From ‘Why Buddhism Is True’, by Robert Wright

“Advanced meditators sometimes report experiencing a “witness consciousness” that seems to roughly fit this description of the second kind of consciousness, and some of them experience it for a long time. Maybe if it lasted forever they could claim to be enlightened. Maybe this “witness consciousness” is where the “you” that is left over after liberation resides.

Maybe. Or maybe we should just acknowledge that Ajahn Chah was onto something: trying to understand the idea of not-self by “intelectualizing” could make your head explode. And maybe, in light of this possibility, we should stop the intellectualizing right here.

Of course, your head, though intact, may still be in a somewhat confused state. But I have good news: you don’t have to dispel your confusion right now; you can wait a few years, until you’ve meditated so much that you become fully enlightened. Then, having directly aprehended not-self, you can explain it to me.

Meanwhile, here’s what I recommend: Continue to entertain the proposition you’ve probably been entertaining your whole life, that somewhere within you there’s some thing that deserves the name I. And don’t feel like you’re committing a felony-level violation of Buddhist dogma just because you think of yourself as being a self. But be open to the radical possibility that your self, at the deepest level, is not at all what you’ve always thought of it as being. If you followed the Buddha’s guidance and abandoned the massive chunks of psychological landscape you’ve always thought of as belonging to you, you would undergo a breathtaking shift in what it means to be a human.


[Peter] Harvey believes the not-self teaching “is not so much a thing to be thought about as to be done.” And who knows, maybe that was the Buddha’s view of the matter. Maybe he wasn’t really try ing to articulate a doctrine but rather to draw you down a path. And that path involves showing you how many things there are that you think of as part of your self but that don’t have to be thought of that way. In this view, the Buddha, in that first discourse on the not-self, wasn’t delivering a lecture about metaphysics or the mind-body problem or anything else so purely philosophical; he was just trying to get the monks to think about their minds in a way that would lead them toward liberation.

This might explain that feature of the discourse that people who think of the self as a CEO find odd: that the Buddha’s criterion for labeling a part of you not-self is that it’s not under control rather than that it’s not in control. Maybe by not-self the Buddha just meant something like “not usefully considered part of your self” or “not to be identified with”. In which case he was basically saying, “Look, if there’s part of you that isn’t under your control and therefore makes you suffer, then do yourself a favor and quit identifying with it!”

From ‘Why Buddhism Is True’, by Robert Wright

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