By Matthias Steingass
What can we know? That is a question of the European as well as the Buddhist enlightenment. What can we know and what are the resulting consequences of what we learn? For example, what can we know about the Buddhist notion of no-self in this moment, in our lived situation?
One popular description of no-self is that it is a timeless truth which brings deep compassion, bliss and happiness automatically to our life as soon as we get rid of our ego. This view holds that pure consciousness is the secret to eternal life and never-ending bliss, and that a certain entity called ego is the bad guy who prevents the true self from realizing the final and absolute truth. Basically this is some variation of the so-called perennial philosophy, which holds that there is a final truth, a truly real reality which “all” religions at “all” times, “all” over the globe, in “all” civilizations came to know. It is the universal truth. A prominent and influential representative of this view is Robert Thurman. In Infinite Life he states clearly that it is not a question of religion or of belief to accept his invitation to embrace the true reality he wants to be known. “It is a matter of fact, a matter of science, a matter of experiment, and a matter of awareness” (Thurman, 2004, 23). His timeless truth is Infinite Life, reached through the development of the most subtle forms of consciousness, beyond corporal reality (cf. chapter 8). These forms are hindered in their development by the ego. The ego is the ultimate evil; so it has to be destroyed. It is described drastically as “a terrorist in your brain, coming out of your instincts and culture, who is pestering you all the time” (50). This basic duality – true self vs. ego – can be found often in all sorts of esoteric talk. It is not restricted to Thurman’s brand of Buddhism. Enlightenment, in this version, is to realize the true self and to abandon the bad ego. The no-self is the absence of the bad ego whose place then is taken automatically by the true self, from which compassion arises automatically. The terms representative of this view vary. True self can be pure consciousness, pure awareness or something similar. The term ego is relatively stable – sometimes it is also called self – and it seems to have a certain attraction as the denominator of the incarnation of the evil. What does not change is a basic notion of good eternal nature vs. bad mortal nature.
We find another example of this perennial type of no-self in Edward Conze’s writing. His main output in writing about Buddhism appeared in the 1950s and 1960s. Among other things, Conze was a pioneer in translating the Prajnaparamita-literature into English. In a text from 1963 about parallels in Buddhist and European philosophy, he sides explicitly with perennial philosophy in strong opposition to what he calls “sciential philosophy” (because perennial philosophy is true science). Conze polemicizes harshly against natural science, therein paralleling Thurman and the like, and defines perennial philosophy as a doctrine that holds “that there is a hierarchy of levels of reality, some of which are more »real«, because more exalted [and] that the wise men of old have found a »wisdom« which is true, although it has no »empirical« basis in observations which can be made by everyone and everybody; and that in fact there is a rare and unordinary faculty in some of us by which we can attain direct contact with actual reality” (Conze, 1967, 214). He declares that from Buddha onward for example Parmenides, Aristotle, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel etc. had had such “contact.” With Conze, we find again a strong aversion to the everyday self. Like Thurman he stipulates two realities and also like his descendant it is for him a “simple and obvious inference” that in reality we are already “identical with the Absolute” – we only have to realize that we mistakenly identify “with spurious belongings which are not really our own.” That is to say again that the “belief” in a self that depends on earthly belongings is the main obstacle to overcome a wrong view and to instead realize “the ultimate reality, also called Dharma by the Buddhists, or Nirvana, [which] is defined as that which stands completely outside the sensory world of illusion and ignorance, a world inextricably interwoven with craving and greed” (Conze, 1951, 110). Clearly the self is identified with negatively connoted qualities. The way to salvation is that “by persistent meditation and mortification, we must reject and renounce everything but the highest. […] The assumption is that if and when we manage to do so habitually and completely, our individual self becomes extinct, and Nirvana automatically takes its place” (111). This is the point here: Nirvana – no-self – happens automatically. It is the opposite of the self or otherwise the ego. No-self is beyond the sensory realm, it is uncompounded, un-impermanent so to say, only describable in negative terms – if at all – and, as Conze himself adds, it is not easily distinguished from the notion of God.
The last point is important because it makes visible an undercurrent which seems to inform these articulations of perennial philosophy: the Christian-Judean narrative of creation, fall and redemption (cf. Payne, 2006). Conze would probably not even have objected to this equation. He states shortly after the above that “our ability to recollect the godlike stature we had before we fell into this world is regarded as one of the first steps which lead on to the path of perfect wisdom” (111). But if this is so, than one must also state that this kind of Buddhist theology is not quite up to date. Modern theology has it the other way around. It is not about a bad ego which has to be extinguished in exchange for a higher true self, a true nature or whatever. What we talk about in Buddhist meditational praxis could very well be, among other things, what in Catholic theology is called transcendental experience: a subject-like, non-thematizing co-consciousnessof the subject, which occurs in conjunction with every of act of knowledge/recognition. In this transcendental experience, an abstract illumination of the subject, is given an anonymous and non-thematizing knowledge of God. But!: Unlike the Nirvana no-self we have mentioned (which is a renunciation from the world) in Catholic theology the transcendental experience is understood as the basis and ground of all understanding (cf. Rahner, 2008, 26-27). So, in an unexpected way the Catholic church suddenly seems more modern than this kind of Buddhism – the latter follows the trails of a pre-modern, or at least very romantic, search for an original purity, while the former apparently at least read Kant.
But this is an aside. The main point here is about the specific take influential interpreters of Buddhism have on the no-self. Thurman and Conze see it ontologically. They ask what the self is. For Thurman it is, on one hand, an ego that interacts with the physical body. Through meditation another kind of consciousness is re-established which is most subtle and not coupled to the physical sphere. It is a mind-body duality with a clear right-wrong or yes-no valuation. The subtle body of Thurman is the right one. The ego, “the terrorist in the brain,” is the wrong one. Conze equally describes the self (=ego) in terms of what is binding it – in terms of what “spurious belongings” it has.
Now let’s see what happens when Richard Gombrich asks, “What did the Buddha mean by »no soul«?” (Whereby “no soul” is his translation for anātman) First of all, he establishes an important con-text: “In order to make himself understood, the Buddha had to talk in terms with which his audience were familiar” (Gombrich, 2009, 60). The Christian-Judean narrative of creation-fall-redemption might be just such a con-text, but it goes undetected – or at least we must say, its possibility escapes unquestioned. The point where a different interpretation becomes possible is a point of bifurcation, a crossroads were a decision is made. If the bifurcation isn’t seen, if the con of the text is not made visible, the trail unfolds itself further automatically. Evidence occurs as like it is a given, naturally. In a smooth transition the train passes the switch without anybody noticing it. The decision goes unnoticed. If the bifurcation becomes visible the decision is forced upon the beholder. It becomes a decision that has to be made. If we take into account that the Buddha reverted entirely to brahmanical terms, as Gombrich observes, and if the Buddha really developed a new possibility to express something new with the old terms, he did not let pass the decision unnoticed. He changed tack consciously, and Gombrich reconstructs such a Buddha. He interchanges the what with the how. What he finds is that ātman as used in the time of the Buddha was meant ontologically. The answer given was what exists not how. Brahma consists of everything. Brahman is existence reified. Ātman equals brahman when one realizes the identity of the both. At the same time, consciousness is also predicated to existence. Finally, the point is that “existence, in this ideology, implies absence of change” (65). Thus the realization of truth in this account is the final identification with everything that, as such, is changeless. This very short summary cannot reproduce Gombrich’s argumentation; but the main point here is the reification of being into ātman, its identification with consciousness and its changelessness. The new way the Buddha took at the crossroads, viewed from Gombrich’s perspective, is that he changed from the thing ātman to the process. The Buddha rejects the reification of »being.« And Gombrich interprets the first of the three major wrong views – belief in a self (sakkāya-diṭṭhi) – as exactly this category of »being«. Anātman – no-self, no-soul, no-ego – then as the negation of ātman is first and foremost the negation of an ontological category. In this view anātman represents a shift from ontological speculation to a pragmatic look at how we function. It is the shift from thing to process. There is neither a thing »being« nor a thing »consciousness« but there are processes such that these terms are useful; and the question to be answered shifts from what exists to what do we experience? “The answer lay not in objects but in processes” (73).
Thus, this Buddha found himself in the process of thinking about the meaning of a term in a categorical sense. It is not the question if we exist at all. This question is obviously absurd – that is why some Zen-teachers in the good old days when everything was ok, tended to whack their pupils in the face when they claimed not to exist. In negating atman, the Buddha developed a new con-text to (th/s)ink in. In contrast to this view, the good-bad duality of Thurman and Conze stays completely within the old con-text of a view which reifies being conscious. In the case of Thurman this is most obviously to be seen in his literal take on Infinite Life: “Why is it so difficult for us to accept the continuation of our personal existence throughout many lives?” (4) In the case of Conze it can be seen in his struggle to explain how the step from the compounded samsara to the uncompounded nirvana is to be taken (cf. Conze, 1951, 111). Process thinking nullifies the problems that come with a reified and, in the last instance, atomistic worldview.
What do we do with this fundamental shift in explaining the initial question: What can we know about the Buddhist notion of no-self in this moment, in our present lived situation? The shift reconstructed by Gombrich to process-thinking is also the shift to the question “What can we know?” The shift to this question is certainly important. To put ontology first in an axiomatic way means to determine parameters of possible knowledge. What happens then is visible in forms of Buddhism that still think in exclusively ontological terms. There exists a final truth. From this all other knowledge is a derivation. It is channeled through the wise ones, who own “this rare and unordinary faculty” to transmit it to us, as Conze puts it. In this way the answer to the question of morality is always somewhere else, and the recipient has to trust the wise ones and that what he does in following them is right. In this way, ontological thinking about the self ensures that faults in moral reasoning – on its way from the final truth, through the wise ones, and finally to me – go undetected. Our possible knowledge about morality is restricted. The problem is, with the shift comes the bonus-question how morality is developed if there is no final truth on where it can be based? Of course here we arrive in the dessert of postmodernity where truth is relative and morals become a question of taste. To arrive at the insight that process-thinking, and with it at the shift from ontology to epistemology, is only part of the story. And of course to solve the question about morality we cannot go back to the Pali-canon because this would again be the acceptance of a final truth somewhere back then which, miraculously, is transmitted over time and space to us. A solution lies in what we can call a moment of truth. A sudden flash which happens when in a given situation – now – a certain text runs into its con.
As Gombrich says, the con-text is of great importance. Like our protagonist, the Buddha, we never act without con-text. The examples above show that different con-texts lead to different results in seeing no-self. These fundamentally different interpretations of one so-called final truth are enough in itself to provoke a moment of truth. This means, the contradiction, or just the possibility of one, is enough to make visible a bifurcation. What becomes visible here is a history of reception. In the confrontation of a Buddhist perennial philosophy and Buddhist process thinking we see how interpretation is dependent on changing con-texts. What becomes visible is that with this newest interpretation, interpretation itself – finally – qualifies as an ongoing process; and it can no longer be described as a process that leads to ever better descriptions of the truth. Instead, it becomes visible that truth is a productive process in time and space, and not to a certain goal. With this, the qualities of time and space change – and that is the challenge which still isn’t solved; for it is not enough that we see that it is a process. Time has a quality today which has to change too. It is the most basic instrument to assign certain qualities to certain times in a repetitive pattern which keep us in a specific rhythm. As long as the process is tied to this time it will always sink back into an entity plopping out conformity. The moment of truth has no time in this time. This is a very important defining feature of the time in which we live. What also falls apart is a binary, absolute system of rights and wrongs. In passing the bifurcation blinded by a supposed truth, the latter is just an hitherto unknown decision. Right and wrong, true and false falls apart because it hasn’t been there in the first place. The moment of truth appears when the bifurcation becomes visible, following a contradiction strong enough not to be suppressed again at once; and when one realizes this there appears the question: which way to take now? This means it is a local decision which has to be made in a specific time, in a specific situation; and in its most general form the decision that has to be made is the decision to want to know more.
What can we know and what do we know about no-self? In the historical process local truths are produced. Ideas are born, developed, rarefied, re-interpreted, discarded. There are moments in time in which tradition clashes with new truths. Old truth become visible in a new light and it morphs, sometimes into something totally unrecognizable when viewed from the old perspective. The case of process-thinking and no-self is such a point in time. But it must be enacted and dramatized. Before a material practice can unfold the insight into a self which is in flux has to be expressed in a language which can be understood. The arts are such a place where a truth can become incarnated – meaning it becomes a body of flesh and blood, of birth and death. In short, when the existential value becomes an experience, and the onlooker becomes so immersed that s/he begins to interact and thus to identify.
To illustrate the moment of truth in regards of the question of “what am I” I want to look now at the film Memento by Christopher Nolan. Readers who aren’t asleep yet and bravely followed me up to this point (thanks a lot) may want to take a break now, download the movie and watch it in the manner of doing an intense meditation on the question: Who am I? The film is presented in a manner that reproduces the experience of the protagonist, and the following could spoil the experience of the film. Have fun.
The plot of the film goes somewhat like this. Leonard has anterograte amnesia. His wife was raped and murdered and since that time he cannot form new memories. He only remembers his life to the point when his wife was raped. Since then whatever he experiences he forgets after no more than fifteen minutes. Nevertheless, he is searching for the murderer of his wife in order to take revenge and kill him. Since he is not able to remember, he creates texts of whatever seems important to him. He has a system of photos and notes, he has the police-file of the case (in which some pages are missing and much is blacked-out) and what he deems most important he has tattooed on his skin. “John G. raped and murdered my wife. Find him, kill him!” it reads in big letters on his thorax. Two other main characters with whom Leonard interacts in the film are Teddy and Natalie. Another important figure is Sammy, a person from Leonard’s former life in which he has been investigator for an insurance company. In his work he was responsible for discovering insurance fraud. About his ability to see if a person was lying he says, “I have to just look into their eyes and try to figure them out…. Let him talk, and watch the eyes and the body-language… It’s all about con-text.” As he goes on in the search for the murderer he relies on exactly this knowledge to determine whether he can trust what people are telling him. Therefore, he has problems talking to somebody on the phone, and he asks people to take off their sunglasses when they talk to him. He explains, “You’re really in a system. You kind of learn to trust your own handwriting. That becomes an important part of your life. Habit and routine make my life possible. Conditioning, acting and instinct.” Despite Leonard’s trust in his system, in what he gathers as information about the murderer he hunts down, in what he evaluates as right and wrong, his system fails miserably. Teddy, an undercover agent, uses Leonard’s amnesia and tricks him into killing a drug dealer to get his money, indicating to Leonard that the dealer is the murderer of is wife. Natalie also uses Leonard’s disability for her own purposes. Leonard is talking a lot about a Sammy. Leonard explains that Sammy had anterograte amnesia too and accidentally killed his wife but, of course, wouldn’t remember it. In one of the final sequences of the film Leonard uncovers Teddy ruse. He realizes that the man he just killed wasn’t the one he was looking for. At this point, Teddy explains to him that Leonard himself is the one who accidentally killed his wife. Leonard isn’t able to digest this and decides during the time he remembers what Teddy just told him not to trust him. He takes the photo of Teddy and notes on it: “Don’t believe his lies.” He also notes the license plate of Teddy’s car as the one of the man who killed his wife. He thus turns himself into a time-bomb who finally kills Teddy.
This is the basic pattern of the story. To put the viewer in a similar situation to Leonard’s, the film is montaged in a peculiar manner. It is nearly impossible, I think, to understand the story when viewed for the first time. The film leaves the viewer baffled, and with the feeling that he is on the verge of understanding it without really being able to put all the pieces together. This point of being on the verge of understanding is indicative of the film not only in its formal presentation but also in the narrative itself. Several times Leonard is at the verge of understanding. What he doesn’t know is that he has already decided what he wants to know. He does not decide to ask questions, to gather new knowledge that may take him in a new direction, previously impossible. These moments of truth go unrecognized by Leonard as we watch him in his failed search.
My interpretation of the film here in this con-text is to read Leonard’s condition as a stripped-to-the-basics version of the human condition. Leonard’s impairment lies in his inability to build new episodic memories. The episodic memory is the part of the system of our consciousness which generates a coherent narrative of what we are. It is well established today that this memory is in a constant flux, and that the episodes of our life that we remember are very sensitive to being re-worked and re-framed – to be woven, that is, into an overall coherent pattern. This is not to say that we are constantly betraying ourselves. Memory is an process that constantly forms a meaningful whole out of more or less disparate pieces. The text Leonard generates, his photos, notes and tattoos are as the elements that he weaves into a narrative structure under the guiding influence of the framing story about the death of his wife. This framing instance works in the same manner as our interpersonal, social consciousness.
In fact we can say it is the dispositif – a part of a totality of practices, kinds of knowledge, measures and institutions, whose goal it is to guide, govern and control behavior, gestures and thoughts of humans into an ostensibly useful direction (cf. Agamben, 2008, 24, my translation). It provides the guidelines or basic rules to weave the thread, both, inter- and intrapersonal. But of course there is interaction between the intra- and the interpersonal system. In fact ‘both’ are “parts” of a whole that is itself also constantly in flux. The important point at which Leonard’s condition can be equated with the human condition in general is not to forget what we learn during our perpetual note-taking. The dispositif is such a collection of notes and the “ostensibly useful direction” generated by them. The notes as such, as constitutive particles, are visible all the time; but how we connect the dots, the process of production of meaning is usually not visible. What becomes visible again is the meaning itself, which then is “obviously evident,” “natural,” “just-as-it-is,” etc. Leonard, like ourselves, is engaged in the production of meaning. He is in the process of generating the what. What is invisible to him is the how. He stays on the ontological side. I am Leonard Shelby. I am sure of what happened and what led to the situation I am in. He ignores the epistemological side of how he comes to his conclusions about himself, what he is and what he has to do. “Habit and routine make my life possible. Conditioning, acting and instinct.” The moment of truth is a point in time where the production of meaning within the dispositif becomes visible – not as such but as a point of incoherence which shows up, a piece which somehow doesn’t fit at once into the whole. Or it could be a sudden flash of a thought that the dots could be connected in a different manner. The visibility is just a question, it is a possibility, it is nothing but an as yet unperformed act.
Leonardo has these flashes several times, and in each instance he makes a decision. Most of these decisions are kind of easy. He stays with his “habit and routine” and the dots are kept in place. He relies on his text – which is of course a part of himself, his skin – and he follows the trail his text lays out. But at one point he makes a conscious decision to produce a text that he knows will influence his further behavior, without his later knowing how he decided on the text. It is one of those condensed situations in which time takes on a different quality. It is a dense process in full visibility of the bifurcation. Leonard decides against more knowledge about who he is – and that is the instant of true evil.
Leonard in his strange situation is misused by both the people he relies on in his search. In judging them, he relies on his intuition – “I have to just look into their eyes and try to figure them out” – but actually he is badly misguided by his intuition. He builds an affective reliance on Natalie, who is cold-bloodedly taking advantage of his situation. Natalie provokes him until he hits her hard in the face. She leaves, knowing that he will forget her provocation. Leonard does not find anything to make a note (Natalie took all pens away). Natalie returns, Leonard has already forgotten what happened. Natalie tells him that a guy who is after her hit her. Leonard, already affectively attached to her, promises to help. That is in a nutshell how Leonard gets manipulated. While Natalie tells Leonard her lies he suddenly realizes that his right hand feels sore and looks like he hit something. It is one second in which the possibility to connect the dots differently becomes visible. Leonard lets it pass. Immediately after this, Leonard leaves the house and meets Teddy. Teddy tells him, well within the timespan Leonard’s memory can remember the situation with Natalie, not to trust Natalie. He presents several reasons why he should not trust her. He forces Leonard to write on her photograph, “do not trust her.” Teddy leaves. Leonard looks at a photo of Teddy. There he has written, “do not believe his lies.” He crosses out the note on Natalie’s photo. Leonard isn’t able to conceive the particular quality of time in this situation. He relies on the sequence of events or rather on what sequence he reconstructs. “Facts, not memories!” Leonard tells Teddy in another situation and this decision he heeds. And of course one fact leads to another, whereby these facts are fixed, changeless entities on a timescale that preserves them. What Leonard does not realize is that his decisions about what to take as a fact are guided by affection. And so his memories, his notes, photos and tattoos are exactly like ours: a relation of fact and affect ‑‑ relation in which “both” components constantly influence each other and in which certain times form a different, bending history. Memory is a “continuum of change,” as the German sociologist Harald Weltzer puts it (“Wandlungskontinuum“, cf. Weltzer, 2005). The particular quality of time in this sequence would have enabled Leonard to conceive a different, and above all, more accurate picture of the greater situation he is in. He could have come to produce a different truth.
So, again: What can we know? What is no-self? The answer to the first question is simple: More. But the key to it lies in the answer to the second. The type of memory we have been talking about this whole time is mainly episodic memory, the main component constituting the narrative of our existence. Our personality builds on this narration. It functions as a constant or frame for the integration of everything that happens. The truth we can know today about this constant is that it is a continuum of change. A film like Memento can make one think harder about this continuum of change than any theoretical reconstruction of it – not to speak about new-age bubble-gum like Bobbie’s Buddhism. The truth about how we are is that we live with a built in blind spot that in certain points in time becomes enlightened. These time-slots of bifurcational quality have to be used if we are to actualize something that makes itself visible only as a slight gesture, a possible gestalt, a ghost of the future. Above this, history itself is bending the dispositif constantly – whereas the irony of it all lies in this word: constantly. History crashes in a flash modern film into tradition. Sparks fly and make light – better to see our local truths.
In the final sequence of the film Leonard daydreams about a new tattoo right below his dogma. In a close-up, we see him lying down. His wife is with him again. She looks at his tattoos. She moves her hand, exposing the new one: “I’ve done it!”
Agamben, Giorgio: Was ist ein Dispositiv, Zürich, 2008
Conze, Edward: Buddhism, its essence and development, Oxford, 1951
Conze, Edward: Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies, 1967
Gombrich, Richard: What the Buddha thought, London, 2009
Payne, Richard K.: Individuation and Awakening: Romantic Narrativ and the Psychological Interpretation of Buddhism, in: Unno, Mark (Ed.), Buddhism and Psychotherapy across Cultures – Essays on Theories and Practices, Wisdom Publications, Boston, p. 31-51, 2006
Rahner, Karl: Grundkurs des Glaubens. Einführung in den Begriff des Christentums, Freiburg im Br., Basel, Wien, 2008
Thurman, Robert: Infinite life. Seven virtues for living well, New York, 2004
Welzer, Harald: Das kommunikative Gedächtnis. Eine Theorie der Erinnerung, München, 2005
The Film: Memento by Christopher Nolan, 2000
A pdf file of this essay is available on the “Articles” page.
What do you think?