“Buddhism describes several kinds of ‘self’ and ‘not-self,’ each of which has its role to play in our spiritual life,” says Reginald A. Ray in the first of a three-part series on the definition of self in Buddhist teaching.
The central teaching of Buddhism, discussed in detail in the psychological descriptions of the Abhidharma (higher dharma), is that of anatman, or "not-self." This teaching states that our suffering is due to our holding on to a "self"; that ultimately this "I" or "self" does not exist; and that enlightenment involves realizing this. But this teaching raises many questions, particularly for modern practitioners. For example, exactly what is this "self" that is being negated? And does Buddhism really want to eliminate any and all sense of an "I" altogether? If it does, then how is it possible for us to judge, intend and act?
On the surface, Buddhism seems to present us with two stark alternatives. Either we follow the way of the world and identify with a "self," or, if we want to attain liberation, we have to acknowledge the utter non-existence of the "I." While the first alternative would seem to leave us right where we are, completely untransformed, the second would seem to plunge us into an unacceptable nihilism where every aspect of our person—including what is intelligent, compassionate and good—is eliminated.
This dilemma is only apparent, though. For in fact Buddhism describes several kinds of "self" and "not-self," each of which has its role to play in our spiritual lives.
First, there is the pernicious "self," the self-absorbed and destructive "I" that is the source of all of our problems. We might call this the "pathological self," or, in Buddhist terms, the "unvirtuous self."
Second, there is another, this time wholesome sense of "self," which emerges through spiritual practice and is actually necessary if we are to follow the path and help others. Traditional Buddhism calls this the "virtuous self."
Third, Buddhism identifies two stages in the realization of "not-self": in the first, one is liberated but engages in life, a seeming "self" to others, while in the second, one passes beyond any semblance of a "self" whatsoever.
There are, then, several stages on the journey from our current state of egohood to the complete realization of anatman. First, the pernicious self (the stage of samsara) must be transformed into the wholesome self (the stage of the path). Second, the wholesome self must be freed from constraint through abandoning any self-conscious notion of a "self" (the stage of enlightenment in life). And third, even the wholesome "self" must be fully dissolved in order for liberation to be complete.
What is the "Self"?
Buddhism describes our actual experience as disparate and impermanent, with no essential core or ground. It is composed of five skandhas—five types of physical and mental phenomena, including form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness. In and of themselves, these five skandhas are ever- changing and unable to present a stable picture. Nowhere within them is an "I" or "self" to be found. Our actual nature, then, provides no inherent consistency, substantiality or continuity of identity. There is no "one thing" that can be identified as "me."
Yet such is our human situation that we find this kind of groundless, indefinable and open state of existence unacceptable and intolerable. Ignoring the facts, we tend to strive after some definite idea of who we are. So we superimpose a concept or mental label on the incessant change and flux of our experience. This label is a mental construct that imputes a particular identity to ourselves. It is an idea that we hold, a mental image of ourselves. This concept of ourselves is what Buddhism means by the "self."
This superimposed, mental construct that is the "self" tends to be extensive and all-inclusive, comprising not only my immediate idea of myself but also mental abstractions of everything I experience. It includes both what I think of as myself and what I think of as "other," including other people and the larger world. This “self” incorporates any explicit ideas I may have and also ways in which I perceive experience at a rudimentary level. When I look at anything, what I think I am seeing is all part of my "self." My "self" includes what I judge as good and evil, mundane and spiritual, the ego and the egoless. This “self" thus provides a complete and seamless interpretation of reality. In our daily lives, consciously and unconsciously, we return to this all-pervading self-concept over and over—to confirm our sense of existence, to assure the familiarity of our world and to provide ground and security in our lives.
All "selves," then, including both what I am calling the "pernicious self" as well as the "wholesome self," involve conceptual impositions that seek identity and continuity amidst the impermanence of experience. In this sense, all "selves" are ultimately fictitious. They are artificial, ideational creations and do not inhere in the nature of reality. They purport to designate something actually existing, but there is no existent corresponding to our idea of self; there is only the idea.
How is the "Self" Maintained?
We humans have developed many strategies to protect and maintain our "self," whether benign or pernicious. Thus we judge some experiences as "good" or desirable because they seem to reinforce our self-concept, others as "bad" or undesirable because they call our "I" into question. In a similar way, we separate people into "friends" and "enemies," the former those who confirm what we think or want to think about ourselves, the latter those who provide an interpretation of our "I" that is unacceptable. Based on such evaluations, we spend much of our lives sorting out people, situations and occurrences depending on whether they confirm or erode our sense of "self."
An essential part of this process is the activity of repression, what Buddhism calls "ignorance." When experiences occur that are particularly problematic for us, whether they come in the form of sensations, feelings, emotions or thoughts, we turn our awareness away from them. We refuse to acknowledge them and act as if they weren’t there.
The unwanted occurrence has presented us with a painful dissonance—a seemingly irresolvable conflict between our experience on the one hand and our need to maintain our ideas of our "self" on the other. For most of us most of the time, we identify our concept of ourselves with life and with sanity itself, and the prospect of allowing our "self" to be compromised in any fundamental way is not something we are able to entertain. So we choose the route of repression. We ignore, we deny, we distance ourselves from what we are experiencing. In so doing, we surmount the threat and we maintain our idea of ourselves, but we lose touch with our experience in the process.
Even to label a person "friend" involves ignoring or repressing aspects of his or her person that are inconsistent with our desired image. Likewise, to dislike or hate someone we have to repress his or her positive qualities. In fact, to take a consistent "position" on anything, we have to factor out large amounts of experience that would call such consistency into question. Our actual experience of people, situations and even of ourselves is much richer than any desired image, so we solve the problem by blocking out inconsistent information.
The dissonance between experience and our self-concept is what Buddhists mean by duhkha, "suffering." We continually feel the pressure of reality impinging on our "self" in the form of mild or great discomfort and distress. Duhkha is the first noble truth because, whenever we are trying to maintain a stable, coherent and secure sense of self, duhkha is always there as reality’s comment on our effort.
Of course, sometimes things occur that overwhelm our self, occurrences that we cannot deny, eliminate or repress. Catastrophes like the death of a loved one, chronic or terminal illness, painful divorce or sudden and unexpected social dislocation such as imprisonment or the collapse of a career, can thrust us into an experience of reality our "self" cannot manage. In such situations, we are devastated and we lose our sense of known and secure reality. We literally lose our "self." In many cases, with help, we can, over a period of time, integrate what occurred and come to a new, expanded and more wholesome self-concept. But sometimes the havoc wrought by the catastrophe is so extensive and extreme that we are unable to fully recover a coherent sense of "self."
This description of the Buddhist sense of "self" provides a foundation for understanding the Buddhist sense of "self" and "not-self" in more detail. In my next columns, I plan to explore in turn, the pernicious, pathological or unvirtuous "self"; the wholesome or virtuous "self"; the "self" that is "no self"; and the "self" in its utter nonexistence in parinirvana.
Reginald A. Ray, Ph.D., is professor of Buddhist studies at Naropa University and teacher-in-residence at Shambhala Mountain Center. His most recent book is Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet.