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Wrong View of Self

We find the following passage concerning the uninstructed puthujjana:

This is how he attends inappropriately: ‘Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what was I in the past? Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what shall I be in the future?’ Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the immediate present: ‘Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where is it bound?’

“As he attends inappropriately in this way, one of six kinds of view arises in him: The view I have a self arises in him as true & established, or the view I have no self… or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive self… or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive not-self… or the view It is precisely by means of not-self that I perceive self arises in him as true & established, or else he has a view like this: This very self of mine—the knower that is sensitive here & there to the ripening of good & bad actions—is the self of mine that is constant, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and will stay just as it is for eternity. This is called a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is not freed from birth, aging, & death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. He is not freed, I tell you, from suffering & stress.” — Sabbasava-Sūtra (Majjhima-Nikāya 2)

This passage indicates that when the puthujjana practices reflexion, he sees ‘self’, and that he may identify ‘self’ with both immediate and reflexive experience, or he may identify ‘self’ with reflexive experience alone, or he may identify ‘self’ with immediate experience alone, but he cannot stop identifying ‘self’ with either.

In the view ‘with self I perceive self’ he is identifying ‘self’ with both immediate and reflexive experience; in the view ‘with self I perceive not-self’ he is identifying ‘self’ with only reflexive experience; and in the view ‘with not-self I perceive self’ he is identifying ‘self’ with only immediate experience. If he stops identifying ‘self’ with either immediate or reflexive experience, he would be left with the view ‘with not-self I perceive not-self’, and this he cannot do because he has no perception of not-self, no anattasañña.

Even his conceptual negation ‘there is no self for me’ is based on the tacit assumption of a self, which in the face of the existential ambiguity, he rationally or objectively finds it necessary to negate. For him, ‘self’ is not what it really is: ‘self’. For him, ‘self’ is, in a subtle way, actually self. And taking ‘self’ to be actually self, he denies self; thus the necessity to negate self—a necessity born out of the tacit assumption of self. In this way the rationalist or materialist, aware or unaware, posits self subjectively—as indeed he must do, being a puthujjana—and then negates it objectively. This is precisely why, despite his negation, his intentions are ‘self’-ish.

The puthujjana’s view ‘there is no self for me’ should not therefore be mistaken for the view of the noble disciple, who having the perception of not-self sue to his understanding of the Buddha’s teaching, sees that neither a self nor anything pertaining to a self is to be found:

“Since neither a self nor anything pertaining to self, monks, is to be found…”— Alagaddupama Sutta (Majjhima-nikāya 22)

“Void is this of self or what pertains to a self.”— Godatta Sutta (Saṃyutta-nikāya 41.7)

As we shall see later on, the noble disciple has the perception of not-self, so he sees ‘self’ as ‘self’, in other words, as not-self. But the puthujjana, not having the perception of not-self, does not see these things. The puthujjana cannot conceive of experience as something that does not concern a permanent and pleasurable subject—a self. Therefore, the puthujjana is in no position to say what the noble disciple says. The noble disciple has the perception of not-self, and so he sees ‘self’ as ‘self’, that ‘self’ is not-self. The puthujjana, not having the perception of not-self, does not see these things. Thus, the puthujjana’s rational or objective view that ‘there is no self for me’ actually misleads him. Though it is true that there is no self to be found, the puthujjana still takes something or other as self, and therefore there is ‘self’ for him; ignorant as he is of the true situation, the negation ‘there is no self for me’ misleads him into thinking that he is devoid of both self and ‘self’. The view ‘there is no self for me’ takes the puthujjana away from seeing the true situation concerning himself, which is that though there is no self there is still ‘self’. The danger for him in this view is precisely in his attention being taken away from the fact that for him there is ‘self’. Hume, for example, very cleverly succeeds in falling into this danger in his essay Of Personal Identity. While attempting to negate the existence of a self, he says,

“Pain and pleasure, grief and joy, passions and sensations succeed each other, and never all exist at the same time. It cannot therefore be from any of these impressions, nor from any other, that the idea of self is derived; and consequently there is no such idea.”—A Treatise of Human Nature, Volume I, Book I, Part IV

There is no doubt whatsoever that Hume does not know the source of the idea of self; but for that reason, to say there is no such idea or to dismiss it saying that it is false is only to close the stable door after the horse has escaped.

We can now understand why the Buddha remained silent when the puthujjana Vacchagotta asked him for direct answers, either affirmative or negative, to the two primary questions regarding self: ‘Is there self?’ ‘Is there no self?’ Vacchagotta was following a different teaching at the time. If the Buddha told him there was no self for him, he would have been misled and even more confused than he already was. If on the other hand, the Buddha had told him there was a self for him, then the Buddha would not have been speaking in accordance with the true nature of Vacchagotta’s experience of not-self-ness (anattatā). The puthujjana who asks such questions does not need direct answers, either affirmative or negative; it is proper instruction. But for this he must be willing to be instructed, he must be ready to learn.

The view ‘there is self for me’ and its opposite ‘there is no self for me’ are the two boundary conditions or extremities within which the puthujjana, not seeing things are they really are, fluctuates in the face of the existential ambiguity—an ambiguity from which he sees no escape. He can do no more than swing from one extreme to the other, and the unfortunate thing is that he cannot help but keep swinging. Witness Blackham’s statement:

“Existential philosophies insist that any plain and positive answer is false, because the truth is in the insurmountable ambiguity which is at the heart of man and the world.”

This ambiguity—’my self’—is certainly insurmountable to the puthujjana, try as he may, by unaided reflection. All this further indicates that the problem of ‘self’ is considerably more difficult than generally supposed, or is made to appear through the facile and ready-to-hand misinterpretation of the Buddha’s teaching of impermanence (aniccatā) to mean ‘continuous change’ or ‘flux’.

Incidentally, it has become fashionable among contemporary writers, especially those with great reverence for the Adhidhamma piṭaka, to interpret the doctrine of annatā as a flat negation of self. They hold that this doctrine simply means even if the five aggregates are broken up into infinitesimal bits and pieces, no self would be found in any of them anywhere. For these writers the doctrine of anattā just “proceeds analytically, splitting existence up into its ultimate constituent parts, into mere empty, insubstantial phenomena or elements.” Such writers should take serious note of the Sabbasava Sutta (Majjhima-Nikāya 2, quoted above) wherein the Buddha states that the puthujjana attending to things improperly can come to the incorrect conclusion, among others, that ‘there is no self for me’. They should do this to realize at least that the doctrine of annatā is not as simple as they imagine it to be. If it were really that simple, a Buddha is not necessary; a Hume would do.

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