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Is The Buddhist ‘No-Self’ Doctrine Compatible With Pursuing Nirvana?
Katie Javanaud asks whether there is a contradiction at the heart of Buddhism.
Two of the most fundamental doctrines of Buddhism are firstly that the self is illusory, and secondly that we can achieve liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth to reach a state of peace called Nirvana. From the perspective of Western philosophy, it may appear inconsistent to claim both that there is no self and that Nirvana can nonetheless be attained, for who or what attains liberation if there is no self in need of liberation?
Although this is a common objection to Buddhism, to consider its validity we must explore the concept of Nirvana more fully in order to understand the liberation it offers. We will also need to examine the notion that there is no self, a notion which is inherently difficult to accept, but has been held by a number of philosophers, notably David Hume. The doctrine is certainly asserted by Buddhism, and was strongly implied by sermons of the Buddha himself (see verse 7 of the Dhammapada, or the Alagaddupama-Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya).
When examining the compatibility between the Buddhist claims of ‘no-self’ and the Buddhist project of liberation, the pursuit of Nirvana, as we will do in this article, we will have to remember that many profound thinkers have found a way to hold the two doctrines simultaneously. However, as we shall see, one difficulty with this stance is that it seems to require those who hold it to abandon the demands of reason for a position which is defended without recourse to the usual methods of philosophical enquiry.
What would result from the discovery of either the compatibility or the incompatibility of the two doctrines? Even if we discover that the Nirvana/no-self combination lacks cogency, does it follow that the theory of no-self is no longer valuable – for that theory supports the doctrine of non-attachment, which grounds the Buddhist ethic of universal compassion? Alternatively, if we discover that Buddhists can hold the two claims simultaneously without contradiction, this in itself neither shows that the ‘no-self’ doctrine is actually true, nor that the lay person would be compelled to accept that the self is an illusion.
According to Buddhism, the central characteristics of existence are impermanence, suffering and ‘no-self’. The Buddha’s view of life as suffering might give rise to the notion that Buddhism is essentially pessimistic. However, as I argue, in offering a complete liberation from suffering, Buddhism is highly optimistic. Understanding that the cause of suffering is craving (the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth) enables us to eradicate suffering by removing the cause – which is achieved by following the Eightfold Path in order to be freed from the cycle of re-birth and the accumulation of karma. To attain liberation from the cycle of re-birth and the accumulation of karma, among other things, one must relinquish the belief in an enduring self retaining identity over time and performing the executive function of ‘controller’. Abandoning a belief in an enduring self is a natural step for any Buddhist paying close attention to the constant flux occurring in the world. So our starting point will be an examination of the ‘no-self’ doctrine. We will then examine various definitions of liberation, attempting to construct a definition that renders this liberation compatible with ‘no-self’. I shall in fact offer two answers to the title question; which one we accept will depend on our attitude towards the claims of logic. For textual sources, I will focus primarily on the Abhidharma forms of Buddhism, as it is impossible here to cover all branches/schools of Buddhism.
The Self That Buddhism Denies
What is the nature of the self that Buddhists deny, and how can they justify this claim?
It is necessary firstly to understand the Buddhist distinction between ‘persons’ and ‘the self’, which is legitimised by differentiating between conventional and ultimate truths:
“A statement is conventionally true if and only if it is acceptable to common sense and consistently leads to successful practice… A statement is ultimately true if and only if it corresponds to the facts and neither asserts nor presupposes the existence of any conceptual fictions.”
(Mark Siderits, Buddhism as Philosophy, 2007)
Buddhists argue that it is only conventionally, not ultimately, true that we are persons: that is, our conception of ourselves as persons does not correspond with reality. As it says in the Mahayana-Sutralankara, “A person should be mentioned as existing only in designation… but not in reality [or substance, dravya].” Buddhists say that we consider ourselves persons because, through experience, we learn that we are constituted of five skandhas or aspects: body (rupa), feelings (vedana), perceptions (samjna), volitions (samskaras), and consciousness (vijnana). But the word ‘person’ becomes merely a convenient designator for the fiction we accept when we believe that a ‘person’ is something over and above these component parts. Buddhists therefore accept what Buddhism scholar Mark Siderits calls a ‘mereological reductionism’ about persons: they claim that the parts exist, but the supposed whole does not.
This position is discussed in the Milindapanha or Questions of King Milinda (c. 100 BCE). Milinda is shocked to hear the monk Nagasena deny the existence of a self, and asks whether each of the bodily parts of Nagasena and then each of his mental constituents constitute his self. To each question Nagasena replies negatively. Initially this leads Milinda to view the term ‘Nagasena’ as an ‘empty sound’ – even a lie. Nagasena then scrutinises Milinda’s claim that he arrived by chariot in the same terms, asking whether ‘chariot’ refers to the axle, pole, seat etc., or whether ‘chariot’ refers simply to the unity of these parts. To each of these Milinda too replies negatively. During this interrogation Milinda’s view of the self as a ‘convenient designator’ or ‘conceptual fiction’ is transformed from the idea of it being a mere ‘empty sound’ into his understanding that the term ‘chariot’ or ‘Nagasena’ or any other composite entity “is but a way of counting, term, appellation, convenient designation, mere name…” He acknowledges that the belief is conventionally true, but of persons “in the absolute sense there is no ego… to be found” (Radhakrishnan & Moore, A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy, p.284).
When Buddhists assert the doctrine of ‘no-self’, they have a clear conception of what a self would be. The self Buddhists deny would have to meet the following criteria: it would (i) retain identity over time, (ii) be permanent (that is, enduring), and (iii) have ‘controlling powers’ over the parts of a person. Yet through empirical investigation, Buddhists conclude that there is no such thing. ‘I’ is commonly used to refer to the mind/body integration of the five skandhas, but when we examine these, we discover that in none alone are the necessary criteria for self met, and as we’ve seen, the combination of them is a convenient fiction. So, could there be something outside the skandhas that constitutes the self? Siderits observes: “in order for the Buddha’s strategy to work, he will have to show that the doctrine of the five skandhas gives an exhaustive analysis of the parts of the person” (Buddhism as Philosophy, p.37). This exhaustiveness claim amounts to asserting that every element or aspect of a person is accounted for by the five skandhas.
Objectors to the exhaustiveness claim often argue that for discovering the self the Buddhist commitment to empirical means is mistaken. True, we cannot discover the self in the five skandhas, precisely because the self is that which is beyond or distinct from the five skandhas. Whereas Buddhists deny the self on grounds that, if it were there, we would be able to point it out, opponents of this view, including Sankara of the Hindu Advaita Vedanta school, are not at all surprised that we cannot point out the self; for the self is that which does the pointing rather than that which is pointed at. Buddha defended his commitment to the empirical method on grounds that, without it, one abandons the pursuit of knowledge in favour of speculation. In the Alagaddupama-Sutta (= ‘Snake Simile Discourse’), Buddha says “O monks, when neither self nor anything pertaining to self can truly and really be found, this speculative view ‘The universe is that Atman (Soul); I shall be that after death, permanent, abiding, ever-lasting, unchanging and I shall exist as such for eternity’, is it not wholly and completely foolish?” (W.S. Rahula, What The Buddha Taught, p58).
Ancient Buddhist site of Ayutthaya in Thailand
The Argument from Impermanence
Buddhism presents two further arguments for the doctrine of ‘no-self’: the argument from impermanence and the argument from control. The argument from impermanence relies on the exhaustiveness claim, whose validity is implicit in the premises of the argument. The argument can be summarized thus:
1. The five skandhas are impermanent.
2. If there was a self, it would be permanent.
3. A person is no more than the five skandhas (this is the exhaustiveness claim).
4. Therefore there is no self.
This argument is logically sound. However, the truth of the conclusion depends on premise 3. Could there be something transcending the five skandhas which should be recognized as a self?
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, a follower of the Hindu school of Advaita-Vedanta, thinks that there must be. More controversially, he argues that the Buddha too thought there must be some self beyond the five skandhas. Radhakrishnan (an Oxford philosopher and later President of India) appeals to Udana 8.3, where the Buddha states, “There is an unborn, an unoriginated, an unmade, an uncompounded; were there not… there would be no escape from the world of the born, the originated, the made and the compounded” (S. Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy Vol.1, p.320). However, what Buddha meant by his assertions about the ‘unborn’ in Udana 8.3 is unclear. There are at least two possible interpretations: (i) To assert that ‘x’ is unborn is to say that it does not come into existence at a particular time because it never has a beginning, i.e., it is eternal. In this case, being ‘unborn’ would be predicated of some eternal entity; (ii) Alternatively to posit that ‘x’ is ‘unborn’ may be to assert the absence of ‘x’s’ birth i.e. it is not-born. On this interpretation we would simply be denying the existence of the entity in question, saying either that the being in question had not been born yet or that it never would be born (although in either case, particularly the latter, it would not make much sense to refer to it as a being). Given the divergent interpretations of the Buddha’s meaning of ‘unborn’ here, we cannot assume that the Buddha intended to posit an eternal entity which is ‘unborn’ in the first sense. Instead, and more in keeping with the rest of Buddhist thought, Udana 8.3 could be an expression of the absence of an eternal entity. So, when Buddha says there is an ‘unborn’ rather than an eternal changeless entity, he could simply be asserting that there is no such entity. And even if Buddha is asserting the existence of some unoriginated entity, why should we designate this entity as the self? What Buddhism is precisely denying is that the entity we commonly call ‘self’ meets the criteria for selfhood (namely permanence, control and numerical identity over time).
The idea of permanence is closely related to that of numerical identity. Buddhists deny that a person can remain numerically identical with him or herself over time on that grounds that time itself necessarily implies numerical change. This ‘doctrine of momentariness’ entails that at every moment, the five skandhas arise, are destroyed and are succeeded by other numerically distinct (if similar) skandhas. Indeed, observation of mental states does reveal that our feelings, volitions and objects of consciousness are constantly changing.
The Argument from Control
On the conventional view of a person as accepted in common discourse, we believe we can alter aspects of ourselves, and that it is ‘we’ who do this. If there is an aspect of our self which dissatisfies us, we try to change it. This concept presupposes that the self is the type of thing that can perform a controlling function on parts of the person. However, the executive functioning of the self is undermined by the Principle of Irreflexivity, which asserts that an entity cannot operate upon itself. The truth of this principle is established by observation, in keeping with Buddhist empiricism. To support the claim, Buddhists appeal to the following evidence: a knife cannot cut itself, a finger cannot point to itself, etc. It follows that “if the self performed the executive function, it could perform that function on other parts of the person, but not on itself. This means that I could never find myself dissatisfied with and wanting to change myself, which in turn means that any part of me that I can find myself wanting to change could not be myself” (Buddhism as Philosophy, p.47).
Sankara’s principle of consciousness bears some of the same properties (such as numerical identity over time and permanence) as the self which Buddhists deny. Unlike the Buddhist notion of self, however, the Advaita Vedanta school does not say the self would be a controller or performer of executive functions, only an experiencer of perceptions and thoughts. According to Sankara, the self is a universal transcendental entity unconnected with the physical world of appearances. In both philosophical systems the question of the relationship between this somewhat abstract self and the individual one takes as oneself arises, for the ‘transcendental’ and ‘experiential’ self do not seem identical. Consequently, when we talk of the self which the Buddhist denies but other schools accept, we are not talking of persons or individuals in their usual senses.
In characterizing what a self would be if it were instantiated, Buddhists have claimed three main properties: permanence, control and numerical identity. We have looked at two arguments advancing the no-self doctrine, which draw on the idea of a self as permanent or controlling respectively. These arguments provide some support for the doctrine of no-self. However, our initial protest against the doctrine remains. Knowledge, suffering, rebirth (all key Buddhist ideas), arise only if we can assume the existence of a subject to whom these things apply. For instance, our ability to analyse the arguments for ‘no-self’, and our acknowledging that the skandhas are in a constant state of arising and dissolving, presupposes that there is a self which has the capacity to analyse and to observe change. This leads us again to ask: how can the concept of liberation remain coherent unless we can identify one who is liberated? Would it be philosophically justifiable to accept the Buddha’s suggestion that these problems are not in need of urgent address?
The Concept of Nirvana
The definition of Nirvana is crucial to determining whether the no-self doctrine and the Buddhist project of liberation are compatible. ‘Nirvana’ is literally translated from the Sanskrit as ‘extinction/snuffed out’. This liberation from continual rebirth and suffering is the result of enlightenment, which occurs when our ignorance about the nature of existence and the false belief in a self is eradicated. It is important to qualify that what is extinguished is suffering (ultimately caused by ignorance): the self is not extinguished, for there never was a self, only the illusion of one.
If we define Nirvana in negative terms, as annihilation, extinction or nothingness, then since true nothingness plausibly implies that nobody experiences it, the Buddhists could plausibly assert the compatibility of ‘no-self’ with this concept of liberation. However, if we do characterise Nirvana as nothingness, there are at least two different things we could mean by this, and both are questionable. If by nothingness we mean an absolute void, then although this may be compatible with the doctrine of no-self, the question arises as to whether we could rightly describe this as ‘liberation’. Rather, this definition of Nirvana forces the conclusion that Buddhism is essentially nihilistic – which Buddhists would deny. Alternatively, we could interpret the ‘nothingness’ of Nirvana to mean an ‘undifferentiated continuum’. This definition too has its difficulties: could we be describing nothingness if we are providing an idea of what it is like? Wouldn’t this be a refutation of its actual nothingness? And again, in what sense would this be ‘liberation’? It remains the case that the notion of liberation is meaningful only if we can identify who is liberated. Alternatively, we could characterize Nirvana in positive terms, describing it as a blissful state – although once again, this would seem to necessitate a self for whom it is blissful.
Buddha himself said little about the state of beings who attain liberation, or what happens to them after death. In a dialogue with his disciple Vaccha, Buddha says of the Enlightened One: “to say that he is reborn would not fit the case… to say that he is not reborn would not fit the case… to say that he is both reborn and not reborn would not fit the case… to say that he is neither reborn nor not reborn would not fit the case” (A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy, p.290). The tetralemma indicates that when we ask what the state of liberation is like for the one who has attained it, the question has been misconceived.
Although logically it must be the case that the Enlightened One is either reborn or not reborn (either continues to experience after death or does not), Buddha is here asserting that none of the four possibilities are actualized. What this suggests is that to define Nirvana in either negative or positive terms is to misunderstand it, limiting it according to our present state of ignorance. As Siderits writes, “Since logic suggests that one of the four possibilities would have to be true, the conclusion seems inescapable that the Buddha is calling Nirvana something that transcends all rational discourse” (Buddhism as Philosophy, p.72). Nirvana could be that which transcends all normal human experience (and for the Buddhist must necessarily do so, since normal human existence entails suffering and is characterized by ‘becoming’). To attempt to speak rationally of the condition of those who attain Nirvana, or about the nature of Nirvana itself, is to misunderstand the topic under discussion: Nirvana is ineffable. As D.T. Suzuki, an adherent of Zen Buddhism, puts it: “As long as we stay at the level of relativity or intellectualization, we shall have all kinds of disagreement and have to keep up a series of hot discussions” (The Field of Zen, p.36); and as long as Buddhism “appeals to language to express itself, it inevitably becomes the victim of all the inconveniences, all the restrictions, and all the contradictions which are inherent in language” (p.28). Yet as radically ‘other’ from anything we experience, Nirvana is in a category of its own. However, from this conception of Nirvana, it is impossible to decide whether it is logically compatible with the doctrine of no-self.
Appeals to the ineffable quality of Nirvana may be legitimate, since Buddhism defines Nirvana as that which is radically different from anything which we now experience. But given that the Buddha made quite scathing remarks about the foolishness of speculation not based on experience, how can we talk about the nature of liberation? As A.K. Warder correctly observes of Buddhist methodology “What was first picked up as a piece of information will not be fully understood until the trainee sees the truth himself through his own experience. He must not just believe it, he must verify it” (Indian Buddhism, p.102).
There are two other major problems with experience here: (i) If experience is suffering, how could the experience of enlightenment result in liberation? (ii) A central cause of suffering, according to Buddhism, is psychological attachment to the self. This is one of the main hindrances to liberation; and yet in the very process of relinquishing this attachment, in order to attain it one must personally experience liberation. This seems to be putting the cart before the horse, only immediately afterwards to put the horse back in front of the cart. The paradox of liberation, meanwhile, trots on! Given these problems, we must be careful not simply to appeal to mysticism, or to the ‘ineffable’ quality of Nirvana. Although from this side of liberation (that is, from our position of ignorance) it may be tempting to speculate about Nirvana, doing so could itself be a form of ignorance, and thus a barrier to the very thing we seek. For perhaps Nirvana is nothing positive in its own right, but simply a cessation of suffering and ignorance.
In conclusion, the best we can offer by way of an answer to our title question is itself a question: does logic invariably reflect ultimate reality, or is it possible that the logically impossible could in fact be instantiated? Would the logical incompatibility of the two doctrines of ‘no-self’ and self-liberation necessarily have to result in the falsehood of at least one of the doctrines? What Buddhists have attempted to do in postulating Nirvana is “to clear away all obstacles – including reason itself – that stood in the way of the realization of the reality that transcended ordinary phenomenal existence… [Buddhists] rejected all reasons and positions not because [they are] pessimists or nihilists but because reality was inaccessible to reason and ordinary perception” (B.A. Elman, ‘Nietzsche and Buddhism’; Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol.44, 1983, p.683). When Buddhists claim that Nirvana is blissful, they could be describing it as a positive state of pleasure or happiness, but this interpretation is unwarranted given their commitment to the view that human experience invariably brings with it existential angst and suffering. The alternative we are left with is that Nirvana is blissful in the sense that it is a state free from all pain and suffering, but it is otherwise not something about which we can speak meaningfully from this side of liberation. Perhaps we may have glimpses in our lifetime of what Nirvana is like, but whenever we attempt to capture what it is, we immediately loose sight of it: Nirvana is by nature indescribable, and therefore we cannot make the final pronouncement on whether ‘no-self’ is compatible with it.
© Katie Javanaud 2013
Katie Javanaud has a degree in philosophy and theology from Oxford, and is studying for an MA in History of Philosophy at King’s, London.