Ego, Self and non-Self in Buddhism
The usage of the term “Ego” as a translation of the Pali word Attā
The translation of Buddhist teachings into the modern western thought is a process in which a completely different perception of reality breaks into the establishment of western philosophy. In this regard, let us elaborate on the usage of the term “Ego” in Buddhist texts, so we can clearly differentiate between the context of the traditional Buddhist philosophy from that of western science.
It is not difficult to find that the term “Ego” represents, in Buddhism, something that causes suffering and should be eradicated. But if we look at the meaning of this word we find that, according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, the term “Ego” covers three different concepts: self, egotism or conceit and the psychoanalytic Freudian definition that states: “that part of the psyche which experiences the external world, or reality, through the senses, organizes the thought process rationally and governs action”. This ambiguity has led to many misunderstandings on this matter, such as the arguments that promote self-hatred, the inference that Buddhism denies the importance of developing self-esteem and a healthy personality, or the simplification of regarding Nirvana as the eradication of selfishness. (Thanissaro, n.d.)
But if we look at the source term in the ancient Buddhist scriptures, in the Canon Pali, we will find that it is “Attā”: self, ego, soul, personality, individuality (Buddha Vacana, n.d.), and that it is the root of the term “Anattā: “non-self” or “substanceless” (Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 2007) that makes up one of the “three characteristics of all phenomena” or Tilakkhana. According to the Buddha’s teachings, Attā is the result of an instinctual and unconscious survival mechanism produced by the attachment to a set of substanceless conditions commonly known in Buddhism as The Five Aggregates or upādāna·kkhandha. So, because Attā is made up by these interdependent circumstances, and lacks of whatsoever substance, it is in reality non-self or Anattā. Nevertheless, the philosophy of Anattā is not the same as that which denies existence, nihilism (Nirattā); the teaching of “non-self” or Anattā refers to a non-dualistic existence while Nirattā to nothingness. (Buddhadasa, n.d.) So, the individual existence (Attā) is a “Distortion of Perception”; the non-dualistic existence or non-self (Anattā) is the “Right View”; while non-existence (Nirattā) is a misconception.
So far it is clear that, in Buddhist texts, the use of the terms self, soul or ego are related to the concept of Attā. However, according to Ven. Thubten Chodron ego is used to denote two different issues; the self-grasping ignorance, the distortion of perception explained above that is regarded as being the root of cyclic existence, and self-centredness and selfishness that is a spiritual obstacle for it inhibit us to develop compassion. Accordingly, the term ego is used in the first two meanings given by the dictionary: self, in the particular sense of the Buddhist philosophy, and egotism or conceit, which are regarded as symptoms of personality disorders in modern psychoanalysis.
All in all, as the spiritual path of Buddhism is based on the loving kindness towards all sentient beings, it is evident so far that although the ego-sense is a distortion of perception, it does not mean that one should treat ourselves with contempt; quite the opposite, because there is no difference between true self-esteem and loving kindness towards others. So, many of the misconceptions listed above are the consequence of a poor appreciation of the Buddhist teachings and a lack of understanding that the so called psychological health is the ideal functioning of human psyche, while the Buddha’s teachings are a path to transcendence, to overcoming the obstacles of the unsatisfactory individual life and becoming one with reality that is non-self.
Buddha Vacana. (n.d.). Glossary of Pali terms. Retrieved from Buddha-Vacana.org: http://www.buddha-vacana.org/gloss.html
Buddhadasa, B. (n.d.). Anatta & Rebirth. Retrieved from Dhammatalks.net: http://www.dhammatalks.net/Books7/Buddhadasa_Bhikkhu_Anatta_and_Rebirth.pdf
Chodron, V. T. (n.d.). Ego: A Tibetan Buddhist Perspective. Retrieved from Purify Mind: http://www.purifymind.com/TibetanPerspective.htm
Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (2007, 12 05). Anatta. Retrieved from Encyclopædia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/topic/anatta
Merriam Webster . (n.d.). Ego . Retrieved from Merriam Webster Dictionary: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ego
Thanissaro, B. (n.d.). The Problem of Egolessness. Retrieved from Metta Refuge: https://mettarefuge.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/the-problem-of-egolessness.pdf