Monday, March 20, 2017

Is there a “Self?”

Fabrication? Or real?
We humans have a big problem: language. We have invented words for everything regardless of whether the thing is ineffable or not. The opposite of a “thing” is “no-thing/nothing.” A thing is perceptible and nothing is not. When the words we employ relate to perceptible matters there is less of a problem, but even then words mean different things to different people. I’ve written previously concerning this dilemma in a post: Does suffering have a positive side

All humans imagine they have a unique identity or personality which is, in part, the constituents of a “self.” When we imagine ourselves we draw together composite components, such as how we think others see us, and what we think of ourselves. We dress this ego-self up with variegated clothing of profession, education, relationships, and many other factors of considered importance, and end up with an internally perceptible “self-image” (ego). What should be apparent (but remains obscure) is that all images (self included) are neither real nor the nexus of perception. The logic of this is peerless  and we have been educated to know the difference between a perceptible object and an imperceptible subject (the ineffable person we imagine ourselves to be).

It is our nature to label everything and in the case of our true, subjective selves, we apply the name of another self (now we have two, both fabricated). There is the perceptible, objective ego/self and an ineffable subjective Self. But we only apply the label of Self due to our inability to articulate or define pure consciousness, otherwise called “the Mind.” 

This matter is conflated due to seemingly conflicting Buddhist teachings. On the one hand it is standard Buddhist teachings that we have no self (anattā). And on the other hand there are Buddhist Sūtras that teach a higher Self, such as the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtras, (one of which The Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra—contrasting these two selves). In Chapter 3 (On Grief) of this Sūtra the Buddha taught, about what he called “four perversions.” He said that the true Self signified the Buddha, the eternal signified the Dharmakāya (the Mindliterally “truth body), Bliss signified the lack of dukkhā and Nirvana/the Pure, signified the Dharma. He went on to say that to cultivate impermanence, suffering, and non-self has no real meaning and said, “Whoever has these four kinds of perversion, that person does not know the correct cultivation of dharmas. Having these perverse ideas, their (the lost) minds and vision are distorted.” He continued,“If impermanence is killed, what there is, is eternal Nirvana. If suffering is killed, one must gain bliss; if the void is killed, one must gain the real. If the non-self is killed, one must gain the True Self, O great King! If impermanence, suffering, the Void and the non-self are killed, you must be equal to me.”

In this same Sūtra , the Buddha said, “Seeing the actions of body and mouth, we say that we see the mind. The mind is not seen, but this is not false. This is seeing by outer signs.” In other words, we know the mind is present by virtue of actions.

Often times this seems confusing, but after much study you come to realize that the labels of “Mind” and “Self” are used interchangeably. In any case, (depending on your preferences) neither the Mind nor the Self can be seen simply because these are arbitrary words for consciousness: the nexus of all perception. In fact, the Self is just another name for Buddha-dhatu/the true immaculate Self—the only substantial, yet unseen reality.

In a recent post (Our overturned world) I spoke about the writings of Patañjali who lived in India during the 2nd century BCE. He is credited with being the compiler of the Yoga Sūtras, an important collection of aphorisms on Yoga practice. Patañjali wrote about what he called kleshas (afflictions: causes of suffering), and maintained that there are only five of these. According to him we have what is called an ahamkara or “I-maker” (ego). It is a single thought form, the delusional image of individualized existence. This premise is fully embraced within Zen and is the foundation upon which the conviction of “no self” is based. 

In the end we must recognize the limitation of words and, as Lao Tzu said, “The Tao that can be spoken is not the enduring and unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.” The word “Tao” was the same word the Buddha used for “the Mind/Self.” The clue should be, that a name is not the same as what the name represents. Names are expressions of substance but they are nevertheless mental images intended to point to substance, and in the case of a self, the substance in question if ineffably indefinable. A rose by any other name smells as sweet.


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