Buddhist monk meditating on mountain

Some thoughts about non-self

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The topic of non-self is a problematic topic in Buddhism. Often even Buddhist monks will feel a little bit embarrassed when being asked about it.

Many a somewhat thinking person feels suspicious, whether the Buddha got that one 100% right. Because after all, if there is no self, why bother about any such things as being virtuous, meditation, learning, or somehow trying to improve ourselves? Furthermore, since the Buddha did teach about Karma and Rebirth, does that not utterly contradict the teaching on non-self?

Here, I just want to add some of my own thoughts about the topic…

For my purpose in here, I don’t think it necessary to elucidate that the body is non-self, nor do I want to bother about showing that fleeting emotions or thoughts, or mind-states are non-self, actually for this little post, I will take even the idea of rebirth for granted. With that in mind, I ask my readers to imagine the following scenario:

Let’s imagine some human being ca. 1000 years ago. He is a man, but of very, very coarse nature. He regularly beats up the woman, which he regularly sleeps with (let’s not call her his wife). He beats up her children stemming from his seed. He steels, commits robbery, kills other human beings, and in all thinkable other ways appears to be void of any virtue. Nor is he particularly intelligent, but just is largely a weakling within the gang, which he off and on joins to commit some robbery.

But one day, he sees somehow that one of the respected gang members was doing some noble act. Something somewhat unselfish, and that made an impression on him. However, he continues for the rest of his life for the most part in this vile ways. Only with old age he grows slightly calmer, but not much.

Nevertheless, when death approaches, he is calm enough to think of something that was good in his human life, therefore, when his body brakes up, his mind feels attracted again to a human life, leading his mind-stream into a human ovum.

For the next 10, 20 lives, not much changes, only slightly does the little seedling grow of perceiving something, somewhat noble and beautiful in noble, selfless deeds. Gradually, over many more lifetimes, he qualifies himself to fit into participating, although on an exceedingly low rung, in some gradually prospering civilisation, living in some slum of a city, but acquiring several years of education during his childhood and early teenage years. Thus, he slowly grows more and more into a civilised human being that can, for the most part, follow the rules of civilised life.

And pressing the fast forward button a little, we find what was some, perhaps close to 100 lives backward, a coarse, primitive, savage like human being, whose bodily form was coarse, whose feelings were ever coarse, whose mind was markedly primitive, foolish and animal like, and whose consciousness perceived a world all around that was threatening and hostile; we find presently, a beautiful, highly refined, young lady, of excellent family, of ever unselfish feelings, who quivers with compassion on seeing another being suffer, who feels delight on seeing another being succeed and do well, a lady of high intelligence, which perceives a world around it which is full of opportunities to do good things.

Now, what have these two human beings in common?

Perhaps the only thing they still have somewhat in common, is some basic connotation of being a human being (in technical Abhidhamma terms a specific human natured sense-sphere-consciousness), which, to make the thought experiment more complete, let’s say ends when this lady, after the perishing of her bodily form, becomes a being amongst the host of divine (angelic) beings, wherein she will possess a vastly different bodily form, and perceives herself as a human being no longer.

Now the main point that I was trying to make with this little story is, to show that, there is something that travels from life to life, but that that entity changes, to the point, that at some point, nothing whatsoever of what it has become, is in anyway still the same as what it was.

The paths of nature are gradual, which is why many a person hearing about a teaching like non-self, might feel its consideration unnatural for himself. Both, what you are, and what you take to be yourself, will anyhow change one day. Thus, it is indeed not for everyone at any stage to think excessively about non-self. In fact, it was a teaching that the Buddha gave usually only to monks, and also not to all of them. Laypeople (non-monks/nuns) were usually taught vastly different.
For most people, it will be much better to work on improving what they perceive to be themselves, rather than trying to get rid of any sense of self whatsoever.

In that sense, I want to conclude this post with an appeal that we should never loose our reasoning when practicing our religion, and that we should see to it, that we never get caught up for too long on things which confuse our minds rather then lifting it up. For, religion exists to bring light, and not darkness, clarity, not confusion. Much is there to learn. Let’s start with what we can comprehend.

Any Comments? Write them below.