The Self in Selfishness

Anyone who’s studied Buddhism for more than a few minutes has bumped up against the idea of self/no-self (anatta). It’s often misinterpreted that the Buddha said we don’t exist. He actually explicitly refused to answer the question when asked. It seems he thought it was a “do you beat your child often” question. You can’t give the right answer. The question is the problem. Instead, he taught that we need to think more flexibly about the idea of self.

I think it’s harder for Americans to get comfortable with these ideas because they go against our deeply ingrained ideas of rugged independence and the everlasting soul. We’re taught from an early age that we should pull “ourselves” up by our bootstraps and avoid staining our souls with sin lest we spend all eternity getting poked with a red-hot pitchfork. Even atheists are so conditioned by the culture as to have a hard time letting go of the idea of “me” sitting in the driver’s seat somehow.

But in Asia– I’ll use Japan as that’s my experience– I think it’s culturally easier to think in the terms in which the Buddha seems to me to have intended his instruction on this topic. In Japan, when you speak of someone “inside your circle”, you use one set of words. When you talk to “others”, you use another.

When you’re talking to your friend, your father is “chichi”. Your friend’s father, though, is “otousan”. Both mean father. The only difference is that one is “you” and one is “them”.

This shifting sense of “I” happens constantly. When I’m talking to my father, he’s “otousan”. In that case, my circle shrinks to me, and he’s outside of it. This point of reference moves around so naturally that when asked about it, Japanese people will often not really understand the question. Similarly, I think what the Buddha was trying to get across was that there are times to think of your “self” and times to understand that there’s “no self”.

Clearly, there is a body with a mind in it. In one sense, that’s “you”, if for no other reason than we have to call it something. Your mind, as opposed to mine, has memories, innate wiring that is repulsed by some tastes, can add large numbers, can’t remember names well, etc. We are the meat that is reading (and writing) this. If I can’t use those words (“I”, “me”, “you”), communication becomes difficult. I love avocados. Every time. My knee hurts. For sure.

On the other hand, who does that knee “belong” to? How about “I have a brain”? Who has it? Am I not the whole system? Is there someone aside from the knee and brain who “owns” them? If I lose limbs, are they not “me” anymore? Like how clipped fingernails are gross, but nice attached fingernails are sexy?

Abstractly, we talk about the soul. Where does that live? If “my” brain gets damaged, but I survive, does that mean “I” am still in there, even if I’m not aware, have no memories, or otherwise cease to resemble “me” before the event? If so, what does the soul contain exactly? Just a name tag?

The Bible itself doesn’t talk about an everlasting soul– resurrection, yes, a separate eternal soul, no. That idea comes from later integration with earlier ideas from Plato, for instance, and his idea of “forms”. It’s an old idea that, like classical physics, makes sense because it matches our perceptions. Sometimes, it’s flat-out wrong, but we like it anyway. Like quantum mechanics and general relativity, the reality is a little more complicated.

If “I” am holding a grudge against “you”, how does that work, exactly? My mind refuses to let go of its state of moral superiority over “you”– again, the you-meat? the you-mind? the you-brain? the memory of the thing your meat did? Even the unawakened mind will sometimes get confused about when our “me” against “you” thing started or how it ends.

That’s because it generally doesn’t make any sense and so is naturally confusing. Am I mad because “your” group is the wrong religion? Are they not, though, “my” group when compared to Martians? This isn’t just philosophical. “I” fight wars constantly over something someone “you” identify with did hundreds of years ago– see Shiite vs. Sunni for a long-standing, absurd example.

I think a reasonable person will see that it’s easier to accept the idea of a “me” that exists independently of my body because anything else reduces our sense of specialness. Without the idea of a “self” in that sense, how can we tell ourselves we’re better than someone else? How can I be angry with an abstract idea of “other”? Why, then, should “I” have more?

If we all desire happiness, and if there’s no inherent, eternal “self”, we have to admit that our successes (and, for that matter, failures) aren’t really personal. They’re situational. We’re basically just lucky. Or unlucky. We worked harder because we happened to be born into a situation (the US instead of war-torn Somalia), to have been exposed to inspiration at the right time (that pro baseball player that visited our school), to have had access to resources (a supportive uncle, money to attend school, a local library), to have inherited intelligence and energy (thanks, 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, 16 great-great-…) that led to our success. To some degree, “you” just reacted to your absolutely dumb-luck conditions.

Concerning matter, we have been all wrong. What we have called matter is energy, whose vibration has been so lowered as to be perceptible to the senses. There is no matter.
–Albert Einstein

In reality, each of us is a miraculous, ephemeral awareness, a conglomeration of senses and thoughts, passing through a shared experience. In fact, as Einstein himself said, even our material existence is a fleeting perception of energy, scientifically speaking. If that’s true, where does that put our intuitional idea of a permanent “me”?


Once we start to think about ourselves in these shifting terms, we naturally become more compassionate. There, but for the grace of God, go “I”. We begin to see that we can take pleasure from life but not identify it with some super-serious, all-important “me” who should or should not experience things the way they are. We can accept that our conditions brought us here, and they’ll bring us elsewhere before too long.

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!
— Abraham Lincoln

It’s wise to use the idea of “me” when it makes sense (“Who ordered the pepperoni? I did!) and stop doing it when it causes misery (“I am such a terrible person!”) rather than struggle with trying to figure out the answer to some yes or no question. The question is not whether or not there’s a self, it is what does it bring you to think that way in the shifting conditions of your life?


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