We all have a sense of self; we believe we are egos, a soul animating a puppet of flesh. An idea expressed in language as ‘I’, ‘Me’ and ‘mine’. But, imagine for a second that this idea of our self is a perceptual illusion. You do not exist, at least not as you think you do. Every cell in our body is replaced over and over throughout our lives: the body we are born with is not the body that dies. Moment from moment even our neurology is being altered by our experiences, our character changes year by year and even our memories of past events are constantly changing to fit our current narrative. Perhaps, we are the continuum of our biological processes, but one day even this continuum fades away, along with all of our memories, and who we thought we were. Through this stream of thought the individualistic soul seems to evaporate like a mirage. We are essentially empty.
From here where do we turn? If we move into a space of meaningless chaos we will find ourselves shaped by a personal philosophy of nihilism. This philosophy has the potential to lead us into a world where morality is left lawless. One answer to nihilism is a monotheistic theology where God is used as the source of moral authority to whom we are accountable eternally. But without god where are we to derive a sense of moral direction?
I think a deeper contemplation on emptiness may hold the answer to this question, as we move beyond individualism. Let us read an excerpt of material from the Buddhist centre.com on the conditioned and the unconditioned:
The ātman that is being denied by this doctrine is our present being conceived as something ultimate, which we are never going to transcend. What the doctrine is getting at is that beyond our present mode of existence there are other dimensions of being we can grow towards that are inconceivable to our present sense of individuality. In denying the soul the anātman doctrine is not denying something deeper. It is saying that we shut ourselves off from anything deeper by asserting, ‘no, this is me.’
From here I will also draw on the metaphysics of Zen philosopher Alan watts who once said ‘You are that vast thing that you see far, far off with great telescopes.’ He believed ‘self’ and ‘other’ was a false dichotomy. Daulism is an illusion brought about by the minds obsessive need to separate and label. I will demonstrate: you cannot have day without the contrast of night. One gives birth to the other, and because of that interdependence we can say they are two aspects of one phenomenon, they are one.
Via this metaphysics chaos becomes an organization of interdependent conditions giving rise to harmonious complexity, and the existence of human beings. He described it as analogous to apple tree apple-ing: he proposed the universe was peopling! As apples are implied in an apple seed, humanity was implied in the big bang. This sees individuals on a much deeper level ‘You are a function of what the whole universe is doing in the same way that a wave is a function of what the whole ocean is doing.’
The flavour of this thought is found in the Bahiya Sutta which implies that dukkha can be ended when the experience and subject is realised as non-dual :
“Then, Bahiya, you should train yourself thus: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bahiya, there is no you in terms of that. When there is no you in terms of that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of dissatisfaction (dukkha).”
Let us now return the question I posited earlier:
‘But without god where are we to derive a sense of moral direction?’
When the world is perceived with the right view of non-duality and a Buddha looks into the eyes of another sentient being, or even at the stars, perhaps they see themselves looking back at them, as all boundaries dissolve. Harm to other beings within that realisation becomes impossible. Ahimsa becomes self evident. This new conceptualisation of self is seen as an unravelling and ravelling of mysterious phenomena beyond the individual. And although ‘I’ as a physical entity will perish, along with this system of memories the underlying essence from which ‘I’ emerges continues.
This proposes that nirvana is a state of seeing the world as it truly is, in that what truly exists, beyond the perceptual illusion of dualism, is never born, and never dies…
For me the ideas I have drawn on in this thought experiment must be found through the insights of our practise and should not be believed on blind faith or through the purely rational mind. The Buddha taught that the nature of reality is neither nihilistic or eternalistic and it is said that through various practises of meditation, such as reflecting on the five elements, we can directly perceive emptiness and non-duality and this is how we may find these insights and potentially nirvana for ourselves.