Buddhism and the Self
Published on December 28th, 2017 | by Harmonist staff28
By Hane Htut Maung
One of the most perplexing concepts in Buddhist philosophy is the doctrine of anatta, or ‘not-self.’ Many have interpreted anatta to be a metaphysical assertion that there is no self, but I argue that this is mistaken. Rather, in line with Thanissaro Bhikkhu, I understand anatta as a practical strategy that has heuristic value in guiding one towards liberation. Furthermore, I propose that the acceptance of a subjective self can be consistent with and justified in Buddhism. This will be the focus of this essay.
Before I commence, I would like to issue a health warning. The ideas presented in this essay are in no way intended to be assertions of orthodoxy. I concede that they diverge from conventional attitudes, and so are likely to be considered controversial. My defence for this is that the Buddha discouraged reverence of dogma, and instead encouraged the gaining of insight through experience, enquiry, and reasoning, as evidenced by the following passage from the Kalama Sutta:Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful [sic]; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’ — then you should enter and remain in them. (AN 3.65, trans. Thanissaro, 1994) As different people vary in their experiences, interests, and temperament, this empirical approach would lead to each person’s perspective of Buddhism being idiosyncratic. My own perspective is no exception. I, therefore, do not intend my perspective to be considered the authoritative view but hope it can be forgiven as a personal interpretation, albeit one arrived at through the reflective approach encouraged by the Buddha.
To begin with, it is apparent, on an exploration of the Pali Canon, that the Buddha never denies the existence of the self. To the contrary, he very clearly rejects annihilationism. In the Alagaddupama Sutta, he states:
Speaking in this way, teaching in this way, I have been erroneously, vainly, falsely, unfactually misrepresented by some brahmans and contemplatives [who say], ‘Gotama the contemplative is one who misleads. He declares the annihilation, destruction, extermination of the existing being.’ But as I am not that, as I do not say that, so I have been erroneously, vainly, falsely, unfactually misrepresented by those venerable brahmans and contemplatives [who say], ‘Gotama the contemplative is one who misleads. He declares the annihilation, destruction, extermination of the existing being.’ (MN 22, trans. Thanissaro, 2004)
Another passage can be found in the Yamaka Sutta, where some of the Buddha’s disciples advise Yamaka against annihilationism: Don’t say that, friend Yamaka. Don’t misrepresent the Blessed One. It’s not good to misrepresent the Blessed One, for the Blessed One would not say, ‘A monk with no more effluents, on the break-up of the body, is annihilated, perishes, and does not exist after death.’ (SN 22.85, trans. Thanissaro, 1997)A blanket denial of the self, therefore, has no basis in scripture and directly contradicts the Buddha’s discouragement of annihilationist thought.
Interestingly, when confronted with direct questions about the metaphysics of the self, the Buddha often chose to maintain silence. A famous example is found in the Ananda Sutta:Having taken a seat to one side, Vacchagotta the wanderer said to the Master, ‘Now then, Venerable Gotama, is there a self?’ When this was said, the Master was silent. (SN 44.10, trans. Thanissaro, 2004)Edmond Holmes, in The Creed of Buddha (1908), interprets the Buddha’s maintenance of a dignified silence in response to Vacchagotta’s question as evidence of his acknowledgment of the existence of the self:
The words that are ascribed to him – words which may well have been his – suggest that some such thoughts as these were passing through his mind: “The Ego is real beyond all reality, but I cannot hope to make Vacchagotta understand this.” (p. 114)
Holmes suggests that if the Buddha did not believe in the self, he would have answered Vacchagotta’s question in the negative without hesitation, since “metaphysical atomism, like every other development of materialism, is very easy to explain” (p. 142). However, rather than directly answering Vacchagotta’s question in the affirmative, the Buddha remained silent. Holmes proposes that this is because the transcendental nature of the self would have been beyond the comprehension of Vacchagotta’s naïve mind at that stage in his spiritual development, and so Vacchagotta would have misunderstood the affirmative answer to his question. This, in turn, would have had a negative effect on his struggle for liberation.
Although Holmes’ theory is attractive, I argue that it makes quite an extravagant inference based on the Buddha’s silence. Quite simply, the Buddha may have remained silent because he did not find such metaphysical questions as conducive to Vacchagotta’s quest for liberation. This is evidenced by the fact that when asked by the Venerable Ananda about his silence regarding Vacchagotta’s question, the Buddha replied that Vacchagotta’s spiritual immaturity would have led him to misinterpret any answer in a way that would bring him further attachment. This by itself is an adequate explanation for the Buddha’s silence, and there is no need to make any further inferences about the Buddha’s metaphysical views.
In addition to his rejection of annihilationism, some scholars have identified instances in the scriptures in which the Buddha appears to affirm the existence of a self. An example is Tony Page’s examination of theMahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, aptly entitled “Affirmation of Eternal Self in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra” (2010). Consider the two following passages identified by Page:
The Self (atman) is reality (tattva), the Self is permanent (nitva), the Self is virtue (guna), the Self is eternal (sasvata), the Self is stable (dhruva), the Self is peace (siva).(Trans. Hodge, 2006)The True Self is the tathagata-dhatu [Buddha Principle, Buddha Element, Buddha Factor]. You should know that all beings do have it, but it is not apparent, since those beings are enveloped by immeasurable klesas [defects of mind, morality, and character] … (Trans. Hodge, 2005)
These passages appear to show the Buddha affirming the existence of the self in the metaphysical sense. Reminiscent of the Upanishads, heMahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra and feel compelled to overlook it. However, as observed by Joaquin Perez-Remon in his controversial book Self and Non-Self in Early Buddhism (1980), the Pali Canon also contains passages in which the Buddha appears to speak about the self in a positive sense. Perez-Remon identifies the following passage from the Mahaparinibbana Sutta:
Therefore Ananda, stay as those who have the self as island, as those who have the self as refuge, as those who have no other refuge. (DN 16, trans. Perez-Remon, 1980)
According to Perez-Remon, this famous passage “appears to assert, implicitly at least, the reality of atta” (p. 20). He also identifies a similar passage in the Dhammapada:
Your own self is your master; who else could be? With yourself well controlled, you gain a master very hard to find. (Dhp. XII. 160, trans. Perez-Remon, 1980)
Again, in this passage, the Buddha appears to uphold the self as something of the greatest importance.It has been argued that when the Buddha speaks about the self in passages such as those presented above, he is merely doing so in a conventional sense in order to facilitate communication, rather than in a metaphysical sense. However, it is when one considers the implications of such a conventional interpretation on the spiritual meaning of the above passages that one is able to appreciate the force of Perez-Remon’s argument. Perez-Remon argues that if the self had been intended in a conventional sense, then the above passages would be suggesting that one should consider one’s impermanent and insubstantial configuration of khandhas as an island and refuge, a line of thought which seems unlikely to have been advocated by the Buddha.
Peter Harvey (1995) argues that despite its scholarship, a problem with Perez-Remon’s thesis is that it attributes to the self qualities such as faith, “which must be seen as part of the personality-factor of ‘constructing activities’” (p. 19). Although Harvey does not accept the idea of a substantial self, he rejects annihilationism, and speaks about a subjective existence in nibbana1 which he terms ‘nibbanic discernment’. Along similar lines, Miri Albihari, in “Against No-Atman Theories of Anatta” (2002), argues that absolute annihilationism with respect to the self is incompatible with the doctrine of nibbana. To claim that there is nothing beyond the conditioned khandhas is to assume the unsavoury view that there is nothing left to experience, and that nibbana is complete annihilation. However, throughout the Pali Canon, the Buddha frequently describes the state of nibbana in positive terms, as shown by the following examples:
… the subtle, the very-hard-to-see,
the ageless, permanence, the undecaying,
the surface-less, non-objectification,
peace, the deathless,
the exquisite, bliss, solace,
the exhaustion of craving,
the wonderful, the marvelous,
the secure, security,
nibbana… (SN 43, trans. Thanissaro, 1999) There is, monks, an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated. If there were not that unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, there would not be the case that emancipation from the born — become — made — fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, emancipation from the born — become — made — fabricated is discerned. (Ud 8.3, trans. Thanissaro, 1994)
Although the above terms from the Asankhata Samyutta can be regarded in a metaphorical sense, they at the very least indicate that there is something it is like to experience nibbana, and that this experience is positive. This refutes the interpretation of nibbana as a state of nothingness, thus implying the existence of subjective experience beyond the khandhas.
The view that there is a subjective existence beyond the conditioned khandas that persists after their dissolution is shared by George Grimm, who writes in The Doctrine of the Buddha (1958):
For, though none of the elements constituting our personality nor a soul standing behind it can form our real essence, Still We Are, a fundamental fact which remains even in face of this result. (p. 132)
He then goes on to write:
On the contrary we leave the world, in leaving behind the only thing still belonging to it, our corpse, – everything else we long before threw at its feet – and thus we proceed “to the glory of our Self”, a word not used by the Buddha, but this, not because of its being false, but because, according to what in our previous pages we have been saying, it might give rise only too easily to misinterpretations, in consequence of its relation to personality. (p. 160)
Not only does Grimm assert the reality of subjective existence beyond the khandhas, but he associates it with the realisation of nibbana and our ultimate reality, echoing his earlier observation, “I am: that is the most certain axiom there is” (p. 112). What Grimm is emphasizing is the fundamentality of subjective being to existence itself. From a metaphysical perspective, I propose that the denial of such subjective being is fallacious. My existence as a subjective being is a basic fact that is impossible for me to deny. As illustrated by Descartes’ famous maxim, “Je pense donc je suis”, one can doubt the reality of the external world on the grounds that it may be no more than an illusion, but one cannot possibly doubt one’s own existence as an experiencing being, because the fact that one doubts implies that one exists. Any claim that being is illusory is therefore meaningless rhetoric, for there still needs to be something to experience an illusion. Similarly, as noted by Christmas Humphreys (1962), in the struggle for liberation, “it is the Self which is striving to understand itself” (p. 85).
Of course, the Buddha taught that a living being is constituted of a combination of conditioned khandhas. In the Vajira Sutta, the nun Vajira states:
Just as when, with an assemblage of parts, there’s the word, chariot, even so, when aggregates are present, there’s the convention of living being. (SN 5.10, trans. Thanissaro, 1998)
The khandhas are a group of physical and mental aggregates which are in a perpetual state of flux and none of which can be identified with a self. Similarly, Hume observed that whenever he tried to direct his attention inwards, he was able to observe only a bundle of perceptions but not the experiencer of these perceptions. However, I argue that Hume’s difficulty was due to an attempt to objectivate something which is fundamentally subjective. Of course, he could not experience his self, because it is his self that is experiencing. What is experiencing is not an object that can be observed, but the subject. It is the existence or blank screen in which the bundle of perceptions manifests, and without which they could not manifest. Kant was fully aware of Hume’s error, and in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) observed that “there must be a condition which precedes all experience, and which makes experience itself possible” (A 107).
My perspective, therefore, is that I am, or my self is, my consciousness. I am not referring to the vinnana khandha, for which ‘discernment’ is a more suitable translation, but to the subjective existence or blank screen in which all of my experiences are realized. The fact that I exist is the necessary condition for everything that I experience to be realized. The matter of my body is always being lost and replaced, and my mental state is always changing. However, there must be an existence for these physical and mental phenomena to manifest, and for the state of nibbana to be realized after the dissolution of the khandhas.
Others, including Peter Harvey and Thanissaro Bhikkhu, have also advocated the existence of unconditioned consciousness in nibbana. They identify instances in the Pali Canon in which the Buddha asserts the existence of such consciousness, such as in the following passage from theBrahmanimantanika Sutta:
Consciousness without surface, endless, radiant all around… (MN 49, trans. Thanissaro, 2007)
As argued by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, this consciousness does not refer to the conditioned vinnana khandha, but to unconditioned existence beyond space and time. In this sense, it is eternal, as it is not conditioned by time. This supposes a dualism between conditioned phenomena and this unconditioned consciousness. Peter Harvey (1990) elegantly describes the process liberation as this consciousness becoming “’unsupported’ (apatitthita) and free of constructing activities, so that it is released, steadfast, content, undisturbed, and attains Nibbana” (p. 63).
Although Harvey accepts that it is consciousness that attains nibbana, does not refer to it as self. I can appreciate his hesitation, for the term ‘self’ can appear to denote a substantial object which one owns, and so the application of the term to anything is likely to encourage further attachment. Others, such as Thanissaro Bhikkhu, argue that the terms ‘self’ and ‘not-self’ do not apply to the unconditioned after the dissolution of the conditioned khandhas. Again, I can sympathize with this view, for if what is not self is no longer there, there would be no need to categorize anything by applying concepts such as ‘self’ and ‘not-self’. However, I argue that this is partly an issue with semantics. By identifying consciousness with self, I am not attempting to objectivate it or attribute to it any concepts associated with conditioned phenomena, but acknowledging it as the subjective basis of existence. Indeed, there is no object which I can equate with ‘I’, for ‘I’ is only a subject.
A similar view is expressed by the Burmese scholar Shwe Zan Aung in “A Dialogue on Nibbana” (1918). Aung depicts a Socratic dialogue in which the protagonist Agga, a Buddhist monk, presents his perspective that nibbana is one’s fruitional consciousness, and defends the existence of individuals innibbana. He does so by qualifying that individuality refers to each consciousness being a different subjective reality, and not to the characteristics of any substantial soul or ego. Consciousnesses differ from each other not because of any tangible properties, but merely with respect to their subjective personalization:
Agga. This grammatical distinction is due to your view of the mind as subject and of Nibbana as object. But the latter cannot be an object without a subject. The fact is that the subject and the object are merged in an intuition. This follows from Buddhaghosa’s dictum that Nibbana is the fruitional consciousness itself. Nibbana is not thought but lived. Else Nibbana would be merely lip-bliss.Sumana. Am I to understand you to say that individuals exist in Nibbana?Agga. It all depends on what you mean by ‘individual’. If you mean a soul in the sense in which it is generally understood in the West, I would reply No, because the ego idea is but a concept. But if you use the word as a mere label for realities, I would say Yes. Sariputta was a distinct individual from Moggallana on this side of the veil. Why should not their continuations be individually distinct on the other side? Each lives his own Nibbana. (Paccattam veditabbo vinnuhi). But it does not follow that they draw a line of demarcation between meum and tuum on the other side any more than they do on this side.
To further support this idea, there are instances in the Pali Canon in which the Buddha makes positive statements about individual beings after they had attained nibbana:
That is Mara, the Evil One. He is searching for the consciousness of Vakkali the clansman: “Where is the consciousness of Vakkali the clansman established?” But, monks, it is through unestablished consciousness that Vakkali the clansman has become totally unbound. (SN 22.87, trans. Thanissaro, 2005)
The Buddha also makes a similar utterance about the clansman Godhika in the Godhika Sutta. These passages suggest the acknowledgment of the existence of individuals in nibbana, very much in the manner suggested by Shwe Zan Aung’s protagonist Agga.
What I have presented in this essay so far suggests that the interpretation of the doctrine of anatta as a metaphysical denial of the self is incorrect. Rather, I propose that a correct interpretation of the doctrine is the view advocated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. He writes in his essay “No-self or Not-self?” (1996):
In this sense, the anatta teaching is not a doctrine of no-self, but a not-self strategy for shedding suffering by letting go of its cause, leading to the highest, undying happiness.
The doctrine of anatta, therefore, is not a metaphysical assertion, but a practical strategy that guides one to let go of attachment to conditioned phenomena and thus to achieve liberation.
This is view is supported by the way the term anatta is used in the Pali Canon. Consider the following passage from the Girimananda Sutta:
And what is the perception of not-self? There is the case where a monk — having gone to the wilderness, to the shade of a tree, or to an empty building — reflects thus: ‘The eye is not-self, forms are not-self; the ear is not-self, sounds are not-self; the nose is not-self, aromas are not-self; the tongue is not-self, flavors are not-self; the body is not-self, tactile sensations are not-self; the intellect is not-self, ideas are not-self.’ Thus he remains focused on not-selfness with regard to the six inner & outer sense media. This is called the perception of not-self. (AN 10.60, trans. Thanissaro)
Here, the term anatta is not used to deny the reality of the self, but to describe conditioned phenomena as not being the self. Therefore, the correct translation of anatta is not ‘no self’, but ‘not self’.
Indeed, it makes sense for the doctrine of anatta to be a practical strategy and not a metaphysical assertion. After all, it was not in the Buddha’s interests to teach metaphysics, but to help people to overcome suffering:
Both formerly and now, it is only stress that I describe, and the cessation of stress. (SN 22.86, trans. Thanissaro, 2004)
As a practical strategy, the doctrine of anatta teaches one to avoid falsely identifying oneself with conditioned phenomena, and thus to free oneself from attachment. It also helps one to overcome greed, for if even this body and this mind do not genuinely belong to me, how could I possibly justify being strongly attached to material possessions? Finally, I argue that it promotes respect and compassion for others, for the recognition of the insubstantiality of the material differences between people encourages one to respect others as being equal and to treat others as one would wish to be treated. When viewed in this light, one is able to appreciate what a wonderful teaching the doctrine of anatta is.
- Albihari M (2002). “Against No-Atman Theories of Anatta”. Asian Philosophy, 12:1, pp. 5 – 20.
- Aung SZ (1918). “A Dialogue on Nibbana”. Journal of the Burmese Research Society, 8:3, pp. 233 – 253.
- Descartes R (1637). Discourse on the Method.
- Grimm G (1958). The Doctrine of the Buddha. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag.
- Harvey BP (1990). An Introduction to Buddhism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Harvey BP (1995). The Selfless Mind. Surrey: Curzon Press.
- Holmes E (1908). The Creed of Buddha. New York: John Lane.
- Hume D (1739). A Treatise of Human Nature.
- Humphreys C (1962). Buddhism. London: Penguin.
- Kant I (1781). Critique of Pure Reason.
- Page T (2010). “Affirmation of Eternal Self in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra”. Bangkok University Academic Review, 9:1, pp. 47 – 55.
- Perez-Remon J (1980). Self and Non-Self in Early Buddhism. The Hague: Mouton.
- Thanissaro B (1996). “No-Self or Not-Self?” in Noble Strategy. Metta Forest Monastery, 1999.
- Thanissaro B (1999). The Mind Like Fire Unbound. Metta Forest Monastery.
Thanissaro B (2002). “When You Know for Yourselves…” in The Karma of Questions. Metta Forest Monastery. 2002.
This essay originally appeared, here.
- Pali for nirvana [↩]
This is a great article! Buddhism finally makes sense. The article also nicely illustrates how teaching and siddhanta (metaphysical truths) are not always one, and why this is so: to help the student realize the siddhanta. Such is the wisdom of the teacher.
I like this article also. Some things I noticed:
“Of course, he could not experience his self, because it is his self that is experiencing. What is experiencing is not an object that can be observed, but the subject.”
This reminds me a lot of your recent facebook post: “Consciousness is not the content. It is the context in which all content is experienced.” It is not because we have eyes that we see. As far as not being able to experience the self, because the self is what is doing the experiencing, what about the ingress of the Svarup sakti? Jiv sakti is not svarup sakti(obviously), even though one’s body is made of bhava. But the jiva is still marginal sakti in tattva, not svarup sakti, even though it can function with both maha and yoga maya. So what is the self in that circumstance? Can it be experienced? Of course, bhuddism isn’t Gaudiya Vaisnavism either. On the other hand, having perfected one’s self and attained their svarup, devotees are never influenced by mahamaya again, so how marginal is the jiv sakti when that happens?
“The matter of my body is always being lost and replaced, and my mental state is always changing. However, there must be an existence for these physical and mental phenomena to manifest…”
In your commentary on Bhagavad-Gita you explain that the self must be aloof to the changes of the mind and the body because it is witnessing the change. Something that is changing cannot witness that change, and change, at the same time. However, we are capable of witnessing changes in the mind and body.
“Je pense donc je suis”, one can doubt the reality of the external world on the grounds that it may be no more than an illusion, but one cannot possibly doubt one’s own existence as an experiencing being, because the fact that one doubts implies that one exists. ”
Here I thought of how absurd it is to dismiss consciousness as being material. When I think about this I wonder why a person in favor of that position thinks that others will care about their opinions on consciousness being matter, if they and their opinions are just material. Matter cannot care about its self so if a person thinks everything about themself to be material, why even bother saying it to other people?
“…it promotes respect and compassion for others, for the recognition of the insubstantiality of the material differences between people…”
This took me to the sixth verse of Upadesamrta:
dṛṣṭaiḥ svabhāvajanitairvapuṣaśca doṣair
na prākṛtatvamiha bhaktajanasya paśyet
gańgāmbhasāḿ na khalu budbudphenapańkair
…Here we are called not only to ignore physical defects of devotees, but to understand their prospect and view them that way. Anything perceived of as a flaw in personality, or a defect of the mind or intelligence is a material designation being applied to a non material entity. I am reminded to see through the packaging.
Who am I?Do not know.
Who am I?Servant of Lord Krishna.
Is it possible to have progresive conversation between vaisnavas
I would think so. This article offers a very Vaisnava-like explanation of the Buddha’s teaching. Vaisnavas have for centuries taught that the Buddha’s non theism was a strategy, not a metaphysical reality for him.
I agree. I think that, although Buddhism is often presented as atheistic, it appears to me that the Buddha’s approach was more agnostic, perhaps even indifferent to the question of the existence of God and/or soul. As we see here, he tried to focus his followers’ attention on other questions first, beginning, of course, with the problem of suffering. The first of the four noble truths is that suffering is caused by a number of stresses, including birth, old age, death, hankering, attachment, etc. We see the same thing in Bhagavad-gita 13.9, where Sri Krishna asserts that contemplating the problem of suffering caused by such things as birth, death, old age, and disease as a basic aspect of spiritual knowledge.
I have a number of Buddhists among my family members (my late sister, for example, was profoundly engaged in vipassana meditation Theravada study along with her husband, whose practice and study continue to this day; and my brother has been ordained as a Zen priest), and I find considerable wisdom in Buddhist teaching and practice, which is certainly not monolithic. My sister’s teacher is an intelligent and wise man who spent time as a monk and has a PhD in Buddhist studies from Stanford, and she also introduced me to dharma talks by Thanissaro Bhikku (whose translations are cited in this article), a long-time monk in the Thai forest tradition, whose presentations I often like. I also think Buddhists lead the way in many ways in developing an understanding of the nature of consciousness that makes sense both to the modern scientific mind and to spiritual seekers. Largely for this reason, I am working on developing a way to open conversation on perspectives vaishnavas may have in common with them.
I concur with you on most points. I was reading some of the sutras (pali suttas) from the Pali cannon, and I was struck to see the empiricism and rational inquiry. I wonder if it is possible to practice some form of agnostic Vaishnavism. I feel it is intellectually dishonest to claim the existence of the soul or Shri Krishna and all sorts of things written in the Bhagvatam without any empirical evidence. There is an element of empiricism in the Bhagavad Gita, in some ways Shri Krishna is inviting people to practice and see the truth for themselves. But The number of assumptions or hypothesis that one needs to believe, in Vaishnavism is much more than Buddhism, hence from that viewpoint Buddhism is much better than Vaishnavism.
“Vaisnavas have for centuries taught that the Buddha’s non theism was a strategy, not a metaphysical reality for him.”
Arguably this strategy is much better than Vaishnava strategy of describing the spiritual world, Krishna leela etc. The effect is in front of our eyes. Buddhism because of its agnosticism and empiricism has enjoyed immense popularity in the western & eastern world, while Vaishnavism is only popular in its homeland. Another example is Bengali sentimental( sahjiyas etc) Vaishnavism This is the cost one pays when one starts describing such things which cannot(should not) be described in words.
When such things are described people become too cock sure of what they know. I have heard so many times ” Other religions don’t know how God looks like, but we exactly know how God looks like, where He lives etc..”. Almost all the devotees I met seemed to be certain about Shri Krishna and things that describe Him. This attitude arrests investigation and actual knowing. And in some ways the scripture is responsible for this. This is not just in Vaishnavism, if the Koran didn’t describe paradise, I guess we wouldn’t have people killing themselves in order to enjoy with the virgins.
Encouragement to investigate reality on the strength of one’s spiritual practice is a much better strategy than simply linguistically describing the ultimate metaphysical reality.
It is rather a question of whether acintya bhedabheda is more reasonable than sunyavada. And to know from reliable persons and proceed from there is how the empirical world of modern science proceeds more often than not. To place reason on the altar is not reasonable. You speak of the Gita. It is philosophically about the nature of being and in this sense requires no more believing than Buddisim. It theological side does require belief, but it is a faith well founded in it’s philosophy and the nature of being presented therein.
Also the desriptions of Krsna are part of the Bhagavata’s methodology for dismantling the conventional ego, methodology that is arguably more user friendly and powerful than that found in Buddhism.
I was practicing KC 20 years,was,nt shure about reality to many concepts ,mass of informations or just concepts,trying to clear my mind,buddhism offers for me more real ,safe shelter,droping one,s opinions on absolute truth,feel more honest and openminded ,respectfull,human.
AM I ON A SAFE PATH?
Thank you for your reply.
Well I wouldn’t really agree with this. Even the most reliable people have to give evidence( or proof if its exact sciences) to justify their claims. And the reason one can rely on scientists, is that they follow the scientific method of peer review. If I make a claim(backed with evidence) that Shrila Prabhupada was wrong, it will cause an uproar in ISKCON and I will be thrown out(if it was Islam, I would be killed). But when Einstein proposed(and when evidence was found) the General theory of relativity effectively saying, Newton did not have everything correctly figured out, he was celebrated as a genius.
In recent times one can find books like books like Buddhism without beliefs and Confessions of Buddhist Atheist (both by Stephen Batchelor) which talk about Agnostic Buddhism.
Why do you say that?. I am afraid if everyone does this, we will go back to the dark ages.
I agree with this. Things like rebirth are important to both traditions. But people like Stephen Batchelor and Sam Harris are practicing Buddhist meditation without any notion of a self independent of the brain.
Well, I guess in my experience both are effective and maybe a combination of both could be even more effective like half an hour Buddhist mindfulness meditation before chanting Hare Krishna. For people who don’t appreciate faith(God) based spirituality, Buddhism can be a good alternative. And as for user friendliness I guess that holds true more for Indian people.
I think, what you said in the quote above is extremely interesting. Is it possible to not believe in Shri Krishna (but open to both 1. the possibility of His existence or 2.that He is just imaginary ) but do the chanting, deity worship, kirtan etc simply as a method for dismantling the conventional ego? Do you think such an attitude is in line with the Parampara or would it be heretical ? Because traditional GV says its not only a method but also a goal.
Thank you for your time.
Scientific method and peer review are both still subject to the limitations of sense perception and reasoning.
Maharaja is saying that reasoning is not a conclusive means of knowing. To “place reason on the alter” assumes that nothing can be known without reasoning about it. However, reasoning can only take us so far–it has a limit. Once that limit is reached our method is to fold our palms and use our heart instead of our mind.
Yes, Gauravani. Faith is the experience that reason ultimately fails.
Thanks for your comment. Here is what I think.
We humans are limited in all respects. We evolved from the great apes in response to some climate change, so our ability to ponder microscopic and cosmological world is limited. But yet, Mathematics and Technology has given us wings which transcend our sense abilities. The Chandra X-Ray telescope and Spitzer Infra-red telescope captured the existence of a Super Massive Black Hole at the center of Milky Way. Mathematics helped in predicting existence of Black Holes.
Without these technologies, human senses are incapable of knowing things like Black holes. Yes, humans can make mistakes, but not all of them. Some bright guy can come and set things straight. Hence, science keeps on evolving because nobody is perfect.
How do we know when the limit is reached? For Newton the limit was reached when his equations could not explain the motions of outer planets. For Huygens, it was Biology. But people figured it out. Nowadays, the big questions are consciousness, Dark Energy(what is causing univ to accelerate), Higgs Boson etc. We don’t know many things, but then should we just fold our arms and pray, or roll up over sleeves and take on the challenge?
Knowledge of the cosmos is not transcendent because the cosmos exist temporarily.
Also, to observe temporary phenomena directly or indirectly requires an eternal observer, i.e. consciousness. Without consciousness we cannot make any conjecture about the nature of the world. In fact, we cannot deny consciousness without being conscious.
In addition, we cannot objectively prove that we have conscious subjective experience despite the fact that we all conduct our lives as if we have subjective experience.
Transcendent knowledge begins with consciousness. You will find that Vedanata begins here and the Srimad Bhagavatam dives deeply into the nature of consciousness itself.
Black holes pale in comparison to the descriptions of consciousness found in the Bhagavatam.
As Maharaja stated, that is an issue of faith. If we have faith in our senses and mind we might follow their lead indefinitely but without conclusive satisfaction. When all of our attempts to understand, predict and control are frustrated by what is essentially visnu-sakti we can only hope for sadhu-sanga which results in faith in bhakti.
“And to know from reliable persons and proceed from there is how the empirical world of modern science proceeds more often than not.”
to which your replied,
The fact that testimony is part of modern scientific epistemology is difficult to get around. Physicists rely on the testimony of biologists and chemists, etc., etc. No one has the time or expertise to gather first hand observable experience in all disciplines. Yes, they have peer review system in place, but credible religions have a similar review board in place as well that determines what type of testimony is credible. The difference in these two has more to do with the subjects they are concerned with than it does with a difference in epistemic methodology. Religion deals with the subjective. Science deals with the objective.That is the basic difference between the two. It is not reasonable to expect the veracity of spirituality or spiritual claims to be entirely subject to third person objective means of knowing when spirituality is a first person subjective ontological claim. And I should say that it is not only a claim, in that consciousness is an undeniable subjective reality that a science dealing only with the objective physical world by its very definition has no scope for understanding.
It is now a popular idea that modern science is flexible and religion is inflexible with regard to truth claims. You seem to have bought into this idea. But history and the philosophy of science tells a different story, as does the history of religion. Science has a long history of stubbornness to change and acceptance of new evidence that warrants a paradigm shift. You appear to be espousing a neo empirical/logical positivism, and it was Karl Popper and Thomas Khun who brought up the inherent, inescapable lack of objectivity in modern science I refer to above that arguably more than anyone else helped retire such positivism into the philosophical trash bin decades ago. Yes, modern science does change it position at times and that is to its credit. However, the larger point is just that: it is a science of knowing the objective, physical world that itself is unknowable in its entirety. The epistemic limits of the scientific method are limited by the fact that one can only observe how one observes nature and not nature itself. One cannot access or observe nature in its virgin state. We are not only limited in our ability to understand the objective world by our human bias but more so by the very nature of reality that includes first and foremost the subjective observer. We really cannot get beyond consciousness itself. And this incidentally is the view of the Bhagavatam on the objective world: maya means both “that which is not” and “to measure.” We cannot comprehensively measure the objective world and in this sense bring it within the fist of our intellect. Nor can we—and that much less so—bring consciousness within the fist of our intellect! And thus science will forever continue to give us different pictures of the objective world. It really offers much less in terms of knowledge one can build a firm foundation on than religion does, in that religion when properly understood opens us to the ground of being—consciousness. This will never change: consciousness—”I am”— is that from where all other knowing is derived. Knowledge of the objective world is constantly in flux, but the knowledge that “I am” is the bedrock of all knowing.
Regarding the history of religion, from the Christian perspective the very term “New Testament” and all that it implies flies in the face of the notion that religion is not flexible and open to new light and change. It was perhaps Aquinas who changed the Catholic church forever when he began to theologize on the basis of new insight found in old, not previously considered works of Aristotle that had surfaced in his time. Indeed, theology is the very exercise of continuing to find new meaning in revelation. The main difference between philosophy and religion is that the former is grounded in revelation. And even as it is, it demonstrates the dynamic nature of revelation.
As for Vedanta, the same holds true. The Bhagavatam is the New Testament of the Veda. In this text dharma (varnasrama dharma) is retired and replaced with paro dharma—prema dharma. The text forcefully presses for a paradigm shift that in the scientific world is equal to the shift from classical physics to quantum physics. And your example of today’s Iskcon, which has largely become a fundamentalist Vaisnava sect, is in stark contrast to the perspective found on this site regarding everything that Prabhuada has said.
I will try to find time to address the rest of your response later.
Yes, I have written about that in my earlier article on secular meditation. But Sam Harris now agrees that only a subjective approach to examining consciousness is appropriate. And if they get real experience of ego death by their practice (unlikely since as a lifetime commitment is required as Harris admits), they will be speaking about it like everyone else does who has the experience. Let them get experience, some anyway. But the idea that the subjective reality is a brain makes no sense—whether it be qualia or consciousness itself—nor is it a notion that is verifiable, nor intuitively sound, nor one anyone can practically live by. It’s an unreasonable faith. Everyone is a dualist in action and actions speak louder than words.
I think, again, one needs to decide on one’s metaphysical position. The two, sunyavada and acintya bhedabheda are not compatible. If you embrace the latter, then there is more to transcendence than dismantling one’s ego. Is love an ontological reality? If you think so, then there must be both a consciousness you and a significant consciousness other. At the same time descriptions of lila are only such: descriptions of that which transcends word and thought. Such descriptions are metaphorical in that they are intended to convey philosophical truths, but they are also descriptions that speak of the nature of transcendence in terms of acanitya bhedabheda. I think of them as being “based on a true story.” There is much more to the story as well. Thus they are not metaphorical in an Advaitin sense. Krsna does exist. He is the significant ananda other.
And I think bhakti is user friendly for Westerners when properly explained in that is employs one’s emotional reality in a manner that Buddhism does not. Most are more emotional than rational, but at the same time it is not that bhakti does not offer considerable intellectual engagement as well.
Thank you for your detailed reply. I must read about Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn to update my views.
But why should I accept anything a-priori? If my experiments and investigation using methods like meditation reveal acintya bheda bheda, then I will accept it. If instead I see dependent origination then I guess Buddhism would make more sense.
I don’t have the confidence to claim this. Experience of some mystic relationship with Shri Krishna is no guarantee that Shri Krishna exists or He is some transcendental truth. There could be other explanations. The Advaitins would say, that it is the transcendent Bramhan which has taken form of Shri Krishna. The Neuroscientists would like to see fMRI scan, etc and explain it in terms of some brain function. And if one can claim this one can claim anything. St Francis would claim existence of Jesus. Some American Indian natives would claim they experienced oneness with their ancestors. Neo pagans would say they experienced Zeus and Poseidon. Some creative thinkers will say, we live in a simulated reality and then explain mystic phenomenon in terms of their framework.
As for me, I would love to experience such ecstatic states, of being in a dynamic relationship with Shri Krishna. And I believe my experiments with meditation and chanting may lead me there(or may not also, instead I may experience Buddhist jhana states). But I will just enjoy these elevated states, I wouldn’t claim that Shri Krishna is Absolute Truth and He is real or that I was “so and so” in my last 345th birth. Rather if anyone asks I would just tell them to practice the methods and see for themselves. Discussing things which are beyond words is unnecessary, experiencing them for oneself is what matters. Buddhism(Pali cannon), Yoga sutras and in someways maybe even reformed Judaism dosen’t comment on such states. Only some hint is given, but Gaudiya Vaishnavism goes in all minute details.
I don’t know how knowledge of, who serves rice or whatever to Shri Krishna in Vraja, will help anyone in anything, or if it will add to anyone’s understanding of reality. All these esoteric things are probably irrelevant and useless, but this web-site has been useful. It has certainly contributed to my understanding of reality, thanks for creating an open space.
Yes, by all means meditate. I suppose you can fashion your own form of meditation and see what happens. But I would not be so quick to ignore the systems of meditation that have consistently resulted in ego effacement and arguably more. And all systems are not the same and will not bear the same results.
And my point was that the choice between Buddhism and bhakti involves a metaphysical choice. And the practice is tied to the choice. If one is inclined towards the idea that reality is loving, one will be inclined towards bhakti. If one is inclined towards the idea that reality is emptiness, one will be inclined towards Buddhism. Similarly, if one is inclined to believe that consciousness is matter, one may not be inclined to meditate at all.
You may speak differently if you attain such a state. And the Gita acknowledges there are many states.
That will be more important later, but in the earlier stages of the Krsna-bhakti marg it may also be helpful as an aid to meditation.
You can also read the history of science in which it is explained clearly that Galileo and Kepler did not actually have complete evidence about their theories when they put them forth. So science also is not exactly as flexible as it is supposed to be. On the peer review and its limitations, I am very aware of these problems. However, unless the theory and results are very path breaking or of huge consequence, I don’t see why people will spend too much time to get every result accurately. So yes, it is like democracy. It is not perfect, but it is the best of the bad bargain. Same goes for peer review.
If I make a claim(backed with evidence) that Shrila Prabhupada was wrong, it will cause an uproar in ISKCON and I will be thrown out(if it was Islam, I would be killed). But when Einstein proposed(and when evidence was found) the General theory of relativity effectively saying, Newton did not have everything correctly figured out, he was celebrated as a genius.
On this point, I agree with you. Still, Newton said “if I have gone further, I have done so looking on shoulder of giants”. And Bhaktivinoda in his Bhagavata essay does mention about the similar principle. The biggest issue is that most religious people and their faith is dependent on an image of a perfect man (Jesus or Prabhupada) who got everything right and knows more , which they did not. Once you accept that they are wrong on certain things, then the faith of most people crumbles like a piece of cards. That method has its utility as the huge following of religions will indicate. It works very well to get a mass following and we cannot diminish the value of absolute authorities in religions. They provide great comfort and stability to people. It is good to create that image of perfect infallible authority and I don’t think this idea will be phased out. But, yes for many modern people, it is harder to accept that because it is pretty clear that all teachers of the past were not correct on everything though they were confident that they were.
This was a very interesting read, thanks for posting it!
I’d be interested to hear how the orthodox buddhists would reply to his points. Maybe I should visit the Green Gulch during their next open-doors day 😉
This is an interesting contribution to the discussions on consciousness. For me this begs the question of what is a self comprised of. What makes up this entity we call a self?
If consciousness is a non-physical property defined by ‘experience’ then consciousness as an independent property would be content-less. Of course, we do not know consciousness to be content-less. Consciousness is known as dependent on the ‘experience of…‘. In other words, experience is always intentional. Also, if there is disembodied consciousness it would be ‘experience of…add content on which it intends‘. In this sense it would be consciousness constituted of that which it is concerned with, it’s content.
IF our immanent consciousness (‘experience of memories, longings, sensations, etc.’) can withdraw from its own usual contents (memories, longings, sensations, etc.) and IF there is a reciprocating supreme entity comprised of “sat-cit-ananda” then there may be the possibility for ‘experience of sat-cit-ananda’ In a moment of contact between consciousness and “sac-cit-ananda” this is exactly what consciousness would be comprised of.
In an article I am writing called, “Withdrawing from the unconscious” I suggest that consciousness can and does associate to or dissociate from cognitive, emotional and motivational content. Consciousness, unlike mental content, does seem to have the freedom of mobility. It can and does choose its content. In my opinion, this opens up interesting possibilities (none of which are novel to Gaudiya Vaisnavas).
I think the author wants to say that consciousness is existence (being) that has the capacity to experience, be that matter (resulting in qualia) or consciousness (itself or God). Proceeding from there Vedanta says that if it is a unit of being detached from matter then is is also unit of knowledge, given that ignorance is synonymous with material attachment. Now give this unit of existence (sat) and knowledge (cit) a purpose called love (ananda). It exists. It knows it exists. It exists to love.
Incidentally the author has written an interesting book on consciousness. He refers to his theory as idealistic dualism. Very interesting book. Very well thought out on some issues, dualism in particular and also the difference between consciousness and what science and Wester philosophy call consciousness. It is available in iBook format.
I can see the point that consciousness itself is ‘Sat’ or being.
You say the author suggests,
David Chalmers brings up a great point which is that cognition, memory and all other contents related to consciousness (what can be called access or psychological consciousness) logically and naturally result from the physical. If this is the case, it is hard to imagine consciousness of itself to be possible in the absence of the experiential content of the self. I am suggesting that the exception would be if another non-physical entity (god) comprised as he is of infinite being (sat), knowledge (cit) or emotion (ananda) were to lend those properties to us. We can then experience consciousness in relation to those non-physical qualia rather than material qualia. But this is not consciousness of itself per se.
Of course, I am arguing from the position of having had little spiritual experience. But it is hard to imagine something like pure consciousness of itself without such qualia. It would be like experience of a no-thing (hence anatta or anatman). Is such a thing truly possible? My experience in clinical psychology has suggested that a “no-thing” (like a missing caretaker) is often experienced as a hostile thing. When I hear descriptions from buddhist scriptures it hardly sounds like a hostile experience. I wonder if these experiences of consciousness are always inherently experiences of the ‘sat’ of god? In other words, an ‘other’ is needed in order to have experience…even of ‘sat’ or being.
It is also hard to imagine the experience-of-a-thing (qualia) without some contact with the thing itself. In this regard, the experience of a tree results from the contact with a tree or with the memory of contact with a tree (resulting in a more vague qualia). Similarly, substantial spiritual experience would result from contact with the form of being-knowledge-bliss (sat-cit-ananda vigraha) not from experience of experience itself or experience of the material objects.
I guess I am suggesting that spiritual experience is therefore dependent on contact from the ‘absolute other’ not from experience-of-itself. Experience of the absolute other is an experience which we cannot manufacture in the imagination. This contact must be given to us by that ‘other’ for it to be “real” (after all, an imagined tree is not a tree at all unless it has come to us first as a real tree).
Yes, I understand your point. But Vedanta does tell us that the self itself is sat cit ananda, not that only God is so constituted. The difference being quantitative. And there is something to be said for what one can know only by revelation.
But that aside, I think the idea in Vedanta is that the self exists (sat); it also knows that “I am;” and this knowing existence is a great relief from the threat of non existence that material life presents. This relief then is the limit of its ananda. Until, that is as you say, it experience the “consciousness-ananda-other” that you have posited. Short of this brahmananda and brahma jnana could be described (inadequately) as a “contentless experience.” Indeed this is the position Vedanta takes when it compares brahmanada with deep sleep. So in a sense your position herein is pretty close to what Vedanta says for all intent and purposes. Indeed, the position of the Bhagavatam is that there is no self realization without the ingress of Bhagavan or bhakti into one’s life.
Thank you for the comments. I just had a question regarding the metaphysical inclination you spoke about.
This seems fair. But then if one is inclined towards the idea that reality is loving, then a “significant other” who is personification of that love is required, else love does not have much meaning. But then from this it does not follow that such a person is actually Supreme God who is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent.
There could be many persons( they may have human or non human form) with whom one could have an eternal loving relationship. A perfected being can have a loving relationship with another perfected being.
The idea that such a person is a Supreme God does not fit in well with the idea that such a person can be all loving and can have all kinds of relationships. One of the reasons being the problem of evil. Statements made by Shri Vishnu in Bhagvatam pale in comparison with some made by Pralhad, in terms of compassion. So if Shri Vishnu is God, then it seems he is more cruel than Pralhad(since Shri Vishnu can remove suffering with one stroke but he won’t). In Shrila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad Gita it seems that Shri Krishna is saying, “unless you surrender to Me, you will suffer in this world for eternity”. How is this different from the Abrahamic God saying,”unless you accept Me and Jesus(or Mohammad) you will suffer in hell for eternity”.? This is not at all compassion and love.
So would you agree that Vraja Krishna maybe the personification of this loving reality; and the claims in Bhagvatam and Bhagavad Gita about Krishna being the Supreme God is just a strategy(in reality it is not true) to help people come close to the loving reality ? Or is this an heretical idea according to GV ?
Krsna has been experienced as that deity who reciprocates in love (rasa) more than any other deity, and this experience has been reported in the Bhagavatam. He is all loving in this respect. But does that mean he is God? And if so, in relation to this world he appears less loving than his devotees (Prahlada). So perhaps he is not God? This seems to be your question.
if we examine the accounts of divinity from those who have honed any particular, time tested subjective methodology for exploring the mystery of consciousness (the non physical, non natural, the supernatural), the idea that Krsna is the heart of divinity rings true. He is all loving. However, the problem that arises with the all loving Godhead is that he himself is lost in love, lost under the influence of the essence of his svarupa-sakti (bhakti). He forgets his Godhood and this is a natural consequence of his being all loving. Remember, being all loving in the manner in which Krsna is said to be far exceeds being merely compassionate and equal to all the materially conditioned souls. If there is God who is all loving—who will fall in love with you—don’t expect him to be preoccupied with the suffering of others. This is how Vraja Krsna is portrayed. And in his Vraja lila his is so predisposed towards his devotees that when Putana merely dressed like a devotee he accepted her as his mother, despite her evil intentions.
However, Guadiya siddhanta identifies Krsna’s devotees as manifestations of his krpa-sakti, his mercy. And they work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of others by way of encouraging them to love Krsna. Krsna’s avataras are also to a lesser degree involved in bestowing mercy. But why if he is all loving does he not just free everyone from their karma/suffering? Mercy involves overriding justice. But if there is only mercy, there is no justice to override.
But whey is there suffering to begin with? This is the inevitable consequence of the sristi-lila. Mahavisnu becomes many out of joy. However, because he presides over the maya sakti the many inevitably come in contact with her. Problem. To remedy this Mahavisnu becomes the conduit for the various avataras (who have devotees) in order that the many may meet their maker. This is sristi-lila.
But why is there a maya sakti at all? One might just as well ask why there is anything at all. The question is not why there is a maya sakti but rather how the maya sakti works, because we know there is a maya sakti (material nature). To ask why there is a maya sakti is really to question if it really exists. And that is not the best question.
There is of course mush more to say on the question of theodicy you have raised. But time is limited and the subject is vast and difficult to cover comprehensively in these pages.
But another way to frame all of this is that we are all seeking ananda. And thus we are interested in the source of ananda. Krsna is the best candidate for that proffered by the mystics. No need to call him God. He is Anandamoy.