‘[W]hen a layperson sees a mountain, he sees a mountain, but when an enlightened person sees a mountain, he does not see a mountain.’ Image source: via.
Buddhism, as a religion or a philosophy, has many wonderful concepts that help us perceive life in a better way. The basic notion of this belief system is that suffering stems from incorrect actions. These actions are in turn caused by holding the wrong perceptions. To put it very simply, if one sees a poisonous snake as a rope, and touches it as if it is a rope, one is bound to suffer the negative consequence of this action. For a person who used to believe that one’s life is predetermined by fate, the idea that the future depends on our current and past actions (i.e. karma) has been most enlightening to me. However, until very recently, I had great difficulty understanding one of the most fundamental concepts in Buddhism – selflessness.
The basic idea of selflessness, to the best of my knowledge, is that the self is nothing more than an illusion. There is actually no self. People who believe that they exist as selves, which are distinct from other entities or other selves, are not seeing reality in the right way. If one has such a perception and acts as if selves are real, their actions will invite suffering. I, of course, believe that selfishness is not good, and that acting selfishly will most likely cause suffering not only to the actor, but also the people around him or her. However, it is very difficult, if not impossible, not to have a concept of self, or to see this concept as unreal. It is highly probable that human beings develop their concepts of self very early on in life, very possibly before they acquire any language. Nonetheless, I believe that, in the spirit of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, language is the main factor that perpetuates the notion of self, and it is also one of the main reasons why it is difficult for people to grasp the notion of selflessness.
Before the discussion of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it is worth mentioning the reason for which I personally find it difficult to understand selflessness. This firm confirmation of self was developed when I was an undergraduate. In my second year, I read Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, and found it fascinating. In the book, he eloquently argued that, after doubting the existence of almost everything in the universe, the only thing he could not doubt the existence of is self (hence his famous statement “cogito ergo sum” ([“I think, therefore I am”]). After reading Descartes’ argument, it was very difficult for me to come to agree with Siddhartha (the first Buddha in this world) that self, together with all the other things whose existence Descartes doubted, was also an illusion.
Now, however, I believe that the reason selflessness is such a hard concept to grasp is due to the ways in which language is used to perceive the world. This mechanism is best explained with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
Strictly speaking, Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf have different theories on language and thought, but they are often mentioned together in discussions of how language affects thought. Basically, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that the structure of language greatly affects, and to a certain extent limits, how we conceptualise the world. Whorf’s research on Hopi, a Native American language, illustrates this point. According to Whorf, Hopi has no words that denote “time”. As a result, users of Hopi perceive reality very differently from what he calls the “standard average European” (like French and English languages). It is not the case that Hopi speakers are unable to perceive time. Rather, they understand time differently from Europeans. Whorf says that they incorporate the conception of time with space, and develop an alternative reality. This reality is constructed thanks to the language they use. According to Whorf, languages are somewhat comparable to different windows with tinted glass, looking through each of which gives you different perceptions of the same reality.
Whorf’s analysis is not without criticism, and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is also not presented without questions. However, the difficulty in conceiving the notion of selflessness may be explained by this theory of language relativity. While human language comes in many forms and structures, constituting the many, many different languages of the world, the vast majority of languages have at least a word denoting the speaker him/herself – normally the first person singular pronoun. This pronoun (“I” or “me” in English) is one of the first words a child learns, and possibly the last word a person forgets. A person suffering from amnesia may forget where he lives, how old he is, or even his name, but he can hardly forget that it is himself that forgets. He may say “I have forgotten who I am”, but he does not forget it is “I” who forgets. As we can see, being the fundamental building block of language, “I” is also the basis on which we build our concepts of the world. Is it not surprising that Descartes cannot in any way doubt the existence of the self!
How does Buddhism claim the non-existence of the self, then? Zen Buddhism provides us with an argument, and, interestingly, it is based on linguistic relativism. One famous saying in Zen is “見山不是山” (roughly translated as “when one sees a mountain, it is not a mountain that one sees”). This denotes a higher level of perception when compared to “見山是山” (roughly translated as “when one sees a mountain, one sees a mountain”). The teaching says that, when a layperson sees a mountain, he sees a mountain, but when an enlightened person sees a mountain, he does not see a mountain. Instead, he sees that this entity which is called a “mountain” is nothing more than a combination of various conditions (e.g. the accumulation of sand). Regardless of the moral of the story, what can be taken from this are 1) that an entity can be perceived in different ways, and 2) that it takes a higher level of perception to perceive the entity as something different from the meaning of the word that is used to tag that entity.
Building on these two observations, one can see how Buddhism understands selflessness. The mountain mentioned above is comparable to the self. A layperson may see him or herself as one unique entity which is distinct from other entities. Nevertheless, in reality, the self is nothing more than an aggregation of various factors – the flesh, the consciousness, and so on. Buddhist teaching tells us that it is wrong to attribute these factors, which are temporary and random, to a continuing and constant self.
I believe that, if what is described above is true, then the difficulty in recognising that what we normally understand as the self is actually not a unique entity that persists through time may come from the language we use and the way in which we use language. Echoing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it is most difficult, if not nearly impossible, to realise the self in the Buddhist sense because the linguistic term “I” is so deeply rooted in the languages we use and think in.
This way of understanding of self is, however, not exclusive to Buddhism. For example, the prominent Scottish philosopher David Hume argues in his influential book The Treatise of Human Nature that the self is a chain of consciousness. One cannot say for sure which chain of consciousness constitutes a self that is distinct from other selves. This way of thinking has since been developed into the “bundle theory”, which states that an object is made up of a collection of properties and relations.
I am not here to argue for selflessness, or for bundle theory. It is, however, interesting to see how the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis helps us understand that the very vehicle on which our high level thoughts are dependent, namely our language, is also the roadblock that bars us from truly understanding reality, should what Buddhism teaches be true.
Just like an average person, Vinton Poon assumes many different identities. To name a few (not in any particular order), he is a son, a lecturer, a badminton enthusiast, an extrovert, an elder brother, a debating coach, a semi-Buddhist, an academic, a friend, a hypochondriac, a volunteer, and a pursuer of good tea. [Click here to read all entries by Vinton.]