Note: This is a mid-term assignment for Buddhism & Modern Psychology course from Princeton University at Coursera by Robert Wright. I thoroughly enjoyed the course, highly recommend it for anyone who is into meditation, buddhism, psychology, yoga philosophy. Side note – I bought Robert Wright’s book The Evolution of God a few years back but haven’t read it (I have this habit of buying books thinking I will read them someday. My stack of unread books keep growing). When I decided to join this course, I didn’t know that the teacher is the author of that book.
Describe the self that the Buddha says does not exist and explain the Buddha’s principal argument against it.
The Buddha gave the second sermon Anatta-lakkhana Sutta to the five monks. In summary the Buddha said that form, feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness is not permanent, and thus it is not the self.
From modern psychology, we gather that the minds have several different functions that relates with each other in the daily operation. There’s no one king who overrides everyone else in the mind but there are several generals who are all on the same level and take turns in holding the reins depending of what situation one is in.
Do you agree or disagree with the Buddha’s argument that this kind of self doesn’t exist? Or are you unable to take a position?
I agree to what the Buddha said, that self is not only form, feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness. I think the Buddha was hinting that there’s something more than just form, feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness, but he didn’t describe what is this ‘something more’, but made the monks think/experience themselves. If ‘atman’ is ‘self’ – ‘anatman’ means ‘not-self’, which is different than the more common translation ‘no-self’. No self means self doesn’t exist. Not-self means there’s something else aside from the self.
In yogic philosophy there’s this term ‘paramatman’ which means ‘more than self’ or ‘super self’. It refers to the self that is continuously connected with the source. In normal people, people who are still in the cycle of dukkha or samsara, this connection is only experienced in short glimpses at best. I heard some women shared their experience, when they gave birth during the process they felt this unexplainable connection with the whole universe. This experience is probably what’s called enlightenment – a connection and an integration to the source/universe. The individual ‘self’ concept gave away to an integrated, bigger, super self. So this concept of paramatman or super self matches with the argument that the self is not only form, feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness, but also something else, something more.
It is said that this not-self sermon comes right after the 4 Noble Truths sermon. In the 4 Noble Truths the Buddha talked about how life is suffering, impermanence as the cause of suffering, there’s a way out of suffering, and that way is the eightfold path (right view etc). If the not-self sermon is viewed in context of the 4 Noble Truths, perhaps the Buddha was talking about effects of following the eightfold path, which is less attachment to the impermanent form, feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness. As a result, dawn the realization of the existence of a permanent not-self (something more than self).
Image: Relief of Borobudur – taken by myself, November 2014.