The Buddhist Self

by Varun Gauri

When modern Buddhists and mindfulness practitioners say the ultimate cause of stress and suffering is the craving for permanence, especially the misguided craving for a permanent “self,” which “self” are they talking about?

In his interesting and provocative book Why I Am Not a Buddhist, Evan Thompson explores the possibilities: (1) The pre-reflective self, elemental to consciousness, is related to the fact that we cannot perceive an object without being aware that we are perceiving it. For example, I cannot notice a sunset without the knowledge that I am aware of the sunset. (2) I experience an imagined center of agency and locus of being. This is the sense, and the legal fiction, that someone is in charge in there, a CEO or author of our actions and thoughts. (3) Many of us believe in a non-material essence or soul. (4) I have an awareness of being embodied, the understanding that what happens to my arm also happens to me. (5) There is a social self that exists in relationships to others. I am continually monitoring where I stand in relation to parents, friends, families, colleagues, nations, and others. Am I loved, known, cared for? (6) Cognitive psychologist discuss the generalized ability to reflect on our own experience — the faculty for meta-awareness that is the source of introspection and planning. (7) Following from that capacity for meta-cognition, I am aware of  “an extended self,” which emerges from an historical past and is thrown into time (there was something before me and there will be something after). This self has a kind of gnawing awareness of an unknown future, or rather, a future uncertain but for my certain death. This is the self that has to go places, that has an autobiography and that spins a narrative identity. It is the self that existentialists discuss, the one that establishes a stance —  courageous, fearful, indifferent — toward our impending demise. 

In his essay “Being somebody and being nobody: a reexamination of the understanding of self in psychoanalysis and Buddhism,” Jack Engler tackles another self: (8) The desiring and strategizing self — an ego motivated by libido and aggression. This self possesses recognizable, all-too-familiar strategies for aggrandizing and satisfying desires, and for making do, when necessary, with poor substitutes and effigies. This self is sometimes experienced as an internal split or division. It’s the one Augustine had in mind when he said, “Lord make me chaste, but not yet.”

Which of these selves is the illusory cause of suffering, in the Buddhist view?

The early Buddhist discourses, the Nyayikas, pointed to the “five aggregates” of experience, which include the body, feeling, perceptions, the will, and mental representations. They argued that the self cannot be located in any of these, so the self’s existence, at least as a CEO (2) or as an essence (3), is a mystery, perhaps an illusion. Brahminical writers in the Nyaya tradition disagreed, noting that the early Buddhist arguments couldn’t explain the experience of the unity of consciousness — the fact that I seem like the same self I was yesterday, or, turning awareness outside, that a rolling ball doesn’t seem like an series of perceptions and representations but a ball in motion.

Although some Buddhist sources variously refer to the “luminous mind” or the “Buddha nature” of all sentient beings as the potential from which nirvana emerges, most modern Western Buddhists align with other discourses that deny the existence of a transcendental self or non-material essence (3). Many of these Westernized “Buddhist modernists,” as Thompson calls them, believe, with the Nyayikas, that the sense of an inner CEO or author (2) is illusory, or at the very least a construction. The attainment of nirvana supposedly eliminates the emotional defilements, including greed and hate, and extinguishes the deluded craving for a self, resulting in, presumably, an overcoming of ego (8). In some accounts, nirvana further leads to non-dual consciousness, possibly extinguishing the pre-reflective experience of the self (1), and a state of generosity or kindness toward others, transforming the social self (5). 

This leaves two selves that receive comparatively little treatment, at least to my knowledge: the faculty of meta-cognition (6) and the capacity for narrative identity (7).
Do these also dissipate on the dharmic path, or after the attainment of nirvana? 

Mindfulness is itself a kind of meta-awareness (becoming aware of the movements in our awareness). If nirvana extinguishes all senses of self, does that mean that the enlightened one loses her capacity for mindfulness? That doesn’t seem right. Understanding our own thoughts, which requires meta-awareness, seems like the basis on which we understand the thoughts of others (the faculty of meta-cognition is related to possessing of a “theory of mind”), so an enlightened person, should they want to teach others the dharma, would need a meta-cognitive self (6). 

It is also difficult to imagine human beings who do not tell stories about themselves (7). These self-narrations typically address social identity, an account of how one fits into some human community, so to have no storytelling self is to be void of a human community. In The Lies that Bind, Kwame Anthony Appiah argues that social identity is woven into how we deploy our bodies — sitting up straight, not eating with your left hand, and not eating with your mouth full are markers of the community to which one belongs. Wouldn’t an enlightened person still be socially recognizable, with Tibetan or American mannerisms and tastes? In Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor argues that the narrative-making, identity-forming self is an inescapable aspect of undamaged human selfhood, constituting a desirable and necessary aspect of being a moral person — a social identity is essential for the experience of dignity, understood as commanding the praise of people around us — it’s the “horizon within which I’m capable of making a stand.” Perhaps, for the enlightened Buddhist, the story-telling self with a social identity would not disappear altogether; perhaps, as I’ve argued before, it becomes a lighter and less imposing social identity, like an article of clothing we put on and take off, a more optional part of our being.  

Ultimately, Thompson, who as a child grew up on a kind of commune surrounded by Eastern-style mystics and practitioners, makes a pitch for cosmopolitanism of the form Appiah advocates, and believes Buddhist thinkers can contribute greatly to the making of a cosmopolitanism that isn’t Eurocentric or Americentric. He sees himself as not as a Buddhist but as a “good friend to Buddhism.” De-essentializing Buddhism may be Thompson’s most Buddhist-friendly move.