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  • No-Self, Dōgen, the Senika Doctrine, and Western Views of Soul
  • Gerhard Faden

No-Self Versus Soul

From the very beginning of Buddhism, the concept of no-self (P. anattā, J. muga) has been at the heart of Buddhist thought. Based on this concept, Buddhist apologetics rejected the concept of Atman in the Upanishads as well as Western concepts of soul. Christian authors, on the other hand, see an unbridgeable abyss between what they call "Christian personalism" and Buddhist "rejection of souls."1 However, is there really such a clear-cut distinction? Posing this question means denying it. The no-self doctrine is one of the most intricate concepts within philosophy, and words like "self" and "soul" have countless interpretations. It seems to me that the Buddhist tradition itself has not always realized the crucial point of its fundamental doctrine, just as the Western concepts of "person" and "soul" more often than not fell behind the achievements of Plato and the New Testament. Especially the Theravāda line of Buddhism has developed a very counterintuitive picture of what it is to be a human person. "There is suffering, but there is no self who suffers." The most outstanding philosopher of Mahāyāna Buddhism, Nāgārjuna (ca. 150-250), introduced a more convincing interpretation when he said that according to Buddha the self or soul does neither exist nor not exist. This interpretation too, no less than the Theravāda doctrine, can refer to the early epoch of Buddhism. In the Pāli suttas a monk named Vacchagotta asked the Buddha, "Is there a self?" The Buddha gave no response. Then Vacchagotta asked, "Is there no self?" Again the Buddha was silent.2 In any case, the teaching of no-self leaves room for many divergent interpretations. In this paper, I shall propose to understand it as an original view of what is my true being, a view that has analogues in traditional Western philosophy. The truth is one; philosophy has to demonstrate that the different doctrines are nothing but aspects of a single universe. As for the dogmatic tenets of each religion, I would propose to see them like educators of the individual's thought: they set limits, develop abilities, suggest lines of sight, and the like. [End Page 41]

The Concept of No-self in Pāli Buddhism

In the limited space of this essay, I can only give some marginal remarks. For a first approach, let us look at the origins of the no-self concept in the scriptures of Pāli Buddhism. They show clearly the aim of that doctrine: it consists in the liberation from objectifying theories of the soul. In the canonical texts, we find repeatedly the formula of rejecting the five aggregates, the so-called "heaps" (Skt. skhandha, P. khandha) that form the phantom of a persistent ego: body, sensation, conceptualization, volitions, and consciousness. None of these things is really mine. The Buddha tells to his disciples as follows: "Suppose, bhikkhus, people were to carry off the grass, sticks, branches, and foliage in this Jeta's Grove, or to burn them, or to do with them as they wish. Would you think: 'People are carrying us off, or burning us, or doing with us as they wish'?" Of course, the disciples do not think so. It is neither their self nor what belongs to their self. In the same way, the Buddha instructs them to think, the ear is not yours, and the mind is not yours, and so on, and to abandon it all.3

In other words, by the teaching of anattā the Buddha invites his disciples to cease identifying their true being with things like body or consciousness. Only what really is mine can be my self. The khandhas seem to be mine. To a certain degree, I can dispose of them. However, really they are not mine; on the contrary, they are my master. The teaching of no-self does not originally mean there is no self, but nothing in this world can be my self. What is my self can never be taken from me. I cannot dispose of it, and on the other...


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