Toward a Buddhist Sociology, Pt. 2: The Deconstruction of the Self

Once the Buddhist practitioner-sociologist has demythologized and deconstructed his/her social word, indeed even the physical world (science is a social construction and a product of social processes), then it becomes possible to deconstruct the self. “There is no self” is a principle of Buddhism that is both true (as a Buddhist principle) and ‘not true’, depending on how one defines “self.” If one defines “self” as in the Upanishads, as “atman”, which is an everlasting, cosmic “self” or soul which becomes part of the great cosmic universal “Self” or Brahman, then it’s true, Buddha taught that this is a fallacy and that there is no eternal, cosmic “self” as such. If one limits the definition of “self” to Buddhist relative reality, there is no fixed essential self, but only a process, a social construction of self, a contingent self that is socially learned, shaped by culture and maintained in, at best, a fragmentary form through contact with its environment. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that there is only “interbeing”, that “self” is a collection of everything that is “not self”, intertwined with it’s experienced world.

Here again, foundational Buddhism asks the practitioner to break down all the components of self, formation, conception, consciousness, etc. to see that there is no solid, autonomous self, but rather a set of psychic experiences that, in coordination, construct a sense of self that is then reinforced by interaction with the world. The Mahayana says that there simply is no self at all; everything is empty. The Vajrayana offers the possibility of replacing the self with a divine being, a deity, on the way to accomplishing the “supreme siddhi”, which is becoming a Buddha.

For myself, it becomes possible to understand that there is no self if I first deconstruct the social and phenomenal world that I experience. Once I deconstruct that world, then it becomes possible for me to deconstruct the self, which has been constructed in reference to that world, constructed as a means to relate with that world in an organized, logical and pragmatic way. The self is psychically and socially constructed in highly specific ways to comprehend and interact with the experienced world. This is what is generally thought of as “sanity,” i.e. one has a ‘self’ or consciousness that has a rational and effectively instrumental relationship to the world of experience. One can also construct aspects of self in opposition to the world of experience; it is nonetheless constructed in relation to those aspects of the world that one opposes. One constructs, or rather, accepts the social construction of, a self that is rationally capable of processing and interacting with that particular world of experience. If that world is deconstructed, then, by definition, the self is also deconstructed. As the world disappears, so the self disappears.

So therefore, I accept the Buddhist truth of anatta or “no self”. But the question remains for me whether the acceptance of the truth of “no self” will actually help to relieve or end samsaric suffering. What does one do when one does not have an operational self that can effectively and instrumentally interact with the world? Does that indeed decrease or perhaps increase one’s suffering? Or does one need to go that far into total dissolution of the self, a condition which would be diagnosed by western psychology as “schizophrenia, disorganized type”? How does one interact with others in a wise and compassionate way? How does a “not self” relate to “others” at all, who would themselves be defined as “not self”? Can one accept that there is no self as true and yet still operate “as if”there is one, that is, in a state of pure contingency? Is the realization of a purely contingent self sufficient practice for attaining ultimate liberation? These are questions that remain for me at this point.

I would begin to unravel this knot by pointing to the vow of the Bodhisattva, which is to compassionately relate to others. I would propose that the Buddhist principle of ‘no self’ is satisfied by cognizance of a purely contingent self that is constructed and maintained for the purpose of relating to an “other”; other  purely contingent human beings, other living beings, indeed the whole phenomenal world of existence. In this view, there is no self other than a self-in-relation to an other, which in a sense is a restatement of Thich Nhat Hanh’s interbeing, and comports with the original premise of Buddhist sociology. “I” as a being continue “in being” for the purpose of relating compassionately with others, which is the fulfillment of the Bodhisattva vow.

Interestingly, anatta is defined by Buddhism as a mark of existence, one of the three marks of existence: anatta (not self), dukkha (suffering) and anicca (impermanence). “Not self” is therefore, not a mark of non-existence, but of existence. The principle of ‘not self’ does not imply non-existence (nihilism); on the contrary, it implies existence of a particular kind. This would indicate to me that cognizance of a purely contingent self, of ‘self-in-relation’ to a purely contingent world, is a sufficient rendering of the Buddhist principle of ‘no self.’

Furthermore, the “I” or not self that is purely contingent is, paradoxically, a unique not-self. DPR teaches that each of us possesses not a cosmic, universal consciousness, but a unique consciousness (Hinayana, 201). Furthermore he affirms that each of is an individual (Shambhala Sun, 11-14). How could this be so, paradoxically? Because each not-self is a the result of a unique set of experiences with a subset of world or environment. Each not-self has it’s own unique, individual set of experiences of and relation to world. Each individual system is a unique subset of environment. Yet each not-self is completely contiguous and congruent with that world; there is no shade of difference between not-self and world. In other words, apart from world or environment, there is no remainder; nothing remains of self apart from world. Thus there is truly no self that is “self”, that remains apart from or independent of world.  Not-self is pure contingency, and it comports with the Buddhas’ teaching on “because this, that.” All of existence is pure contingency, “because this, that.”

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

I’ve been reading histories of tantric practice, one in particular, “An Introduction to Buddhist Esoterism” by Benyotosh Bhattacharyya, published in 1931. He explains the similarities and differences between Buddhism and Hindu or Brahmanic religions, from the teaching of the Buddha through the Mahayana and up through Vajrayana, tantra and the ‘third turning of the wheel.’ What I gather from this history is that originally, Buddha taught principles that were directly opposed to Brahamanic religion, but through a thousand year process of exchange between the two religions, they came to be more alike, in terms of doctrine and practice. One critically important difference is this: the Buddha taught, and Buddhism continued to teach, that there is ‘no self.’ But what did he mean by that? What Buddha meant was that Brahamanic religion taught there was a separate, continuous, eternal self, atman, that was separate from BRAHMAN, or ‘ultimate reality’ or god. They taught that the soul or atman had to be born in a body and die and reincarnate countless times until the atman or soul was able to be reunited with Brahman. What Buddha taught was that there was no separate self that was separate from Brahman or ‘ultimate reality.’ All that is emanates from Buddhanature, which is pure wisdom/compassion joined with shunyata or emptiness. “We” as embodied beings emanate from that Buddhanature; therefore we are of the same nature as Buddhanature, and moreover, we have never been separate from it. Why? because there is no separate self. Ultimately, by teaching that there is no separate self, what the Buddha is saying is that you are one with Buddhanature, you are of the same nature as Buddhanature, and you don’t have to be reincarnated countless times to be ‘reunited with Buddhanature because you have never been separated from it.


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