Logical Criticism of Buddhist Doctrines

A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

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8. Meditating on self


1.    Dismissing the ego

On a practical level, such insights mean that what we regard as our “personal identity” has to be by and by clarified. We gradually, especially with the help of meditation, realize the disproportionate attention our material and mental experiences receive, and the manipulations we subject them to.

Because of the multiplicity and intensity of our sensory and mental impressions, we all from our birth onwards confuse ourselves with the phenomena impinging upon us. Because they shout so loudly, dance about us so flashily, weigh upon us so heavily, we think our experiences of body and mind are all there is, and we identify with them. To complicate matters further, such self-identification is selective and often self-delusive.

It takes an effort to step back, and realize that body and mind phenomena are just fleeting appearances, and that our self is not the phenomena but the one experiencing them. Even though this self is non-phenomenal (call it a soul, or what you will), it must be put back in the equation. We may associate ourselves with our bodily and mental phenomena, but we must not identify with them. There is no denying our identity happens to currently be intimately tied up with a certain body, mind, social milieu, etc. – but this does not make these things one and the same with us.

Gradually, it becomes clear that our personal confusion with these relatively external factors of our existence is a cause of many of the difficulties in our relation to life. We become attached to our corporeality or psychology, or to vain issues of social position, and become ignorant as to who (and more deeply, Who) we really are.

To combat such harmful illusions, and see things as they really are, one has to “work on oneself”. One must try and diminish the influence of the ego.

Specifically, one has to overcome the tendencies of egotism and egoism. Egotism refers to the esthetic side of the ego, i.e. to our narcissistic concerns with appearance and position, our yearning for admiration and superiority and our fear of contempt and inferiority. Egoism refers to the ethical side of the ego, i.e. to our material and intellectual acquisitiveness and protectionism.

The issue is one of degree. A minimum of self-love and selfishness may be biologically necessary and normal, but an excess of those traits is certainly quite poisonous to one’s self and to others. Much daily suffering ensues from unchecked ego concerns. Egotism produces constant vexation and resentment, while egoism leads to all sorts of anxieties and sorrows.

On this point, all traditions agree: no great spiritual attainment is possible without conquest of egocentricity. Self-esteem and self-confidence are valuable traits, but one must replace conceit with modesty and arrogance with humility. Meditation can help us tremendously in this daunting task.

Of course, it is none other than the self (i.e. soul) who is egocentric! The ego is not some other entity in competition with the soul in a divided self, a “bad guy” to pour blame on. We have no one to blame for our psychological failings other than our soul, whose will is essentially free. The ego has no consciousness or will of its own: it has no selfhood.

The ego indeed seems to be a competing self, because – and only so long as and to the extent that – we (our self or soul) identify with it. It is like an inanimate mask, which is given an illusion of life when we confuse our real face with it. But we should not be deluded: it is we who are alive, not the mask.

Rather, the body and mind (i.e. the factors making up the ego) are mechanistic domains that strongly influence the soul in sometimes negative ways. They produce natural inclinations like hunger for food or the sex drive or yearning for social affiliation, which are sometimes contrary to the higher interests of the soul. For this reason, we commonly regard our spiritual life as a struggle against our ego inclinations.

Not all ego inclinations are natural. Many of the things we think we need are in fact quite easy to do without. As we commonly say: “It’s all in the mind”. In today’s world, we might often add: “It is just media hype” for ultimately commercial or political purposes. People make mountains out of molehills. For example, some think they cannot make it through the day without a smoke or a drink, when in fact it is not only easy to do without such drugs but one feels much better without them.

Often, natural inclinations are used as pretexts for unnatural inclinations. For example, if one distinguishes between natural sensations of hunger in the belly and the mental desire to titillate one’s taste buds, one can considerably reduce one’s intake of calories and avoid getting painfully fat. Similarly, the natural desire for sex for reproductive purposes and as an expression of love should not be confused with the physical lusts encouraged by the porno industry, which have devastating spiritual consequences.

Thus, the struggle against ego inclinations ought not be presented as a struggle against nature – it is rather mostly a fight against illusions of value, against foolishness. It is especially unnatural tendencies people adopt or are made to adopt that present a problem. It is this artificial aspect of ego that is most problematic. And the first victory in this battle is the realization: “this is not me or mine”.

Once one ceases to confuse oneself with the ego, once one ceases to regard its harmful inclinations as one’s own, it becomes much easier to neutralize it. There is hardly any need to “fight” negative influences – one can simply ignore them as disturbances powerless to affect one’s chosen course of action. The ego need not be suppressed – it is simply seen as irrelevant. It is defeated by the mere disclosure of its essential feebleness.

Meditation teaches this powerful attitude of equanimity. One sits (and eventually goes through life) watching disturbances come and go, unperturbed, free of all their push and pull. The soul remains detached, comfortable in its nobility, finding no value in impure forces and therefore thoroughly uninfluenced by them.

This should not, of course, be another “ego trip”. It is not a role one is to play, self-deceitfully feeding one’s vanity. On the contrary, one experiences such meditation as “self-effacement” or “self-abnegation”, as if one has become transparent to the disturbances, as if one is no longer there to be affected by them.

This is, more precisely put, ego-dismissal, since one has ceased to identify with the forces inherent in the ego. Such dismissal should not, of course, be confused with evasion. It is abandonment of the foolish psychological antics – but this implies being very watchful, so as to detect and observe them when they occur.

There is no need for difficult ascetic practices. One has to just become more aware and sincerely committed; then one can nimbly dodge or gently deflect negative tendencies that may appear. Being profoundly at peace, one is not impressed by them and has no personal interest in them.

Many people devote much time and effort to helping other people out materially or educationally. This is rightly considered as an efficient way to combat self-centeredness, although one should always remain alert to the opportunities for hidden egotism and egoism such pursuits offer.

Granting Monism as the true philosophy, it would seem logical to advocate ‘altruism’ as the ultimate ethical behavior. However, this moral standard is often misunderstood to mean looking out for the interests of others while ignoring one’s own interests. Such a position would be simplistic if not dishonest. If we are all one, the all-one includes and does not exclude oneself.

Thus, I would say that whilst altruistic behavior is highly commendable and admirable, working on oneself first and foremost would seem a very necessary adjunct and precondition. Conceivably, when one reaches full realization, one can pretty well forget oneself altogether and devote oneself entirely to others – but until then one must pay some attention to one’s legitimate needs, if only because one is best placed to do so.


2.    With or without a self

An experience I once had: as I came out of a meditation, I felt my mind tangibly slipping back into its habitual identity, as one might sink into a comfortable, familiar old couch. This insight suggests to me that our ego-identity is a sort of ‘mental habitat’, a set of mental parameters that we attach to because we have become used to doing so. But meditation teaches us that this tendency is not inevitable – we can get off the couch, and if we must sit somewhere sit elsewhere.

What is called ‘fear of enlightenment’ may simply be the centripetal force that pulls us back into our habitual identity. The individual self feels secure in the ego-shell it has manufactured for its own protection; it restrains consciousness from leaving its usual limited view on things and flying up high into the universal perspective. Without this tendency of resistance to change, we fear our “I” might suddenly dissolve and leave us defenseless.

One should avoid basing one’s meditation on a metaphysical or other ideological prejudice. Meditation ought to be a process of free discovery, rather than of imposing some preconceived notion on oneself. The way I figure it is: if there is some important basic truth out there, then it will make its appearance to me too eventually. This is not an attitude of lack of humility or faith, but one of respect for the efficacy and universality of meditation.

This is the attitude I adopt towards the Buddhist doctrine of “no self” (anatman). If the Buddha discovered through deep meditation that there is no soul, then everyone else ought to in time be also able to (if they proceed with similar enthusiasm). From a merely discursive, philosophical point of view, I am personally (as already explained above and in previous writings) not convinced of this notion.

However, this resistance to arguments that do not strike me as entirely logical does not prevent me from agreeing that it is sometimes appropriate in meditation to behave as if one has no self. Though I believe that it is the self that so behaves, I do believe it is possible to behave in a quasi-selfless manner. Thus, the Buddhist doctrine that there is ultimately nothing behind our impression of having a self, other than passing clouds of phenomena, can be used for practical guidance without having to be accepted as a theoretical dogma.

For selflessness, in the sense intended here, is indeed meditatively, psychologically and morally valuable, if not essential. To be cognitively truly “in the present tense”, you must get to ignore all the memories and anticipations that make up your phenomenal identity or ego. Indeed, even your underlying soul, that in you which cognizes, wills and values, has to abstain from making its intuited presence felt. By becoming de facto, if not de jure, absent, you make way for pure experience.

In meditation, then, we do hope for apparent if not real self-effacement. We try to get past the cognitively imposing impression of self, and attain some transparency of being. Our ego (the superficial self), which is an aggregate of phenomena, including all our modalities of perception, bodily sensations, emotions, fantasies, our life’s motives, the people we think about, and so forth – should fade away in the course of meditation. Likewise, our soul (the deeper self), comprising our being conscious, our willing and our valuing, apperceived by intimate intuitions, should eventually disappear.

Such disappearance need not be taken to mean that the soul is really nullified. It may be (in) there, yet cease to appear. The Subject of awareness is in fact present, but its awareness is not turned upon itself (as is its wont to do). There is a surrender of subjectivity, in favor of objectivity; a self-abnegation of sorts occurs. You cease to be a person in your own mind, and focus on whatever else happens to be present.

In this state of absorption[1], you have no name, no accumulation of character traits, no past, no future, no history, no family, no record, no intentions, nothing to think of or to do, no loves and hates, no desires and fears, no virtues and vices. Moreover, you forget your cognitive presence, your will to be there, your value judgments – and you just are. This state of self-forgetfulness makes possible a more universal consciousness, because self-consciousness tends to limit our vision.

It may well be (allow me to suggest it, as at least conceivable) that the Buddhist dogma of “no self” is a deliberate doctrinal lie, by the religion’s founder or later authorities in it, with the best of intentions – made on the premise that, even if this doctrine is logically untenable, it is useful to meditation, because the belief in it facilitates self-effacement. The intent in proposing this doctrine was not to express some theoretical truth, but rather to generate a practical consequence in a maximum of people. The intent was to get a job done – viz. to help people get to realization.

If believing there is no self more readily advances to consciousness without self-consciousness, and thence to universal consciousness, then teachers may do people a favor by telling them there is no self. But teachers could also admit to people that there is a self, or even just that there might be a self, but tell them they should act as if there is none. Even if the former method is perhaps more efficient, the latter method may still be effective. The ultimate result may be the same, although in one case we are treated as children and in the other as adults.

There is no doubt that – not only in sitting meditation, but also in moving meditations, and indeed in everyday life – self-awareness of the wrong sort can interfere with the clarity of one’s consciousness and the smoothness of one’s actions. Granting the self is a hurdle to ultimate insight, it has to one way or the other be annulled. A simple solution to this problem is to deny the self’s existence. Another, if more demanding, approach is to recommend pretending there is no self.

Thus, even if we do not entirely accept in the Buddhist idea of emptiness (non-essence or non-identity), we might yet reap its benefits and manage anyway to render our self inconspicuous and unobtrusive. The alternative method here proposed seems logically legitimate, because it acknowledges that the seeker cannot really know in advance whether or not there is a self, except by hearsay evidence (the reports of allegedly realized predecessors).

The anatman doctrine is far from convincing on a deductive level; therefore, it can only be proved inductively, by personal observation, if at all. The issue of self versus selflessness is a hurdle, but it must not be made out to be an impasse. If realization is indeed a human potential, then this hurdle can be passed over without resorting to dogma. So, if belief in selflessness helps, quasi-belief in it is ultimately just as good.

Concerning the above comments on the issue of self, the following objection may be raised. What about the more Hindu and Jewish doctrine of universal consciousness, viz. that it is consciousness of the grand Self behind all individuated selves, i.e. consciousness (to the extent possible) of God? How can that metaphysical interpretation be rendered compatible with the Buddhist recommendation (based on denial of whatever substance to any self) to forget the self?

We can argue that even if ultimate realization is consciousness of God (the reality of Self behind all illusory little selves), it can still be considered necessary to overcome one’s habitual, insistent focus on “I, me and mine”. And indeed, if we look at the moral injunctions of Judaism – and the Christian, Islamic and Hindu religions – the emphasis on modesty, humility and altruism is evident everywhere. It means: get past egotism, egoism and selfishness, and see things more broadly and generously.

If we reflect on this, it is obvious that no consciousness of God, to whatever degree, is possible without surrender of all conceit, pride and arrogance. No one dare face his or her Creator and Judge as an equal. One has to have an attitude of deep reverence and total submission; any disrespect or defiance would be disastrous. Even in a Zen approach, the attitude is one of utter simplicity, lack of pretentiousness. “You’ll never get to heaven” while flaunting your ego as usual.


3.    Whether mind or matter

Note that similar arguments to the above can be used in other metaphysical fields. For example, the Yogacara school’s “mind only” doctrine (Mentalism) may be found useful to the meditator, to help him distance himself from apparent matter and material concerns. But such utility need not depend on the literal truth of the doctrine; it may suffice to regard it as just a tool. In spiritual pursuits, one has to be pragmatic, and not get bogged down in disputes.

It may be enough to think and act as if matter does not exist, for the same meditative benefits to ensue. Even if one considers the existence of matter as the most inductively justified hypothesis, the one most successful in explaining all available data – one retains the mental power to put those theoretical convictions aside during meditation, and flexibly attune one’s mind to the outlook intended by the Yogacara doctrine, so as to attain more important insights.

The doctrine that our experience even while awake is “but a dream, an illusion” can be rephrased, in modern (computer age) terms, as: all that appears before us is “just virtual world”. We can equate phenomenal appearances to a sort of massive hologram, a 3D movie “empty of substance” – yet which produces in us the same emotions, desires and reactions of all kinds, as a “real world” would.

The equivalence between the illusory and the real is at least conceivable in relation to the modalities of sight and sound, for it is introspectively evident that we can dream up sights and sounds as clear as those we apparently sense.

But in the case of touch (and smell and taste) sensations, I am not so sure we can perfectly reproduce them mentally, even in the sharpest dreams. However, I am not sure we cannot do so, either. There is (to my mind, at least) an uncertainty in this regard, because it is hard to tell for sure whether the tactile (or odorous or gustatory) phenomena that we experience in dreams (or in awake memory or imagination) are truly mental (memory recall) – or simply physical (present sensations) events that we interpret (intentionally or verbally) in certain ways.

For example, if I kiss a girl in my dreams – am I producing in my mind a phenomenon comparable to the sensation of her lips on mine, or am I simply reading the sensations currently felt on my (lonely) lips as equivalent to the touch of a girl’s lips? These are two very different scenarios. For, if I can imagine touch (as I imagine sights or sounds), then the phenomenological difference between mind and matter is blurred. But if touch (etc.) is not mentally reproducible, then careful observation should allow us to tell the difference between dream and awake reality.

Thus, we ought to distinguish two types of memory – the power of recall and that of mere recognition. In recall, the original impression (seemingly due to physical sensation) can sometimes, voluntarily or involuntarily, be fully reproduced in a relatively virtual domain (i.e. the apparent mind). In mere recognition, the power of reenacting the original impression is absent, but if a similar impression does arise, one has sufficient memory of the original (somehow) to be able to relate the later impression to the earlier and declare them similar[2].

But even while using such distinctions to discriminate between apparent matter and apparent mind phenomena, they do not provide us with the means to judge between Mentalism and Materialism. Because the mind-only advocates can easily argue that these are apparent distinctions within the realm of mind; that is, recall and recognition may be two categories of event within the framework of Mentalism. They could equally well be viewed as categories within a Materialist framework. Therefore, we have no phenomenological means to decide between the two theories.

This being the case, the mind versus matter issue (so dear to metaphysicians) is quite irrelevant to the meditator. Whether it turns out metaphysically that mind is matter or that matter is mind, or that there is a radical chasm between them, does not make any difference to the meditator. Meditation is a phenomenologically inclined discipline. Whether an object is yellow or red is of no great import to the meditator; all he cares to know is what it appears to be. Similarly, the metaphysical difference between mind and matter is of no great significance to him.

What seems evident phenomenologically is that mind and matter are not totally unconnected realms of appearance.

(a) They contain comparable phenomena (i.e. sights and sounds within them seem to resemble each other).

(b) Their “spaces” to some extent overlap (note the fact of hallucination, i.e. projection of mental images outside the head – as e.g. when one takes one’s glasses off and they still seem to be on).

(c) Also, mind and matter seem to have causal connections – in that our memories (and thence imaginations) seem to be caused by our material perceptions; and in that we produce changes in the material domain after having mentally imagined such changes (e.g. in technological invention).

(d) Even if we wished to claim mind and matter to be radically different substances, we would have to admit they have in common the fact, or stuff, of existence. Similarly, the subsumption of mind under matter or matter under mind seems ultimately irrelevant. In the last analysis, it is a merely verbal issue. Whether the answer is this or that, no change occurs in the facts faced.

Meditation is not a search for the answer to the question about the ultimate substance(s) of existents[3]. All the same, this statement should not be taken to exclude the possibility that a fully realized person might experience something concerning the mind-matter issue, and might wish to comment on it.

Rather than linger on such philosophical conundrums during meditation, we should rather always infinitely marvel at the mystery of the facts of consciousness and will. How is it that existents “appear” to other existents? One part of the world seems to “know” another part of it, or even itself! Whether such appearance is momentary or goes on for a lifetime of years or eternally – it is a truly wondrous event! Similarly, how amazing it is that some entities in nature can apparently to some extent “affect” themselves or other entities in nature, by way of causation or (even more amazing) by way of volition!

Such questions are not asked idly or with hope of philosophical answers, in the present context, but to remind oneself of and remain alert to the miracle of consciousness and will. One should not take such powers for granted, but be aware of one’s awareness and one’s choice of awareness. At least, do so to some extent, but not to a degree that turns your meditation into a pursuit. Irrespective of any passing contents of consciousness, and of what stuff consciousness is ‘made of’, the fact of consciousness remains extremely interesting[4].

“Mind-only” philosophers (and this category includes not only Yogacara Buddhists, but in the West the likes of Hume and Berkeley) have proposed that we only perceive mental phenomena, by arguing that all so-called material phenomena have to be processed through local sense organs, sensations and brain, before the perceiver can access them.

That doctrine is wobbly, in part because it starts by assuming the validity of our scientific perceptions of the sensory organs and processes, and ends up by denying the reality of the very empirical data it is built on. That is, its proponents fail to reflexively ponder on their own information sources.

However, our first objection is not the main logical argument against it. The main reason that doctrine does not stand firm is another epistemological error. The Mentalists make the same mistake as do the Materialists – which is the common error of Naïve Realism. They each assume their doctrine is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the data at hand. But, as evident from the fact that both schools appeal to the same empirical data – that data can be interpreted either way.

It is not through a deduction that the issue can be resolved, but only through an open-ended induction. The only way to decide is by considering both these theories as scientific hypotheses, to be evaluated with reference to the totality of ongoing empirical findings. That is to say, only through a systematic, holistic, gradual approach, which we might refer to neutrally as Subtle Realism. This, of course, is the Phenomenological approach.

In phenomenology, the emphasis is on appearances as such, without immediate concern as to their ultimate status as realities or illusions, or as mental or material, or with any other such fundamental characterizations of data. Phenomena qua phenomena – and likewise intuitions qua intuitions – are always true. Taken “for itself”, every appearance is just what it seems to be.

The issue of falsehood (as against truth) only arises when appearances are no longer regarded at face value, and we use some of them to signify some other(s), so that we have to try to judge their truth value relative to each other. For this reason, phenomenology provides us with the most conceivably solid foundation to any philosophy or science.


Drawn from Meditations (2006), chapters 13, 31-32.



[1]              Presuming it is in fact possible – I cannot confirm it firsthand.

[2]              That is, we “sense” a vague familiarity, but we cannot clearly establish it.

[3]              So far as I can tell. Some Buddhists, particularly those of the Zen persuasion, have had the same indifference to the issue. However, some Buddhist philosophers have debated it for centuries. It is surprising. Perhaps these monks were curious or looking for entertainment.

[4]              Some have called this the “field of mind”; but, though the term “mind” here conforms to frequent colloquial use, I would avoid this expression, and prefer the broader term “field of consciousness”, reserving the term mind-field to the putative substratum of mental phenomena, i.e. to a specific category of contents of consciousness.

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