Not-self

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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.

Reason one

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.

Reason two

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.

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Was blind, but now I see

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If your eyes are open, you’ll see the things worth seeing
~ Rumi

Growing up through Christian & Catholic school, I’m familiar with the song Amazing Grace. But it was just another church song to me, it sounds nice but I didn’t really understand the meaning. Until recently, after experiencing grace first hand. Just like the song lyric: Was blind, but now I see.

I went to church every Sunday, taught that Jesus Christ is the saviour, but didn’t really understand what that means. I read the bible just to memorize certain verse, recite it correctly in Sunday School, and collect golden star stickers. I prayed to God the Father Almighty. I could recite Our Father prayer by heart. I believed in heaven and feared hell. In my mind heaven was green pastures with lions and lambs living side by side, and hell was fiery dungeon where sinners were skinned alive hanging upside down above a big pot of boiling oil.

I didn’t remember when and why I stopped believing. I stopped praying, I stopped going to church. It became awkward when people ask “What’s your religion?” I say “My identity card says I’m christian, but I don’t go to church.” Because I know most people who ask that kind of question would either want me to go to their church, or if I’m not christian/catholic they usually would want to tell me about the saviour. I didn’t want to go to into that “My religion/church/God is better than yours” conversation. And yes Indonesian identity card have religion on it; it’s really silly. Things are changing now – there’s some discussion about deleting that.

Along the way I got to know more about yoga and Buddhism, and found them very similar. I started to appreciate Buddhism more, beneath all the rituals there are things that I can understand. For a writing assignment about a yogi that inspired me, I chose Siddharta Gautama as my subject. When people ask me what’s my religion, I say Buddhism because it’s a simple answer and it’s the closest to what I believe. If they ask further they’ll find out that I don’t really go to any temple or do any rituals.

Fast forward a few years, to make the story short, I grew spiritually. Universe arranged for me conditions in which I could keep growing up spiritually. And arranged the presence of a living guru in my life, that gave me a boost of spiritual growth. I come to understand that all religion is just different paths towards the same peak. And rituals are reminders often lost in translation. Here’s a story my guru narrated that shows how something become rituals.

Once upon a time in an ashram, lived a spiritual teacher. The teacher had been practicing for a long time. One fine day, while the teacher was peeling potatoes, he experienced samadhi. Afterwards the teacher told his students about his experience of samadhi. One of the student asked “Teacher, what were you doing when it happen?” And the teacher said “I was peeling potatoes”. Not long after that the teacher passed away. 10 years later, if anyone come to that ashram, the first thing he notice is that everybody is peeling potatoes.

Now when people ask me what’s my religion, I simply say I have a personal relationship with God. Sometimes they insist – “But WHAT is your religion?” Then I have to explain that I communicate with God personally, I don’t do it through religion. Some look at me in disbelief, and probably think “Blasphemy!” but that’s my truth. And I use the word God because it’s easier to be understood, despite many misuse of that word. I can replace the word God with Universe, or Nature, or Divine Mother, or Brahman, or Consciousness, and what I meant is still the same. I’m not saying religions are unnecessary, they are different paths toward the same goal. If walking that particular path works for you, that’s really great, keep going. It wasn’t working for me, so I chose to tread my own path.

When I used to pray back then, my prayers were like a letter to Santa. God please give me this and this and that. God if you give me X I will do Y. God please make bad things go away and good things come. As if God our personal butler. Now when I say I communicate with God, I just bask in remembrance of God as often as possible. I humbly offer God my gratitude for everything, because everything is God’s Grace. I have nothing else to offer to God, after all what can I offer when everything is from God anyway? All I could do is try to be as clear and pure as possible, so I may become an effective medium, a conduit, to channel or reflect God’s light.

I was blind, but now I see. Who/what unblinded me? God’s Grace, through my guru. Here is a sloka from Guru Stotram:

Ajnana timi raandhasya jnananjana shalakaya
Caksur unmilitam yena tasmai sri gurave namaha

Translation: I was born blind in the darkest ignorance, and my guru opened my eyes with the torch of knowledge. I offer my respectful obeisances unto him.

So now I see, and now I’m able to appreciate this beautiful song.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

Image from http://www.forwallpaper.com