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My interpretation of the Buddhist teachings of self and no-self.

August 11, 2016

Those of you who are new to this blog probably expect most my posts to be photos. That’s pretty much what I have planned. However, I’ve in the past spent very much time writing posts. One of my main topics has been Buddhism.

I haven’t thought about Buddhism in a long time, but I had an idea while I was in the shower. My mind wanders pretty much everywhere when I’m in the shower. This afternoon, while under the flowing water, I was thinking about Buddhism.

I’ve often struggled with the Buddhist paradox of self and no-self. There’s a teaching that there is no permanent self. That what I would call “me” is really not a permanent, static thing, but is just made of of fleeting thoughts, desires, prejudices, fears and joys.

So where’s the paradox? Buddhism, besides teaching that there is no self, also teaches about karma and reincarnation. Negative karma is what keeps us being reborn over and over again – keeps a us going through the cycle of reincarnation.

Question: If there is no permanent self, what gets reincarnated?!

Ok, so, I’m thinking, the part that I call “me” and “myself” and “Tom,” that “self” is impermanent. It is what dies when I die.

What is left over then? Something that we would not traditionally call the self. What could we call it? Some might use the word “soul,” or “spirit.” I’m thinking I’ll use the word “essence.” Maybe that word isn’t the best choice, but it’ll do.

Perhaps there is something in us that lasts from lifetime to lifetime. Negative karma is sticky stuff that adheres to this essence and keeps weighing down the essence, keeps causing rebirth. When the negative karma is finally burned off, the essence reaches nirvana.

Unfortunately, there are disagreements in the various Buddhist communities about what happens when reincarnation ends. Some Buddhists believe the individual essences (again, “essence” is my word), merge with all that is. Others belief that when reincarnation stops, it is the blowing out of the candle. The essence is finally extinguished.

Regardless of what happens once the essence reaches the end, there is still reincarnation occurring first.

If what we consider the self doesn’t get reincarnated, but something else within us does, then we are inheriting negative karma from whoever had the essence before us.

This, to my knowledge, goes against standard Buddhist teaching, which explains suffering is caused at least in part by negative karma, which we generated in a previous life. But that implies there is a self that continues from lifetime to lifetime.

That self could still be considered impermanent, but it is something that lasts as long as reincarnation lasts. The teaching of no-self is that there is no self at all. The “me” isn’t really there, but an illusion, and it cannot therefore be carried over from lifetime to lifetime. So the teaching of suffering being related to negative karma that one’s self generated in a previous lifetime is contradictory to the teaching of no-self.

Let’s get back to the essence idea. I might be suffering ill effects from negative karma generated from a past life, but since I have no actual self, it wasn’t I who generated the negative karma, it was somebody else who had no permanent self.

So, why make merit (by doing good deeds) and abstain from bad deeds to avoid generating more negative karma if my illusory self dies and is not reborn? Someone else will inherit the essence currently in me, and the negative karma that goes with it. Why should I care?

Because Buddhism also teaches compassion. In my view, my burning off negative karma by making merit and avoiding bad deeds helps the next person who inherits the essence that is currently within me. My getting rid of at least some negative karma is a way of paying it forward.. helping the person who will end up with the essence now within me.

My doing good things and avoiding bad things is a sacrifice and an act of kindness.. being kind to whoever inherits my essence.

I guess this at least sort of solves the paradox, if the paradox is meant to be solved at all. Some Buddhist paradoxes are intentional, and maybe this contradiction of self and no self is one such paradox.

But, just in case this paradox is meant to be at least partially solved, then I think I have done so, at least, as best I can.

Let me know what you think.

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