By: David Xi-Ken Shi
One of the core principles of Buddhism that is accepted by all traditions is that of no-self (anatman). It is an essential teaching of Buddhism that states that there is no permanent enduring substance within any entity. The Buddha taught that the notion of a self is just an idea. In our contemporary language when we consider “who we are” we encounter the term psycho-physical personality that introduces us to all kinds of interpretations. No matter the complexity surrounding coming to terms with no permanent self, we also must reconcile that this impermanent universal nature is also of a non-dual nature too. When we say we have no permanent self we are rejecting the metaphysical self which presents a problem that man has two distinct entities in the form of a personal transcendent element and matter. The Buddha was skillful in not speaking of man’s having a dual nature. This is not always clear when we read many of the legacy teachings, especially when they seek to explain how conscientiousness interacts with the psycho-physicality of what it means to be human.
What is clear though, is that the Buddha was not willing to consider that a “mind” can have independent existence. When he spoke of human nature, he did so by always associating the body and mental capabilities as making up a single physical personality; there could be no consciousness unless it was associated with a living physical entity. He said that consciousness is nothing more than the act of being conscious. Both at the time of the Buddha, as it is now in our time, there was/is a universal tendency to look upon the mind and the body as two distinct entities both existing independently. Based on the Buddha’s personal experience he came to consider this notion to be unsubstantiated logically, unless you move toward the realm of theology. To take the opposite view would be to surrender to an unknown faith that “something” is of a permanent nature in each of us that is hidden to scientific investigation.
Siddhartha (the Buddha) was centuries ahead of his peers in empirical reasoning. When considering the interplay between the body and mind he referred to the material body as “contact with resistance” (patigha-samphassa), and the mind as “contact with concepts” (adhivacana-samphassa)1. In doing this he was reducing both the mind and body to contact elements and processes of experience, and avoiding making them both have material characteristics. This also avoids any metaphysical entanglements. It is an example of the Buddha abandoning any metaphysical notions that would result in the doctrine of Dependent Origination (causality) being put into question.
For Siddhartha, any thought of something that has permanence although hidden, even though subject to metaphysical theories and the evidence of the “creativity of man” to try to explain the unexplainable, does not hold strong against validated personal experience, either subjective or objective. The psycho-physical personality considered by the Buddha emphasizes the dependence of consciousness on the physical personality as well as the interconnectiveness of the body-mind that answers to how the causal universe is expressed in us as we strive to be positive agents for change. This change is effective at the same time as having the properties of impermanence too. How we humans effect change is dependent on our dispositions. Not only our personalities, but how we live, what we find of interests, the art we create, our culture and civilization, what drives our exploration toward new horizons, is all dominated by our dispositions. Our dispositions, not our consciousness as a substantial entity, drives the human contribution to the causal-chain. We also use language to inform us of the world-realities that surround us, this notion brings into play allowing our everyday mind to consider that words our themselves truths. We use words in our thinking process, and those words have the ability to either inform us of accepted truths or can add another level of delusion to our personal filters that we use to see the world around us. Another reason for us to study and refine our dispositions as we struggle to understand the power of a non-permanent self in a world that matters.
1 Digha Nikaya 2, 62