Non-Self as Non-Emptiness

In the vein of Non-Buddhism, I am proposing another interpretation of the traditional doctrine of “emptiness” as non-emptinessNon-emptiness means that entities (systems) are composed of elements and defined by their boundaries. Yet boundaries also connect; all entities are connected at their boundaries. Thus, everything is connected, but everything is not the same. Systems theory shows us that boundaries around an entity/system allow the entity to diverge and differentiate itself from other entities/systems. But those same boundaries are not closed; they are open to the environment, which is filled with other entity/systems. Those open boundaries allow the entity to emit elements produced by the entity and release them into the environment; likewise, elements from the environment can enter the entity/system. Thus, as the Buddha taught, all entities arise in co-emergent interdependence; and I would add, through their connection at their boundaries. Every entity exists because it is in continuous exchange with all other entities; and all entities in the universe/existence are interdependent with all other entities, connected at their boundaries and in continuous transmission.

I was able to see this when I finally understood the essence of the doctrine non-self. It was Andrew Olendzky who helped break through the confusion around the doctrine of non-self. Olendzky teaches that non-self means that beings do not possess a self. Entities do not “possess” anything, in Buddhist philosophy. In other words, entities are composed of elements, but entities do not “possess” those elements. Those elements are disparate and do not resemble the entity as a whole. It’s exactly what Tich Nhat Hanh calls interbeing: A piece of paper is made up of elements that are not ‘paper’, including light from the sun, trees, water, energy and human labour.

An entity is composed of elements, but those elements do not belong to a “self” or an “other.” They are not “my” elements or “your” elements. There is nothing in those elements that has the label “self” or “other” stamped on them. The simplest way to understand it is: Entities are composed of elements, period.  ‘Self’ and ‘other’ are mere labels that signify that an element is located in a particular entity, but are not possessed by that entity. Empty of ‘self’ and ‘other’ means entities are composed of disparate elements that are not possessed by a ‘self’ or an ‘other’. Boundaries separate those elements into distinct entities, but those entities are all completely connected at their boundaries. Thus entities which are composed of elements (but not a ‘self’ or ‘other’) are also completely interdependent, which is the essence of pratityasamutpada. This is what I call, for argument’s sake, non-emptiness.

Dzogchen and Mahayana teachings try to convince you that “empty of self” means that “you do not exist.” This is utter nonsense and is essentially a logical fallacy. They argue that if the entity is empty of the element of “self” then it is also empty of all other elements, and therefore does not exist. This is an erroneous conclusion and a logical fallacy. To say that “empty of self” means non-existence is an error of logic. While entities are empty of an element called ‘self’, that does not mean that they are empty of all other elements. Furthermore, to say that the element of ‘self’ equates to all other elements, such that the erasure of ‘self’ is the erasure of the being’s existence, contradicts the doctrine of non-self, which says that ‘self’ amounts to nothing but a label. Yet they perpetuate this error of logic and expect you to believe that you do not exist as an entity, in total contradiction of everything that has been proven by empirical science, not to mention lived experience. Furthermore, they assert the entire universe is likewise “empty” and does not exist in the absolute sense, although somehow these non-existent things “appear” to exist in “relative reality”. If you don’t accept these absurd beliefs, then you are obviously not enlightened yet.

Mahayanists insist that the Buddha himself taught the doctrine of absolute emptiness (emptiness as “absolute reality”), but he did not teach it himself, at least not as recorded in the suttas. The doctrine was expounded in the Mahayana sutras, but I don’t attribute those sutras directly to the Buddha. The sutras were taught and written by disciples of a different form of the dharmic tradition, the Mahayana. The doctrine of emptiness was a controversial issue in the Buddha’s day, and he addressed the controversy many times as recorded in the suttas. In “The Shorter Discourse on Emptiness” (Cula-Suññata Sutta, MN 121), he actually taught against the doctrine of absolute emptiness. An enquirer asked him whether everything was empty. In response, he engaged the enquirer in a thought experiment: imagine every possible state of mind that could be obtained by the meditation on emptiness. It’s quite probable that Buddha had gone through this process himself as part of his early training in spiritual disciplines under his two teachers. He gradually helps the enquirer to see that all states of mind, no matter how “empty” or sublime, are dependent on consciousness, and that consciousness is dependent on the living body, and the body is dependent on material reality, and thus impermanent. He brings the enquirer “back down to earth” so to speak, and teaches that the absolute reality is impermanence, not emptiness.

Non-self cannot be properly understood as a concept by itself. One has to understand non-self with interdependence and impermanence. When you understand that entities do not contain an essential essence or self, that entities are completely interdependent with all other entities, and impermanent, then you begin to arrive at a quality or experience that could be called “emptiness.” The fallacious teaching method of Mahayana is to teach emptiness or shunyata as a separate concept. Rather, shunyata is the understanding you arrive at when you relate all three concepts of non-self, impermanence and interdependence. Entities do not “have”(possess) emptiness; they do not have qualities of emptiness. But because entities do not possess a self, are interdependent and impermanent, entities lack an inherent essence or essential nature, ergo, non-self or [non]emptiness.

The third ‘mark of existence’ is dukkha, usually translated as ‘suffering’ or unsatisfactoriness. However, I interpret unsatisfactoriness as “not having an ideal form”, as imperfect, or as never achieving or sustaining an optimal state. Put simply, dukkha means optimal states don’t last. Suffering comes from striving for an optimal state. Optimal states are momentary and subject to change. To stop suffering is to stop trying to achieve or sustain an optimal state. More on that in a future blog post. Thus entities have no essential nature, are interdependent, impermanent and do not have an ideal form or optimal state.

The traditional practice of the Abhidharma is to help one examine the elements that compose one as an entity, to see that none of these elements, nor the  entity as a whole, possess a self, nor are they labeled “self.” Fortunately, Theravada preserved the original teachings of the Buddha before they got warped out of all semblance to the original doctrine, to logic and empirical science.

After conducting this analysis and discerning that the total erasure and non-existence of beings is a misinterpretation of the doctrine of anatta or non-self, thus leaving “entities that contain elements” as a remainder, I am left pondering the question: how is it possible for an entity that does not have a ‘self’ to relate to another entity? What is the basis of the relationship and how is it enacted? By reading non-self and interdependence (anatta and pratityasamutpada) together. Entity or being as defined by above by Buddhist philosophy cannot be understood except within the context of interdependence with all other entities. The entity is constructed and held in being in co-emergence with all other beings. Thus, relationship is intrinsic to being itself; being is being-in-relationship. Does that not suggest over-determinism and a lack of agency for the entity? Is everything about the entity determined by relationship to other beings? How does one become different from others, emerge, change and awaken to a truth that differs from what most human beings hold true? How does one make and ethical choice or move “against the stream” of dominant society?

The erasure of the element of self does not necessarily mean the annihilation of agency, will or intent. The human being can still learn and thus differentiate in relation to all other beings. The human being is thus capable of making ethical distinctions and choices. As each being is defined by its own psycho-physical boundaries, such that each being is able to differentiate itself from other beings and entities it is connected to, then the human being is able to think, learn, hold a different point of view, change, and awaken to a truth that most human beings do not understand (e.g., non-self). Entity is able to relate to its own being because it is differentiated from it’s surroundings by the boundary. Differentiation by a boundary does not amount to a self, or even a separate being, as all entities are also connected by their boundaries. Self is a form of possession; I (arguably) possess a self, or I possess myself. Erasure of the self-as-possession leaves an individual that is sufficiently differentiated from others, able to think, question, learn, grow, act with intention, choose differently and awaken. It remains possible for  the human being to respond to all sorts of sensory stimuli, to feel, to emote, to relate, communicate and perform socially.

What then, remains of self? What is this thin veneer of self that does not exist as an element in entity? First, self or attta is, in the traditional Buddhist doctrine, an “eternal soul”, which cannot be proven to exist empirically any more than “god” can.  Second, there is no self that is a permanent, unchanging nature or archetype or persona that persists after death and is passed on through countless lifetimes. The Buddha rejects both of these conceptions of atman, which seems to be necessary for the rejection of Brahmanic notions of rebirth into a caste system.

I believe it is essential to understand the Buddhist concept of anatta or non-self as a deconstruction of and antidote to the Manusmirti caste system. In this caste system, one is born into a caste as a fixed self or atta with a particular incarnate being, a fixed social status, fixed and limited capacities and roles that restrict one’s life to one’s assigned life task: priest, warrior, trader, servant or untouchable. Failing to perform all the required tasks and social norms required by one’s caste caused ‘defilement,’ which is then cured by performing the required Brahmanic rituals. The Buddha said that he had seen the “unborn”, the “undefiled,” etc.  and taught people how to free themselves from what is “inborn”, what one is “born with” or “born into.” Buddha was teaching that people are not born into a caste system, nor are they birthed as a fixed self that is born of the caste system. People are assigned to a caste at birth. The casteself or atta that is assigned to people at birth is not actually inborn, it is not essential to our human nature. Rather, it is socially constructed, a product of the mind and the religious caste system. The unborn and undefiled is that which is not born into the caste system or a fixed social status. True being, non-self or anatta, is completely free of that socially constructed self. If we don’t understand the doctrine of non-self or anatta as a response to the Manusmirti caste system, then we will continue to misinterpret the doctrine of non-self as the denial of or annihilation of the human being.

There is no “I” that is reborn ; what is reborn is life itself in ever-evolving forms. Neither is there a self that is an unchanging soul or archetype or persona that appears at birth and persists throughout the lifespan until death. What remains of the entity’s individual existence is an impermanent, co-emergent, ever-changing psycho-dynamic response to other beings in the environment, being-in-relationship, or the intersubjective.

Even the western concept of self is not the same as the personal experience of “myself” because self is a social construct that precedes and overshadows the individual personality. Notions of self are culturally determined, and diverge amongst many different cultures and ages. We are taught through language, culture and social norms what constitutes a self, what is socially expected of a self, what is necessary or optimal for a “healthy” self, or what constitutes a deviant or pathological self. Following Foucault, self could be understood as subject, the self that is socially constructed, so that non-self refers to social selfthat has no essential or enduring essence. Foucault called this subjectivity, that is, how a persons is subjected to social norms and governed by society through it’s construction of the subjectself.  This socially constructed self lacks any essential nature, and shifts as norms and cultures change. Socially constructed notions of self are also impermanent, interdependent and intersubjective. So then it doesn’t matter whether one refers to one’s own being as self or uses some other term. Either way it refers to a social construction that is impermanent and intersubjective.

Non-self means that entities do not possess an inherent essence or essential nature. They do not possess an unchanging, eternal being, self or ‘soul’ that is different from embodiment, or that survives the death of the body. The individual personality and consciousness is constructed phenomena that depends on the existence of the body, is interdependent with it and impermanent.

Non-self , as an applied practice, is the practice of “disavowing” or “dispossessing” the self that has shaped our lives through social conditioning. We see this socially conditioned self as “not me”, as non-essential, as something that I do not inherently possess. Foucault called this desubjectification. The disowning of the self that is socially conditioned by late capitalism is a practice that could undermine the dominant form of the self in western capitalist culture, the neoliberal self. (see Edwin Ng, 2015.)By doing so we liberate ourselves from the social conditioning that traps us in oppressive judgements and expectations, in gendered and racialized oppressions, in competition with others, in fear and shame, in self-hate, jealousy and envy, and alienates us from other people. By relating with others who have also deconstructed this oppressive social self, we can recreate our being-in-relation through intersubjectivity, the liberated non-self, the anattman.

Non-self, as I define it, is not the same concept as “thoughts without a thinker”, or entity as “non-entity”. There is an entity, a being; there is a thinker who thinks, a lover who loves, an artist who creates, a writer who writes, a meditator who meditates, a seeker who awakens.


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