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.