Self, Non-Self, and Personal Identity

Matthew Kapstein

in Buddhism

ISBN: 9780195393521
Published online September 2010 | | DOI:
Self, Non-Self, and Personal Identity

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The precise nature of the Buddha’s doctrine, as he himself may have taught it, is subject to many difficulties of interpretation. Did the Buddha in fact teach a well-formed “doctrine” at all, or was he a practical teacher of ethics and meditation, for whom doctrine was an unnecessary intellectual distraction? Are the doctrines attributed to him perhaps the inventions of the schools that followed and not the formulations of the founder himself? Or was he, as certain scriptures present him, actively engaged in disputations with the leading ascetic teachers of his time, so that he must have sought, in his turn, to refine the content and consistency of his message? However we may seek to answer these and similar questions, many early Buddhist scriptures unmistakably call into question the notion that each one of us possesses a unique and persisting self. Though it has been suggested that the Buddha may have only intended an ethically uplifting conception of selflessness, or perhaps wished to awaken us to the possibility of a higher Self, the attribution to him of a metaphysical assertion of “non-self” (Pali anatta, Skt. anātman) became established as a hallmark of his teaching among the mainstream of his successors early on. From the conflicting interpretations about this that arose in the generations following the founder’s passing, and later from their disputes with the non-Buddhist schools of Indian thought, there evolved in scholastic circles a rich array of increasingly rigorous arguments to support the conclusion that the “self” (ātman) or “person” (pudgala), conceived as an enduring entity that somehow individuates an otherwise fragmented continuum of mental and physical events, simply does not exist. We are continuums (santāna), not persisting selves. The conception of the person that seemed entailed here gave rise to numerous puzzles that later Buddhist thinkers endeavored to resolve. Certain of the teachings that became current were suspected of seeking tacitly to reaffirm the existence of a substantial self. One such doctrine, that of the “Personalists” (pudgalavādin), is surveyed below; others, notably the conceptions of a “ground consciousness” (ālayavijñāna) and of buddha-nature (buddhadhātu, tathāgatagarbha), are treated in other entries. As the history and development of Buddhist thought have become better known, some contemporary scholars have called attention to apparent parallels between Western and Buddhist approaches to the puzzles of the self and personal identity. Recent explorations of these conceptual connections are examined in the final section of this entry.

Article.  5057 words. 

Subjects: Buddhism ; Tibetan Buddhism ; Zen Buddhism

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