“Buddhism, Selflessness, and the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” by Vinton Poon


‘[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.


VintonJust 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.]

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Saussure’s structuralism surely suggests something similar. That if our minds are structured like a language, and (drawing on Lacan here too) if the self is constructed out of language, which accords with your theories above, then the self is only drawing on the same well of language to establish itself as a cohesive unit as every other self indicating that all selves are but part of the same pool. Imagine language as a face and selves as pimples. These pimples form when language collects into a mass, the mirror stage occurs and a concept of self is formed. Of course it’s an illusion, but it’s a necessary one, because without it, each self would remain as a baby, or rather, as an animal. The question then is – while we might be able to attain selflessness through methods such as Buddhist devotion, if everyone was able to achieve that, would we be able to survive as a species? Thus it always seems to me that Buddhism’s endgame is the annihilation of the human species and a returning of the world to the animals. Which isn’t such a bad thing, but is an extremely unlikely outcome given that selves keep forming at an alarming rate, while unforming the self is virtually an impossible task that takes a lifetime of austere living and denial of desire, which, once the self has formed is the very thing keeping the self alive (desire). Selflessness, then, while a noble endeavour, is unattainable en masse. Those selves who try to achieve selflessness must rely on those who don’t to be successful.

  2. Sarah says:

    Language provides an obstacle to overcome which, once grappled with, is proven to be very much a malleable ally. Selflessness is a word with its own confined definition thanks to the language we are blaming for our navel-gazing world views, but thought and language are connected in a much different way than communication and language.

    Take the essay writer, for example. What appears in the first draft tends to be only glimpses of the whole idea, the whole message. This is a product of the relative slowness of our bodies compared to our minds–even the fastes typist can’t type at the speed at which they think. There are holes in the first draft–easily remedied by revision and editing. The idea existed in a different form prior to being written and evolved in the process of being written and I postulate that this evolution was accounting for the gap between our thought-language and our communicative-language. It’s the same concept as the way we speak to a familiar person versus a stranger but with exponential intimacy.

    The point is that we can mold language to suit our need to extract selfishness from ourselves. “Ourselves” being used with unintended irony.

    We can train the thought-language to negate the common standard of “self” that language has trained within us. It is a challenge because it is working against the grain of one of the most all-encompassing systems humans have constructed (language) and it is a customized standard we can only perpetuate within our own minds, but with the idea that what we perceive is “mine” is actually “everyone’s” and therefore deserving of a high quality and a good intention.

    The concept many of us learn as children, “treat others as you want to be treated,” is a rudimentary foundation for the idea of selflessness. We have to mold our actions and thought processes to be more motivated towards the greater advancement of the whole–but not in a militaristic sense. Rather in the sense that one person should not perpetrate harm or ill-will against another because it is damaging to both parties and in fact more parties than can be accounted for. Has you heart ever sunk a bit upon hearing an anecdote about someone acting negatively toward someone else? That’s how things radiate out and instill fear, anger, sorrow, and dread in people. But what about acts of kindness? They evoke ripplings of positivity. Acts of selflessness are easier to conceive when focusing on the love each being has to share with each other being rather than focusing on ideas of fear negativity brings about. When it comes down to it fear drives negativity–fear of loss of what we value whether that be family or friends, physical health or beauty, or loss of money or loss of possessions, loss of societal status, loss of time or other such things–all of these things are arbitrary and rendered irrelevant if we can see past the “self” to see that when we gift to others what we believe we possess as individuals that is what constitutes kindness. Language is one of many societal hurdles we must face when we consider ideas of “selflessness” and how to act upon selfless desires. It tends to be a challenge to hold ideas contrary to widespread beliefs. Challenging those widespread beliefs is healthy though because widespread beliefs also tend to boil down to basic forms easily where the world is not an easy place to boil down basically.

    Selflessness is a circuitous way of suggesting we live less as selves and more as a whole–live not just as human creatures, but as a part of the greater organism that is our world. It seems more a suggestion to live harmoniously, not just with our fellow humans but also with animals, and our earth. We live and thrive thanks to the many systems making sacrifices for us so why not then sacrifice for the sake of those systems as well and live in ways that benefit them in return? It’s beyond thinking tribally as humans, it’s thinking globally although not in the modern globalization rhetoric kind of way. It’s the old school biogeochemical global-thought. It’s allowing our part in this world be more harmonious in the systems of the world. Humans’ conception of self has been damaging to our species and quite literally the rest of the planet.

  3. jsyyeung says:

    I think it is more accurate to say that the person seeing the mountain not as a mountain and water, not as water as “in the process of being enlightened” by doubting or being critical of what (s)he sees「見山不是山,見水不是水」.

    It’s better to address the person seeing the mountain still as a mountain and water, still as water as “enlightened” because (s)he is clear about the nature of what (s)he sees「見山仍是山,見水仍是水」.

    Some people also use these stages to describe the life stages of youth, adulthood, and old age.

  4. Monica says:

    From another perspective, if you think you are you, then who are you? What are you? Answer these two questions first and then think about the things that you cannot live with. Probably money, a place to live, etc. will pop up, but think deeper. The air, water, sun, earth and the space are the 5 basic elements that formed our lives. You’d think you would die without money, but it’s not money that you need, it’s the food, water, etc. So, where does the food come from? Not the supermarket, not the farm, but the land, soil. How did the food grow? It needs the sun, water, earth, space and air. These 5 elements are the foundations of our lives.

    Why selflessness? Because if you say you are you, again, who are you? Truth is, you live on the food and water. An apple goes into your body to support you, so you can be alive; water, egg, flour, you name it. These are you. Without them you will die, without the five elements you will die. So you are the food you eat, the water you drink. Be grateful to the food you eat. Without them, your body will not be alive.

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