Buddhism and the Nature of Self/Not-Self…

The notion of self is a linguistic convenience. But language is not reality. And this is one of the debates in Buddhism, of course, not so much the exact nature of ‘self,’ which is proscribed in Buddhism (with an ‘o,’ not ‘e’), but more the exact nature of ‘not-self,’ or ‘no-self,’ that distinction itself often at the crux of the debate, as if there were any real difference, as if it really mattered. Because what matters is that this is not the Hindu cosmic self nor the Christian eternal self, both of which are not what the Buddha envisioned for his group of followers and his emerging view of the world.

But what exactly did he envision for the self? Not much, apparently. Best guesses are the (s)khandhas, or ‘heaps’ of causes and conditions that he enumerated to constitute the typical person sans persona that is typically referred to, though many modern Buddhists like to wax long and hard on the ego and ensuing egolessness that would obviously result from that starting point. But our concept of ‘ego’ is so tied to Freud’s concept of id, ego, and superego that it may be misleading. Because I’m sure that the Buddha had no such wild notions.

The Freudian ego also makes the same mistake that the Buddha was trying to solve, positing self as a thing, or something, anyway, which is an independent actor on an ever-shifting stage, when the actions themselves were much more important, as modern psychology now acknowledges the behavior, rather than some elaborate tripartite self, so like verbs not nouns. The Buddha might even go a step farther and see the composite self as a collection of adjectives, thus tendencies to act, not even dignified by the actions themselves.

I’m sure that he had our modern notion of selfishness in mind, though, so we have that much in common, what with his obsessions with craving and desire. And that’s where Buddhism has much to say about our modern consumeristic economies and lifestyles to the point that ‘stuff’ becomes the meaning of our lives. This is a trap, of course, and a never-ending cycle of unfulfillment. After all, how can things satisfy us if we ourselves are essentially non-things? Sometimes the world is too much with us. Even the Buddha and Wordsworth could agree on that. The Buddha called it samsara….