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Thinking as Self

What is taken as self is the five clinging-aggregates or a certain clinging-aggregate. However, within the five clinging-aggregates, the puthujjana is more seriously led into regarding the consciousness of reflexion, which springs up from the mind-base, as self. This is because the nature of consciousness—particularly the consciousness springing up from the mind-base—lends itself to be taken as ‘self’ much more than the body does. The body is positive in essence; it has matter or substance. Consciousness is negative in essence, though it positively exists and is present in reflexion. Self, which is a positive/negative ambiguity, therefore appears to be much closer to consciousness in nature than to the body. And of the six kinds of consciousness, mind-consciousness lends itself to be regarded as as self much more readily than the others because it cognizes the five percepts (sight, sound, smell, taste and touch) in the mode of imagination, as well as abstract ideas divorced from the percepts. That mind-consciousness lends itself to be taken as self more readily than any other thing is implied by the following statement of the Buddha:

But what, monks, is called thinking, is called mind, is called knowing—the uninstructed puthujjana is unable to turn away from that, to get dispassion for that, to be released from that. What is the reason for that? The uninstructed puthujjana has, monks, hung on, cherished, held to [the view] ‘This is mine; this am I; this is my self’ for a long time. Therefore the uninstructed puthujjana cannot turn away from, get dispassion for, get released therefrom.

“But it were better, monks, if the uninstructed puthujjana were to come to regard this body made up of the four primary modes of behavior as self, rather than his thinking. What is the reason for that? It is seen, monks, that the body made up of the four primary modes of behavior persists for one year, persists for two years, persists for three years, persists for four years, persists for five years, persists for ten years, persists for twenty years, persists for thirty years, persists for forty years, persists for fifty years, persists for a hundred years, persists for even longer. But what, monks, is called thinking, is called mind, is called knowing—that, night and day, arises as one thing and ceases as another.” — Dutiyāssutavā Sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 12.62)

What is said in the above is, briefly, that though the uninstructed puthujjana can get detached from the body—he can stop considering the body as ‘I’, ‘mine’ and ‘self’—he cannot detach himself from his reflexive consciousness. He cherishes the views ‘this is mine’, ‘this am I’ and ‘this is my self’, as indeed he must, bound up as they are with the perception of pleasurableness; and even if he can give up taking the body as the ‘this’ in these views, he cannot give up taking reflexive consciousness to be the ‘this’.

This taking, at the level of reflective philosophical thoughts becomes crystallized in the various theories of a self that populate the history of philosophy. Descartes, for example, although he begins in a spirit of uncompromising skepticism eventually cannot avoid the postulation of a self, decked out though this may be as an incontrovertible conclusion founded upon apodictic reflexive evidence. In his Meditations Descartes sets out to secure a ground for the superstructure of knowledge by doubting everything that can possibly be doubted. But after everything has been scrutinized, suspended and reduced to the state of a ‘malicious demon’, the one thing he finds he cannot doubt is the existence of the thinker himself: Cogito ergo sum—”I think, therefore I am.” And this thinker is for Descartes the ego or self.

Sartre, in his essay The Transcendence of the Ego, rejects the primacy of the Cartesian cogito by asserting the the consciousness that says “I am” is not the consciousness that thinks. In this way he merely makes the mystery more mysterious, but yet unable to escape from it, he falls elegantly between two stools. Husserl in his Logical Investigations, despite the sophistication of his method, finally discovers a self at the summit of the hierarchy of consciousness, which he couches in the phrase ‘bare subjectivity of consciousness’. He attempts to combine an apprehended ‘I’ with a transcendental ‘I’ and a psychological ‘I’ by an ingenious verbal device, and succeeds in falling, even more elegantly, between three stools.

These conclusions of the philosophers are inevitable, for their very search for certainty is motivated by the compulsion to secure the reality of his own existence as a self at a deep level within the seeker’s mind. Therefore, however thoroughgoing their investigations may be, the conclusion is already given at the outset o the inquiry. Being puthujjanas, they must identify something or other in reflexion as self, as that which ‘I’ am. Since their philosophical awareness will not permit them to grant this status to the body or to the coarser expressions of mentality, they inevitably arrive at reflexive consciousness as the only candidate for this role.

But we can go a step farther. We can say that from among the many ‘thinkings’ and ‘knowings’, the particular ‘thinking’ and ‘knowing’ identified as ‘self’ is the thinking as ‘I’ and ‘mine’. In other words, what is primarily though very implicitly taken to be the ‘self’ is the fundamental clinging itself, which at the more explicit level is desire-&-lust (chandarāga). The root-structure of the puthujjana’s experience points to this situation, for the basic and common thinking, conceiving or reflexive consciousness present therein is that pointing to ‘I’ and ‘mine’. But when there is clinging, something is clung to, and that would be the five aggregates. So the five aggregates get involved in the second place.

The untenable position taken up by the puthujjana with regard to the question of ‘(my) self’ can also be expressed differently via the law of contradiction in the following way:

The puthujjana in reflexion examines and describes to himself his own thinking, refusing to tolerate any non-identities, contradictions and excluded middles—in other words, refusing to break the laws of thought and logic. Now at a certain point in his thinking, he comes face-to-face with a contradiction that he cannot resolve. And the appearance of this contradiction seems to be whenever he engages in reflexion seems seems to be inherent in the very act of reflecting or thinking. This contradiction, as we pointed out above, is the existence of the thinker himself as a subject—’I’ or ‘(my) self’.

The Buddha presents this dilemma concisely as follows:

Now, one who says, ‘Feeling is my self,’ should be addressed as follows: ‘There are these three feelings, my friend — feelings of pleasure, feelings of pain, and feelings of neither-pleasure-nor-pain. Which of these three feelings do you assume to be the self?’ At a moment when a feeling of pleasure is sensed, no feeling of pain or of neither-pleasure-nor-pain is sensed. Only a feeling of pleasure is sensed at that moment. At a moment when a feeling of pain is sensed, no feeling of pleasure or of neither-pleasure-nor-pain is sensed. Only a feeling of pain is sensed at that moment. At a moment when a feeling of neither-pleasure-nor-pain is sensed, no feeling of pleasure or of pain is sensed. Only a feeling of neither-pleasure-nor-pain is sensed at that moment.

“Now, a feeling of pleasure is inconstant, fabricated, dependent on conditions, subject to passing away, dissolution, fading, and cessation. A feeling of pain is inconstant, fabricated, dependent on conditions, subject to passing away, dissolution, fading, and cessation. A feeling of neither-pleasure-nor-pain is inconstant, fabricated, dependent on conditions, subject to passing away, dissolution, fading, and cessation. Having sensed a feeling of pleasure as ‘my self,’ then with the cessation of one’s very own feeling of pleasure, ‘my self’ has perished. Having sensed a feeling of pain as ‘my self,’ then with the cessation of one’s very own feeling of pain, ‘my self’ has perished. Having sensed a feeling of neither-pleasure-nor-pain as ‘my self,’ then with the cessation of one’s very own feeling of neither-pleasure-nor-pain, ‘my self’ has perished.” — Mahā-nidana Sutta (Dīgha-Nikāya 15)

In other words, if a man identifies his ‘self’ with feeling, he should be asked which kind of feeling—pleasant, unpleasant or neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant—he identifies as his ‘self’. He cannot identify himself with all three kinds of feeling at the same time, simply because only one of the three kinds is present at any given time. Thus if he makes the identification of feeling with his ‘self’, he must do it with three different kinds of feeling in succession. But of course, he takes for granted the assumption that his ‘self’ is self-identical—A = A—that is, it is the same ‘self’ on each occasion. Now he proceeds to identify his ‘self’ with the three different feelings, B, C and D, in turn. He therefore sees A = B, A = C and A = D. But B, C and D are not equal. So he inevitably comes to the logical conclusion that A is both B and not-B, both C and not-C, both D and not-D; and that is a logical contradiction. Unfortunately, whether he identifies his ‘self’ with feeling or something else, on every occasion he is identifying with something different. This contradiction persists no matter what he does.

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