No Self, No Subject, No Suffering?

Updated: Jun 12

In previous posts we began with the notion of identity and how what appears to be most intimate is our self. It is difficult to evade or shake off this sense of being an isolated individual, subject of experience. However extroverted or gregarious, however wide our circle of family and friends may be, we have the sense not only of being subjects or agents directed at the world but also of being selves that are fundamentally separated from it.

However much we may want others to be content and fulfilled, we inevitably want those things for ourselves too. And of course, this is how it should be. Morally, we should want what is good for others as much as we want it for ourselves. But our self-directed bias makes this, for most of us at least, difficult to achieve. And because it is, or appears to be, difficult our societies are fractured into billions of competing selves, each with its own agenda, each with an agenda of self and self-interest.

Yet at the same time we’ve seen how the notion of a self somehow divorced from the world and from our fellow human beings is difficult to grasp. In essence, the self is no more than a collection of brain processes which guide our behaviour. Moreover, we saw in the last blog how our sense of being selves comes and goes. When we attend fully to a task or objective our sense of selfhood disappears, at least for as long as that attention is maintained. If somewhere there was an individual who in the waking state was able to maintain attention at all times she or he might never have the sense of being a self at all. What then might a community of such individuals achieve? What solutions might it find for our global problems and what limits might be placed on its reach?

Unfortunately, our evolutionary inheritance has selected us for an alternative path, one in which mind-wander is a recurring feature of our daily existence, one in which we cannot in practice attend for very long without the mind losing focus and coming back to the ‘me’. What’s in it for me? What do I get out of it? Why do I feel fearful or unfulfilled? We circle around, and in and out, of self-regarding thoughts, but we gain little in doing so. Of course, our ancestors did gain something- the more they thought about and acted in the interests of those apparent selves their chances of survival were enhanced, even if their exposure to mental and psychological suffering was increased. Perhaps then the survival and replication of these acquired characteristics is the best that we can hope for?

Except, given our current global problems such survival is becoming more and more doubtful. Unless as a species we attend closely and collectively to those problems, and do so urgently, homo sapiens may not survive the century. Yet, the remarkable fact about solving the problem of selfhood is that if achieved it would not only make each individual human being more fulfilled and content, it would also help to solve those pressing, inter-generational issues which are today causing us so much grief. In the best of all possible worlds we would survive, be happier, and (though perhaps in smaller numbers) continue to reproduce; our genes would live on, except that one feature of their legacy, namely the self, would be modified by mutual agreement.

Of course, some may say that the genes are too powerful, too well-established; we must never forget that natural selection is cleverer than any single one of us. Yet, all we would be doing is using our innate capacity to learn, and in particular learning to attend, and by doing so attend to those things that unrestrained are likely to destroy us. In doing so would we not be simply using one of the key weapons with which nature as endowed us, namely our capacity for rational thought? Reason was selected initially as a weapon in the contest between selves so that the cleverer, stronger and better fitted were more likely to survive and reproduce. But we can turn that same weapon on the self, so that we can continue collectively to survive and prosper. We are agents that can choose our goals, our objectives. And we can choose to find the self no longer fit for purpose.

In this way we can see ideas, as well as genes, as potential replicators (and indeed, the word ‘memes’ has long-been coined to describe the inter-generational power of ideas or human-made goals and values). Of course, it is not difficult to perceive a potential tension between the roles that these two kinds of replicator might play. Whatever ideas we may have, to which we aspire and by which we are inspired, our bodies are still survival machines for genes. Such genes help to build intangible structures like selves which are designed to survive and compete for physical resources, fostering impulses and behaviour in human hosts which may run counter to many of our collective memes and values. Four billion years of physical evolution is not to be easily dismantled or superseded.

Yet one is forced to conclude that the pace of human technical and cultural evolution has rendered our genetic inheritance somewhat unfit for purpose. The challenges posed by cultural evolution are now acute and we see them all around us. They are reflected most strongly in economic and technological inequality, in social instability, and in political and cultural divisions. The more numerous we are, and the more competing memes we afford space in our collective brains, the more problems we create and the more solutions we have to find.

At the heart of our current global difficulties are a cluster of environmental, social, economic and political problems which, to say the least, are extremely challenging. One of the reasons that these problems are so challenging is that they are inter-generational. Many adults living today, depending on their health and age, may live to see them out; but our children or grandchildren will not. Yet we are not designed by nature to deal with inter-personal and inter-generational issues. Crudely, we have inherited a bundle of characteristics, a key one of which is the self, that are designed to help us survive and encourage us, at best, to cherish our immediate offspring.

Rationally, we know that we need more than this. It is not we who matter, or at least matter so much, it is future generations, those generations we, or at least some of us, will bring, or have already brought, into existence. We know why we do so- the desire to procreate and cherish young is one of the most powerful adaptive traits that we have. But surely we also need good reasons why so doing might benefit those generations, rather than merely benefiting ourselves, or our genes? We need reasons which are personal, inter-personal and inter-generational.

Let us pull the focus back even further, and argue that what most concerns us is human suffering. When we look out at the world we share with others we find collective problems, together with projects that might address those problems. No doubt the precise nature of those problems changes over time; in the current century we are likely to stress those that put the integrity or survival of the human race in doubt- say, climate change, war, and the rise of artificial intelligence, together with threats to our freedoms that stem from religious and political fundamentalism, poverty and inequality. In such an approach we might wish to focus on what might be called the ‘large-scale structural defects’ in the human condition-our innate exposure to physical pain, to disease and hunger, ageing and death, not to mention the more mundane experiences of boredom, thwarted desire, negative emotions and psychological trauma.

This is precisely where the Buddhist contribution is relevant. Traditionally, Buddhism has been divided into two movements- Hinayana (the so-called ‘lesser vehicle’) and Mahayana (the ‘greater vehicle’). The image of spiritual movements as ‘vehicles’ can be interpreted in different ways. Hinayana focuses on the individual human being, particularly in the context of their struggle with the illusory, though potent, self; as a vehicle it is designed to liberate that one individual from suffering. Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, aims at the liberation from suffering of all human beings.

You can readily see the potential relevance of Hinayana Buddhism to the solving of our contemporary problems. All of those problems are potentially soluble, but only if individual self-interest is aligned with collective interest. But nature has not designed us for mutual interest, and the self is its chief weapon in the struggle of each individual to survive and reproduce. Yet we are not bound to follow where nature or natural selection leads. Hinayana turns the vehicle of the human body around and enables it to drive in the opposite direction to which nature intended.

But as a vehicle for getting you to where you want to be, Mahayana Buddhism makes another claim. Unlike Hinayana, it doesn’t merely confine itself to the destruction of the self, it aims to persuade you that there is no subject of experience. Instead, it replaces the notions of subject and object with that of the ‘view’; rather than being a self, each sentient creature is a view, and that view is inherently perfect.

This then points to three actions that might enable us solve our individual and collective problems-

  1. Do what is needed, conceptually and emotionally, to challenge self and our sense of being selves. After all, it can be shown rationally that both of these are products of our evolutionary heritage that are no longer fit for purpose. This is the aim enshrined in Hinayana Buddhism.

  2. Come to see that our sense of being subjects divorced from everything that we encounter is simply delusory. We will then begin to see that everything is contained within a subject-less view. This is the project enshrined in Mahayana Buddhism.

  3. See that the new human identity that then arises will enable us to- a) Lead more fulfilled lives, and b) Engage and solve our global problems

The message is simple- No Self, No Subject, No Suffering. Buddhism replaces all of these with the View of the Mahayana. This view-with-no-viewer contains all that is needed for personal fulfilment. And from its perspective we will be able to find solutions to our collective problems.

In subsequent posts we will look in more detail at how these rather grand claims might be realised.

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