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Sarah Luczaj

“Buddhism and the Self — Or No-Self?” Comments, Page 1

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18 Responses (4 Discussion Threads) to “Buddhism and the Self — Or No-Self?”

  1. 1

    Fine post! Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj said: “to find out who you are, you must first find out who you are not”

    You are perfectly right: in the Matrix there’s the famous scene in which the little boy says “there is no spoon”. Indeed, there is no Self, although you keep recreating him or her every single second of the day – a process you can simply stop

    I’ve walked my own way as well, narrate about that on my site: you might find similarities there: It’s about Stephen Wolinsky, Jesus, Epictetus and Don Miguel Ruiz – a nice 21th century fusion ;-)

  2. 2

    Hi Martijn – dropped by your site – and loved the fusion! I’ll be going back and reading it again… some lovely, lively unhooking going on :-)

  3. 3

    Hi Sarah,

    A few comments, mostly negative.

    Interestingly Martijn quotes an authority.

    You don’t explain the reasoning for the establishment of no-self. I’m sceptical of the line of reasoning that adds up negations. Eg. the horse is not its colour (there are other things this colour), the horse is not its size (there are things this size) . . . etc the horse is none of these things – therefore there is no horse. And yet we can still ride it. The problem here is not the illusory nature of our perception of the horse but a poor use of reason.

    If the background/no-self happens inside me (and not inside you) this seems a pretty good distinction to me. It seems a good basis for describing a self. I don’t see the objection to calling this interiority the self – but if the word is a problem why not call it individuality?

    I’m not convinced that we need to do away with the sense of the other person for compassion to arise. I think compassion (like good sex) can embrace the other’s difference.

    Forcing qualities into ourselves may well cause suffering. But this does not mean that an authentic individuality/self can not exist. Perhaps the resistance to forcing is good evidence of an authentic self.

    I don’t really see why we can’t see ourselves as part of existence. Why can’t the self be a part of our existence as much as our liver?

    I think I see what you mean by saying that identifying with the transient leads to suffering. I think enjoying and having enjoyed a good meal doesn’t necessarily lead to suffering. That is: it is about recognising the transient nature of (some?) experiences. Perhaps it is the identification (clinging?) that is at the core of suffering.

    I guess this criticism may be very unfair. Presenting the guts of Buddhism in a post is quite an ask. However, I do think my criticisms respond to what you have said.

    I want to thank you for writing about this. I think it is a huge and central issue for therapy and living more joyfully. Looking forward to what you and others have to say.

    • avatar image

      I totally agree Evan. The old phrase “I think, therefore I am” makes the most sense. It actually takes a “self” to even doubt the self. If we’re all just one big ball of consciousness, then love and connection seems pointless since it takes TWO to do that. Loving and having compassion for someone doesn’t mean you ARE that person or wish to be.

  4. 4

    Hi Evan!

    Not sure what you mean by “Interestingly Martijn quotes an authority” ? Do you mean that you wanted some quotes from Buddhist sources in my post? Or…?

    The line of reasoning is negative, yes. It doesn’t mean you can’t ride the horse. You don’t need a solid essence of “horse” in order to ride the horse. And we can happily function as organisms in our environment maybe without holding on to a concept of “self” which we are completely unable to pin down. What use is it then?

    Going to quote you here: If the background/no-self happens inside me (and not inside you) this seems a pretty good distinction to me. It seems a good basis for describing a self. I don’t see the objection to calling this interiority the self – but if the word is a problem why not call it individuality?

    Firstly – the no-self is there for anyone – inside me, inside you. You can use it as a basis for describing a self if you like. When actually meditating, as opposed to theorising, a lot of people find that need drops away… along with the feel of individuality.

    Of course we don’t need to do away with sense of self for compassion to arise! This is just one spiritual practice that works.

    Once more, various experiences of self certainly exist, more or less ‘authentic’ ones. They are all dependent on various conditions, and transient. Nothing wrong with being them, celebrating them, and nothing wrong with understaking spiritual practice either and seeing what happens :-)

    More later – gotta run now!

    • 4.1

      The use I think is being able to refer to our interiority and a part of our experience. As we do with “no-self”.

    • 4.2

      bit chicken and egg isn’t it… the mental walls of ‘self’ make something inside and something outside…. they help to make ‘that part of experience’ what it is…

      When fully engaged, focused, in flow, it’s pretty common to lose a sense of self… in these situations ‘self’ is what I have when I disconnect from doing what I am doing and reflect. It’s kind of the bit ‘left over’. Can feel artificial.

      That was the way in which I meant ‘what use is it?’ Am I making any sense….?

    • 4.3

      Hi Sarah, it does make sense that our sense of separateness emerges after we cease engaging/focusing on something.

  5. 5

    Back again!

    Going back to compassion – it’s all about difference, on one level – you can’t have compassion for somebody if they are not different from you, in the normal sense of different – they have a different body, a different life. But if you have a fundamental realisation that on the deepest level – you are not different, then compassion springs up sponatenously.

    Personally I find that recognising the transient nature of a good meal makes me enjoy it all the more! As you say, it is the clinging, and identification that causes the pain. Like if I spend the rest of my life trying to chase that elusive perfect meal to have it again, or suffer the next day because the meal wasn’t as good, etc etc

    Interested in why you talk of “criticisms” and being “negative”…. I read it all as debate and sharing different understandings and experiences in a positive sense, but maybe there is something annoying you in this subject?!

    • 5.1

      I guess there is a need to distinguish the normal and fundamental levels. Can you help me distinguish these levels? Is fundamental the one that occurs in meditation?

    • 5.2

      Yes… a question of how close we need to look. So we don’t need to know what our bodies are composed of and how they work in order to use them, on what I called a ‘normal level’.

      On a fundamental level it might be useful to see the individual cells we are composed of, or it might not. I’d suggest that if we have a desire to understand on a spiritual level, and/or grapple with suffering as an inevitable part of our human lives, then it is useful to look as closely as possible at our experience, to the point where it tends to come apart…

  6. avatar image

    Hi Sarah,


    This would all suit me just fine, especially after what my “Self” has been exeriencing the past 34 years! I’d love to be a pole sitter!

    I were perhaps, a Buddhist Monk hiding away in a monastery, I would be able to lose this “Self” and meditate until self evaporates completely.
    However That was accomplished when I married to documented paranoid/schizophrenic whose loathing demanded that for me, ” self ” better not exist, especially in the context of emotional or relational connection, which is a part of any relationship. We had no trouble establishing disconnect from one another, that resided inside him; pre-existing our marriage contract.

    “The process of examining the contents of “myself”, all the old habits, reactions, thoughts and feelings, only to drop them as ‘not me’ — not essentially my own —”

    Taking ownership of what I do and the consequences of what I do, gives me power to change. Shaming or denying existence of “self” will not.
    If these thoughts, feelings, reactions, habits are Not my own, then whose are they? Buddha’s?

    The contents of my “self” not only exist, but also are currently under review and will remain so in order to “drop” the ineffectual and useless habits(both thinking and behaving) as they are replaced with those which enable growth to the point that extending compassion to others is enjoyable and beneficial to all.

    “No one is suggesting that our own personalities, characteristics, talents and patterns of behaviour do not exist in the world right now. Yet the teachings of Buddha, many and various as they are, all point to the fact that these phenomena can get in the way; that identifying with how things look right now, identifying with externally determined, transient things, only produces further suffering. When we drop the identification, whether for a glimpse during meditation, or as a constant process in our lives, we can experience that we are a part of existence well beyond the confines of our histories, and “ourselves”.”

    Teachings of Buddha mentioned here seem to be promoting Self Loathing, a loathing of reality of one’s existence.

    Wow, if this isn’t a promotional diatribe on benefits of being irresponsible for one’s actions!

    “….all religious traditions associate with a dropping away of individual self.”

    Not with Christianity. Denial of one’s existence is not promoted by the Bible or Christianity, but being a loving and responsible human being is promoted.
    Self denial Jesus talked about had to do with following God’s known will for one’s life.
    He said “…And Love your neighbor .”
    Also he said, “No one ever hated his own body, but cherishes and nurtures it. In the same way…”
    In context here the point being that as a man takes care of himself, he needs to take care of his spouse, cherishing, nurturing.

    In order for that to happen, in or out of the Bible, self, personality, etc. will need to exist.

    The inconvenience of existence? There’s always suicide for that!

  7. 7

    Hi Mary – many thanks for your comment! You might be surprised to know that I agree with most of the points you make here… : )

    The kind of destruction of self that happens in an abusive relationship is not at all what I mean by ‘no-self’. Having a healthily functioning self is necessary. Building one up again when it has been knocked down is equally necessary.

    I think that the no-self experience I am talking about can only be found when starting from a point where the self is healthy and functioning. It shouldn’t be confused either with various psychotic episodes in which there is ‘no-self’. It’s like a further step which can be taken, once your self is working well. If you want to undertake that kind of practice. Or it might spontaneously arise, say when close to nature. You can catch a glimpse of oneness with the universe, or God, or ‘no-self’ and return to everyday life (in which your self functions) refreshed, with an extra level of subtle awareness. Doesn’t mean you are then condemned to life in a monastery ; )

    Taking responsibility for what you do is all part of the functioning self. It is central to Buddhism, with the concept of karma. Everything we do has effects. The Buddhist path is certainly not all about ‘no-self’ – that was just the aspect about it I was writing about here. There is a strong moral code. (“Right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livlihood, right mindfulness, right concentration”)

    It’s not about self loathing. When you experience the kind of no-self I was trying (and possibly completely failing!) to convey here, it makes the present transient moment a beautiful, joyful thing, and also connects you to everyone else in moments of pain.

    I said “mystics” from all religious traditions – not the mainstream. I have read a few Christian mystics, and Sufi mystics, and the ideas/experiences were very similar. Recently I have been reading Bernadette Roberts, who writes specifically about what she calls “No-self” in the Christian tradition (with no reference to Buddhism at all). She writes of a direct experience of total oneness with God, and of her experience of losing her sense of self, in great and fascinating detail.

    I am deeply sorry if I have mis-represented Buddhism here. It promotes loving presence and engagement with the world, on every level, at all times, with all the strong mental functioning and responsibility that entails. “No-self” is a further insight on the path, a mystical insight, if you like, which may come, or may not, may be fleeting, or permanant, but always enhances life and compassion. I was presenting it here as an alternative possibility as a part of a series on self – not as an explication of Buddhism.

    Once again – sorry to all for any mis-representation. And all good wishes to you, Mary as you recover from this damaging relationship. I hope you regain a strong sense of yourself as a person with choices, very soon.

    • 7.1

      Hi Sarah, What alternative labels could you use for the ‘no-self’ experience? It does seem to be a troublesome term.

      Some Christian mystics didn’t have ‘dark nights’ or a sense of no-self Eg Revelations of Divine Love by the lady whose name I forget from Bingen. Although some did – esp. Meister Eckhart.

    • avatar image

      Thank you so much for your good wishes and yes, there is quite a sense of relief that I do have choices and progress since making some of those choices.

      I appreciate your addressing meditation as I also have spent time while in the crucible and since, meditating on writings from my favorite authors in combination with journaling.

    • 7.3

      Hi Evan and Mary,

      Evan – No-self does precisely refer to the process of gradually discovering that all the things you think are ‘you’ are not essentially you.

      Looking at it from different angles you can always make trouble. The same goes for any term. While I can talk about no-self in other ‘languages’ and terms to make it more accessible to people who find it hard to grasp, I don’t think you can actually label the thing differently. It is what it is.

      It is all about experience and not theoretical argument. Give it a try!

      Mary – meditating on wisdom from others and journalling can be great ways to heal. All best to you…

  8. 8

    Sarah, I do feel there is a difference between our experience and descriptions of it. A finger pointing at the moon, to coin a phrase.

    “Evan – No-self does precisely refer to the process of gradually discovering that all the things you think are ‘you’ are not essentially you.” The word ‘refer’ here is doing a lot of work. If there is no self then I wonder what we call that which is ‘essentially’ ourselves.

    I am not quarrelling with the description of the meditative experience. I haven’t seen an argument for why we should privelege it.

    Some of your post and comments seem to make a theoretical case. One of the patterns I see in these kinds of discussion is the move from empiricism to essentialism – this seems illegitimate. Partly because David Hume took apart empiricism when he pointed out that nobody had ever seen a cause, partly because empiricism is meant to be open to falsification – and so we can’t be confident that we have discovered anything essential. I think if you pay attention you will see this pattern (ie. my assertion is open to empirical verification).

  9. 9

    “I am not quarrelling with the description of the meditative experience. I haven’t seen an argument for why we should privelege it. ”

    Not making any ‘we should’ arguments… I am talking about an experience on its own terms…

    No-self is arrived at by an empirical method – Buddhist texts pointed out that no-one had ever seen a cause well before Hume. The whole practice of no-self (talking Buddhist texts now) is a process of checking out whether things are essentially part of us, and finding out through that process of falsification, that they are not.

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