Buddha and the Myth of ‘I’

I think Buddhist forms of Spirituality have a pull on westerners because it offers a way of affirming one’s own spiritual nature without having to take on all the religious baggage which comes with more mainstream forms of Religion here in the West. The Sociologist Peter Berger, in his book 'The Heretical Imperative’, argued that today everyone is a heretic - because heresy is not really about affirming certain unorthodox beliefs, but rather it’s about ‘choosing’. The word heresy comes from a Greek word which means ‘choice’. 

In Christendom in pre-modern times there was a pervasive Christian meta-narrative; almost everyone just accepted that narrative, because that was the norm. Those who ‘chose’ to affirm a different set of beliefs were termed heretics. Today there is not a pervasive Christian meta-narrative, and as such one is always aware of the choice to either affirm a Christian set of beliefs or to deny them. As such everyone today is technically a heretic.

Despite the lack of a Christian meta-narrative in the west, there are still nonetheless pockets of society in which Christianity is the dominant narrative. After all, if all your friends and family are Roman Catholics, or Evangelicals, or whatever, then holding those beliefs is the norm in your own context. And your context matters a great deal: the way you reason, the assumptions you make, the plausibility of one thing being true as opposed to another, is all shaped by the context in which you happen to find yourself. Westerners drawn to eastern spirituality are often seeking to locate their identity in something wholly different to the context they have felt increasingly alienated from. Buddhism is sometimes described here in the west not as a religion, but as a philosophy, and often the atheistic nature of Buddhism is affirmed, to further compound the apparent gulf between Christianity and Buddhism.

Discovering Buddhism in the west is really nothing like being a Buddhist in the East. As we come to Buddhism in the west, we need not face up to a pervasive dominant narrative which compels us to regard the Buddhist tradition in one way and not another. Rather, we get to pick and choose, draw upon insights of the Buddha, and the practice of meditation, but disregard the metaphysics of past lives, and reincarnation. Are we not then diminishing Buddhism, as we fail to uncover the tradition at its core, and fail to reach back and discover its essence?

Socrates believed there was a part of us that was eternal. He termed this part our psyche – though now we tend to use the word ‘soul’. The eternal occupant of our being, an unchanging constant, the very core of ‘self’. This idea that the self was a constant that went on eternally, passing ether into other vessels, or into other realms, was held both in the West and the East. This was a core component of the prevailing meta-narrative of the Vedic religion in India that the historical Buddha was born into in the fifth century before the Common Era.

The quest for the true self is a key theme that spirituality often returns to. We could probably call this quest the key component of the New Age movement for example, getting in touch with the inner self, accepting the self unconditionally, loving the self, and so on… I think it is this idea which underpins that attitude, "you need to accept me for who I am, or get stuffed". So, it is this idea of the eternal self which the Buddha reacted against. This reaction is often translated into the Buddhist maxim that there is ‘no self’, but this is a misunderstanding of Buddha’s teaching. He was not making such an absolute claim.

MIB film - Little alien in his head

MIB film - Little alien in his head

Rather, as we heard in the story of the novice monk, it is asserted that the self, the soul, the ‘I’, are not merely inherited constants, but an evolving, fluid reality, which the very best of us can even shape and mould, as the fletcher crafts the arrow, or the carpenter fashions the wagon’s wheel. It does not matter how deeply one stares into the mirror; there is no inner core to be discovered, no gem of instilled self. The self is a collage of our deepest pains, greatest joys, and longed for hopes.

This illusion of the inner most self shapes the way we think more than you might imagine. Take for example that impulse throughout Christian history to return to the untainted prophetic Christianity of Acts, in which everyone lived in community and everything was held in common. That desire to return to the true source of the tradition, to reach back into antiquity and find authenticity is undeniably very appealing.

I started with that question – is the secular, western form of Buddhism not merely a pale imitation of the true essence of that tradition?  But if we take the teaching of the Buddha seriously then even the Buddhist tradition itself must be understood not as adherence to set of principles, but a fluid, evolving culture of awakening. I think this idea can easily be incorporated into our Unitarian movement. What is Unitarianism at its core? Is it located in our Christian heritage, or is in our dissenting impulse, or can it be found in the way we celebrate reason and progress? I think the character of Unitarianism is found in all of these things, and then some.

Unitarianism too is an evolving culture of awakening which we have a hand in shaping, as we have a hand in shaping our self, just as the fletcher crafts the arrow, or the carpenter fashions the wagon’s wheel. If then we are not a paper cut out religion, a community gathered around a single idea, but an evolving stream of thought, we must be and remain wholly attentive to one another – practicing silence, practicing listening, fashioning self, fashioning community.