A Buddhist looks at the self

I read this Buddhist take on the self on thinkBuddha, a blog by Will Buckingham that bills itself as ‘wayward thoughts on the Buddhist way’. The writer has just returned from a conference in the USA and is reflecting on the cultural differences between the US and the UK.

One of the interesting things about being abroad – and given that I have been writing about conditions a fair amount here at thinkBuddha – is that you become aware of your own cultural conditioning. The UK is a very different place from the USA. The curious habits of the English, which seem hardly noticeable at home when everybody more or less is doing the same thing, become strongly apparent when everybody else is doing something slightly different.

He describes how his awareness of his own cultural conditioning has been heightened by reading


“Watching the English” (Kate Fox)

He writes:

Whilst reading the book, the awareness stole up on me that many of those things that I consider to be “me”, many of the things that I mentally claim for my own, are almost entirely culturally conditioned. We like to think of ourselves as somehow self-subsistent, as if we have fashioned and made ourselves. Sometimes, dishonestly, we claim those things about ourselves that we like as entirely to our own credit, whilst protesting that those things we don’t like can be attributed to external conditions.

The more I reflect upon cultural conditions – and those other sets of conditions, such as biological, genetic, circumstantial – the more this thing I see as a substantial “self” seems to dissolve before me. It is not that I find myself somehow disappearing into nothingness; it is rather that I find myself ever more closely a conditioned and contingent part of a conditioned and contingent world. My thoughts are not my own, but are made possible by a vast set of causes and conditions.

He goes on:

The fiction of a separate (or self-subsistent) self is one that effectively removes us from the world. Much of the Western philosophical tradition is founded upon this prior removal of the self from the world, and then occupies itself with the difficult process of attempting to reconnect this separated self to the world from which it has been divided. We feel alienated, not at home in the world, and we struggle to find a way back home. Given the apparent difficulty of the task, we find ourselves inventing homelands – whether political or spiritual – to which we aspire, homelands somewhere over there, always just around the next corner, beyond the present world. We dream of utopias. We turn nirvana into a place to which we might eventually journey. We dream of escape.

What we fail to realise, I suspect, is that we are already here, that there is nowhere else that could be a home for us than this fragile body, these contingent and fluctuating thoughts, this world into which it somtimes seems that we have been thrown, without our choosing. The reason we find ourselves strangely not at home in the world is not because we haven’t yet found the long and winding road homewards, but because we have made the mistake of separating ourselves out from the world in the first place.

I share this because it may, on the face of it, seem to be at odds with the Bahá’í Writings about the soul or self. However, I suspect that it may not be so distant from Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings. Bahá’u’lláh, after all, warns us against attachment to our desires, to the ‘vain imaginings’ our minds are inclined to construct and then worship, in a kind of mental idolatry.

What’s more, we do not understand the nature of the soul. Bahá’u’lláh speaks to us in a veiled language, although He leaves us in no doubt of the soul’s reality – but the soul that is real, is not the soul we so often imagine. And, of course, in the face of the reality of the Transcendent, it is non-existence itself.

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One comment

  1. Hi Barney,

    You said: “But the soul that is real is not the soul we so often imagine.” From my reading of Baha’u’llah, it’s more that we have a choice about which way to direct the energy of our soul, rather than a matter of what soul is real.

    For example, Baha’u’llah says in the Suriy-i-Ra’is (Summons, p 154, paras 33-34) that the life of man proceeds from the spirit. However, the spirit operates within us in the way that the soul tells it to. The soul has two wings; it can fly towards goodness or evil. Therefore, the soul can direct the energy of the spirit towards good activities or bad ones.

    Therefore, it is not so much a question of whether the soul is real, but more a question of what we’re doing with it. This is true for all the powers God has given us, such sight, speech, mind and heart. We can use them for good or bad purposes.

    Unlike Will Buckingham, I don’t believe that our cultural conditioning is inherently bad. It is neutral. What is bad is that our cultural conditioning might act as a veil between us and God – and in this Day of God, that means Baha’u’llah. Then we are into the arguments in the Iqan. For example, does our English cultural background stop us from recognising who Baha’u’llah is? For example, someone might believe that they can only reach God through Christ, because they read the Gospels literally. That would be an example of how our cultural background acts as a veil.

    Therefore, to be defined by our cultural background isn’t necessarily bad, only if it stops us recognising the latest manifestation. This physical world functions by using ‘names’; for example, male, female, English, Kiwi, writer, administrator, loving, merciful and so on. We can’t live in this world without them, and I think Will is on a hiding to nothing trying to extract his self from them. For he needs them to exist in this world, as is God’s purpose. We also need to them to exist in the next world, for we exist within God’s Kingdom of Names and Attributes. I think it is illusion to imagine that we can ever move beyond that reality.

    While it is true that, in relation to God, we don’t exist, nevertheless, in order to fulfill our purpose of knowing and loving God, we have to exist in some form. Baha’u’llah is asking us to use our self to act positively in worship of God, not to eliminate ourselves entirely. For example, in the Persian section of the Tablet of the Holy Mariner: “We have traversed the stage of expending the self for others. Arise to expend justice and fairness upon the souls that pertain to you.” http://www.h-net.org/~bahai/trans/vol3/mallahp.htm

    I could go on, but that’ll do. 🙂

    Alison Marshall

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