The Self and Enlightenment in Buddhism

Related image

I have been fairly generous to Buddhism in my writings thus far, for good reason I think, but there are some problems with Buddhism which the book, Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse, has helpfully given me scope to address. In this article, I will examine the way the self and enlightenment are presented in Siddhartha and offer a critical discussion of Buddhist attitudes towards, and interpretations of, both.

The Self

Siddhartha’s relation with his self varies throughout the book. First, through his Brahmin practices, he tries to find his self to uncover Atman, then he tries to quash it through asceticism, then he indulges it and sinks into the world of human desire. In the end it is somewhat unclear exactly what happens regarding Siddhartha’s self but it seems that we are to understand the self as something of an illusion, a thin film overlaying the unity of all that is. At the very least, this is certainly the standard Buddhist interpretation of self as I am aware of it; the literal self is an illusion and seeing through the illusion dispels suffering.

Of course it is true that we only suffer because we have a sense of self; i.e. if there was no “I” to suffer then there would be no suffering, but the notion that the self is illusory is more problematical. There are weak and strong claims to be distinguished between here. The weak claim holds that there is no real, substantial (physical or non-physical) “self-entity” that we could perhaps call a spirit or soul. The strong claim maintains, not just that a “self-entity” does not exist but also that the sense of self that perceives something in the world (namely, itself) as different from other parts of the world (that self’s environment) is also an illusion. Buddhism makes the strong claim.


There are two related lines I would take to disagree with this. The first is that since Descartes, we have known that there is one thing we cannot doubt; namely, that doubt itself. Of course, we can be wrong about what we are doubting (I may doubt that you can beat me in tennis whereas you actually can), but the fact that I am doubting is absolutely irrefutable. Indeed, if I doubt that I am doubting, I wind up doing the very thing I am questioning my ability to do; namely, doubt.

Another way to think about this is to note that I cannot be mistaken about my doubting. I never wonder to myself, “Am I doubting?” – doubting is something we cannot be wrong or even deceived about. The same holds for all conscious states. I cannot be mistaken about the fact that I am thinking or believing or questioning, etc.

Now, for my conscious states to be indubitable there must also be something else beyond question; that is, a conscious self to do the doubting, believing, or thinking. Descartes held this conscious self to be a substance, an immaterial mind in fact, but we don’t need to follow him down that rabbit hole which gets him into all manner of difficulties. What is enough for us is to note that the self is real because we couldn’t have any conscious states without one. Again, this doesn’t commit me to a substantial “self-entity” of any kind – all I’ve done is notice that my mental states are irrefutable and this fact just doesn’t make sense without someone (I’m not speculating on what this is here) doubting or believing.


The second argument is less an argument and more an observation. If there truly were no separate self distinct from its surroundings then we could never come to think there was. If the self genuinely didn’t exist, how could I ever come to believe such a thing? Who would the I be who is doing the believing? This is one of those rare cases where the mere existence of the phenomenon guarantees its truth. The interesting thing here though is that the existence of the self is true even if it is an illusion.

Let’s grant that matter is all there is and all matter is made up of non-conscious atoms. If somehow we were able to verify these facts, it would be tempting to conclude that the self must be an illusion and therefore false. Unfortunately, no matter how tightly you wrap up your argument, it will never hold, for the simple reason that to think I am a self is to, in fact, be one.

The Buddhist argument here is that everything is connected; which is to say, there is no non-arbitrary difference between one part of the universe and any other part. The difference you imagine you feel between the atoms that constitute you and the atoms that make up the tree, for instance, is purely arbitrary, therefore not really real; i.e. illusory.

The problem here is that Buddhism interprets the illusoriness of the self (the sense that one part of the universe is distinct from any other part) as meaning that it doesn’t exist at all, when what it really means is that there is no essential, physical difference between what you think of as “you” and the tree. The illusion is an illusion because at the reductive, objective level of atoms it’s true, there is no difference, it’s all just atoms – and yet the illusion itself (the sense that one part of the universe is distinct from any other part) is a real, phenomenological feature of your reality. You wouldn’t… nay, couldn’t be having it, if it were illusory in the sense that Buddhism wants to maintain, i.e. that it doesn’t exist at all.

To argue that the self is an illusion is to mistake it for something external, something out there in the world, something I can possess (and therefore be deluded into thinking I have when I don’t), something exactly like the substantial “self-entity” we rejected above. The self is a perspective, a viewpoint on the world, not a thing in it, and even if the universe is nothing but cold, hard matter and the self an illusory veil somehow cast over a part of it, creating the illusion of a separate self for that part, by virtue of it being an illusion for that part, it is true. It must be.


Portrayal of an Enlightened Master

Three enlightened masters appear in Siddhartha; the Buddha, Vasudeva (the ferryman) and Siddhartha himself at the end. Buddhist literature often portrays their masters as possessed with superhuman calm, infinite patience and wisdom, and an almost divine presence that transfixes anybody who encounters them, and Siddhartha is no exception.


There are two points I want to make here; one regarding Buddhist monastic tradition and one regarding enlightenment. Let me take enlightenment first. To cut to the chase, it seems a bit of a sham to me. The whole idea of someone being in perfect equanimity and peace all the time, of having reached a goal (nirvana) where it’s not just that they don’t experience negative human emotions but that they can’t experience them anymore, seems, quite frankly, impossible.

To the degree that Buddhism makes the lesser of the claims above; i.e. that someone “enlightened” doesn’t get frustrated, bored, etc. but still could have these feelings in the right (or wrong) circumstances, I have no problem with it, but this isn’t the way enlightenment is meant to be understood, I think. If someone says, “Master Shen is enlightened” or “Master Shen has achieved enlightenment”, the word “enlightenment” in these sentences seems to confer a permanent disposition on Master Shen, not just a tendency to remain calm or merely an unusually high amount of patience. We don’t use the word “enlightenment” in the same way we use words describing other states, such as when we say, “Master Shen is happy” meaning he is happy now but that this could change later. The ridiculousness of the sentence, “Master Shen is enlightened at the moment”, betrays the falsity of the lesser claim. The second formulation, “Master Shen has achieved enlightenment”, also suggests something permanent, something that cannot be taken away. If I have achieved an ‘A’ for my essay, this grade will remain unchanged until the end of time, and this, I suggest, is the way enlightenment is to be understood.

This whole way of thinking treats human consciousness as if it were merely a physical thing in the world; that is, it treats human beings as if we can have fixed essences. I can set my computer up so that whenever I turn it on, it automatically opens the program MS Word. The computer will do this every single time it is turned on; it has no choice in the matter. It’s ‘essence’ has been fixed – there is no way the computer can boot and not open MS Word.

Human consciousness, on the other hand, can never be fixed in such a way because, unlike a computer, it is always a living, dynamic relation to circumstances. It always has a choice when presented with a stimulus or situation. Now, of course we can become habituated to certain forms of behaviour (or habituate ourselves through training or practice) which makes it look as if we are the same as computers in this regard. I can habituate myself to put on a seatbelt every time I get in a car, for example. I can become so habituated, in fact, that I no longer even think about it, it just happens automatically whenever I prepare to drive. On the surface this may appear to be the same as my computer example but if you think about it, there is a difference here. I am not, and can never be, truly compelled to put on my seatbelt in the same way that the computer is compelled to run MS Word at start-up. I always have a choice to refrain from putting on my seatbelt and this choice presents itself every single time I get into a car. I may not take that option for years, I may never take it, I may never even become aware of it, but it is always there as a possibility for me in a way that it can never be a possibility for the computer to decide not to open MS Word one day.

Theravada Buddhism identifies four levels on the path to enlightenment. The first and second are characterised by the elimination of the following; belief in a separate self, doubt in the Buddha and his teachings, and an attachment to rituals and rules. At the third stage, one has supposedly overcome sensual desire and ill will. Again, it seems like a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be human to take any of this seriously. If a Buddhist were to say, “I am now a once-returner [the second stage] so I don’t doubt the Buddha’s teachings anymore”, as if it’s a locked-in, unalterable fact about her, as certain and unchangeable as her height, is clearly false. Until the day she dies, this person will always have the possibility before her of doubting the Buddha’s teachings. For the rest of her life, she may never again doubt the Buddha’s teachings but to claim to be a “non-doubter of the Buddha’s teachings” in the same way that my computer is an “MS Word-opener on boot-up” is clearly false.


Now, let me turn to Buddhist monks and the monastic tradition. The whole idea of turning one’s back on the world and society in order to attain peace and tranquillity (whether or not you are swayed by my argument about enlightenment above) seems misguided at best and selfish at worst, for two reasons.

First, the life of a monk is unsustainable without a substantial non-monk population to provide for them. This charge is laid at Siddhartha in the book by the merchant who points out that since Siddhartha has nothing he is living on the possessions of others. Siddhartha counters that the merchant is doing the same. When the merchant replies that he gives something in exchange for what he gets from others, Siddhartha gives the weak rejoinder that life is like that; everyone gives of what they have and takes what they need. In response to the charge that he has nothing to give, Siddhartha says he can do three things; he can think, wait, and fast. Now, it won’t have escaped your notice that no matter how valuable these three abilities are, they are only valuable for the possessor of them, not for others. If Siddhartha had replied that he teaches people how to think, wait, and fast, that would be different but he would then have had a job and that would seem to run contrary to the monastic tradition.[1]

The ‘venerable’ practice of alms-giving (a lofty-sounding euphemism for “begging”) is a classic example of the monk’s dependence on others. A monk has made a choice to withdraw from society at large, particularly in deciding not to work, and thereby contributes nothing to society. And yet, this is clearly unsustainable because even monks need a place to sleep, food to eat, clothes to wear, etc. So when a monk elects to spend ten hours a day in meditation in order to attain inner calm, he must find a way to get others to provide these things for him; hence alms-giving, which is essentially the monk saying, “Why don’t you give me money or food for free so I can sit peacefully on that hill over there all day while you work hard for my benefit?” The fiction that giving to monks allows laypeople to build “merit” is no more defensible than the Catholic money-making venture that was the selling of indulgences in the Middle Ages was.

Now of course, alms-giving (as in monks wandering the streets with bowls) is far less common nowadays but this is slightly illusory; it has largely just changed form. People still give to Buddhist temples; only now it’s called a charitable donation and typically takes place electronically. To the extent that the temple actually does something with that money for the community, giving donations is less simply supporting people who don’t want to get a real job, but even so, much of that money will still go towards feeding and clothing the monks who want to free themselves from the burden of work and the responsibilities normal individuals take on.


Secondly, the whole idea of withdrawing from society to reach nirvana/become enlightened/find inner peace, whatever phrase you are most comfortable with, seems somewhat deluded. Anyone can find peace on a mountaintop after having divested oneself of all worldly obligations and responsibilities but finding peace while married, raising kids, satisfying the boss, dealing with irate clients, paying the bills, etc.; that’s a real master right there.

The desire to retreat to a monastery isn’t a noble or higher calling to something; it’s a flight from something; the world. The mistaken idea at the root of the issue seems to be that you can achieve something worthwhile with your life by running away from it.

This isn’t a flippant observation. I too have felt the allure of tranquillity and the promise of self-mastery that Buddhist monasteries offer, but I also recognise that we ought to be wary of anything which promises fulfilment in life by emptying it of all content. How much is tranquillity worth if all you have done is purged from your life all possible sources of distress or anxiety? It’s a little like declaring your intention and goal in life to be an unbeaten chess master and then refusing to play anyone with a higher chess ranking than you. Sure, you’ve achieved your goal but you’ve stacked the deck in order to do so.

This issue actually arises in the book when Siddhartha suddenly finds himself saddled with his son after his lover dies. Tellingly, Siddhartha suffers great distress while the boy is living with him and Vasudeva and he is only able to move beyond the inner turmoil, to eventual enlightenment, after his son runs away. The Buddha’s example is no better. He supposedly abandoned his wife and son, abdicating his responsibilities so he could attain inner peace.

I used to teach English to primary school aged children in Korea and if you have never had to control a class of kids who don’t speak your language and are more interested in pushing the envelope than learning from it, take it from me, it’s stressful. At certain moments when I had been shunted off-balance by one or more of the darling little angels, I had the presence of mind to compare my behaviour to that of Buddhist masters portrayed in Buddhist literature/folklore. I have asked myself, “Is this how a Buddhist master would behave? Is this what an enlightened master would say?” The answer is of course not. But that is only because a Buddhist master has deliberately engineered her life so she will never be put in this situation.

Show me your most enlightened master. Give her a day job, make her find a house and pay rent, give her a spouse, let her have to deal with real world concerns, and I will show you what her inner peace and nirvana is really worth. Inner peace is easy if you just run away from problems rather than overcoming them. And if you choose the former, have you really lived at all?


[1] If you argue that there is nothing stopping monks from working and living in a monastery, I would wholeheartedly agree with you. However, this is to ignore the monastic tradition as it has been practiced throughout history, and it is precisely this that we are talking about.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s