The inexistent self of Buddhism: a brief description
In the Buddha’s Discourse on the Not-self (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn22/sn22.059.mend.html), he stated the reasons for his claim about the non existence of any self. Shortly, Buddha says us we human beings are the result of five aggregates. The impermanence is a key concept of Buddhism doctrine, also used in the Four Noble Truths (see, for example, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Noble_Truths) for explain the roots of suffering.
Then, the argument of “there is no self” is:
- The five components are impermanent.
- If there was a self, it would be permanent, and the self has the control over the five components
- A person is no more than the five skandhas (this is the exhaustiveness claim).
Therefore there is no self.
The prior argument has, from my point of view, one weak premise: the third; are we sure we are no more than the aggregate of five skandhas?.
And also the second premise contains a weak assumption: the control; we can live a state of consciousness in which we are mere observers, no taking control of the flow of things. The weakness of this two assumptions, “a person is no more than their aggregates” and “the self are the controller of the aggregates” are two reasons that support an alternative position: there are a permanent self, an “I”, beyond the aggregates, and this “I” is not controlling anything, on the contrary, is a mere observer, untangled from the world.
Let me distinguish two levels of self: the psychological (the personality) and a transcendent one. For me, Buddha refers only to the former. The second self, the transcendent, is the one which we pay attention now.
And “I” that takes no control
“We must be able to let things appear in the psyche. For us, this is an art which most people do not know anything. We are usually interfering, helping, correcting or denying, without letting the psychic process is developed in peace“. – Carl Jung, The Secret of the Golden Flower, 1962, pg. 93
Jung speaks of a mind that does not interfere or react with the contents of consciousness, an idea that reminds us to the modern definition of Mindfulness: when we simply observe, without interfere, a deeply therapeutic result occurs, a relaxation in the experience of the moment present, and cease trying to control everything. We realize that if we stop fighting for control, the world does not fall apart, and we still are somebody, we accept the conditions of life, and found a new source of satisfaction.
“The meditative traditions continue where psychoanalysis ends … we cut the roots of the reaction … That eliminates much suffering. Then you become master of your own mind and experience.” – Daniel Brown, MindScience.
As Buddha said, the liberation of the automatic process of reaction for control things brings us peace and relieve us of a big piece of our suffering; yet when nobody controls anything, we still feel we are somebody. Who we are?
An “I” that is only an observer, not implicated in then world
Despite contact with the material body, O Arjuna, the soul neither does anything nor is entangled. – Bhagavad Gita –
The second Buddha’s weak argument is about a self formed exclusively by the sum of the five aggregates, so is a material “I”. There are many spiritual traditions that claims the contrary, like the classic Hinduism, but nowadays even in the field of Psychology we can find alternative approaches:
Transpersonal Psychology is concerned with the study of humanity’s highest potential, and with the recognition, understanding, and realization of unitive, spiritual, and transcendent states of consciousness. – Lajoie, D. H. & Shapiro, S. I. “Definitions of transpersonal psychology: The first twenty-three years”. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, Vol. 24, 1992
There are other higher levels of personality which all of us also have, less or more developed: higher affectivity and higher mind. The last is characterized for not be centered on the individual, but on the knowledge itself, we can say: on the truth. Is impersonal, not interested in personal ideas and opinions but in see things as really are.
On the higher affective level there are not personal reactions against external data, instead, the good, the goodness, are perceived as universal facts; when we contemplate a beautiful landscape the sense of harmony and grandiosity is universal, the same for all. All of us have such level, more or less developed.
I think, basing on other traditions, modern Mindfulness meditation, and also on Trans-personal Psychology, that we can live at higher level than our habitual “I”, our individual personality, who, like Buddha states clearly, is only a virtual being, the result of the sum of impermanent aggregates; instead, we can live as a higher “I”, that can retain the sense of be somebody while at the same time is living a whole connection, a trans-personal feeling.