of the fundamental differences between Christians and Buddhists revolves around
the notion of the self. For Christians, the existence of a personal self is not
only self-evident, but a vital part of their philosophy and theology. For Buddhists,
there is ultimately no self either in human beings or in anything else, either.
"There is no flower in the flower," the Dalai Lama once said.
Closely allied to the idea of the self, or no-self, is that of duality or non-duality. Christians appear to be dualists, believing in a supreme God and in individual souls, while Buddhists are non-dualists.
What is at the root of these differences? Irreconcilable philosophical differences? I don't think so. Rather, it is two very different approaches to the question of the existence of a self. Christians for the most part draw on venerable philosophical and theological traditions that go back to the Scriptures and the early Greek philosophers, and are rooted in common experience. I exist. I am not you. I am not God. The tree is not me. In short, we live in a world of distinct, albeit interconnected, beings. Buddhists draw on an equally venerable tradition, but it is not a philosophical or theological tradition in the Western sense of the words, but rather a reflection on experiences born out of deep meditation. There are deep and powerful experiences of the loss of self, and these experiences are much better known in the East than in the West, and it is upon these experiences that a systematic reflection has been built up over the centuries that has come to the conclusion that there is no self.
A recognition of this fundamental difference in outlook could open the way for a deeper dialogue. Christians ought to come to terms with the fact that no-self experiences exist. But a question for the Buddhists is whether their reflection on no-self experiences is identical to an ontological position which would say that the human self does not exist, or God does not exist. Such a dialogue is not going to be easy for either side, but if they persevered, it could be very fruitful.
There are two basic topics we would like to pursue in this discussion area. The first is precisely this idea of self vs. no-self, or duality vs. non-duality. The second is the existence of no-self kinds of experiences in the West. If no-self experiences have taken place more or less spontaneously in the West, or at least outside of the context of Buddhism, perhaps they can provide valuable information on the question of self vs. no-self.
Descriptions of no-self experiences are common in the East, but until recently, much less common in the West. But Western no-self experiences are particularly interesting because they have often happened spontaneously and are expressed in new ways.
Now it is your turn to contribute to this discussion. Send us your questions and comments: email@example.com
The following are some Western no-self experiences:
"All my thoughts, hopes and fears about the future have changed radically since I fell asleep one night in October 1985 and woke next morning without a self. I don't know what happened to it, but it never returned... I experience this Empty-ness as a boundless arena in which life continually manifests and plays, rising and falling, constantly changing, always transient and therefore ever-new." Ann Faraday in "Towards a No-Self Psychology."
John Wren-Lewis was deliberately poisoned by a thief on a Thailand bus in 1983, and went into a coma. "What I knew was that I'd emerged from something quite unlike any previous experience of sleep or dreaming. It was a kind of blackness, yet the absolute opposite of blankness, for it was the most alive state I've ever known - intensely happy, yet also absolutely peaceful, since it seemed to be utterly complete in itself, leaving nothing to be desired... For that dazzling darkness behind me did indeed transform my perception of the outside world, and here, too, I'm driven to religious or mystical language in trying to do the experience justice. The peeling paint on the hospital walls, the ancient sheets on the bed, the smell from the nearby toilet, the other patients chattering or coughing, the nurses and the indifferent curry they brought me for supper, my own somewhat traumatized middle-aged body, even my racing, bewildered mind - all were imbued with that sense of utter nothing-to-be-desired completeness, because "not I, but the Shining Darkness within me," was perceiving them." In "Aftereffects of Near-Death Experiences" in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1994, Vol. 26, No. 2.
Marie-Louise von Franz, a noted Jungian analyst, tried to describe a high level of individuation which she called the middle ground: "There is a complete standstill in a kind of inner centre, and the functions do not act automatically any more. You can bring them out at will, as for instance an airplane can let down the wheels in order to land and then draw them in again when it has to fly. At this stage the problem of the functions is no longer relevant; the functions have become instruments of a consciousness which is no longer rooted in them or driven by them... What does someone look like when he has detached his ego awareness, or his ego consciousness, from identification with certain functions? I think the nearest and most convincing example would be in some descriptions of the behaviour of Zen Buddhist Masters. It is said that the door of the inner house is closed, but the Master meets everybody and every situation and everything in the usual manner." In The Inferior Function.
"The best day of my life - my rebirthday, so to speak - was when I found I had no head... It was when I was thirty-three that I made the discovery. Though it certainly came out of the blue, it did so in response to an urgent inquiry; I had for several months been absorbed in the question: what am I?... What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: just for the moment I stopped thinking. Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. I forgot my name, my humanness, my thingness, all that could be called me or mine. Past and future dropped away. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories." D.E. Harding in On Having No Head
Suzanne Segal was waiting for a bus in Paris when her self disappeared. "The personal self was gone, yet here was a body and a mind that still existed empty of anyone who occupied them. The experience of living without a personal identity, without an experience of being somebody, an "I" or a "me," is exceedingly difficult to describe, but it is absolutely unmistakable. It can't be confused with having a bad day or coming down with the flu or feeling upset or angry or spaced out... The mind, body, and emotions no longer referred to anyone - there was no one who thought, no one who felt, no one who perceived. Yet the mind, body, and emotions continued to function unimpaired; apparently they did not need an "I" to keep doing what they always did. Thinking, feeling, perceiving, speaking, all continued as before, functioning with a smoothness that gave no indication of the emptiness behind them."