Friday, January 28, 2005

I am a Nobody

For us to function as human beings it is necessary for us to have a conception of a self, it is the idea that there is something more to us as individuals than simply our biological and psychological processes. Something much more fundamental and intrinisic must explain us, or more accurately our consciousness. All living things from plants to humans all possess some level of consciousness. In fact, it is how we determine the existence of life, if a thing possesses some level of consciousness then it must be alive. A plant is alive because it responds to stimuli, if you poke it, it bleeds sap. If you don't give it water, it will wither away and die. In the evolutionary ladder of consciousness, it is the human being that possesses the highest level of consciousness, we are self-aware. To some level, it is very difficult almost impossible to determine whether other comparable animals possess self-awareness to the extant we do because we cannot with any real means communicate with other animals.

Human beings need the self, which is thought of as both the same yet different from the body, mind, consciousness and other components which make us who we are. In fact, it is the self who we truly are. In Christian tradition (of which there are few, but i will primarily deal with the main ones), the body and soul together constitute a human being. A human being, or the individual self, is composed of both material substance and spiritual substance. Hence, the burying of the dead because it is believe that on Judgment Day, Christ's Second Coming, that all bodies will be resurrected with their souls installed back into the body to be judge for their actions. This is similarily held by the Muslims, in their theology. Hindus on the other hand have a different view. The self is the soul, the body is a mere shell which is necessary for the soul in order to interact with the material world. Hence, the cremation of the bodies so as to prevent the soul from lingering around the body.

Now, as human beings, we have a need for the self. Primarily because it helps us face the idea of total annihilation. If we had no idea of the self then our death will really be the end, period. No heaven, no hell, no bliss, no light, just darkness and nothingness. It would in essence render our very existence pointless. Our long term actions wouldn't matter because who cares what happens after I die. So we develop a second need, a need for Universal Justice, God. God is our attempt to give order and structure to a universe we don't totally understand. God is our way to make sure that our actions do have consequences on us.

Siddartha Gautama, also known as Sakyamuni or more popularly as the Buddha (from the sanskrit root of budh, which means to know in the sense of wisdom) taught a very radical doctrine, the idea of Anatta or Anatman (which means no-self; prefix An means no or non and atman is soul/self/Universal self). There is no self in any real sense, the self we speak of is only in a conventional sense, it only exists so that people may interact and communicate, it has no real existence. This self, we all think of is nothing more than an aggregate of five things (panca-skanda). The five things are matter, senses, perceptions, mental states then finally consciousness. These things are always in constant flux and are never the same, so in other words there is no enduring or continuing self, every second "you" are being born and dying. Nothing in the universe is permanent or enduring except change but even that ultimately is false. Now, the implications of this idea of the no-self are staggering. It is not a denial of the self but a statement that the self never ever existed but is a mental creation by us to give us a sense of meaning and continuity to aleve our fears of obvilion. What does Buddha give us instead? Oddly it is the void, emptiness or Shunya. What exactly is Shunya? Well it means different things to different schools of buddhism. For simplicity's sake I will adopt the Mahayana position, Shunya is true understanding of the world as being constant flux, it is seeing the emptiness in all, that all things have no real existence nor foundation. It is a house of cards built up a cushion of air, which at any moment will dissipate. Shunya is Nirvana, it is having the veil lifted and entering the world with correct knowledge and vision. We are our own salvation and we are our own burden. A fascinating and revolutionary response to the idea of self.

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