The idea of No-Self in the Buddhist philosophy takes a substantial part in its theorizing and practice. At the same time, it is the source of heated discussion and debate among other philosophers whose majority speaks for the existence of self since it is the foundation of all the major principles of self-focused theories. The current paper considers the arguments on both sides of the issue of the existence or non-existence of the eternal soul and presents the conclusions as to their validity. In particular, the thesis claims that the Buddhist doctrine obviously suggests more productive ideas considering the improvement of an individual and the possibility to achieve the state of happiness. What is more, the paper aims at analyzing the doctrine profoundly which means looking at all the aspects of it separately and investigating the critical observations about it from the Buddhist point of view. Over and above, two different ethnical views are compared and the most probable is defined.
Before exploring the theory of non-self, it would be sensible to recall the concept of Self, Ego, Soul, or Atman in Sanskrit. Any religion grounds its teachings on the notion of a soul which has certain qualities of eternity in the sense that it continues living even after the death of a material body. It is usually described as “permanent, everlasting, and absolute entity” whose main idea is that it remains unchanged in the constantly changing world of phenomena (“The Doctrine of No Soul”). It should be also noted that this infinite entity is created by some supernatural being, the god, and it is the subject of all the thoughts, feelings, and strivings of the human being to become as close to the higher being as possible. In the religion of Krishna this soul (or “jeva, the living entity”) strives to unite with the Supreme Personality of Godhead or the Supreme Lord, Brahman, Atman; all these notions appear in the Bhagavad-Gita. The latter is a part of the Mahabharata and, virtually, the essence of all the Upanishads (Bhaktivedanta).
Contrary to the doctrine of self, typical for the majority of religious systems, the teaching of Buddhism developed the concept of No-Self, or anatta. In brief, it denies the existence of the above-mentioned Soul, Self, or Atman. Moreover, the Buddha insisted that this imaginary notion of self, which does not correspond to any real object in reality, implies harm for a human being. The reason for such interpretation is that it makes a person regard “I” and “mine” and this fact leads to selfishness, cravings, attachment, hatred, pride, and many other evils of the world (“The Doctrine of No Soul”). Therefore, the Buddha teaches straightforwardly that there is no Self, Soul, Atman, or Ego. As a matter of fact, many supporters of this thinker cannot accept the idea of No-self and make their own interpretation. According to them, there is a Self but it is different from the five constituent parts of an empiric individual. These five aggregates are called khandhas and include “rupa (corporeality), vedana (feelings), sanna (perceptions), sankhara (mental formations) and vinnana (consciousness)” (Karunadasa). An important idea in such interpretation was the notion of control implied in the Self who resides over the parts of a human being.
In spite of the attempts of some scholars to impose the idea of Self on the Buddhist teaching, it has an unambiguous position concerning the absence of Self and grounds on solid arguments in this statement. One of the primary is the argument from impermanence. In the first place, it is vital to realize that the analysis and examination of the five constituent parts of living beings showed that they are changeable like anything else in the world. Furthermore, there is no absolute, unchanging substance behind those five aggregates which would be denoted as Soul, Self, or Atman. The Buddhist theory of relativity substantially proves that everything in the world is conditioned, relative, and interdependent. This Conditioned Genesis formula demonstrates how all the conditioning and conditioned life factors make a circle of appearance, existence and finally cessation (“The Doctrine of No Soul”).
Since there is nothing absolute and unchanged, the argument from impermanence has a solid foundation. Its first premise explains that if there were self, it would be permanent. Secondly, none of the above-mentioned five kinds of psychological constituents is permanent. Therefore, there is no self (“Buddha” 2011). On the whole, Buddha always claimed against the statements about the existence of unobservable entities in his writings. He denied such notions as an unseen seer or the path to oneness with Brahman on the ground that no one has observed this Brahman in reality. On a related note, the thinker chooses the premise statement for the above argument running that there is nothing more or over the five distinguished elements of a human being. Furthermore, while other philosophers ground on the idea of dualism differentiating between the body and mind (the mind being the bearer of cognition, feeling, and volition), his notion of mind belongs to other categories on equal grounds. In other words, the mind is no higher than any other aggregate in the sense that it stands for transient mental events which are also impermanent and for this reason cannot correspond to the diachronic personal identity. Meanwhile, that is the expectation assumed to be innate in the notion of Self (“Buddha” 2011).
The western scholars admire and appreciate the Buddhist teaching but they try to change somehow the doctrine of No-Self. Their grounds are the desires to have an eternal entity inside which would be able to exercise free will and strive for the eternal existence and spiritual development. In most religions it is evident that there must be certain eternal soul or self for whose sake it is reasonable to strive for the spiritual improvement (Bhikkhu 1996). Thus, the followers of self-doctrines point out that the Buddha’s claim about No-Self contradicts his own theory about karma and rebirth. For the opponents the question arises about the agent who has to accept the consequences of karma and take them into the next birth (Bhikkhu 1996).
Specifically, the objections to No-Self doctrine aim at responding to the argument from impermanence. The claim affirms that according to Buddha with the death of the physical body the psychological component also ceases its existence. Then the thinker simultaneously asserts that the way to the end of sufferings is the enlightenment and overcoming ignorance. So, human beings get the task to strive for this enlightenment and happiness through many new lives until they achieve their goal. The form of the reborn sentient beings and the conditions of rebirth are different and depend upon karma. The opponents of the No-Self concept ask the logical question about the contradiction between the necessity to remain the same person through all these lives and the absence of such eternal substance that would be able to move from one birth to another. Moreover, karma implies the accountability of each individual for his/her good or evil deeds. In particular, those who behaved honorably are reborn into more fortunate circumstances while unfavorable rebirths are the results of the previous indecent actions. It is obvious that karma assumes the existence of the person who is the agent of all crimes and has to become the recipient of punishments that is only possible if there is a persisting self (“Buddha” 2011).
It is logical to reckon that the devotee of the Buddhism could ground on specific ways of acquiring awareness in the attempt to reply to the objection of rebirth demanding the necessity of transmigrating self. More specifically, the theory under discussion relies considerably on the special yogic techniques which include meditations as a reliable source of achieving knowledge. In such a way, yoga enables an individual to realize negative bodily, verbal and mental action (karma) or rather their intention volition of which could lead to the ‘fruit’ (phala) that is an experience of pleasure, pain or indifference. Further, the three defilements (desire, aversion and ignorance) that induce rebirths can be destroyed through meditation and retrocognition (“Buddha” 2011). In such a way, the Buddhist follower can achieve knowledge and awareness without persistent, transmigrating self.
I consider the Buddhist doctrine about No-Self especially valuable in the sense that it opens additional possibilities for the avoidance of sufferings caused by the human consciousness. The followers of self-oriented systems are anxious to prove the existence of permanent self, of the spiritual soul which will last eternally, unchanged, and stable. However, this very fact is the source of worries and existential despair in the minds of the individuals who become horrified to death at the thought that there could be no everlasting, permanent soul. Such an idea is the reason for sufferings, for the fear of being annihilated or destroyed (“The Doctrine of No Soul”). For the Buddhist, however, these fears and worries are not in the least relevant owing to the concept of non-existing self. In other words, the Buddhism allows a human being to avoid the overwhelming desire to find something eternal and permanent within oneself and thus eliminate ignorance which prevents from achieving enlightenment and ceasing sufferings. All these points are innate in the concept of Nirvana, the state of detachment and cessation (“The Doctrine of No Soul”).
In conclusion, the Buddhist doctrine of No-Self allows humans to achieve the complete happiness and avoid the contradictory and distressful feelings and thoughts of a conscious self. In brief, it provides the opportunity to rise over one’s own nature, namely, all its constituent parts, enhance one’s enlightenment, and eliminate ignorance. Taking into account numerous existential sufferings caused by the fear of impermanent soul characteristic of the self-focused theories, it is sensible to conclude that the Buddhist argument seems much more productive. Similarly, its explanation of the karma and rebirth doctrine grounds on solid and reasonable statements and introduces an important system of meditations and yoga techniques. It is important to mention that there is a multitude of critical oversights considering the doctrine which are, though, not fully justified.
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