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What if we weren't selves? Buddhist and Daoist perspectives.

Am I a Self?

Each morning you wake up you hear a voice that seems to speak your thoughts. You command yourself to walk into the kitchen and make yourself some breakfast. Your perceptions give rise to more thoughts and feelings. Perhaps you feel annoyed this morning because last night your loved one didn't put away some of the clean dishes despite promising to do so. That feeling is supplanted by a thought: "Well, I'd better put them way myself. In the early darkness, your thoughts, were you to examine them, would begin sorting themselves into desires, aversions, intentions, beliefs, awarenesses, memories, and feelings, and it would seem to you all the while that--you would be the one who is behind all these experiences, possessing them, as it were. Isn't it obvious that behind or above this steady stream of thoughts is you, your real, essential self?

Suppose now that particular memories come to mind, and you begin recalling your early childhood, your adolescence, all the way up to today. A story or two may knit itself together about playing a sport or love or pain: some stitched- together incidents that have helped--to make you--you. "Funny how we assimilate the past into the present so seamlessly," you might observe. And so, while your physical appearance, your thoughts, your feelings, your beliefs, and everything else associated with your mental life have all changed over time, it seems plain to you that surely you're the same person you were back then and surely you'll be the same person on into the future until you die.

For whatever else you take to be true about your life, it's that you are a self that persists in its continual existence over the course of your lifetime even as the experiences you have all change. That voice you seem to always hear once you listen for it, that voice running like a steady stream, seems to assure you that this is so.

It might therefore sound either far-fetched or deeply unsettling to hear that Daoists and Buddhists deny that there is a self. They do not think that there is some essential part of you that endures over the course of time. What could they possibly mean? Aren't they necessarily wrong (or downright mad)? Suppose we brush off our initial thoughts about their being necessarily wrong or just mad and suppose further that we were to listen in on what they have to say, trying to understand what they mean without prejudice. Suppose, even further, that what they had to tell us turned out to be true. What if, as they claim, the self were an illusion, one based on a basic confusion about how reality ultimately works? And what if they could account in their own terms also for why we believe that we are selves? And if they were right about all this, what implications would these things have for the way a human life, woven into the cosmic process, were to unfold?

Our Common Sense Picture of Subject and Object

It seems commonsensical for us to believe that we are subjects in here existing over and against a world consisting of objects over there. When we think for just a moment about the ordinary objects we perceive, we don't immediately see any trouble with this dualistic picture.

Isn't the world just a collection of things, each of which has its own properties? Take a tree: we see a trunk, a set of branches, a canopy of leaves, and some bark. The tree, we think,--has these properties. Then we may observe that the leaves fall away, so these leaves needn't be essential to what makes this tree what it is. Similarly, this tree can shed some bark or lose a branch or, more drastically, be struck by lightning one night and split in two. Still, the part of the tree that survives and continues to bloom each spring is, we think to ourselves, the same tree. It's simply that this tree, remaining itself, has lost some parts over time.

When we ask ourselves, "Given that none of the parts seem like essential properties, what makes this tree--a thing?," we might be inclined, after some thought, to answer, "We do!" It might strike us that there is nothing inherent in the tree that without the powers of our conceptual mind would make this tree appear as a single thing and not as simply a bunch of shapes, colors, textures, spatial position, and the like. The thought seems to be that somehow our senses are receptive to certain properties about the tree while it is our conceptualizing mind that synthesizes all these parts, making them into a single thing, a whole. Applying certain categories such as space, time, and form as well as our powers of memory, we subsume these particulars under a concept.

We think of objects such as pots to be "property-possessors" and as those things that endure over time. As--Mark Siderits writes in--Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction,

When we think of some one thing, the pot, as first being white and later on [assuming it changes colors] being red, we are thinking of the pot both as a property-possessor and as something that endures. It is by combining the two strands that we get a solution to the problem of change. We have to think of the pot as something that has a variety of properties, and we must also think of it as something that persists from one time to another, if we are to think of it as having the property of being white at one time, and then losing that property and acquiring the different one of being read at another time. (119)

Importantly, we think that the synthesizing powers of the mind enable us to take the pot as having the capacity to 'have' or 'lose' properties and also as being able to persist in its identity through change by virtue of having lost some property and of having gain another. Thus--to return to our example--does the tree we were discussing seem to us just to be--a single thing right here with a set of changing properties, the same thing that was here yesterday and last year and so on.

It seems, then, that we see the world in terms of enduring things with properties. But to make that claim we have also drawn into discussion the contributions of a self, the part, that is, that the self plays in making the world appear to us in this light. When we ask, "How must the self be in order for the world of objects to show up as a world of objects and not some other way," we may become puzzled. "Where is this self that we're claiming is doing all this work?" we might ask.

Immediately, it becomes clear to us that, if the self exists, it cannot be known by outer perception or by inner perception (introspection). This is because we neither see it directly nor do we "perceive it" with the "mind's eye." Given that that is so, how, if it exists, then can it be known? If at all, then, by means of deduction. For something, we might reason, must play the role of making sense of this world of objects and if there weren't something that remembered, something that linked our thoughts together (as being "our" thoughts), something that looked out onto the future, something that took this body to be "mine," how could we explain the sorts of things we ordinarily do? How could we explain the fact that when we wake up each day, we don't take ourselves to be completely different persons. Each day is not like the first day of existence. Moreover, we don't ordinarily take someone else's hands to be ours or other things in the world to be ours either. Indeed, we just don't know how the world could show up as a set of stable objects--enduring things gaining or losing properties over time--without something in us contributing to that objective picture.

Following this line of thought, we might conclude by means of inference that the self, though not observable, is a--substratum that, itself persisting, underlies the various parts of ourselves such as thinking, intending, believing, emoting, remembering, projecting, and so on that make us who we are. The self, we might think, must be that which persists over time while various things about ourselves change (the contents of our memories, the thoughts we have, the aging of our body, etc.) and must serve, therefore, as the unity in all this change and diversity.

Indeed, it would seem, then, that the self unifies the various parts within us while also unifying the world of objects outside of us. Hence, our common sense picture consists of a solid self and a solid world, of both remaining separate, and of the self doing the job of unifying the various parts of the person as well as the multiplicity of the world. In this way, a unified, stable self--mirrors while also contributing partially to making a unified, stable world.

A Buddhist Reply: No Self

Let's gather together what we have said so far. According to Katie Javanaud in "Is The Buddhist 'No-Self' Doctrine Compatible With Pursuing Nirvana?," there are three properties associated with the self: (1) numerical identity, (2) permanence or endurance, and (3) control (that is, the executive function). Following what I've written above, I'll add

(4) property-possessor.

Consider numerical identity. To say that the self is numerically identical with itself is to say that it is always self-same, never some other, always having the exact same properties and never losing any of those properties. Nothing changes the self, and the self changes into nothing else. What about permanence or endurance? The claim is that the self is itself--through the sweep of time--at least over the course of a lifetime if not, assuming for a moment that rebirth is true, over the course of multiple lifetimes. And control? The self or ego-function is precisely what governs our thoughts, wills, desires, and so forth. We say that the self is the doer behind the doing while governing the doing, the thinker behind the thought. And the self possesses these thoughts and actions. This act of generosity is "mine" just as that thought having to do with where a passing squirrel may be headed is also "mine."

Given this picture of the self and its world, the Buddhist reply should therefore sound very strange to us. It is that there is no such self, though they will also say that we have created, and continue to create, a sense of self in order to provide ourselves with a sense of solidity. For Buddhists, that solidity, however, is illusory and, what's worse, the source of our existential ill-at-easedness--the self--is actually the very thing that we thought would keep us secure.

There are two keys to understanding what the Buddhist is up to. The first is to suggest that we should shift how we see the world, moving from believing that reality ultimately consists of things with properties to believing that it is filled with events--with physical occurrences and mental events. In contrast with our "solid" common sense world, the Buddhist world is more "liquid" or "fluid."

The second key is to examine what Buddhists call the "five--skandha." The latter is an answer to the metaphysical question, "When we think about human beings, what ultimately is there?" The five--skandha is a bundle or a set of aggregates that include the corporeal (or "form" or "matter"), feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness. (1) The claim, which I shall not discuss here and which is very thoroughly examined in Mark Siderits'--Buddhism as Philosophy, is that these five aggregates are exhaustive of what it is real about human beings. There is therefore nothing more than or less than these aggregates with regard to what makes up human beings.

Here is where things get really interesting. If we're willing to grant the Buddhist shift in what there is from our ordinary beliefs that the world is divided into things with properties to the idea that the world unfolds through events (the world just is eventuated) and, moreover, if we're willing too to say that a human being just is a "heap" of the bodily, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness, then what can the Buddhist go on to argue? The Buddhist can seek to show that through meditation especially the practitioner can begin to discover that--there is no more to a human being than the causal series, one mental event following another, one physical event following another. If this is true, then a human being is not a self but just is a particular psychophysical continuum. The world, similarly, is reducible to a net of interconnected events. Hence, there is no need, on this view, to refer to some self as a substratum underlying our thoughts; there is no controller of our experiences or experiencer of our experiences; there is no self-sameness through time; there is just doing and just thinking as one thought comes into existence and goes out of existence and as another thought comes into existence and so on. There is just the flow of events.

There are, of course, plenty of thorny questions associated with what room this leaves for free will or how free action is initiated; whether we have control over our lives and, if so, what such control looks like; how memory as well as anticipations are supposed to operate when we can't rely on a self doing the recalling and anticipating; how, if true, this view doesn't amount to nihilism (if there is no "me," then doesn't life become meaningless?); and so on. Leaving those questions aside, we find that one question is

1 In this discussion, I have benefitted greatly from Mark Siderits' --Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction, 32-68. I follow his lead in much of what I write in this section immediately raised, "If this is the way reality is, then what sense do we make of the fact that we call people by names and that it certainly feels as if each of us has his or her own personal identity?"

According to Buddhists, there are two kinds of truths: ultimate truth, which is what we have so far been discussing, and conventional truth. A name, they say, is just a "convenient designator" or "conceptual fiction" that functions in conventional terms. As Mark Siderits states, "A statement is conventionally true if and only if it is acceptable to common sense and leads to successful practice" (56). In ordinary life, calling a knife "knife" is both acceptable to common sense (since that's the way we do things around here and that's how we refer to such things in this culture) and it's efficacious. That is, using a knife in order to cut apples is indeed a successful practice inasmuch as it works. And what is true of the psychophysical continuum called "Andrew" is also true of what we call "knives" and "apples" and "cars" and everything else. In the case of "Andrew," it is not just common sense in the West to refer to myself this way and it helps me to perform successful practices connected with taking care of "my" body, taking care of "my" thoughts, and so on. We agree to speak in these convenient fictions while, if we're Buddhists, also knowing that they're not ultimately true descriptions of reality.

Buddhists believe that someone is--enlightened when, through meditation, he or she fundamentally realizes this absolute truth about ultimate reality. To be enlightened is to be without a sense of ungrounded solidity. It is to be without the sense of "solid 'me' inside here" set over and against some "solid objects outside there." It is to be without self.

A Daoist Sense of Being Without Self

I now turn for help to the Daoists in order to imagine what a life would be like if it weren't grounded in the notion of a self-subsistent, enduring, controlling, property-possessing self. What would reality be like for one who is without self? What would it be like not to grasp and possess things? How would it be not to get hung up on thoughts?

In "Zhuangzi and Nagarjuna on the Truth of No Truth," David Loy pithily puts it this way: it is "to become no-thing." But what does that mean? Observe what the Buddha has to say to Bahiya:

In the seen there is only the seen, in the heard there is only the heard, in the senses there is only the sensed, in the cognized there is only the cognized: this, Bahiya, is how you should train yourself.

When, Bahiya, there is for you in the seen only the seen, in the heard only the heard, in the sensed only the sensed, in the cognized only the cognized, then, Bahiya, there is no "you" in connection with that.

When, Bahiya, there is no "you" in connection with that, there is no "you" there.

When, Bahiya, there is no "you" there, then, Bahiya, you are neither here nor there nor in between the two.

This, just this, is the end of suffering. (2)

We can seek to get some purchase on what the Buddha is saying by taking hearing as a test case. Citing the work of Edward Conze, Loy, in--A New Buddhist Path, suggests that perception can be divided into three stages: "(1) an object of attention provides (2) a basis for recognition, which then becomes (3) an occasion for what he [Conze] calls 'entrancement'" (42). Suppose you're meditating and you hear a sound. That sound you take or--recognize as a honking car. You may respond in "conditioned and predictable ways" (42): here, with annoyance or irritation. Suppose instead that you were able to, in some cases, simply hear as if you were a clear lake or a vibrating string. Then what? Perhaps you hear and then briefly recognize the sound as a honking car, only to then let the sound go, letting it exist for as long as it does before it perishes, flowing into all else. Then your mind wouldn't get irritated, wouldn't imagine what the neighbors were up to, wouldn't conjure up scenes in which you were giving them pieces of your mind, wouldn't lead you to think about moving to a quieter place. No, your mind would be clear, supple, receptive, responsive. Sound would be just sound, and so, presumably, would sights, tastes, touches, and smells.

Hear Zhuangzi, speaking through Confucius, on the necessary "fasting of the mind":

Confucius said, "If you merge all your intentions into a singularity, you will come to hear with the mind rather than with the ears. Further, you will come to hear with the vital energy rather than with the mind. For the ears are halted at what they hear. The mind is halted at whatever verifies its preconceptions. But the vital energy is an emptiness, a waiting for the presence of beings. The Course [Dao] along is what gathers in this emptiness. And it is this emptiness that is the fasting of the mind."(3)

In Daoist thought, one imagines the Daoist sage being able to fluidly respond without attachment, expectation, or desired outcome to whatever is occurring and to do so with the utmost ease, skill, and attention. Fasting, he is empty, subtle, supple. Listening, he speaks out of deep silence. Moving, he does nothing unnecessarily. In stillness is he calm, alert, ready. Never in his thought or in his action does he cut up the world according to some invariant conceptual grid, never into rigid, calcified distinctions. Always he does what needs to be done while taking no credit and seeking no accolades. To whom would such credit be given anyway? Wouldn't he be fearless too, for how could you shoot an arrow at him or through him when there is no-thing to hit? Just as the Dao, the mystery of endless becoming and generation, creates without creator, so the sage fluidly transforms and is transformed by his immersive interactions with evental unfoldings. The sage is a vessel for the Dao, which expresses itself in and through and as him.

Illusion, remember, was registered in part by the way that the self had come to separate itself from the world. For the sage, truth involves seeing the world as in no way other than or apart from him or over and against him. He has has learned, here and now, to commingle with the cosmic creative process: to be nothing and thus ever with the "ccurrent streams of life.

Works Cited

Eno, Robert. "Zhuangzi." Accessible Online at

Javanaud, Katie. "Is the Buddhist 'No-Self' Doctrine Compatible with Pursuing Nirvana?" Philosophy Now 97 (July/August 2013). Accessible Online at ith_Pursuing_Nirvana.

Loy, David.--A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution, and Ethics in the Modern World. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2015.

Loy, David. "Zhuangzi and Nagarjuna on the Truth of No Truth."--College of Liberal Arts, National Taiwan University. Accessible Online at

Siderits, Mark.--Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2017.

Zhuangzi,--Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings with Selections from Traditional Commentaries, 26-7

Zhuangzi.--The Essential Writings with Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Trans. Brook Ziporyn. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2009.

Andrew Taggart is a Ph.D.-trained practical philosopher and entrepreneur. About five years ago, he started a successful philosophy practice, which involves speaking daily over Skype about the nature of a good life with individuals living around the world. Once a resident of New York City, he now lives with his fiancee Alexandra in Southern California.
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Title Annotation:MODERN THOUGHT
Author:Taggart, Andrew
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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