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August 30, 2012


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Java: One of the most beautiful fruits of Buddhist practice is compassion. I'm not saying you don't have any, but you have a funny way of showing it.

Dear Zennist,

Yes, you are quite right of course. My comment was merely clarifying the logic in the Nikayas, i.e. :

1st argument: The human is exclusively and exhaustively constituted by five aggregates.


2nd argument: If there is a self, it must be found in one, or as a result of more than one, aggregate.


3rd argument and conclusion: The self is not found in any one, or as a combination of the aggregates. The conclusion is therefore that there is no self.

Or, in your notation. If one starts off by stating that (a,b,c,d,e) constitute I. I being the individual. Then, looking for x, the self, in I means looking for x in each of the elements of I a,b,etc. or as a combination of some or all of these. If x is not found in a,b,etc. or as a result of some or all of these elements, the conclusions that I does not contain x, seems inevitable.

Obviously it can still be false so of coruse it is possible to disagree with this result. But I argue that this cannot be done by arguing on the basis of failed logic in the Nikayas, but because the first argument would have to be shown to be incorrect. In danger of being repetetive, this would mean, as I'm sure any reader will realize, that one argues against the five aggregates being an exhaustive account of what constitutes a human being. And this of course is what some literature outside the Pali Nikayas state, the Lankavatara sutra being the important source of this type of thought in zen-buddhism.

When it comes to anatman implying annihilationism, I do not see this to be true. To say that x is not in I, i.e. that "I is no-x" is not to say that I does not exist; to say that a human-being is characterized by no-self, is not to say that there is nothing i.e. no selfhood. What there is, according to the Nikayas, is a causally conditioned stream of body and mind. It is this stream that is the self. This self is of quite a different character than a self defying the three characteristics of existence.

Your last comment then is quite true, because the buddha never promoted annihilationism and neither was it an ideal.

Going a bit beyond our discussion, I think that what the Lankavatara sutra is saying (now this is a sutra I have not studied, you seem to know a lot about this), is exactly what your are saying: That the x is not to be found within I, rather that I is found in X. Where the capital X refers to it being a non-personal self (if that makes sense). My question is then, despite perhaps substantive differences. How is this structure different from Brahmanic Hinduism?

Arnt: This is where you might have a problem. You comment:

"Therefore in refuting the finding of the self in any of these, or any combination of these, the refutation of any self existing at all, is final."

Realizing that each aggregate is not the self or anattâ is not, actually, an exhaustive refutation of self. It is no more exhaustive than saying the engine or transmission of a car is not a human. Just because a, b, c, d & e are not x, we can't leap to the conclusion that x doesn't exist.

To deny the self or assume that it is a proxy for the temporal aggregated body, amounts to materialism or the same, annihilationism which the Buddha taught to be heresy.

Scholars don't assume that there is only one understanding of self. The Buddha's self is different than some of the descriptions of self in the Upanishads. On a similar note, in the Satapatha Brahmana we know that anâtman is equivalent to mortality. It seems odd that the Buddha would go around Vedic India trying to market mortality as a new exciting alternative to the Vedas!

In Buddhism we know that self is used positively, for example, as refuge. There are perhaps 65 compounds of self some of which say the very self attains nirvana.

Nowhere in the Buddhist canon are we taught to be "devoid of self" (pesitatta). Not a single arahant in the canon was reported to have said to be anattâ—nor was it an ideal.

Dear Zennist, the view you put forward in this post is of course a valid buddhist understanding: That there is a buddhist self. One important addendum that I feel is not taken into account in the post, is that the Nikayas state that the human being is made of five aggregates, not any more or not any less. Therefore in refuting the finding of the self in any of these, or any combination of these, the refutation of any self existing at all, is final.

It is not logically necessary to posit something, when one shows that something else does not exist. Ofcourse there are other buddhist sources that DO posit some such thing, but as I believe I have shown above, the buddhist argument from the Nikayas is not one of these.

Now the self that is being looked for, is as you know, the permanent atman of the vedic religious philosphy at the time of the Buddha. The buddhist understanding of the human being characterised by nonself put forward in the Nikayas, is from the point of view of the Milindapanna, that it is the physical and mental stream of dharma(the many types of which constitute the five aggregates) which constitute the human being. The true self is thus non-permanent i.e. anatman. It is a continuous stream of causally connected dharma; causally unbroken forwards past death, and causally unbroken backwards before birth. Thus, the being given my name some twenty-odd years ago, is not me, in the sense of having an atman that I possess also now, but is me in the buddhist sense of being causally connected to the person I now have become.

"The quest for the true self", could thus be rephrased "the truth about onself", in this way avoiding the merely apparent necessity of finding looking for a self, apart from the constituents of the individual.

However, this is the tension deeply situated in the philosophy of zen, largely as a result of the centrality of the Lankavatara sutra (promoting a buddhist true self) and the later significance of the Prajnaparamita-literature and the centrality of sunyata.

This is my understanding of the literature (mostly the Milindapanna, but also other sources)I have read and studied, and I may ofcourse be culpable of misunderstanding.

Regards, Arnt

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