyche.

[7]           P. 23. This makes me think of Tai Chi, which is a meditation on movement, on the relation between the mind and physical movement. Similarly in Yoga.

[8]           In the narrower sense of ‘mind’ – referring to phenomenal events (memories, imaginations, dreams, verbal thoughts, etc.) only. Note in passing that the term ‘mind’ colloquially also often refers to the mindspace, the presumed extension in which mental phenomena occur.

[9]           Verbatim from the present translation; on p. 29.

[10]          It is interesting to note in passing how far this viewpoint is from the view of some Buddhists (more ‘Hinayana’ in outlook, perhaps) that Enlightenment is the actual extinction of consciousness (and volition and all other aspects of selfhood). For Bodhidharma (a ‘Mahayana’ teacher), the purpose of it all is to reach a summit of consciousness, not unconsciousness. The difference is perhaps due to a different reading of the twelve nidanas doctrine (on the chain of causation of samsaric existence). According to that, the first three causes in the chain are ignorance, actions and consciousness; these clearly refer respectively to lack of spiritual understanding, acting in accordance with such incomprehension, and the narrow and delusive consciousness emerging from such action. It is not consciousness per se which is the problem (as some seem to think), but the limited and limiting consciousness of ordinary existence. The solution is therefore not the annihilation of consciousness, but its maximal intensification and expansion. Thus, consciousness as such is not a disvalue, but a value. (In accord with this divergence in interpretation, the Hinayana branch tends to regard Emptiness as nothingness, literally a negative, whereas the Mahayana branch stresses the positive meaning of it, as the “Buddha-nature” underlying all things.)

[11]          Advice often given in his books by a modern disciple of Bodhidharma, Shunryu Suzuki.

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