V. The Self

1. The Self

2. Factors of the “Self”

3. Identification-With

4. Ideal and Practical Concepts

5. Fallacious Criticisms of Selfhood

6. What “Emptiness” Might Be

 

1. The Self

According to our account, the ‘self’ is first noticed experientially, through a faculty of intuition. This same assumed faculty (of the self) is able to experience the self’s cognitions, volitions and affections (i.e. its ‘functions’), as well as the self itself. Neither the self nor its said immediate functions have any phenomenal characteristics, so they cannot be perceived. The fact that they cannot be perceived does not however imply that they do not exist; in their case, to repeat, another kind of experiential cognition is involved, that of ‘intuition.’ Cumulative experiences of self and its functions allow us to construct concepts of self, cognition, volition and valuation.

Additionally, we regard self and its functions as having mental and material effects. Imaginations and mental feelings, as well as bodily movements and sentiments, are considered (within our current world-view) as indirectly caused by the self, through its more immediate exercise of cognitive, volitional and emotional powers. What is caused by the self is not strictly speaking ‘part of’ the self, yet it still ‘belongs to’ the self in the sense of being its responsibility. This extended sense of self may be said to have phenomenal characteristics.

Moreover, apparently, the moment we but experience anything phenomenal, or think in abstract terms, or make choices or take action or feel emotions of any sort, a person as the grammatical subject seems logically required. That is, an ‘I’ doing these things seems to us implied. Every object appearing give rise to a parallel awareness of a Subject to whom it appears and a relation of consciousness between it and the object. Similarly, every act of volition or valuation, however devoid of phenomenal characteristics, arouses in us the conviction that an Agent (or author or actor) is involved. This is called ‘self-consciousness,’ but it is somewhat inaccurate to do so, because what is involved here is not only intuition of self, and eventual perceptual experiences, but also a logical insight, something abstract and conceptual.

We conceive the self, in its strict sense, as composed of a uniform substance that we label ‘spiritual’ (to distinguish it from matter and mind). We also conceive it as an entity that we call ‘soul,’ which underlies all events and changes relative to the self (i.e. its functions), constituting an abiding and unifying continuity[1].

Contrary to what some people presume and some philosophers (pro or con) suggest, to assume (whether intuitively or conceptually) a soul or spiritual entity underlying cognition, volition and valuation, does not logically necessitate that such entity be eternal. Constancy in the midst of variation does not imply that a soul has neither beginning nor end in time (or space). Just as a material or mental entity is conceived as something permanent relative to certain transient aspects of it, and yet as a whole transient relative to the universe, so in the case of a spiritual entity, it too may well have a limited world-line in space-time.

Intuition, perception and logical insight only necessitate the existence of one self – the Subject of these acts of consciousness. Solipsism remains conceivable. Our common belief that there are many souls like our own one in the world is a conceptual construct and hypothesis, which as such is perfectly legitimate and indeed helps to explain many experiences. Also not excluded is the belief that there is really only one big Soul (that perhaps pervades or transcends the universe of matter and mind), underlying the apparent small soul(s) – this is the belief of monotheism. That is, belief in a soul does not prejudge the issue of individuation. Just as material entities may, upon reflection, be considered as all mere ripples in a universal fabric, so possibly in the case of spiritual entities.

But such ripples might be permanent or transient. There is no logical necessity to assume that upon dying the soul lives on elsewhere (in a heaven or hell), or that it remains or is reborn on earth in some form, though such possibilities are not to be excluded offhand. The difficulty with any idea of transmigration is to experientially demonstrate some sort of transfer of spirit or energy (karmic reaction) from one incarnation to the next. To imagine some such transfer, to assert it to occur, is no proof. I cannot either think of any theory for which a ‘law of conservation of spirit’ might be a hypothetical necessity to explain certain empirical data.

Moreover, to posit the existence of a soul does not necessarily imply that this substance, anymore than the substance of imaginations, can exist outside and independently of the material substance. The spirit may be just an epiphenomenon of the peculiar cluster of matter which constitutes the biological entity of a living, animal, human body, coming into being when it is born (or a few months earlier) and ceasing to be when it dies.

(Notwithstanding, we may just as well posit that matter and mind are more complex arrangements of spiritual stuff, as claim that spirit and mind are finer forms of matter; ultimately, the distinctions may be verbal rather than substantial.)

The question as to where in relation to the body the soul is located, whether somewhere in the region of the brain or throughout the body, remains moot. Also, the soul might be extended in the space of matter or a mere point in it. But such issues are for most purposes irrelevant.

Many philosophical questions arise around the concept of self, and it is legitimate to try to answer them if possible. But one should not forget the central issue: who or what if anything is the Subject of consciousness? This question arises as soon as we are conscious, and cannot be bypassed by any sleight of hand.

As already mentioned, some Buddhist philosophers deny existence to the Subject, self, soul or spirit. Insofar as their argument is based on the impossibility of pinpointing perceptible qualities of the soul, it carries some conviction. In the West, David Hume presented a similar argument. But their attempt to explain away the common impression that we have a soul by making a distinction between relative/illusory existence and independent/real existence is confused[2].

Buddhist philosophers explain our belief that we have a self as an illusion to due the overlap of innumerable perceptual events (sensations and imaginations), called dharmas, which we mentally integrate together by projecting a self at their center. They have an ontological theory of ‘co-dependence’ or ‘interdependence,’ according to which not only the self but all assumed essences are mere projections arising in our minds, due to things having no existence by themselves (solitary and independent) but existing only in (causal and other) relations to all other things[3].

I want to here suggest in passing how the co-dependence theory itself may have erroneously arisen. Every theory has a kernel of truth, which gives it credence; the problem with some theories is that they have a husk of falsehood, which must be separated out. In the case of this theory, the error is a confusion between ontology and epistemology. I would agree that no item of knowledge is true independent of all others. Any appearance has by virtue of at all appearing (as an experience or as a claim in abstract discourse) a quantum of credibility. This basic minimum does not by itself definitively suffice to make that appearance ‘true.’ It merely grants the appearance consideration in the overall scheme of things. Only after each and every item has been confronted and weighed against all other items, may we terminally declare those that have passed all tests ‘true.’ Thus, the truth of anything is not only due to the initial drop of credibility in it, but to the final combined force of all drops of credibility in all available data.

Buddhist philosophers have, by imprecise thinking, turned this methodological fact into an idea that there is ‘real’ universal co-dependence. Moreover, their theory is that existents are apparent only because an infinity of ‘relations’ crisscross. These relations are claimed ‘empty’ of terms, i.e. they are relations relating ‘nothings’ to each other. It is not said what sort of existents these relations themselves are, and why they are exempt of being in turn mere products of yet other relations ad infinitum. It is not said how an infinity of zeros can add up to a non-zero. By way of contrast, note that in my epistemological version each item of appearance has an initial drop of ‘credibility,’ and the final product has a truth value that can be equated to the sum of all such initial quanta. It is not an interdependence of zeros.

As for consciousness, Buddhists regard it as directly accessible to itself, in high meditation at least. This is what they seem to intend by expressions like ‘no-mind,’ or consciousness ‘empty’ of any content, without object other than itself. They thus seem to posit the possibility of an instance of the relation of consciousness turned on itself (as against the ordinary view of ‘self-consciousness’ – which is ‘consciousness of consciousness of something other than consciousness’[4]). This could be interpreted as a tacit admission by them of the possibility of intuition. Observe also, they often use the terms Subject, consciousness and mind interchangeably, which gives rise to confusions and errors.

It is worth noting in passing that terms like ‘no-mind’ or ‘emptiness’ are negative – and, as earlier pointed out, negation is a rational act. Nevertheless, it would be unfair to regard these concepts as based on ideational construction. Buddhists who use them claim them to refer to a positive experience. The negative names are only intended to stress that the content of such experience is incomparable to any other.

The phenomenological approach to the above issues is different. To begin with, it is sufficient to stress the doctrinal aspect of Subject and consciousness. Whether we grasp them intuitively, through perception or conceptually, what matters most is the role they play in our arrangement of knowledge, in our view of the world. If their assumption enables us to propose a consistent and repeatedly confirmed explanation of the appearance of phenomena, i.e. that they appear (somehow, we do not know just how) primarily through senses or using memory and imagination, to an entity with a mind and a body surrounded by a physical world, and so forth – then their worth and truth is inductively proved.

The concepts of Subject and consciousness are not loose, arbitrary inserts in the puzzle of knowledge, but interdependent items in a complex structure. They are part and parcel of the collection of concepts through which our experiences are made to seem intelligible, that is all. They need only be claimed to be hypotheses; we need not reject alternatives offhand, if any credible alternatives are proposed. Our security is based not on an anxious attachment to one more dogma, but on the track record of these concepts together with others like them in putting certain issues to rest.

The ‘self’ could be considered as phenomenal, in the sense that phenomena are perceived as modified (refracted or somewhat shifted) by some presumed presence, which is assumed to be the self of the perceiver. The self is thus phenomenal indirectly, by virtue of being ‘inferable’ from phenomena. This is normal inductive procedure: some empirical event stands out and is explained by some hypothesis or other, which is found coherent and thereafter repeatedly confirmed (unless or until specifically refuted by logic or experience).

To illustrate the thinking involved: If I look at the surface of a body of water and see that the general pattern of the waves is broken someplace, I mentally outline the area that seems affected (i.e. which has a different ripple pattern) and also propose some reason for the modification (e.g. rocks below the surface, a gust of wind, the passage of a boat, and so forth). Similarly, if I see a shadow, I assume something to be casting it (i.e. to be blocking the light); and according to the shape of the shadow, I estimate what that thing might be.

Buddhism seems to intend to interdict this thought process. It tells us not to infer anything behind the perceived ‘modification’ in the phenomenal field, but take it as is. For Buddhism, to speak of ‘modification’ is already an artificial isolation and thus a distortion of fact; it is a projection of ‘form’ onto content, implying extraneous activities of comparison and contrast. Moreover, to seek a ‘cause’ that explains the modification is merely to add another layer of projection to an already eclipsed empirical reality. This is true not only with regard to assuming things have underlying ‘essences’, but also regarding the assumption of a ‘self’ perceiving and inferring. Better, we are told, to look upon phenomenal events (the visible ripples or shadow, for instances) and see them as they are, rather than see them as indicative of other things and get lost looking for such phantasms.

This argument may seem to carry conviction, but it is not consistent. Being itself a conceptual discourse of the kind it criticizes, it throws doubt upon itself. We may well admit the interferences involved in conceptual thought (as in the functions of isolation, projection of outline, comparison and contrast, causal reasoning, hypothesizing), without thereby having to deny its validity when properly carried out. Indeed, this is the only consistent position.

Furthermore, my own position is that our own soul (or self) is not only inferred from the appearance of phenomena, but also directly ‘intuited’ – or at least inferred from intuitions. Certainly, the soul’s non-phenomenal functions (consciousness, volitions, preferences) have to be directly intuited, as they cannot be fully explained with reference to mental and material phenomena. Possibly, the soul is in turn inferred from these intuitions; or equally possibly, it is itself directly intuited. To my knowledge, Buddhism does not take this phenomenological thesis into consideration, nor of course refute it.

 

2. Factors of the “Self”

With regard to the concept of self, we need to identify the various ways we develop belief in a self, i.e. the bases for such a concept in practice, i.e. what we rightly or wrongly identify ourselves with. The following are some examples to be expanded upon:

a) We personally identify with sensations of and in the body, including touch and other sensations that present us with its extension and delimit its boundaries in relation to a perceived more “outside” world, as well as visceral physical sensations and sentiments. Thus, we feel and see and hear and smell and taste our “own” body, or parts thereof, and identify with the sum of these perceptions. This is due largely to the enormous ‘presence’ of the body in our experience, its insistent and loud manifestation. It demands so much of our attention that we become focused on it almost exclusively.

Consider how (most) people confuse themselves (to a large extent) with their sensual urges and emotions. If they feel hunger pangs, they rush for food. If they feel a sex urge, they either grab a mate or masturbate. If they feel like alcohol, tobacco or a drug, they readily indulge. In search of sensations they engage in endless chatter, or watch movies or listen to music. People commonly think that when they feel pride or self-pity, or love or hate for someone, they are in contact with their innermost being[5]. We confuse every urge or sentimentality with ourselves, and therefore uncritically think that satisfying it is imperative to do ourselves good.

b) We identify with our perceptions of the world beyond our “own” body, the “outside” world. Although these experiences are considered external to us and transient, they serve to define us personally in that they are a specific range of actualities within the larger field of possibilities. That is, we identify with our life story, our personal context and history, our particular environment and fate. We forget that we are fallible, and ignore the role chance plays in our lives.

We learn a lot about ourselves, not only by introspection while alone, but also by observing one’s behavior in relation to the external world, the challenges of nature and interactions with other people. We also learn about ourselves through observing other people’s behavior, and recognizing our own similar patterns of behavior in them.

c) We identify with our memories and fantasies (including anticipations of the future, our ideals and plans, idle dreams, etc.) – our mental projections. We see our identities in terms of our specific past experiences and adventures, and our present desires and expectations for the future. Obviously, this aspect is not merely perceptual, but implies a conceptual framework, which generates certain thoughts and emotions. Even if these are gradually changing, we identify with their evolution and direction of change, as well as with their constant elements[6].

d) We identify with our past and present beliefs and choices. This aspect relates to Consciousness and the Will, which format our distinctiveness and identity, as well as our insights, thoughts, behavior, whims, values, pursuits and emotions. Implied here is what I have called the intuition of self – i.e. self-knowledge in a serious sense. We also identify with our presumed future choices, that is to say what we expect or intend or are resolved or plan to do.

e) Similarly, we identify with our verbal and pre-verbal discourse. As evident in meditation, not all thoughts are in fact generated by ourselves. We are passive recipients to many or most of them. They just pop up in our minds as non-stop mental noise, repetitive nonsense, compulsive chatter. But most of us usually assume possession of such internal events, regard ourselves as their authors, and therefore define our selves in relation to them.

f) A very important self-identification is that with our mental image of oneself, be it largely realistic or fanciful. This includes memories and fantasies – in all the sense-modalities – of our facial and bodily features and expressions, character traits, voice and handwriting, and other aspects of personality, as well as of our thoughts and actions. The memories and fantasies are based on reflections in mirrors and pictures and other visual and auditory recordings of oneself, as well as direct perceptions of parts of one’s body and its movements and of one’s inner world.

This self-image is what we would most readily refer to if asked to point to one’s self. The important thing to note about it is that it is a construct, a mental projection – it is not to be confused with the self that cognizes, wills or values. It is an effect, not a cause. It has no power of cognition, volition or emotion, but is only an image that may influence the real self.

Egotism or self-love is having an exaggerated opinion of one’s own worth (beauty, intelligence, etc.). One of the main attributes or behavior-patterns of the “ego” (in the colloquial pejorative sense) is its stupid conceit.[7]

g) In formulating our personal identity, we are also influenced (positively or negatively) by how other people see us or imagine us. Their perceptions or conceptions about us may, of course, be true or false. We must also be aware of the distinction between: how we know them to see us or imagine us – and how we imagine that they do.

These issues are further complicated by the fact of social projection: we often try to project images socially, through our discourse and behavior, in attempts to influence our own and other people’s judgments about us. Thus, we may deliberately subconsciously edit our self-image for ourselves – modifying, withholding or adding information – till we lose track of realities concerning ourselves. And even when we do it just to confuse or mislead other people (in order to gain material or social benefits from them), we may end up ourselves losing track.

This factor plays an important part in social bonding and regulation, but it can also become tyrannical. So many people pass all their lives trying to influence other people into seeing them in a certain way, so as to gain their love, respect or admiration. And if they cannot in fact fit in to assumed social demands, they will pretend to fit in.[8]

h) As the Buddhists rightly point out, our ego also defines itself with reference to its alleged external “possessions”. “Who am I? – I am the one who owns this and that… I am the husband of this woman, the father of these children, the descendant of these ancestors, the owner of this house and these riches, the leader of a corporation, the recipient of a literary prize, the winner of a competition, etc.” Note well, included here are not only material possessions, but also possession of people in whatever sense (sexual conquest, political domination, etc.) and abstract possessions (I wrote this essay, etc.).

To some extent, this identification of “me” with “mine” is an expression of the earlier listed more internal factors: “This is my shadow, because I have this body,” “I own these things or people, because I have certain character traits and made certain choices, thus developing a certain biography,” we tell ourselves. But additionally, as Buddhists stress, it serves as territorial expansion for the ego, solidifying its existence, further anchoring it to the world.

Egoism or selfishness is looking after one’s own (assumed) interests, exclusively or predominantly. One of the main attributes or behavior-patterns of the “ego” (in the colloquial pejorative sense) is its arrogant grabbing, irrespective of who is harmed thereby. ‘Looking after Number One,’ as the saying goes.

i) The fact that each of us may be referred to by a proper name (or pronouns that temporarily replace it) also, as Buddhism stresses, serves to impose and solidify in our minds the idea that we have a distinct self. Things referred to only by means of a common name (e.g. “a man”) have less identity for us.

We can include here all the conventional aspects of our identity: our ID card, for instance. This relates to considerations of group membership: membership in a family (family name, birth certificate), a nation (naturalization certificate, passport), a social class (rich or poor, commoner or ruler, different educational levels and professions), a religious denomination, an organization or a club. All these factors add to our “identity” largely[9] by mutual agreement, as does a name.

j) The theoretical concept of self or soul is also projected onto one’s self – “I am this abstract entity”. Whether this concept is true or false is irrelevant here; what matters is that there is such a theoretical projection for most educated people, i.e. we do identify with the self conceived by religions, philosophies and psychologies.

For religion, the focus is on the enduring substance of the self (soul, spirituality) and on its moral responsibility and perfectibility (freedom of the will). The main feature of the philosophical self is that it is reflexive: it points back to the person who is conscious and willful, it is both Subject and Object, both Agent and Patient. Psychology is more focused on the existential intricacies of the self, some of which are indicated herein.

As colloquial use of these terms makes clear, the concept of ego is not identical with that of self. The ego is a creature of the self. When we feel insecure, we may seek to reassure ourselves by engaging in ‘ego-trips.’ This refers to comparative and competitive tendencies, such as domination, pursuit of admiration, or acquisitiveness. Power, fame and/or fortune gives us the impression of having an advantage over other people, and thus of being better able than them to cope with life. What we call our ego, then, is the petty side or product of ourselves. By giving this a name, we can distance ourselves from it, and discuss it and hopefully cure it. This field of psychology of course deserves (and gets) much study and elaboration.

 

3. Identification-With

The recurring term in the above treatment is “identify with” – just what does it mean and indicate? It refers to some sort of epistemic and psychological mechanism, through which each of us assumes for a while himself or herself to have a certain identity described in imagination and verbally.

With regard to the mechanism through which we identify with each of these aspects of selfhood, consider how after meeting an impressive person, or reading a book on ethics or a novel, or hearing a song or seeing a movie, one may be susceptible to identifying for a while with the person or personality-type or protagonist encountered. One may go so far as to virtually become one with this role model for a while – not by conscious artifice, role-play or imitation, but by a sort of “personality induction”.

One’s thoughts, attitudes and actions echo the model’s, and one may even experience that one’s body feels like his[10]. The way the latter experience occurs is that one interprets one’s body sensations through the memory image one has of the model. More precisely, the touch sensations coming from one’s face or the rest of one’s body are mentally unified by means of that image (instead of one’s own). This integrative mechanism relates to the ‘correlation of modalities,’ and involves a visual projection (either internal or hallucinatory).

I[11] posit two senses of “self” – (a) the real self, a natural entity with some continuity while existing, perhaps a spiritual epiphenomenon emerging within living matter of some complexity, which self is the Subject of consciousness and Agent of Will; and (b) the imagined self or ego, a constructed presumed description of the self, which has no consciousness or will, but is itself a product of them. The former is our factual identity, the latter is what we delusively identify with, by confusing it with knowledge of our identity.

Initially, the ego is constructed as a legitimate attempt to summarize information directly or indirectly produced by the real self. But the project gets out of hand, in view of its extreme complexity and the superhuman demands of objectivity and honesty involved. So in contrast to our identity – or more precisely, knowledge of our identity – we find ourselves facing a partly or largely fanciful construct, which does not entirely correspond to the original. This falsely projected identity influences the real self negatively, causing it to lose touch with itself. The ego thus involves some self-awareness, plus a lot of bull. It is a half-truth, which interferes with proper cognition, volition and valuation, and so presents us with epistemological, psychological, behavioral, emotional and social problems to be solved. The best solution is regular meditation, which allows us to gradually sort out the grain from the chaff, and return to a healthy and realistic self-knowledge.

Thus, we have two concepts of self, logically distinguished as follows.

a) One concept is ideal, in that its object or content is the real self, the self as it really is however that be. This is a hypothetical, philosophical concept, because it points to something that we know somewhat but not really in detail; we need it to be able to say something about the assumed real self, so we have this separate, minimalist concept, which is by definition true, i.e. the receptacle of whatever happens to be true.

b) The other concept is the practical one, wherein we readily build up our knowledge and imagination concerning the self. This one is by definition flawed, because all knowledge is somewhat flawed since we are fallible, and all the more so knowledge of the self, because of the subjectivities and psychological and social pressures involved in its formulation. The object or content of this concept is partly the real self (basic knowledge) and largely the imagined self (some true propositions, some false). For this reason, we distinctively name the referent “ego,” to stress that for most of us the concept is bound to be considerably untrue.

Thus, it is correct to say, as the Buddhists do, that the self, in the sense of ego, does not exist. For it is the object or content of a concept known to be partly untrue for most people (all except the “Enlightened”, if they exist). In a strict sense, then, there is no ego, the concept is empty, has no real referent[12] – what it intends in practice does not in fact exist, but involves projections of the imagination and verbal constructions. Nevertheless, the self, in the minimalist sense, exists. The concept of it collects only our true and sure knowledge about the self, to the exclusion of any fanciful details.

The reader may have remarked that even while valiantly fighting the Buddhist doctrine of “no-self,” I remain intrigued and attracted by it[13]. Especially since that philosophy seems to claim that it is only by throwing off the idea that we have a self that we can achieve enlightenment and liberation. I do not want to make the proverbial mistake of throwing out the baby with the bath water. One possible interpretation of this doctrine, that would explain it while retaining the concept of soul (which to me still seems unavoidable), would be that it is intended to counteract our above described tendency to identify with some of the factors of self.

When we identify with some theoretical or fantastic idea of the self, we are merely projecting a phenomenal self and saying “that’s me!” A projected image is confused with the one projecting it. This is very different from being aware of one’s real self through direct intuition of it. Thus, we are effectively told, “if you want to find yourself, don’t look for yourself in different concepts or images, but simply look into your soul. Rather than thinking of yourself or worse still thinking up a self for yourself, just be yourself and you will thus naturally get to know yourself.” Perhaps it is that simple.

The self-ego distinction can be illustrated with reference to Figure 2.

The innermost concentric circle (called soul, and including the functions of cognition, volition and valuation) symbolizes the self in the most accurate sense of the term. This is sometimes called the real or true self, or higher or deeper self, to variously signify its relative position.

The circles labeled mind and body (including their stated functions) together constitute the ego, or ‘self’ in an inaccurate sense of the term. This is sometimes called the illusory or false self, or lower or shallower self, to variously signify its relative position. (To be sure, more materialistic people identify especially with their body, whereas more mental people identify especially with their mind. But mind and body are inextricably intertwined, in their sensory, motor, emotional and intellectual functions.)

The important thing to realize is that soul (the self) is of a different substance (spirit) than mind or matter (the ego). The former is the core of one’s existence; the latter are mere outer shells. When we identify with the ego instead of soul, we lose touch with our actual position as observer, doer and feeler.

 

4. Ideal and Practical Concepts

Now, the above insights concerning the concept of self can be generalized to all concepts. That is, the same logical analysis can be applied in relation to any predication. We have on the one hand an ideal concept of some established object, which by definition contains only truths, known or yet unknown, about the object. And on the other hand, we have the practical concept, which we know to be inductive, subject to change – development, correction and improvement – and therefore by definition to some knowable but unknown extent untrue. The ideal concept thus has a wholly real (though relatively bare) content, whereas the practical concept has a partly real and partly unreal (though much richer) content.

Strictly speaking, then, the practical concept intends a non-existent object, while the ideal concept allows us to intend the nevertheless existing object. We need both of them for our discourse; they are complementary. The ideal concept is one portion of the practical, which also includes more doubtful elements or aspects. Careful knowledge acquisition, which may be aided by meditation, consists in being at all times aware to the maximum extent of the epistemological status (true or false, or certain or uncertain to what degree) of each item of knowledge. That is, to know at any given time what part of each concept is the basic-ideal part and what remainder is the tentative-practical part. To remember at all times that knowledge is something always in flux, which it is our responsibility to evaluate repeatedly to remain in touch with reality.

Just as the Buddhists deny “selfhood” to people, they deny “essence” to all other things. For them, this is one and the same error; the former being just a special case of, or alternatively causing, the latter. Our explanation of their position would be that they are referring to what we have just called practical concepts: their contents are indeed unlikely to fully correspond to real essence or selfhood. As for ideal concepts, they are not “empty,” since their intention is by definition whatever happens to be real, whether or not it is known. Even in Buddhism, concepts like those of “mind ground” or “nirvana” must be admitted to be exceptions to the rule of emptiness, since they are effectively treated as the ultimate essence of things and people.

Notwithstanding, with a view to keeping an open mind in relation to this interesting Buddhist doctrine, we should at least experimentally attempt to construct a meditation and discourse gradually free from projections of self and the subject-predicate relation (predication).

For instance, in meditation, instead of thinking “I must become aware of my breath”, think “become aware of breath” (thus diverting attention away from self, though still with an injunction), then think “awareness of breath” (thus getting away from a sense of active willing, of intensifying awareness and directing it towards the breath), then think “breath” (thus removing the relation implied by “of”), then just be wordlessly aware of breath (a pure phenomenon).

Thus, without adhering to Nagarjuna’s fallacious discourse[14], gradually pursue wordless awareness, dropping the “I” (Subject), then instead of propositions (which use subjects and predicates) use only lone terms (verbalized concepts), then focus on the content of such terms (the event intended, without the word), then abandon the injunction to “think” of it and just experience such content inactively. All this merely goes back down the chain of conceptualization, and it is of course easier to learn not to go up it in the first place (at least not during such meditation).

 

5. Fallacious Criticisms of Selfhood

Since writing Buddhist Illogic, I have been reviewing Buddhist arguments against selfhood more carefully, and I must say that – while they continue to inspire deeper awareness of philosophical issues in me – I increasingly find them unconvincing, especially with regard to logical standards.

Buddhists conceive of the self as a non-entity, an illusion produced by a set of surrounding circumstances (‘causes and conditions’), like a hole in the middle of a framework (of matter or mind or whatever). But I have so far come across no convincing detailed formulation of this curious (but interesting) thesis, no clear statement that would explain how a vacuity can seemingly have consciousness, will and values. Until such a theory is presented, I continue to accept self as an entity (call it soul) of some substance (spirit, say). Such a self is apparently individual, but might well at a deeper level turn out to be universal. The individuation of soul might be an illusion due to narrow vision, just as the individuation of material bodies seems to be.

Criticisms of the idea of self are no substitute for a positive statement. It is admittedly hard to publicly (versus introspectively) and indubitably demonstrate the existence of a soul, with personal powers of cognition, volition and affection. But this theory remains the most credible, in that the abstract categories it uses (entity, substance, property, causality) are already familiar and functional in other contexts. In contrast, the impersonal thesis remains mysterious, however open-minded we try to be. It may be useful for meditation purposes, but as a philosophical proposition it seems wanting.

Generally speaking, I observe that those who attempt to rationalize the Buddhist no-self thesis indulge in too-vague formulations, unjustified generalizations and other non sequiturs. A case in point is the work Lotus in a Stream by Hsing Yun[15], which I have recently reread. The quotations given below as examples are from this work.

“Not only are all things impermanent, but they are also all devoid of self-nature. Having no self-nature means that all things depend on other things for their existence. Not one of them is independent and able to exist without other things” (pp. 86-87).

Here, the imprecision of the term “existence” or “to exist” allows for misrepresentation. Western thought would readily admit that all (or perhaps most) things come to be and continue to be and cease to be and continue to not-be as a result of the arrival, presence, departure or absence of a variety of other things. But that is very different from saying that their being itself is dependent: for us, facts are facts, i.e. once a thing is a past or present fact, nothing can change that fact, it is not “dependent” on anything. Yet, I contend, Buddhists seem to be trying to deny this, and cause confusion by blurring the distinction between change over different time and place, and change within identical time and place.

“The meaning of the word ‘things’ in these statements is all phenomena, both formed and formless, all events, all mental acts, all laws, and anything else you can think of.”

Here, the suggestion is that impermanence concerns not only phenomena, which strictly speaking are material or mental objects of perception, but also abstract objects. The terms “formless” and “laws” and “anything you can think of” suggest this. But of course such a statement surreptitiously slips in something we would not readily grant, though we would easily admit that phenomena are impermanent. The whole point of a “law” is that it is a constant in the midst of change, something we conceive through our rational faculty as the common character of a multitude of changing phenomenal events. The principle of Impermanence is not supposed to apply to abstracts. Indeed, it is itself an abstract, considered not to be impermanent!

“To say that nothing has a self-nature is to say that nothing has any attribute that endures over long periods of time. There is no ‘nature’ that always stays the same in anything anywhere. If the ‘nature’ of a thing cannot possibly stay the same, then how can it really be a nature? Eventually everything changes and therefore nothing can be said to have a ‘nature,’ much less a self-nature.”

Here, the author obscures the issue of how long a period of time is – or can be – involved. Even admitting that phenomena cannot possibly endure forever, it does not follow that they do not endure at all. Who then is to say that an attribute cannot last as long as the thing it is an attribute of lasts? They are both phenomena, therefore they are both impermanent – but nothing precludes them from enduring for the same amount of time. The empirical truth is: some attributes come and/or go within the life of a phenomenal thing, and some are equally extended in time. Also, rates of change vary; they are not all the same. The author is evidently trying to impose a vision of things that will comfort his extreme thesis.

We can, incidentally, conceive of different sorts of continuity of conjunctions of phenomena (see Figure 4). An essential attribute of a thing would coexist fully, like an underlying thread of equal time length. A weaker scenario of continuity would be a chaining of different events, such that the first shares some time with the second, which shares some with the third, and so forth, without the first and third, second and fourth and so on having time in common. In some cases, continuity may be completely illusory, in that events succeed each other contiguously in time without sharing any time.

Hsing Yun goes on arguing:

“the body… is a delusion caused by a brief congregation of the physical and mental components of existence Just as a house is made of many parts that create an appearance, so the body… When those parts are separated, no self-nature will be found anywhere.”

That a house or human body is an aggregate of many separable elements, does not prove that when these elements are together (in a certain appropriate way, of course) they do not collectively produce something new. The whole may be more than its constituent parts, because the whole is not just the sum of the parts but an effect of theirs. The bricks of a house do not just add up to a house, but together become a house when placed side by side in certain ways; if placed apart (or together in the wrong way) they do not constitute a house (but at best a pile of bricks). Similarly for the atoms forming a molecule, the molecules forming a living cell, the cells causing a human organism. At each level, there is a causal interplay of parts, which produces something new that is more than the parts, something we call the whole, with its own distinct attributes and properties.

It is thus quite legitimate to suppose that when matter comes together in a certain way we call a live human body, it produces a new thing called the self or soul or spirit, which thing we regard as the essence of being human because we attribute to it the powers of consciousness and volition that we evidently display (and which the constituent matter in us does not, as far as we can see, separately display). That this idea of self is a hypothesis may be readily admitted; but to anyone conscious of the inductive basis of most human knowledge that does not constitute a criticism (all science develops through hypotheses). The important point to note is that Buddhist commentators like this one give arguments that do not succeed in proving what they purport to prove.

Here are some more examples, relating to the notion of “emptiness”:

“Dependent origination means that everything is produced from conditions and that nothing has an independent existence of its own. Everything is connected to everything else and everything is conditioned by everything else. ‘Emptiness’ is the word used to describe the fact that nothing has an independent nature of its own” (p. 94).

Here, the reader should notice the vagueness of terms like “connection” or “conditioning”. They are here used without nuance, without remark that very many kinds and degrees of causal relation may be involved. The impression made on the reader is that everything is equally bound to everything else, however far or near in space and time. But that is not merely untrue – it is conceptually untenable! Concepts of causality arise with reference to a specific relation, which some things have with each other and some things lack with each other. If all things had the same causal relation to all other things, no concept of a causal relation would arise nor be needed. We can very loosely say that the cause of a cause of a thing is “causally related” to it, but causal logic teaches us that the cause of a cause of a thing is not always itself “a cause” of it in the strict sense. And even if it is, it may not be so in the same degree. It follows that Hsing Yun is here again misleading us.

“Emptiness does not mean nothingness… all things have being because they all do exist interdependently” (p.97).

Here, the image communicated to us is that each thing, although in itself empty of substance, acquires existence through its infinity of relations (dependencies) to all other things, each of which is itself empty of substance. We must ask, is this theoretical scenario credible? Does an infinity of zeros add up to a non-zero? What are those “relations” between “things”? Are they not also “things”? Are they not also empty, in which case what gives them existence? The concept of relation implies the pre-existence of things being related (terms); if all that exists are relations, is the concept still meaningful?

Furthermore, what does interdependence (a.k.a. co-dependence) mean, exactly? Is an embrace in mid-air between two or more people equivalent to a mutual support? If I cannot support myself, can I support you? The notion is unconscionable.

“Nothing is unchangeable or unchanging. All phenomena exist in succession. They are always changing, being born, and dying.”

Here, the author has simply dropped out the (previously acknowledged) and very relevant fact of enduring. To convince us that the world is nothing but flux, he mentions birth, change and death – but eclipses the fact of living, if only for a little while! The phrase “they are always” does not necessarily mean “each of them in every moment.”

“A cause (seed) becomes an effect (fruit), which itself contains the cause (seed) for another effect, and so on. The entire phenomenal world works just like this” (p. 98).

Here, we are hastily dragged into a doubtful generalization. The description of the cycle of life, with procreation from generation to generation, does not necessarily fit other causal successions. Causation in the world of inanimate matter obeys its own laws, like Newton’s Laws of Motion for example. There is nothing truly equivalent to reproduction in it, to my memory. To convince us, the author would have to be much more precise in his analogies. Philosophers have no literary license.

“If we were to break a body down into its constituent parts, the body would no longer exist as a body.”

So what? Is that meant to explain or prove “emptiness”? If you kill an animal and cut it up, of course you will not find the life in it, or the consciousness it had, or its “animal nature”. It does not follow that when the animal is alive and well, it lacks these things!

“The meanings of the words ‘above’ and ‘below’ depend on where we are. They do not have absolute meanings, It is like this with all words and all relationships between things” (p. 99).

Again, a hasty generalization – from specifically relative terms to all words. Every grammarian knows that relative terms are just one type of term among others. That the former exist does not imply that the latter have the same character or properties. Similarly, Hsing Yun argues that the relativity of a word like “brightness” (our characterization of the brightness of a light is subjective and variable) exemplifies the relativity of all terms. But here again, he is passing from an obvious case to all cases, although many qualifications are based on stricter, scientific measurement. Moreover, describing how a piece of cloth may have various uses, as a shirt or as a skirt, he argues:

“It is the same piece of cloth in all cases, but since it is used differently, we have different names for it. All words are like this; their meanings depend on how and where they are used.”

This is supposed to convince us that words are “false and wavering” and help us to better understand emptiness. But the truthfulness and accuracy of language are clearly not at stake here, so the implied negative conclusion is unwarranted. The proof is that we all understand precisely his description of the changing practical role of the piece of cloth. “Cloth can be used as shirt or as skirt” is a perfectly legitimate sentence involving the natural modality “can” and two predicates in disjunction for a single subject (A can be B or C). Of course, if one starts with the idea that language can only consist of sentences with two terms and one modality (A is B), then one will be confused by more complex situations. But if one’s understanding of human thought is more developed, one does not fall into foolish conclusions.

Lastly, Hsing Yun refers to “the relative natures of our perceptions” to justify the idea of emptiness. He describes two people watching a snowfall, one is a poet sitting in his warm house, the other a homeless man shivering outdoors. The first hopes the snow will continue to fall, so he can enjoy watching it; the second fears that if the snow continues to fall, he may freeze to death. The author concludes:

“Both are seeing the same scenery, but since their conditions are different they perceive it very differently.”

Thus, perceptions are “false” and emptiness “underlies” them. Here again, his interpretation of the situation is tendentious, designed to buttress his preconceived doctrines. To be precise, the two people correctly perceive the (more or less) same snowy scene; what differs is their evaluation of the biological consequences of what they are perceiving (or more precisely still, what they anticipate to further experience). There is no relativity of perception involved! We have two quite legitimate sentences, which are both probably true “I’ll enjoy further snow” and “I’ll be killed by further snow”. “I” being the poet in one case and the poor man in the other case, there is no contradiction between them.

By arguments like those we have analyzed, Hsing Yun arrives at the overall conclusion that:

“The universe can only exist because all phenomena are empty. If phenomena were not empty, nothing could change or come into being. Being and emptiness are two sides of the same thing” (p. 100).

But none of his premises or arguments permits us to infer or explicate such conclusion. It is a truism that if your cup is full, you cannot add to it; or if you have no room to move into, you cannot move. But this is not what the author is here talking about; the proposed thesis is of course much more radical, though still largely obscure. All we are offered are dogmatic statements, which repeat on and on what the Buddha is claimed to have said.

I am personally still quite willing to believe that the Buddha did say something enlightening about interdependence, impermanence, selflessness and emptiness, but the words used were apparently not very clear. I just hope that his difficulty was merely in finding the right words to express his insights, and that the reasoning behind those words was not as faulty as that I have encountered in the work of commentators so far!

Still, sentences like the following from the Flower Garland Sutra are deliciously pregnant with meaning, challenging us to keep digging[16]:

“When wind moves through emptiness, nothing really moves.”

 

6. What “Emptiness” Might Be[17]

The following is an attempt to eclectically merge the Western and Indian idea of a ‘soul’ with aspects of the Buddhist idea that we are “empty” of any such substance. What might the ‘soul’ be, what its place in ‘the world’, what its ‘mechanics’? Can we interpret and clarify the notion of “emptiness” intellectually?

The Buddhist notion of “emptiness” (in its more extremist versions) is, as far as I am concerned to date, unconvincing. If anything is empty, it is the very concept of emptiness as used by them – for they never clearly define it or explain it. Philosophy cannot judge ideas that remain forever vague and Kafkaesque accusations. The onus is on the philosophers of emptiness to learn to express their ideas more verbally.

6.1 Imagine the soul as an entity in the manifold, of (say) spiritual substance, a very fine energy form somewhat distinct from the substances of the mental domain (that of imaginations) and of the material domain (that of physical phenomena, regarded as one’s body and the world beyond one’s body).[18]

6.2 While solipsism is a logically acceptable proposition, equally conceivable is the notion that the soul may be one among many in a large population of souls scattered in the sea of existence, which includes also the coarser mental and material energies. These spiritual entities may well have common natures and behavior tendencies, and be able to impact on each other and become aware of each other.

Those many souls may conceivably be expressions of one and the same single Soul, and indeed mind and matter may also be expressions of that one Soul, which might perhaps be identified with (a rather Hindu viewpoint) or be a small emanation of (a more Jewish view) what we call God. Alternatively, the many souls may be interrelated more in the way of a network.

The latter view could be earmarked as more Buddhist, if we focus on its doctrine of “interdependence.” However, we can also consider Buddhism compatible with the idea of a collective or root Soul, if we focus on its doctrine of an “original, common ground of mind.” This refers to a mental ocean, whence all thoughts splash up momentarily (as seemingly evident in meditation). At first individual and psychological, this original substance is eventually regarded as universal and metaphysical, on the basis of a positivistic argument[19] that since even material sensations are known only through mind, we can only suppose that everything is mind. Thus, not only ‘thoughts,’ but all ‘things’ are mere turbulences in this primordial magma. Even individual ‘selves’ are merely drops of this mental sea water that momentarily have the illusion of separateness and personal identity.

6.3 For each individual soul (as for the greater Soul as a whole), the mind, the body, and the world beyond, of more matter, mind and spirit energies, may all be just projected ‘images’ (a viewpoint close to Bishop Berkeley’s in the West or Yogachara philosophers in Buddhism). This is not an affirmation by me, I am merely trying to demystify this theory and take it into consideration, note well.

The term image, here, does not signify image of anything else. Such images are perhaps media of self-expression and discourse of the soul (or Soul). That is, the ‘world around me’ may be a language the soul creates and uses to express itself and communicate with itself (and with other eventual souls).

Granting there are objectively are many souls, we can observe that these souls have many (perhaps most) of their images in common. This raises an important question, often asked in relation to such Idealism. If our worlds (including the physical aspects) are personal imaginations, how come so much of their contents agree, and how is it that they seem to be subject to the same ‘laws of nature’?

One possible answer is to assume the many souls to be emanations of a central Soul (animal, human or Divine). In that case, it is no wonder that they share experiences and laws.

Alternatively, we could answer that like images just happen to be (or are by force of their nature and habits) repeatedly projected by the many souls. In this way, they seemingly share a world (in part, at least), even though it is an imaginary one. Having delusions in common, they have perceptions in common. They can thus interact in regular ways in a single apparent ‘natural environment,’ and develop collective knowledge, society, culture, technology, ethics, politics and history. Thus, we are not forced to assume one common, objective world. It may well be that each soul projects for itself certain images that other souls likewise project for themselves, and these projected images happen to be the same upon comparison.

6.4 Viewed as a ball of subtle energy, the soul can well have its own spiritual ‘mechanics’ – its outer and inner shapes and motions, the creases and stirrings within it and at the interface with the mental and material (and spiritual) energies around it, the mathematics of the waves which traverse it and its environment, like a creature floating in the midst of the sea.

Consciousness and will, here viewed as different powers of projection, are the ways the soul interacts with itself and its supposed surrounds.

These wave-motion capacities of the soul, are naturally subject to some ‘laws’ – although the individual soul has some considerable leeway, it is not free to operate just any way it pleases, but tends to remain under most circumstances in certain fixed or repeated patterns. These (spiritual, psychological) ‘laws’ are often shared with other souls; but each of them may also have distinct constraints or habits – which gives each its individuality. Such common and individual ‘laws’ are their real underlying natures, as distinct from the image of ‘nature’ they may project.

In the event that the plurality of souls is explained by a single great Soul, there is even less difficulty in understanding how they may be subject to common laws. On the other hand, the individualities of the fragmentary souls require explanation. Here, we must suppose either an intentional, voluntary relinquishment of power on the part of the great Soul (so that little souls have some ignorance and some freedom of action) or an involuntary sleep or weakness (which latter thesis is less acceptable if we identify the larger soul with God).

With regard to the great Soul as a whole, it may either be subject to limitations and forces in its consciousness and volition – or it may be independent of any such natural restrictions or determinations, totally open and free. Our concept of God opts for the latter version, of course – whence the characterizations of omniscient and omnipotent (and all-good, granting that evil is an aberration due to ignorance and impotence).

6.5 The motive and end result of theses like the above is ethical. They aim and serve to convince people that the individual soul can find liberation from the constraints or habits it is subject to, by realizing its unity with other individual souls. ‘Realizing’ here means transcending one’s individuality by becoming aware of, identifying oneself with and espousing the cause of, other entities of the same substance, or the collective or root Soul. Thus, enlightenment and liberation are one and the same. Ultimately, the individuals are to abandon individuation and merge with all existence, melting back into the original source.

This doctrine presupposes that the individual soul self-constructs, and constructs the world around, in the sense that it defines (and thus effectively divides) itself out from the totality. This illusion of individuation is the sum of its creativity and activity, and also its crucial error. The individual soul does not of course create the world (which is its source); but it produces the virtual world of its particular world-view, which is its own prison and the basis of all its suffering, its “samsara.”

Realizing the emptiness of self would be full awareness in practice that the limited self is an expression of the ignorance and stupidity that the limited self is locked into because of various beliefs and acts. Realizing the emptiness of other entities (material, mental and spiritual) around one, would be full awareness in practice that they are projections of the limited self, in the sense that such projection fragments a whole into parts. Ultimately, too, the soul is advised to realize that Soul, souls and their respective projections are one continuum.

Those who make the above-implied promises of enlightenment and liberation claim justification through personal meditative experiences or prophetic revelations. I have no such first-hand experience or authority, but here merely try to report and elucidate such doctrines, to check their conceivability and understand them. To me, no one making philosophical utterances can claim special privileges; all philosophers are equally required to present clear ideas and convincing arguments.

6.6 The way to such realization is through meditation, as well as altruistic and sane action.

In the framework of the above-mentioned Buddhist philosophy of “original ground” (also called “Buddha mind”), meditation may be viewed as an attempt to return to that profound, natural, eternal calm. Those who attain this level of awareness are said to be in “nirvana.” The illusion of (particular, individual) selfhood arises from disturbances[20], and ceases with their quieting. The doctrine that the illusory self is “empty,” means that we must not identify with any superficial flashes of material or mental excitement, but remain grounded in the Buddha mind.

For example, the Tibetan work The Summary of Philosophical Systems[21] warns against the self being either differentiated from or identified with “the psycho-physical constituents.” I interpret this statement (deliberately ignoring its paradoxical intent[22]) to mean that there is nothing more to the illusory self than these phenomenal manifestations, and therefore that they cannot be the real self. Dogmatic Buddhists provocatively[23] insist that no real self exists, but moderates do seem to admit it as equivalent to the universal, original ground.

Buddhist philosophers generally admit of perception and conception, but ignore or deny direct self-awareness. Consistently enough, they reject any claim to a soul (spiritual substance), since they consider that we have no real experience thereof. For them, the “psycho-physical constituents” are all we ordinarily experience or think about, so that soul must be “empty” (of anything but these constituents) and illusory (since these are not enough to constitute a soul). But this theory does not specify or explain the type of consciousness involved in the Buddha mind, or through which “emptiness” is known!

Another way to view things is to admit that there are three sources of knowledge, the perceptual (which gives us material and mental phenomenal manifestations), the conceptual (which gives us abstracts), and thirdly the intuitive (which gives us self-knowledge, apperception of the self and its particular cognitions, volitions and valuations). Accordingly, we ought to acknowledge in addition to material and mental substances, a spiritual substance (of which souls are made, or the ultimate Soul). The latter mode of consciousness may explain not only our everyday intuitions of self, but perhaps also the higher levels of meditation.

What we ordinarily consider our “self” is, as we have seen earlier, an impression or concept, based on perception and conception, as well as on intuitive experience. In this perspective, so long as we are too absorbed in the perceptual and conceptual fields (physical sensations, imaginations, feelings and emotions, words and thoughts, etc.), we are confused and identify with an illusory self. To make contact with our real (individual, or eventually universal) self, we must concentrate more fully on the intuitive field. With patience, if we allow the more sensational and exciting presentations to pass away, we begin to become aware of the finer, spiritual aspects of experience. That is meditation.

(See also Appendix 2).



[1] The term ‘self’ might be defined (in a rather circular manner) as ‘other than everything else that is an object of consciousness.’ It of course refers to the same thing as ‘soul.’ The concept of soul refers to something very unitary, the ultimate Subject of cognition and Agent of valuation and volition. The concept of ego refers to a more superficial layer of the psyche, a complex of current and habitual attitudes and behaviors, bound together by certain ‘ruts’ of thinking. The former is relatively free and responsible; the latter functions under considerable compulsion. The ego is the passive expression of the soul’s history of experiences, thoughts and choices, whereas the soul is the active maker of that history. (See next section.)

[2] In Buddhist Illogic, I criticize this idea as based on dubious generalizations and infinities.

[3] In my not yet published work The Logic of Causation, I show how if everything is causally related to everything else (in the same sense of causation), then nothing is causally related to anything! For causation can only be distinguished out from the mass of appearances if some things have this relation while others do not. The notion of ‘everything causing everything’ is self-contradictory.

[4] That is, one instance of the cognitive relation has another instance of the relation as its term, which in turn has something other than an instance of the relation as its term.

[5] Of course, I do not mean that feelings are unrelated to the person experiencing them, but only that they may be more superficial than they seem, or have subconscious motives other than those pretended, and so forth. For example, apparent ‘love’ may turn out to be mere ‘infatuation,’ or be motivated by convention or duty, or even unadmitted hatred.

[6] This is stated to oppose the Buddhist idea that inconstancy implies that there is nothing to identify with. One may indeed identify with a changing set of things.

[7] Paradoxically, narcissists, vain persons who are wont to look excessively in mirrors, or seek to be photographed or filmed, are psychologically deeply insecure about their existence and identity. Big egos are really inflated balloons, fragile to a mere pinprick.

[8] This was identified by Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden as a widespread affliction. They called such people, whose thoughts, values and actions are neurotically dependent on other’s, “second-handers.” Conformism or eccentricity, fear of loss of face and pursuit of prestige, are some of the expressions of this problem.

[9] Factual, as well as merely conventional aspects, may also of course be involved. Thus, family, nation or religion is usually based on one’s natural parents; educational level or profession, on actual studies and practice; and so forth.

[10] I personally immediately block such fantasies when I become aware of them, though in my youth I would on occasion indulge in them. Many people are evidently unable, or more precisely unwilling or untrained, to control such personality induction, and end up floating hither and thither in borrowed identities.

[11] Following Western tradition rather than the more radical Buddhist thesis, for now at least.

[12] Just as, say, the concept of a “unicorn” has no real referent (though horses and horns are real enough, separately).

[13] For me the idea that there is no self has the same fascination as the conclusion of Einstein’s Relativity theory that there is no ‘ether.’ This concept of a substance in empty space, or of existence as such, was (I believe) originally suggested by Descartes. I personally find it difficult to grasp how the waves of field theory can be waves of nothing. Yet I am well aware that Einstein’s conclusion is unavoidable, given the constancy of the speed of light whatever the observer’s direction of motion. Conversely, if a no-ether is conceivable, why not a no-self?

[14] See my work Buddhist Illogic with regard to Nagarjuna’s arguments.

[15] See in particular chapters 7-9. (The author is a Chinese Buddhist monk, b. 1928.)

[16] For instance, is there a state of consciousness in which one experiences space-time as a static whole?

[17] This essay was initially written for the book Buddhist Illogic, but at the time I decided that it was not sufficiently exhaustive and consistent and did not belong there. I have since then improved it somewhat.

[18] Note that animists regard even plants and stones as spiritual.

[19] As I make clear elsewhere, I am not personally convinced by this extreme argument.

[20] It is not clear to me how these disturbances are supposed by this theory to arise in the beginning. But this issue is not limited to Buddhism: for philosophers in general, the question is how did the one become many; for physicists, it is what started the Big Bang; for monotheists, it is why did God suddenly decide to create the universe? A deeper question still is how did the existence arise in the first place, or in Buddhism, where did the original ground come from?

[21] See Guenther, p. 67.

[22] Having dealt with the fallacy of the tetralemma in my Buddhist Illogic.

[23] Looking at the history of Indian philosophy, one cannot but notice the one-upmanship involved in its development. The concept of samsara (which I believe was originally intended as one of totality, albeit a cyclical one) was trumped by that of nirvana (again a totality, though beyond cycles), which was then in turn surpassed by that of “neither samsara nor nirvana, nor both” (the Middle Way version). Similarly, the concept of no-self is intended to outdo that of universal Self.

You can purchase a paper copy of this book Books by Avi Sion in The Logician Bookstore at The Logician’s secure online Bookshop.