The Buddhist Doctrine of No Self: “Bhagavad-Gita as It Is”
Buddhism is renowned as one of the most humanistic religious, philosophical, cultural, and ethical doctrines. Moreover, it is one of the most popular ones in modern age. Buddhism is known for rejecting materialistic approach to understanding life, the order of the universe, and, perhaps, which is more important, human nature. Specifically, it is believed that the very idea of Buddhism as an ethical-philosophical paradigm revolves around a premise that there is no such thing as ‘self’. The concept of ‘self’ is one of the key concepts in the modern philosophy and psychology. ‘Self’ is a term typically used to denote what and how individuals think about themselves. In a way, ‘self’ is reflexive for being purely a reference to the individual’s own identity, but it also determines person’s patterns of interaction with others and the environment. Bhagavad-Gita as It Is can be regarded as a conclusive proof that the Buddhist doctrine of no self does not oppose the concept of ‘self’ adamantly and resolutely, as one might think, but it rather draws a strict demarcation line between the two notions, namely ‘self’ and ‘identity’.
Assuming there is a discussion between a proponent and an opponent of the Buddhist doctrine of no ‘self’, the arguments of the opponent would be as follows. Starting from the late 19th century, the volumes of information have begun to grow at exponential rate. Commodification of land and labor, urbanization, and industrialization paved the way for human alienation from nature. Buddhist philosophy specifies that harmonious coexistence between humans and nature is essential. Idyllic life has nearly become utopian these days as the world is no longer a safe place to be. Regardless of the religious and/or philosophical principles, doctrines, beliefs, and practices that one holds to be true, one cannot help but admit that there is an omnipresent tendency towards the decay of morale. Apart from that, it is stunning how some of the most authoritarian political regimes and some of the most peaceful religions coexist within the boundaries of such and in such a limited, finite space that the planet Earth is. Throughout the history of humankind, some of the most abstract yet most important notions have been redefined. Each cultural and scientific era humankind has been through has made people re-think what a human being actually is, what identity is, and what self is.
The arguments of the proponent of the Buddhist doctrine of no self would be as follows. In Bhagavad-Gita as it Is written by His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, material nature is referred to as inferior prakrti, or the so-called inferior nature (Bhaktivedanta Swai 18). All living entities, beings are explained by the concept of superior praktri (Bhaktivedanta Swai 18). The three components of the material nature are the mode of goodness, the mode of ignorance, and the mode of passion. Each of the aforementioned modes is controlled by time.
According to Bhagavad-Gita, human beings can be materially contaminated, therefore, conditioned. Buddhist philosophy specifies that the presumption stating that human nature is only delimited by its material dimension is faulty in itself. False ego is a person’s own conception of self, in which they think of themselves as a product of material nature. Even more so, those who subscribe to the materialist philosophy, which means they are proponents of materialistic approach to the understanding of life, are usually incapable of understanding the state of things. In this respect, it has to be pointed out that one of the intent purposes of Bhagavad-Gita is to “liberate one from the bodily conceptions of life” (Bhaktivedanta Swai 19). Overall, Hindu philosophies are mostly grouded on the following substances: the Lord (Isuara), living entities (Jiva), material nature (Inferior Prakrti), and time (kala) (Bhaktivedanta Swai). Furthermore, “Hindus accept Vedic knowledge to be complete and infallible” (Bhaktivedanta Swai 22). Vedic knowledge is not empirical in itself, which means that Vedic knowledge has proved itself neither a matter of research nor the question of time. Vedic knowledge is considered a perfect knowledge. Perfect knowledge is the one obtained from the Lord Himself in the first place and/or transcendental sources (Bhaktivedanta Swai 22). As far as the concept of afterlife is concerned, Vedic knowledge specifies that “a man dies after it has been decided what form of body he will have in the next life” (Bhaktivedanta Swai 32). Pondering the importance of Bhagavad-Gita as a sacred text, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami makes the following assertion: “If someone is fortunate enough to understand Bhagavad-Gita … without motivated interpretation, then he surpasses all studies of Vedic wisdom, and all scriptures of the world” (44). Bhagavad-Gita is intended to contend a premise that people are mostly self-centered, that is to say, they are mainly concerned with the questions of their own well-being.
In the book under consideration, a statement is made that people are not usually interested themselves in the essence of the Supreme Self. One’s real self-interest, according to Bhagavad-Gita, should lie in Vishnu or Krishna (Bhaktivedanta Swai). Therefore, unconditioned soul is either unaware of that or it has simply forgotten the maxim that in, its turn, causes physical pain and suffering over the material. In addition to that, it is claimed that there is a link between being unaware and/or forgetting one’s genuine self-interest and conditioned soul’s being attracted by bodily relationships. The evidence (namely, the historical record) support that people who are driven by selfish motives are capable of committing crimes (Bhaktivedanta Swai 88). A kind-hearted, tender personality, who is in the devotional service of Lord, is the one to receive self-knowledge in the first place. Grief, the sense of being abandoned (the state of forlornness), lamentation, and literally, all kinds of sentiments and emotional response can make one ignorant about one’s own self (Bhaktivedanta Swai). Compassion is considered the key to self-realization (Bhaktivedanta Swai). Self-realization is possible through study and critical analysis (contemplation) of the material body and the spirit soul.
Developing the foregoing statement further, the source specifies that self-realization can be achieved if one works without attachment to the outcomes/results of one’s own work and one is situated in the fixed conception of the real self. Brhad-Aranyaka Upanisad reads: “He is miserly man who does not solve the problems of life as a human who thus quits this world … without understanding the science of self-realization” (Bhaktivedanta Swai 101). Building on the foregoing premise, one may arrive at a conclusion that a person, who is dismissive of what is considered material, is also the one that is uncomprehending of how to solve and/or deal with some of the most topical and serious problems.
Consequently, the Buddhist doctrine of no ‘self’ in no way stands opposed to the concept of ‘self’. Rather than opposing ‘self’ adamantly and resolutely, the doctrine of Buddhism tends to deny “the ontological reality of the self” (Ho 121). Human life, according to Buddhist philosophy, is mere a cycle of births and rebirths (Ho 121). The doctrine of Buddhism specifies that the purpose of human life is reaching Nirvana (Ho 121). All living beings and inanimate objects are connected (Ho 122). Everyone and evverything is a woven into the canvas of the scheme of things of Lord Himself. Assuming that the Buddhist maxim postulating that people are born to be happy is correct, one can justify the idea of rejection of everything that prevents people from being happy. It is, probably, one of the major points of controversy in the entire Buddhist philosophy: Buddhism denies the existence of soul, yet it claims that suffering is bad. Judging from the facts stated above, the Buddhist concept of soul is rather vague. In fact, the doctrine of Buddhism stands opposed to the very essence of soul as such, yet a soul is a sort of a means of communication between a human being and the divine force. Therefore, a soul is a precondition essential for person to be capable of feeling.
Both the concepts of ‘self’ and identity are associated with not a small amount of cross-cultural implications meaning that Buddhism, as any other religious, ethical, and/or religious tenet, largely depends on a specific, definite social and historical context (Giles 186). Apart from that, when attempting to define Buddhism, the researchers tend to distinguish between the two types of discourse, namely, that of direct and implied meanings (Giles 186). The presence of direct and implied meanings contributes to the ambiguities and discrepancies that the Buddhist concepts of ‘self’ and personal identity abound with. In Buddhist sacred texts, ‘self’ is mere a linguistic tool, a grammatical devise rather than a term denoting a real being (Giles 186). Alongside the two discourses (direct and indirect meanings), the scholars also differentiate between the so-called conventional and ultimate truths (as qtd in Giles 187). With regard to this, the idea of impermanence of ‘self’ is, probably, one of the strongest arguments supporting the Buddhist doctrine of no ‘self’. Impermanence of identity is why it cannot be considered a ‘self’ (Giles 187). One of the maxims that Buddhism postulates is that change is, perhaps, the only constant. All life is finite, which means that time actually has power over personal identity.
Lastly, the concept of ‘self’ is intimately related with the notions of free will and responsible agent (Repetti 136). Being an independent, freethinking personality requires one to have a great deal of responsibility. Freethinking and responsible agent are the concepts contemplated within the frameworks of formal logics, determinism, and relativism, or within the frameworks of some of the most recent philosophical and ethical tenets and practices. Unprecedentedly important role of ‘self’ in the philosophical doctrines of determinism and free will are self-evident and self-explanatory.
Summing up, the Buddhist understanding of the concept of ‘self’ is associated with not a small amount of ambiguities, discrepancies, and controversies. Evidently, those who subscribe to Buddhist philosophy contemplate such concepts as ‘self’ and identity. The latter and the former play an important role in defining the Buddhist concept of afterlife. Person’s understanding of self is significantly influenced by the historical context as well as the social and cultural background persons associate themselves with. The concepts of ‘self’ and identity may seem rather vague, yet they represent separate notions. Bhagavad-Gita as It Is, a book that can be regarded as a comprehensive guide to some of the Buddhist most significant sacred writings, contends that living a happy life, peaceful, virtuous, and prosperous is what each human being is born for. Only time is capable of changing that scheme of things, which happens these days. On the contrary, no one and nothing can change the course of time, which is why one may find the Buddhist doctrine of ‘no’ self partly agreeable with.