Sunday, August 23, 2009


-Desh Raj Sirswal

Self is broadly defined as the essential qualities that make a person distinct from all others. The self is the idea of a unified being which is the source of an idiosyncratic consciousness. Moreover, this self is agent responsible for the thoughts and actions of an individual to which they are ascribed. It is a substance which therefore endures through time; thus, the thoughts and actions at different moments of time may pertain to the same self as John Locke discussed. The particular characteristics of the self determine its identity. The Self usually begins as a random stream of sensory material — sounds, images, tactile sensations, scents, flavours, stimulate the nervous system and, through a series of neurochemical processes affect the brain forming first impressions in the brain tissue. Self can be described in many languages and conceptual networks but they will always be partial and incomplete. What you are today is a product of all events which occurred before. Physically you are what you have eaten up till now. But there is also structural, slow-motion changes which could be however seen if filmed with a slow speed camera, the same way as we can see blooming of a flower accelerated to 10 seconds when it took maybe 2 days. So the structure is not static, it continues to change only slowly. It is the intension of this article is to analyse the conception of self according to Gautama Buddha.

Gautama Conception of the Self
The self is a problem which was of central concern to both and which has since exercised a continuing fascination for philosophers, both of the East and the West.1 The Buddha denies the existence of any permanent entity either physical or mental. He considers the human person as a psychophysical complex. For him all worldly things are momentary and likewise the self is not more than it and rejects commonly believed conception of self. But how, it may be asked, does he then explain the continuity of a person through different births, or even through the different states of childhood, youth and old age? Though denying the continuity of an identical substance in man, Buddha does not deny the continuity of the stream of successive states that compose his life. In the meaning of the Atman is to believe in the eternity, then we call Buddha’s conception about self as Anantamavada. Atman is nothing more except the composition of five skandhas.

The Buddha’s concept of experience was “pre-theoretical” akin to the “radical empiricism” of James. His “middle-way” was the same as “radical empiricism”–with the help of which he escaped all the dualisms and dichotomies of his times such as eternalism and annihilationism, being and nonbeing, Brahman and the atman, subject and object, knower and the known, the self and the not-self, permanence and impermanence.

About this conception one question arises that How does such a view of the self account for personal identity and personal freedom? Goutama had something original to contribute to both these problems. Since what we designate the “self” is a continuous flow of psyche-physical processes it is futile to look for exactly the same entity (atman) within them. Even if one postulated such an entity it would be difficult theoretically to explain its relation to the ongoing flow of these processes.

Self is not more than a Composition
A number of analogies are used to illustrate the Buddhist philosophy of process. The most popular metaphor for expounding the Buddhist doctrine of no-abinding self is that of the bundle of fire-sticks .According to the Buddha, all of our senses and thoughts are on fire with lust and desire. Although there is no-abinding self or soul, we cannot deny the reality of our experiences. Thus, the Buddha provided a five-fold classification of what he thought was really going on when we experience something. He described these as the five bundles and they constitute one of the earliest attempts at a definite analysis of what is it to experience something. They are:

1. Rupa: Material Form-the material givenness of experience.
2. Vedana: Sensation- the initial sensory apprehension of forms.
3. Samjna : Cognition- the determine classification of experience.
4. Samskara: Disposition- the volitional response that colours experiences.
5. Vijnana: Consciousness- awareness of the six sensory ranges (indriya).2

For the early Buddhists, however, the five skandhas provided their own conceptual map of the entirety of our experience. Where is there a self to be found within this scheme? The Buddha is said to have declared with reference to each of the five skandhas “It is not mine. He is not me. He is not myself”., thereby rejecting the existence of some mysterious entity that might be thought to ‘own’ or ‘possess’ the skandhas and to deny that any such substantial self can be found within the skandhas themselves. The five bundles are themselves continually understanding transforming and do not constitute a persisting or abiding self of any kind.3

Buddhist used the term ‘name-and-form’ is quite crucial for understanding the Buddhist analysis of mind and the body. The used it in two important contexts. First, name and form, which is a translation of the Pali term nama-rupa, are often associated together as a reference to the five aggregates: feeling, perception, disposition and consciousness associated with nama and rupa associated with the material shape derived from extension, cohension, heat and mobility.4 So, the man is only a conventional name of a collection of different constituents and his existence depends on this collection and it dissolves when the collection and it dissolves when the collection breaks up. The soul or the ego denotes nothing more than this collection.5

On Personal IdentityIdentity for the Buddha is to be found in the cumulative continuity of the processes themselves. Identity or sameness involves the mistaken assumption of a permanent element or substance that must persist throughout an ever changing process. The series is not a discrete one of perishing particulars, otherwise memory and moral effort would be inexplicable. On the contrary, it is governed by the “law of dependent origination” which says: If this is, that comes to be, from the arising of this, which arises. If this is not, that does not come to be; from the stopping of this, that stops. This is a description of what is experientially encountered without being trammeled by the conceptual puzzles regarding the nature of the “‘tie” to account for the continuity. Such a cumulative continuity, so the Buddha thought, has a room for personal freedom and moral initiative. It is not a causally tight and determined series. Any notion of rigid determinism flatly contradicts our experience of putting forth moral effort in the, face of temptation.

Buddhists believe in re-birth but do not accept that there is any substantial entity of self (atman) being reborn in this process-there is simply the process itself. For the various Hindu schools samara is like a pearl necklace. The successions of lives are a series of pearls held together by a singular connecting thread-the atman. In contrast, Buddhist philosophical texts tend to represent rebirth using analogies of dynamics and ever-changing processes, such as the following of a river or the flickering flame of a candle. Thus, according to the Questions of King Milinda to talk of either ‘identity’ or ‘difference’ between lives is inappropriate.6 Rebirth is, therefore, not transmigration, i.e. the migration of the causation of the same soul into another body; it is the causation of the next life by the present.

In short, the Buddha’s attitude to all these conceptual problems regarding self-identity was to follow the experiential middle-path and to avoid the philosophical puzzles arising from espousing extreme conceptual positions. By the complete phrase ‘dependent origination’, such and such elements of being come into existence by means of an unbroken series of their full complement of dependence, the truth, or the middle course, is shown. This rejects the heresy that he who experiences the fruit of the deed is the same as the one who performed the deed, and also rejects the converse one that he who experiences the fruit of a deed is different from the one who performed the deed, and leaning not to either of these popular hypotheses, holds fast by Nominalism.7

According to Silva, “In general, the Buddha did not push the questions like the body-mind issue towards the obtaining of theoretical finality. While drawing clear distinction for the purpose of conveying his message concerning the alleviation of human suffering, the Buddha had a practical and pragmatic approach to problems. He steered clear of metaphysical traps. He considered the communication of ideas as a pragmatic and linguistic issue which should help the individual to follow the Buddhist experimental path and discover the nature of ‘things as they are’.”8

Here we have studied the conception of self according to Buddha. The Buddha denied any permanent existent entity mental or physical. It is material position in Indian Philosophy and it only reflects conscious flow of experience and leaves all puzzles regarding metaphysical entity. So Buddha’s conception have a rich component which is relevant of modern era of thought and also it reasonable to all men, theist or atheist .It is need further consideration on several topics related to human cognition, personality and way to express thoughts.

Notes and References:
1. D.C.Mathur, “The Historical Buddha (Gotama), Hume, and James on the self:
Comparisons and evaluations”, Philosophy East and West, Vol. 28, No. 3
(1978), p.253.

2. Richard King, Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought,

3. ibid, p.80.

4. Padmasiri De Silva, An Introduction to Buddhist Psychology, Macmillan Press Ltd.,

5. Dutta & Chatterjee, An Introduction to Indian Philosophy, University of Calcutta
1984, p.138.

6. Richard King , Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought,

7. D.C. Mathur, “The historical Buddha (Gotama), Hume, and James on the self:
Comparisons and evaluations”, Philosophy East and West, Vol. 28,
No. 3 (1978), p.253.

8. Padmasiri De Silva, An Introduction to Buddhist Psychology, Macmillan Press Ltd.,
2000, p.145.

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