The Buddha lived in ancient India during a time of great philosophical exploration. There wasn’t just him at it. They were all at it.
India was so prosperous at the time that up to one third of the population were spiritual seekers – wandering about, having debates and begging for food (in fact ‘bhikkhu’ – the word we tend to translate as ‘monk’ is etymologically closer to ‘beggar’).
Two of the key questions of the time were:
- What is the nature of the self?
- What happens after death?
This is important to realise when considering Buddhism. You have to see the stuff about ‘not-self’ and karma in their wider historical and philosophical context.
The self in Buddhism
One key position at the time was that the self (atman) was fundamentally identical with god (brahman). The self is eternal and unchanging. The goal is to find release from the sufferings of life by realising this truth.
The Buddha had a different take on it. He said that there is no such thing as an eternal, unchanging self. If one looks deep inside oneself through meditation, no essential self can be found. Instead, there are just a bunch of constituent parts. We tend to over-associate with one or other of those parts and call it a ‘self’ but it’s not really a self – at least not in any meaningful sense of the word.
The key point from the Buddha’s perspective, was that if it’s a self (the real, fundamental me) it must surely be under ‘my’ control. If it’s not under my control, how can it be a self?
If you actually get into the intricacies of the two key positions (self as eternal, self as illusion) they aren’t actually all that different. But that’s for another time.
For now I want to talk about this idea of not self.
The Buddha didn’t say ‘there is no soul’. But he did say ‘there is no eternal, unchanging soul that remains unaffected by conditions’. Whether that still counts as a soul or not depends on how you think of ‘soul’.
The Buddhist texts, and then the abhidhamma which went on to standardise the philosophical positions within those texts, say that the person is made up of 5 ‘heaps’ (khandas) of constituent parts:
- Matter or form (rupa)
- Sensation or feeling (vedana)
- Perception or cognition (sanna)
- Volition or mental formation (sankara)
- Consciousness (vinnana)
They’re sequential, except for the fifth. The other four kind of ‘sit’ in the fifth.
So, you experience something through one of the senses (1), this gives rise to a sensation (2), your mind acknowledges that sensation (3), then your volition kicks in (4 – based largely on past conditioning, though this can be altered through Buddhist practice), and finally ‘consciousness’ in a broad sense (5) is the environment in which all this is taking place.
They’re called ‘heaps’ because they’re like a heap of grain. They themselves don’t have a ‘self’ but are further divisible into their constituent parts. These are called ‘dhammas’ (this is not the same as ‘the dhamma’ – different meaning).
Those dhammas are seen as indivisible from the early Buddhist perspective – though they aren’t ‘things’, more like ‘processes’.
Then the Mayahana lot came along and said that the dhammas too were ’empty’ of inherent existence (only they preferred Sanskrit so called them ‘dharmas’). And even the concept of emptiness (sunyata) was empty of inherent existence. The Mahayana likes to try to flip your head out in a way that means you might actually learn something.
A ‘person’ exists. There is such a thing as a ‘self’ conventionally speaking, and it makes sense to see things like that. The Buddha was just saying that there is no permanent, irreducible, essential, core self.
The good thing about not having a ‘self’
The good thing about that is it means that change is possible and actually over time the potential for change is pretty much infinite. It doesn’t matter who you are now. Who you are now is fairly arbitrary and is the result of past causes and conditions.
The key point of Buddhism is, with proper practice in the right direction, you can, over time, accomplish anything.
As for bears, I don’t have much to say about them. I’ve seen a few. The ones in the wild looked happiest. Now go and follow the yellow brick noble eightfold road Dorothy! There’s no place like Nirvana!