Analysis of the Self: Borderless But Not Boundless

[CONTEXT: This is a prompt from a course I am taking called Buddhism and Modern Psychology…The Buddha makes the claim, which may draw some support from modern psychology, that the self does not exist. Describe the self that the Buddha says does not exist and explain the Buddha's principal argument against it. Do you agree or disagree with the Buddha’s argument that this kind of self doesn’t exist? Or are you unable to take a position? Give two specific reasons for your view, and explain why your reasons support either the existence of the self or the non-existence of the self, or why they explain why you are unable to take a position on the question.]

As I understand it, the Buddha makes a claim regarding the concept of "not self" as distinct from the idea of "no self" which I will discuss later. The "not self" claim emphasizes that the analysis of the five skandhas (or five aggregates) reveals that the self does not appear to be present within them. For instance, from a subjective (or objective) perspective, one is unable to point to a place in the body that contains the self. The self may feel like it exists in the head but where in the head is it? What is the specific point behind your eyes associated with the self, with the essence of you? This question seems to be difficult to answer for our bodies as well as for the other four aggregates: consciousness, feelings, mental formations, and perceptions. The Buddha's claim rests upon the two essential properties that are attributed to the common conception of the self: 1) permanence and 2) control. By contrast, from the Buddha's perspective, the world around us (and within us) is fundamentally characterized by impermanence and lack of control. I tend to agree with this claim and by way of illustration; I will outline both an objective and subjective viewpoint.

Let us first start from an objective claim, once again in the context of the body aggregate. To the point of impermanence…our bodies are not remotely in a state of permanence. Our cells, for instance, die and renew constantly. Some of which only last hours. Some last days, months, or years. After a decade, we replace many (if not most) of the cells in our body. Some cells, of course, do last our entire lifespan such as our neurons but these are the exception, not the rule. I do not imagine many people would claim that their "self" is only comprised of their neurons and nothing else. Even if they did, the neural network is far from unchanging. The neural pathways we engage and the connections between areas of the brain are in a constant state of flux. At all levels, our body is in a state of change: metabolically, physiologically, hormonally, chemically, and so on. Now for the question of control. While many of us feel that we have control of our body much of the time, there are irrefutable examples of a lack of bodily control. Sneezing, yawning, crying, and stomach churning to name a few. When we sleep, we relinquish all conscious control yet our body continues to function autonomously. In addition, none of us truly controls how our body breaks, degrades, and ultimately fails even the healthiest among us. From the objective perspective of the body, there seems to be no space for either permanence or control in any ultimate sense.

From a subjective standpoint, I have explored this claim through my meditation practice. While I have not necessarily had a profound selflessness experience; nonetheless, I have been unable to identify anything I can claim to be the self. For me, the absence of the self is the absence of a center. There is no middle. There is no central point. There is no "there" there. I have looked for the self and found nothing, though I have not necessarily found nothing to be the only thing there.  Here we run into the distinction between "not self" and "no self." I will not go so far as to claim that there is in fact no self but I see the merit in the Buddha's claim of not self. If the self is defined as the totality of experience, of all five aggregates, fair enough. However, if it is in any one of the five aggregates, I have not seen it for myself.

Finally, I would go beyond saying that there is no center and add an additional claim. A claim that there are no borders as it relates to the self. I see no clear distinction between what we identify as our "selves" and the world around us. The objects and people we interact with influence all of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. We are unable to take a step unless there is ground for us to step upon. We cannot survive five minutes without the air around us to breath. We hold no political viewpoints unless there is first a political system to view. At every turn the ever-changing world around us both constructs and constrains us in ways in which we have little to no control.

For me, the self is a sort of quality of being. A quality without a center and borderless without being boundless.