Reality Series: The Virtual Self (3)

Yesterday, we introduced a rational neurophysiological explanation for the development of the ‘concept of self.’ Clearly, the development of our ‘individualized feelings of selfness’ is dependent upon psychoneurologic ontogeny; the Institute recognizes that psychobiological factors are insufficient to fully explain the ‘concept of self.’

The Institute does not subscribe to Vedic-type views of a universal soul, the Atman, or other metaphysical speculations (see previous blogs). Neither does the Institute ascribe to later Buddhist view.[1]  I will discuss what appear to be the Buddha’s original teachings on the complementary pair, self and not-self (anatta). At the moment, I will discuss a corruption of the original teachings propagated by later commentaries.  I am doing this since to prevent misunderstanding before it arises. [2]

Briefly, the early Buddha noted that physical existence is plagued by three qualia:

1. All things are impermanence and experience uncertainty, change, and transience (anicca) .

The Institute is in agreement with this statement as far as it applies to things comprised of and utilizing matter-energy in timespace. Impermanence of form applies to all animate creatures, including, the psychoneurological world experience of human beings.

2. The very natural of existence is inherently unsatisfactory as all things, living and non-living, are subject to disease, pain, illness, misery, loss, and suffering (dukkha).

The Institute is in full agreement with this Buddhist tenet. Moreover, the Institute finds truth in the Buddha’s Noble Path and the teachings of Taoism.

3. Many persons misinterpret the Buddha’ actual position on ‘self and not-self.’  Typically, later commentaries taught that the Buddha disagreed with the Vedic concept that animate creatures possess a permanent, eternal, perfect, and unchanging self or soul.  Such commentaries claiming that the Buddha taught that one source of the ‘feeling that we possess a permanent self’ arose from the chaotic operation of five universal factors, or aggregates (skandhas), i.e., form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness.

1. Form refers to the operational functions of the physical body.

2. Sensation refers to our emotions and sensory organs data.

3. Perception refers to our cognitive functions, including, conceptualization, reasoning, categorizing, labeling, naming, and so forth.

4. Mental formations refers to our belief systems with their cognitive-affective biases, habits, and prejudices and our volition. Also included in the fourth skandha are attentional capacity, pride, desire, vindictiveness, and all other wholesome or unwholesome mental states.

5. Consciousness refers to simple awareness of the existence of something physical or mental.

These five aggregates work together, automatically and mechanically, as soon as awareness of the presence of something via form and sensation arises; perception recognizes the object and assigns a value to it; mental formations are brought into play so that desire or aversion arises; and lastly, consciousness ties the whole experience together as a unit.

The later commentaries claim that Buddha maintained that the continual operation of these psychoneurological factors proves that a permanent, unchanging, eternal self cannot exist.

In Institute terms, we would simply note the whole process using the phrase ‘stimulus-evaluation-response patterned activity’ or SERPA. Moreover, such are seen in all forms of life. Moreover, the five aggregates would simply be recognized as psychological factors, though modern psychology would reclassify such. I think these aggregates help maintain our belief in a personal self, but, miss the mark overall.

Tomorrow, appears to be a good time to discuss the fullness of the Institute’s view as to the concept of self and not-self.  It is quite similar to the Buddha’s original position in the Suttas.


[1] In truth, the set of post-Buddha views as to the existence or nonexistence of an unchanging soul are internally inconsistent. The Theravada teaches anatta, while, the Mahayana teaches inherent Buddha-nature. The Institute teaches neither. Regardless, such views serve as pedagogic strategies for working on enlightenment.

[2] Many fine discussions of the Theravada’s concepts of not-self, impermanence, and unsatisfactoriness of existence and the Mahayana’s concepts of Buddha-nature, emptiness, and non-duality are available online.

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