“People often speak as if there were a serious philosophical problem about selves. Is there a self? Is the self knowable? How does the self relate to the body? These and other questions are thought to make up something called the problem of the self. I doubt seriously that there is any such problem. Not because the self is unproblematic, or because there are unproblematically no such things as selves. My trouble is that a problem has to be about something: even if there are no selves, there must at least be some problematic idea or concept of a self, if there is to be a problem of the self. As far as I can see there is no such idea. What is a self? For every answer to this question, there is another answer not only incompatible with it, but wholly unrelated. There is virtually no agreement about the characteristic features of selves: depending on whom you believe, selves may be concrete or abstract, material or immaterial, permanent or ephemeral, naturally occuring or human constructions, essentially subjective or publicly observable, the same or not the same things as people. There are not even any agreed paradigm cases of selves, things we could point to or describe and say, “A self is one of those.” But no concept could be so problematic that no one could agree about anything to do with it. For lack of a subject matter, there is no problem of the self. […] In fact the matters discussed under the heading of ‘self’ are so various that it would be a pun to say that they were all about some one thing, the self. Because legitimate inquiries that go under the heading of ‘self’ are really about something else, and can be (and typically are) put in other terms, we can easily do without the word ‘self’.”
Let us consider some attempts to say what a self might be. It doesn’t matter whether we take these proposals to be definitions of ‘self’ or only as giving essential or paradigmatic or at any rate salient features of selves. Take them as proposed answers to the ordinary question, What is a self?
Account 1. One’s self is that unchanging, simple substance to which one’s impressions and ideas have reference.
Account 2. One’s self is the inner subject of one’s conscious experiences
Account 3. One’s self is just that person, himself.
Account 4. One’s self is that indescribable and unidentifiable private, inner being within one.
Account 5. One’s self is what one values above all else.
Account 6. One’s self is the unconscious mechanism responsible for the unity of one’s consciousness.
Account 7. One’s self is a psychological or behavioural attribute of one.
Account 8. One’s self is an aggregate of or a construction out of one’s sense experiences
What, then, of the problem of the self? What is it a problem about? There is clearly nothing that satisfies all of these accounts. There aren’t even two or three similar kinds of things that each satisfy most of them. It should be equally clear that there is no one thing–no single idea–that all of these accounts could reasonably be seen as trying to capture. There is no one sort of thing that some believe is a construction out of senseimpressions and others take to be a mental attribute, a simple substance, an organ, a human being, or in some cases even a house or a hamster. It should also be clear that there are no agreed characteristic attributes of selves, or even any generally accepted cases. (We can’t even pick out a self in a purely relational way, for example as ‘Bertrand Russell’s self’, without controversy, for on some accounts of ‘self’ there are no selves to pick out, while on others Russell might have had any number of different selves.) I conclude that those who use the word ‘self’, if they are saying anything coherent at all, must be talking about completely different things. Thus, there is no such idea as the idea of the self, and therefore nothing for the “problem of the self” to be a problem about.
Once we have accounted for people, their mental features, their relation to those human animals we call their bodies, and so on, we think we need to say something about “the self” as well. There is no good reason to think so. Or so I claim. Of course, merely putting a number of so-called problems of the self in other terms doesn’t show that the term ‘self’ is superfluous. I may have overlooked legitimate problems or questions that can be put only in terms of the free-standing noun ‘self’ or some equivalent term. In that case I should have to retract my claim that there is no legitimate problem of the self–though the problem so revealed is unlikely to be the problem commonly thought to bear that name. But if the word ‘self’ really has no agreed meaning, and leads us into troubles we could otherwise avoid, and if we can easily get on with our legitimate philosophical inquires without it, there can be no reason, other than tradition, to continue to speak of the self.”
My life is measur’d by this glass, this glass
By all those little sands that through pass.
See how they press, see how they strive, which shall
With greatest speed and greatest quickness fall.
See how they raise a little mount, and then
With their own weight do level it again.
But when th’ have all got through, they give o’er
Their nimble sliding down, and move no more.
Just such is man, whose hours still forward run,
Being almost finish’d ere they are begun.
So perfect nothings, such light blasts are we,
That ‘ere we are, aught at all, we cease to be.
Do what we will, our hasty minutes fly,
And while we sleep, what do we else but die?
How transient are our joys, how short their day!
They creep on towards us, but fly away.
How stinging are our sorrows! where they gain
But the least footing, there they will remain.
How groundless are our hopes, how they deceive
Our childish thoughts, and only sorrow leave!
How real are our fears! they blast us still,
Still rend us, still with gnawing passions fill.
How senseless are our wishes, yet how great!
With what toil we pursue them, with what sweat!
Yet most times for our hurts, so small we see,
Like children crying for some Mercury.
This gapes for marriage, yet his fickle head
Knows not what cares wait on a marriage bed:
This vows virginity, yet knows not what
Loneness, grief, discontent, attends that state.
Desires of wealth another’s wishes hold,
And yet how many have been chok’d with gold?
This only hunts for honour, yet who shall
Ascend the higher, shall more wretched fall.
This thirsts for knowledge, yet how is it bought?
With many a sleepless night, and racking thought.
This needs will travel, yet how dangers lay
Most secret ambuscados in the way?
These triumph in their beauty, though it shall
Like a pluck’d rose or fading lily fall.
Another boasts strong arms; ’las! giants have
By silly dwarfs been dragg’d unto their grave.
These ruffle in rich silk – though ne’er so gay,
A well-plum’d peacock is more gay than they.
Poor man! What art? A tennis-ball of error,
A ship of glass toss’d in a sea of terror;
Issuing in blood and sorrow from the womb,
Crawling in tears and mourning to the tomb:
How slippery are thy paths! How sure thy fall!
How art thou nothing, when th’ art most all!
“ls there a learning that is not an accumulated process of knowledge? […] Seeing without any prejudice, seeing without the word? Can you look at a tree without the word? Have you ever done all this? That means seeing without direction, without motive.
We’re always comparing, judging, evaluating – which is choice. And, to be aware without choice… you understand? As we’re talking, will you do all this? Or you’re just listening to words. If we are doing this, then you begin to discover awareness is entirely different from concentration. Concentration implies focusing all thought on a particular subject, on a particular page, on a particular word; which implies cutting off all other thoughts, building resistance to every other thought, which then becomes narrow, limited. Right? So concentration is limited. But you have to concentrate when you are doing something, washing dishes. […] Awareness without choice – which means without concentration – to be aware of all this without judging, evaluating, condemning, comparing, and from that move, which is attention, […] in that attention there is no me, right? When there is this tremendous attention, all energy is given to understand what you’re saying, I am not thinking about myself, therefore there is no centre in me that says “I must attend”.
” The fact is that life is like the river: endlessly moving on, ever seeking, exploring, pushing, overflowing its banks, penetrating every crevice with its water. But, you see, the mind won’t allow that to happen to itself. The mind sees that it is dangerous, risky to live in a state of impermanency, insecurity, so it builds a wall around itself: the wall of tradition, of organized religion, of political and social theories. Family, name, property, the little virtues that we have cultivated – these are all within the walls, away from life. Life is moving, impermanent, and it ceaselessly tries to penetrate, to break down these walls, behind which there is confusion and misery. The gods within the walls are all false gods, and their writings and philosophies have no meaning because life is beyond them.
Now, a mind that has no walls, that is not burdened with its own acquisitions, accumulations, with its own knowledge, a mind that lives timelessly, insecurely – to such a mind, life is an extraordinary thing. Such a mind is life itself, because life has no resting place. But most of us want a resting place; we want a little house, a name, a position, and we say these things are very important. We demand permanency and create a culture based on this demand, inventing gods which are not gods at all but merely a projection of our own desires.
A mind which is seeking permanency soon stagnates; like that pool along the river, it is soon full of corruption, decay. Only the mind which has no walls, no foothold, no barrier, no resting place, which is moving completely with life, timelessly pushing on, exploring, exploding – only such a mind can be happy, eternally new, because it is creative in itself.
Do you understand what I am talking about? You should, because all this is part of real education and, when you understand it, your whole life will be transformed, your relationship with the world, with your neighbour, with your wife or husband, will have a totally different meaning. Then you won’t try to fulfil yourself through anything, seeing that the pursuit of fulfilment only invites sorrow and misery.”
” Looking deeply at life as it is in the very here and now, the practitioner dwells in stability and freedom.
We must be diligent today.
To wait till tomorrow is too late.
Death comes unexpectedly.
How can we bargain with it?
The sage calls a person who dwells in mindfulness night and day, ‘the one who knows the better way to live alone’.
Bhikkhus, what is meant by ‘not being swept away by the present’? When someone studies and learns about the Awakened One, the teachings of love and understanding, and the community that lives in harmony and awareness; when that person knows about noble teachers and their teachings, practices these teachings, and does not think; ‘This body is myself; I am this body. These feelings are myself; I am these feelings. This perception is myself; I am this perception. This mental formation is myself; I am this mental formation. This consciousness is myself; I am this consciousness,’ then that person is not being swept away by the present.
“Bhikkhus, I have presented the outline and the detailed explanation of knowing the better way to live alone.”
” This “switch from essentialist thinking to [interactional] thinking” is also the focus of the second school of Indian Buddhist Mahāyāna philosophy, Yogācāra (4–7th c. ce). Grounded in the logical critiques of essentialism articulated by the Mādhyamikans, Yogācārin philosophers emphasized their epistemological implications. They argued that the basic epistemological problem—and hence the basic spiritual problem—is that we falsely imagine (abhuta-parikalpita) that the subjective dimension of experience is truly separable from the objective dimension, that we actually are independently existing subjects distinct and separate from equally independently existing objects. They claim, moreover, that we ordinarily and nearly universally reify our experiences into exactly this kind of subject-object dualism, and that, to our detriment, we think and act as if we were isolated, reified entities rather than thoroughly embedded in complex causal relations.
This “imagining the nonexistent” not only imagines that we are separate from the larger causal networks in which we are embedded, it also encourages us to ignore the effects of our actions (karma) on the larger world. That is, the Yogācārins argue that such reifications, and the philosophies articulating them, like Cartesian dualism (and its derivative, reductive materialism), are not only incoherent, they are also harmful. We can, they argue, see more clearly, think more coherently, and act more constructively when we fully comprehend the causal embeddedness of our lives and adjust our actions accordingly. An important part of this constructive program is developing conceptions of mind and world that reflect this causal embeddedness. In this process, one eventually comes to recognize that both subject and object are “dependent on others” (paratantra), a realization that, when “fully perfected” (pariniṣpanna), becomes the ultimate realization in Yogacara thought. Hence, well conceived causal models are not only important for understanding the world, but for Indian Buddhists at any rate they also have a spiritual dimension as well.