One way or another I seem to find in the discussion groups a variety of contexts that keeps circling back to the question: Does the self exist? It seems like you can’t have a discussion group about Buddhism without somebody insisting on raising that question. Almost inevitably the responses fall into two camps: One is the kind of wise-cracking answer of Who wants to know? The other launches into a lot of metaphysical esoterica that’s supposed to sound spiritual but is completely disconnected from anything that the person talking is engaging with in their real life.
Very often you get a sense that by a lot of esoteric talk about being nobody, someone is trying to prove what a somebody they are. But the question keeps recurring and you wonder what it is that keeps drawing people back to it. In a certain sense, that idea of no-self is meant to be a kind of relief from tyranny of self, but when you talk to people about what that would mean to them, almost inevitably it’s some version of wanting one part of the self to be free of another. I have a lot of disturbing thoughts I want to get rid of. I have anxiety or sadness I want to get rid of. There’s always a remainder of an “I” that’s going to be left over to enjoy once and for all the peace and quiet that’s going to be achieved when that unpleasant version of self is finally evicted. We don’t really have any idea what it would mean to be free of the tyranny of the observer or the tyranny of the self that is seeking freedom from its suffering.
I think another aspect of what is so compelling about talk of no-self is that it tends to push a button in most of us that connects with our deepest fears and that has to do with the sense of feeling like nobody in the worst sense, a fear of being completely non-recognized, of being a kind of ghost-in-the-world, where life is going on around you but nobody’s paying you any attention at all. And there we have this sense of being no one in the most oppressive way imaginable, where the world is populated by somebodies who are only paying attention to each other and we’re fundamentally left out. I think that all this no-self talk, in a way, draws people because it inadvertently plugs into that sense of facing a deep fear of non-recognition.
When we look at the root texts, like the Heart Sutra and the talk about the emptiness of self, it’s important first of all to realize that the self is not being singled out in any way in terms of its emptiness. It’s not as if this whole world of real things exists and only the self doesn’t, as a kind of false imaginary entity in a world of real things. The Heart Sutra insists that if the self doesn’t exist, neither does the floor you’re sitting on or the air you’re breathing or the sun that’s shining. The self doesn’t exist in the same way you can say the world doesn’t exist, but we rarely hear it formulated that way. I think that people would have a whole different reaction to it if it was put in that kind of framework, where nothing has any kind of permanent or substantial reality.
But when we say the self doesn’t exist, and single that out, it strikes at an inner Descartes in all of us that wants to assume or assert a thing that we know best and with most certainty is our own private inner experience, and we can doubt everything about the world and we can imagine everything out there is an insubstantial dream, but the thing I know is my own knowing, my own experience.
The idea of emptiness, in a sense, levels the playing field. It says that we can’t know or control anything more than anything else, including anything inner. We’re not known to ourselves any more certainly than we know the world. We cannot control the content or experience of our mind with any more certainty than we can know or control so-called outer things of the world.
There are many ways in which we bump up against this. Certainly in non-Buddhist psychology we confront the notion of the unconscious, which by definition says that there are aspects of who we are that we don’t know, and that we are constantly being shaped or defined by things out of our awareness, that in a sense what could be most essential or determining about our inner experience are things that we have no access to. When we talk about what it is that is actually at stake in this talk about no-self, we’re talking about issues of knowing and controlling our experience. That’s how we bring it back down to something that’s real to ourselves: How much of what’s happening to us, by us, do we really understand? How much of it is caused by conditioning, called karma, cause and effect conditions outside of our awareness and outside of our control? How much of who we are doesn’t begin inside and emanate outward, but comes in from the outside in ways that we can’t really know about, can’t really control.
The non-existence of self is simply an assertion of its impermanence and its interdependency, not its phantom-like nature, as if we could just blow on it, and blow it away and that would be it once and for all. Again, we have a certain kind of fantasy of release, but invariably it’s a release that one part wishes for one part from another. But what we have to face, actually, is that this sense of interdependency means a vulnerability to the world and to other non-existent selves which we somehow remain very vulnerable to for their love and attention, recognition, and the fact of change and impermanence, and which we tend to get slightly more aware of as time goes on. In many significant ways it all comes down to our desire to control the uncontrollable, and our practice, which Uchiyama has called Opening the Hand of Thought, is also letting go of that attempt to get a tight grip on our life, to loosen up the hand that’s trying to grasp the steering wheel of our mind and our life and make it go the way we want it to go.
We need to open that hand of control as well as that hand of thought, to have a lighter touch, and then we could be, as Chesterton described, more like angels who can fly because they take themselves lightly.