Tuesday, January 15, 2008

No-self and Morality: Ethics for those who don't exist

Within the Buddhist tradition lies the belief in “no-self”, anatman/anatta. Nagasena gives the example of the chariot to explain this concept. He explains that people are like chariots, in that both are made of many different components which cannot be defined per se as “a chariot” or “a person”, and so the inherent existence of the overall self or chariot is found in none of them, yet we still insist that a self or chariot exists. He concludes that the true nature of the self lies in dependence of all these aspects. If you remove a hand, or a leg, or a heart, or anything else, people would still say that what was left was “you”. What they do not realise is that this is not in fact the case, that what makes you “you” is ever-changing and dependent on not only the amalgamation of your components, the thirty-two parts of the body and the five skandhas, but also time, space and karma. This leads to a second example Nagasena gives us, of the lamp and the flame. He states that a flame is never the same from one moment to the next, just as a person changes with each second. You are a different person from the one who went to school, just as you are different from the one who will one day retire. The nature of the flame is shown well in Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche’s question: “Why does death seem such a threat when the present disappears every moment, scarcely having had a chance to arise?” Our lives, like the present, are fleeting and filled with change, making us impermanent, yet we cling to the idea that we are always the same being, thus creating suffering when the true nature of the world is revealed to us. This shows us a key concept in the Buddhist concept of anatta, that the world is an illusion, ever changing, misleading us into thinking that things really exist as we perceive them, such as ourselves.

Through these two examples it is evident that the Abrahamic notion of an everlasting human soul doesn’t fit with the Buddhist concept of anatta, and yet that is not what is meant by “self” in this context. Self and soul are fundamentally opposite ideas. Self here refers to a false sense that certain impermanent aggregates constitute an unchanging, real whole. The soul is seen as unchanging and real, your true essence which could not give you suffering, but only certain beings are given a soul. In Buddhism, even animals have a sense of self. Rather, the soul corresponds more to the notion of every sentient being having an inner Buddha nature, the only truly real immortal essence which allows them to awaken. The self and the Buddha nature are two of the four inverted views in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, meaning that either people can recognise the true nature of them, but not recognise the reality, or not see the true nature of them but see the reality: “Thinking that the self is the selfless or thinking that the selfless is the self.” This is relevant, as is shows that an apparent contradiction can arise in the understanding of “no-self”. In it the Buddha states that “Saying that the Tathagata (The Buddha, “One who is gone”) is Eternal is a Self-centred view. From this Self-centred view arise innumerable sins. Thus, one should say that the Tathagata is non-Eternal…The Tathagata's being non-Eternal would entail suffering. If [there is] suffering, how could one expect [to find] Bliss therein?” Thus a paradox over the existence of the Buddha nature arises, though most schools get around this by saying that Buddha nature is completely empty, not of it’s own reality, but of the reality of karma and suffering. This shows that “No-self” is a rather misleading term to use, it might be best appropriate to understand the concept purely in terms of the interdependence of reality than use “no-self” at all.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead states that “There are no phenomena extraneous to those that originate from the mind, so there are no modes of conduct to be undertaken extraneous to those…from the mind.” Here, the mind is the ability all sentient beings have to understand and experience both samsara and Nirvana, the self here is extraneous from the mind and therefore is not a good source for modes of conduct, including ethics. Buddhist ethics focus on how to act morally so that your accumulated karma has a positive effect on your present and future lives. Karma literally means “action”, and is the driving force behind samsara, the cycle of rebirth. This leads on to the fundamental teachings of Buddhist ethics; the Four Noble Truths. These being: All existence is suffering, suffering is caused by craving, suffering can have an end, the way to the end of suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path. Holding on to a view of the self is seen as a form of craving and attachment, which generates bad karma. The nature of the world, as we have said before, is ever-changing, so to cling onto one aspect of it is bound to bring on suffering when the inevitable happens. In this sense, the concept of anatta has a very little role to play in Buddhist ethics. Rather than an idea to inspire them, it is merely the negation of an idea, that shouldn’t inspire them. Just as if you said, “You cannot find morality in this apple”, it may be true in context, but it is self-evident and irrelevant to what you should and shouldn’t do ethically. It does however raise a good question: Why have ethics when people as individuals do not exist? The Buddha himself said that even good karma trapped you in the cycle of rebirth, so why is it so important to attain when it keeps you in suffering? There are many varied answers to this question. One is that karma can be donated to others. After meditation a Buddhist may dedicate their good karma attained in that particular sitting to helping all other sentient beings to awaken, or for all lesser beings to be born in a higher state. This means that they have helped others reach a higher understanding, and have gained no karmic effects in the process, a win-win situation. Another answer is that without compassion (wanting all beings to be free of suffering) and loving-kindness (love for everyone equally) you cannot possibly enlighten, as it shows that you are being selfish, grasping after your own release without care for others. This too leads to suffering as, also with the paradox of the four inverted views earlier, to grasp even after no-self, enlightenment, or any other truth, is to defeat the point. However, a criticism of this outlook is that Buddhist ethics is no more than a set of rules to keep your mind on the right path, and though the individual might feel real compassion, the concept itself is empty of meaning. If it were the case that nastiness caused people to become non-selfish and unattached to desires, then logically Buddhism should endorse it. This is also supported in the Buddhist belief that there are many different methods of teaching to different people, as even “[The Buddha] taught what was suitable according to the disposition of his listeners.” This lack of inherent moral value, or at least the low position of the good karma it attains, is limited more to doctrine than to practise. For a layperson, attaining as much good karma as possible is fundamental to offsetting all the bad karma they attain just by doing daily tasks, such as slaughtering the family goat, getting married or going to battle. They might do these things in the name of Buddhism, despite the fact that it goes against it’s teachings, such as Ani Pachen, a Tibetan nun who supposedly was prepared to kill in order to support her cause. This, however, is nothing new in religion. For instance, the Christian view of ‘love thy neighbour’ often doesn’t extend to enemies, or even “irreligious” folk, even if this irreligious behaviour is still Christianity.

Overall, the influence of the concept of anatta on the ethical nature of Buddhist tradition is very limited. It is perhaps cultural that we as westerners expect the self, or even the soul, to play a major part in it. Christianity focuses heavily on the intrinsic good of God’s commands, and how you will be given eternal life in heaven for your goodness, and also be blessed in your life with worldly goods and spiritual insights. All of these things are things to be desired, which Buddhism says cannot exist in this world, and so disagrees with the claim that your self should be given rewards. They do not disagree with the idea of your self attaining rewards through good deeds, only that overall, the cessation of all attachments is best. Buddhist ethics focuses instead on how to generate compassion to all beings, regardless of self, centring on the inner Buddha nature inside everyone. Indra’s web is the idea that the universe is like an infinite net, with a jewel in each gap, we are the jewel and as such, in our facets we reflect every other jewel on the web and they reflect us. Everyone is connected through Buddha nature, and so to cultivate an ethical approach to others helps every other living being as well. It is with this idea that Buddhism accepts morality without the need for a self.

Further Reading
Chamberland, S., Mahaparinirvana Sutra, 1st Edn, 2000, London, Nirvana Publications.
Coleman, G., Ed., The Tibetan Book Of The Dead, 1st Edn, 2006, London, Penguin.
Dalai Lama, The Four Noble Truths, 1st Edn, 1997, Thorsons.
Donnelly, A., Pachen, A., Sorrow Mountain, 1st Edn, 2000, Doubleday.
Gyamtso, K., T., Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness, 2001, Zhyisil Chokyi Ghatsal Trust.
Keown, D., Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction, 1st Edn, 2005, New York, Oxford University Press.

1. Nagasena - Often depicted cleaning his ear with a stick to symbolise the purification of the sense of hearing. "An adherent of Buddhism should avoid listening to gossip and other nonsense so that they are always prepared to hear the truth." - Wikipedia.
2. The death of the Buddha Sakyamuni, his (Maha)parinirvana. The Mahaparinirvana Sutra is said to be the last teachings of the Buddha before his death.
3. The Wheel of Life.
4. Ani Pachen.


Apologies for some of the terminology in this post not being explained, I wrote this a while ago and found it difficult to change. Please, leave a comment if you need any further clarification. I thought I'd put up some in-depth philosophy while I plan my next post, which focuses on the life of Milarepa.


himalman said...
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Liudmila said...

Dear friend,
excuse me off topic pls, I'm very interested in the theme I described here
that seems to me very amazing.
The problem is I did not find any information about it.
That is why I alow me to disturb you with the question: maybe you know something about it?
Thank you very much for your time

Gavin said...

I have come across some of the basic teachings and read them with a more afferent mind. What emerged for me was the importance of attention as an implicit principle of all Buddhist practice.