Does Anātman Rationally Entail Altruism?

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 18, 2011

Does Anātman Rationally Entail Altruism? On Bodhicaryāvatāra 8:101-103

Stephen Harris
University of New Mexico

In the eighth chapter of the Bodhicaryāvatāra, the Buddhist philosopher Śāntideva has often been interpreted as offering an argument that accepting the ultimate nonexistence of the self (anātman) rationally entails a commitment to altruism, the view that one should care equally for self and others. In this essay, I consider reconstructions of Śāntideva’s argument by contemporary scholars Paul Williams, Mark Siderits and John Pettit. I argue that all of these various reconfigurations of the argument fail to be convincing. This suggests that, for Madhyamaka Buddhists, an understanding of anātman does not entail acceptance of the Bodhisattva path, but rather is instrumental to achieving it. Second, it suggests the possibility that in these verses, Śāntideva was offering meditational techniques, rather than making an argument for altruism from the premise of anātman.

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5 thoughts on “Does Anātman Rationally Entail Altruism?”

  1. It’s hardly surprising that an argument on the ultimate nonexistence of the self will fail to convince the author that it rationally entails a commitment to rationalism. I’d be worried if it did. If the self really does not exist then we get into “suffering is an illusion” territory. I’m reminded of the Kaccānagotta Sutta and the Mūlamadhyamaka Kārikā which both emphasise that “existence” and “non-existence” don’t apply to the realm of experience; we are talking about the experience of selfhood, not about whether an entity called “the self” exists or not. Do experiences exist? Or not? I think the conventional/ultimate distinction is a red herring but that would be a long argument.

    Just glancing at the verses I think this is an extension of the old Pāli argument in the Udāna –that seeing as all beings are like me, and I do not like suffering, then I should not harm anyone. Perhaps the background is a bit garbled, but surely the point is not to insist on the nature of the self, but on an approach to suffering that doesn’t make distinctions?

    Stephen seems to be on the right track in thinking of this in terms of practice.

  2. I need to read the Harris article more thoroughly. However, Jayarava, it almost goes without saying that your dismissal of 2,500 years of Buddhist thought on the non-existence of self as irrational is based more on reflex that careful consideration.

    Egolessness can be understood through direct experience of shunyata–but this usually requires considerable commitment to meditation practice. However, egolessness can also be understood through rational argument–the approach of a pandit or scholar. Perhaps you would concede that it is unfair to ask for proof of a negative–or at least that it is necessary to define what is meant by ego.

    Buddhist doctrine recognizes three experiential bases for the conventional view that ego exists. These correspond with body, speech and mind. In common language usage, we tend to go back and forth between these three–sometimes locating self in the body, sometimes in speech (our energetic expression of ourselves in communication with others or personality), and sometimes in mind. When we say, “I am cold” or “I feel tired,” we are locating ourselves in our experience of body. When we say, “I am irritated” or “I am happy” we are locating ourselves in our speech or personality. When we say, “I am intelligent” or “I am aware” we are locating ourselves in our minds. We can be emabarrassed by our appearance (bad hair day), our perceived defects in our personality or relationships, or our discovery of perceived intellectual inadequacies. In any of these three cases, our attachment to self and the resulting suffering that is caused is based on a different locus of “self.” In the first place, the fact that our sense of self shifts from moment to moment between our experience of body, speech and mind tends to raise the suspicicion that self is a mental construct that is as transient and illusory as all oher mental constructs.

    With respect to any one of these posited locuses for self, it is possible to analyze further and to argue that the concept of self does not stand up to rational scrutiny. There is, of course, the Buddha’s famous analogy of a chariot–how the breaking of the chariot into parts and eventually into saw dust indicates that “chariot” is a concept that has no intrinsic existence. It is a convenient label for the coming together of parts into an aggregate. In this way, our concept of a chariot is seen as closer to an event than a thing. We could apply the same logic to ourselves. Although we experience embarrassment and identify ourself in our hair when we have a “bad hair day,” we change our sense of self when we go to the barber shop and leave our hair behind on the linoleum floor. Similar logic can be applied to speech and mind–since our emotional expression of ourselves and our mental events, such as thoughts, are even more transient than our bodies.

    It could be that “self” is posited to be located in our minds–in the sense that our minds are cognizant. Buddhism has a number of terms for this concept of cognizance–ranging from she shin (Tibetan) translated as “presently knowing” and used primarily in describing this quality in the meditation practice of mindfulness (shamatha –Sanskrit–or shine –Tibetan) up to the concept of rigpa (Tibetan) in the Dzogchen teachings. Personally, I think that this is the best argument for the existence of a self. However, it is worth investigating what is this cognizance. Does it exist independently of our perceptions and the appearance of other? If not, then can it really be said to exist?–or if it exists, can you draw the boundary of self on this side of other–or does it need to include other.

    I don’t offer these arguments to convince you that self does not exist–only to show that your hasty conclusion that it does could stand further rational analysis.

  3. I read this article with interest and found it very perceptive and inspiring. I don’t have any depth of understanding of Śāntideva, but have one minor comment and one minor question.

    1. Minor comment. In footnote 2, the definition of altruism seems to me to miss at least one key aspect of the Buddhist Mahāyāna view. A Buddhist seeking to fulfill his bodhisattva vow would likely say that, at the early stage of the path on which he finds himself, he is not able to help others adequately because his perception is clouded by selfishness. Therefore, work to benefit himself by practicing and gaining insight is for the benefit of both himself and others. So it would not be a matter of seeking to help himself out of an indifference to the relative distinction between self and other or as a result of favoring oneself because of proximity or convenience. Perhaps the definitional problem is that altruism as a whole is a Western concept and assumes selfishness as the baseline state. The Buddhist view would be that compassion is the baseline state, but it is obscured by ignorance.

    2. Minor Question. Aren’t altruism and compassion dependent on the existence of confusion and suffering? In that sense, isn’t Śāntideva’s reference to the conventional agreement that suffering should be prevented merely an acknowledgment that suffering is believed to exist — and a recognition that that alone is sufficient reason to work to relieve suffering?

    In other words, sentient beings are confused. They believe in the solid existence of self and others and they believe that suffering exists. Is it necessary that the bodhisattva also believe the a solid self exists and that suffering exists in an absolute sense? If we have a friend who has a drinking problem and is experiencing delirium tremens and suffering from fantastic delusions, is it necessary that we believe in the absolute truth of the delusions to feel compassion for our friend and to help him? Is it not possible that Śāntideva is simply saying that because beings seek relief from suffering — relief should be provided?

    By the way, I don’t think that Śāntideva’s audience would have any difficulty understanding that anātman should not be equated with a nihilistic view.

  4. Thanks to both posters for their comments.

    Regarding Jim’s “minor comment”: Yes, I think the reasons you give would provide the bodhisattva’s justification for initially focusing on increasing his or her own positive qualities, through meditation, reflection and listening to teachings. So I think that the baseline commitment of a Bodhisattva would be universal consequentialist, to remove as much suffering as possible, no matter whom it belongs to. Nevertheless, sometimes this means focusing on oneself because either I am in a position to most effectively remove my own suffering (as I state in footnote 2), or because this will enable me, in the long run, to more effectively remove the suffering of others, as you point out. Thanks for the suggestion.

    Regarding the “minor question”: In the Wisdom chapter, which follows the Meditation chapter which I focused on, Śāntideva responds to an objection and gives much the same reasoning you provide here. The objector asks, given that sentient beings don’t (ultimately) exist, why we should bother removing their suffering?

    BCA: 9:75: “[Qualm:] If no sentient being exists, for whom is there compassion?
    [Mādhyamika:] For the one who is imagined through delusion, which is accepted for the sake of the task.” (Wallace and Wallace translation (1997), pg 124).

    Here, Śāntideva claims that merely the conventional suffering of selves is enough to motive our removal of their suffering. Presumably, he would also claim that suffering itself is (ultimately) nonexistent, but that the belief of deluded sentient beings in its existence is enough to motivate removal of this belief.

    This strategy here in the ninth chapter differs from the reasoning Śāntideva gives in the verses in the eight chapter, which my article focuses on. In the eight chapter Śāntideva seems to appeal to the (ultimate) existence of suffering as providing a reason to remove it. The way I understand this is that, in the eight chapter, Śāntideva is arguing from a premise he doesn’t ultimately accept, this ultimate existence of suffering. This is an example of skillful means, directed towards Buddhists who believe suffering (but not persons) does ultimately exist. In the ninth chapter, he argues from his own perspective, accepting that suffering (and persons) do not exist.

  5. In this view, anatta and sunyata are almost identical notions. That those notions point indeed to the fact no thing exists autonomously (in the sense that they are co-dependent arising) and hence to the necessary interconnectedness of all things, is indeed a crucial part of Buddhist teaching. Moreover, in that way, mahakaruna (understanding, love and compassion), or, if you wish, “altruism,” is a very natural dimension of this understanding.The Bodhisattva ideal in Buddhist Mahayana, specifically the vow to save all beings before or indeed instead of abandoning living (in) this infinite interconnectedness is, therefore, also a natural and even an essential outcome of the “interconnectedness” of all things, and of the notions of sunyata and anatta, as explained beautifully in the above text. Buddhism teaches us to really live these notions — to open up to this interconnectedness (co-dependent arising, which is the basis of the Anatman notion) by really seeing this fact. This not easy: it demands letting go of notions or suppositions and open up the the reality that is clouded by them, and that we in fact all already live, but won’t see. All this is not at all a denial of individuality or individual entities, it just places these in their proper context as interconnected entities, empty of autonomous existence precisely because they rely in a very fundamental way on all other things — this is a “reality check” that carries with it a great responsibility (culminating in mahakaruna) for all sentient beings. The Bodhisattva ideal is nothing more than the very natural expression of this. This awareness of anatman is not a burden; it allows us to see things as the really are, in an unfathomable, interconnected cosmic world that is too big for words.

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