Personal Essay about the No Self of the Buddha

This is an essay assigment for the course: Buddhism and Modern Psychology from Princeton University.

I will start by stating that I have no firmed-rooted position in whether the self does or does not exist.

However, I will provide a personal analysis with arguments from both sides to support and test Buddhas core belief in order to have a rich explanation.

According with Rupert Gethin, Buddha did not claim that the “self” did not exist. He merely addressed rigourously to what the self is not.

The main argument for the Buddha is with an analysis of the five aggregates that constitute the self. These are Physical Body Form, Emotions, Perceptions, Mental Formations and Consciousness. He questioned these five aggregates with a specific magnifying glass. Are these aggregates impermanent within the human experience ? Is there any sort of control over them that we humans have?

I will make remarks for each one of the aggregate, in order to clarify and validate the logic behind the analysis of the Buddha.

1. Physical Body Form

Our body it is always in a process of aging. As a scientifict fact, it has been proofs that all of our cells renew every seven years. This means that at molecular level we are not the same person as the one seven years ago. We can not modify the human body. Example, we cannot change our height, or replace a hand or a leg. There has been plastic surgery modifications, but as a whole we cannot make severe changes to it and so the body itself is impermanent.

2. Emotions

As a definition, emotions are psychological and physical reactions to an estimulus from the being. Emotions occur many times involuntarily and stay in a constant change regarding what the individual is experimenting. There has been said that you can control emotions. I say yes, but no in every occasion. Example, you cannot avoid feel sad when someone close to you dies, or feel lonely when you travel to another country by yourself.

3. Perceptions

These change when something in the individual´s enviroment changes. Important philosopher and thinker David Hume, wrote about the self and perceptions. “We are never intimately conscious of anything but particular perceptions; man is a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed one another with an inconceivable rapidity, and in perpetual flux and movement. So, yes we cannot be over control of what we perceive all the time.

4. Mental Formations

Mental formations such as desire and cravings, also are in constant change. However, the something interesting in this, when the individual recalls past experiences, good and bad, some of these remain and constitute part of the self. Example, when a girl tried a coconut ice cream when she was a little baby and she liked it, somewhere in her brain some neurons were activated and so it somehow remains in there as a special craving or desire that she has. So regarding mental formations, the overall thoughts of desire are in constant change as the individual grows up, but there are things in the brain that tend not to change at all, unless there is a severe damage.

5. Consciousness

Consciousness has been to philosophers, scholars and scientist very difficult to define or formulate how is really made. However, the common ground I see for having a proper and relevant definition is that everything that we are aware of at a given moment forms part of our consciousness. Yes, consciouness changes every time, if that didn`t happen how can we grow and learn.

So, yes the Buddha infalible analysis is correct in the way how these five aggregates are impermanent and not in out total control. Moving on in the argumentation,

I would like to have a overall basic definition of the self that is:

An inmaterial substance that happens to have reasoning (mind) and consciousness.

There are three main arguments against the notion of the “No-Self” with I found very intriguing.

First, Rene Descartes logic of “I think, therefore I am”, second a my personal formulation on how self is composed, the notion of the Ego from Sigmund Freud.

  1. This very thought essence of “ I think, therefore I am” of Rene Descartes is very compelling. So, for Rene, if you can think therefore you must have a self, a self with bundle of things all together that constitutes a person. It give a guidance to the philosophical question of the self, that just for the fact of reasoning, and even this changes through time, it just constitutes you as a self. You can store memories, past emotions, feel present perceptions, dream, think analytically, learning and many other things mind can do.
  2. My personal formulation of the composition of the self: Even though has not been tested or this is what my intuition and hours and hours of thinking got me into. I believe that a self is born in a specific time and continues to be constructedthrough time. It is constituted of two parts: Potencial self and Constructuted Self. First part, begins as a potencial seed which has predisposed things that DNA constitutes as a core. Things suchs a color of your hair, predisposition to like more sweet things than sour things, things that are in the seed of self and cannot be altered. This things also include how the brain will be formed and how the connected the “conscious” might be. You cannot have a strawberry seed plant and expect to grow papayas. The is predisposed conditions for the seed to grow specific things. Second part, is the ever constructed self which involves the individual`s percetion and the enviroment interacting and affecting each phase of growth of the individual. Example: A person with an identity/character of violence, or pacifist has to do with how the individual grew as child, his/her parents, people that he met, things he experienced and so on. I believe that is part of what you can say is a self, being consciously aware of your state of being and continuosly been developed as long the experience happen to the individual.
  3. Regarding the theory of the Ego formulated by Sigmund Freud, it is remarkable to note that is a convicing explanation on why self, indeed exists because is aware and because it has a process as a whole. According to Snowden, Ruth (2006). Teach Yourself Freud, “The ego is the organized part of the personality structure that includes defensive, perceptual, intellectual-cognitive, and executive functions. Conscious awareness resides in the ego, although not all of the operations of the ego are conscious. Originally, Freud used the word ego to mean a sense of self, but later revised it to mean a set of psychic functions such as judgment, tolerance, reality testing, control, planning, defense, synthesis of information, intellectual functioning, and memory.” Returning if the self exist or not, surely if there is something (material or inmaterial substance), therefore it must exist, otherwise we cannot understand ourselves, improve and share experiences with other humans.

In conclusion, both argumentation sides are relevant to be thought thoroughly, be tested in theory and practice, because human understanding enhances because of this.

However, let´s remember that Buddha focused specifically to the nature of suffering and insatisfaction (dukkha), in that respect, the core belief that the self does not exist works great and effectively.

This is because it breaks the illusion that many times the mind is caught in, in what the self is not, or what remains impermanently and out of our control.