I am happy because yesterday I arrived at a new understanding of what the ultimate reality of the universe – the essence that people have labeled “God” – may be. I know that theories about the universal oneness are spurned by mainstream Buddhism, but I am still going to share here the idea that I had: perhaps the universe as a whole is conscious of itself, and believes that it is a self-determining entity, even though all that it really consists of is stars and planets and nothing more. This idea occurred to me after I examined my self-concept, and saw that I perceived my organism as an individual being that possesses free will, even though I also know that all I really consist of is a huge number of individual molecules functioning in complex but predictable directions. I know why the atoms in my head spin in such a manner that I think this way. I believe that individual being and free will are hollow illusions because I have absorbed the complimentary metaphysical tandem of American philosopher John Searle and the Buddhist theory of Anatman (also known as “Anatta”).
The followers of the Buddha proclaim their philosophy of Anatman, or ”no-soul”, by saying that the universe consists solely of atoms and energy that behaves in a compulsory manner, and nothing more. They reveal that we exist in a pure cause and effect mechanism, empty of any eternal or self-determining energy, as they state that “no immutable substance exists and none underlies [any of the] phenomena” of the cosmos.1 “Nothing in the world is absolute,” Anatman claims; instead, “all is conditioned, relative, and interdependent,”2 each reality being both the result and the cause of the rest of the universe.
The most considerable challenge to this concept is the existence of the human organism, and the seeming alive essence within it. Buddhist theory, correspondingly, expends much energy in explaining that our creature contains nothing eternal, nothing that binds our component atoms into anything more than a collection of physiological processes. “The idea of an abiding, immortal substance in man or outside, whether it is called Atman, “I”, Soul, Self, or Ego, is considered only a false belief, a mental projection,”3 and “the existence of … a soul, self, or Atman … is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality”4, is the teaching. Buddhism understands that mental and physical realities, both within homo sapiens and without, are genuine, but the insight into this reality is that “what we call “I” or “being”, is only a combination of physical and mental aggregates, which are working together interdependently in a flux of momentary change within the law of cause and effect, and there is nothing permanent, everlasting, unchanging, and eternal in the whole of existence.”5 This knowledge is vital, because to penetrate the “truth” that no uniting essence, self, or soul truly exists within people “is to realize Nirvana,”6 and to penetrate ultimate reality.
Western philosopher Searle maintains beliefs that are similar and complimentary to the theory of Anatman. He couches his ideas, however, in different language and around different concepts: the American avoids the word “soul” as he asserts that nothing eternal exists in the human entity.
The American’s theories are established in the realization that “there are certain specific electro-chemical activities going on amoung neurons or neuron-modules and perhaps other features of the brain and these processes cause consciousness.”7 Having encountered most people who understand that their body is part of the physical universe, but remain convinced that their mind is somehow outside of this system, Searle explains that the brain and its product the mind are as much a part of the physical universe as are the stomach and digestion: “variable rates of neurons firing in different neuronal circuits and different local locations in the brain produce all of the variety of our mental life,”8 he states. “Mental phenomena,” he further asserts, “all mental phenomena whether conscious or unconscious, visual or auditory, pains, tickles, itches, thoughts, indeed, all of mental life, are caused by processes going on in the brain.”9 The human mind and brain are comparable to the environment around them in that they consist solely of atoms and energy, and contain no soul or being.
Searle understands that this concept is difficult for most modern Americans to accept, but he also asserts that the way “to dispel the mystery is to understand the process.”10 In order to understand, one need only comprehend that “mental phenomena are caused by processes going on in the brain at the neuronal or molecular level, and at the same time they are realized in the very system that consists of neurons;” his thought is that the phenomena of human mental life is simultaneously an influence on and the result of the actions of a lattice of physical entities, but has nothing to do with any elan vital.
The Philosophies of John Searle and the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama agree, then, that the human organism is a purely physical entity. The two thinkers also harmonize on the clear corollary to this theory, that the homo sapien lacks free will. The American points out the incongruity of free will when he states that its existence indicates “that inside of each of us was a self that was capable of interfering with the causal order of nature. That is, it looks as if we would have to contain some entity that was capable of making molecules swerve from their path.”11
Buddhist scholar Walpola Rahula agrees in asking, “if the whole of existence is relative, conditioned and interdependent, how can will alone be free?”12 Free will can be seen, then, as not only impossible but as absurdly impossible. “Since nature consists of particles and their relations with each other, and since everything can be accounted for in terms of those particles and their relations, there is simply no room for freedom of the will,”13 writes Searle. “If Free Will implies a will independent of conditions, independent of cause and effect, such a thing does not exist,”14 concurs Rahula. In sum, humans are soulless collections of atoms, traveling along paths that are predictably plotted by atomic influences far beyond our control.
This idea is, for most people, I believe, frightening and difficult to accept. If one accepts that nothing exists inside or outside of us except for simple molecules and energy, one can become disenchanted and nihilistic. One can lose the motivation to try to change anything, given that the essential nature of the cosmos is immutable. Further, as one doubts free will, one can feel like a victim of chance, and can fall into deep depression from seeing oneself as an insubstantial nonentity. Searle points out that “our conception of ourselves as free agents is fundamental to our overall self-conception;”15 losing this perception, and the similar ideas about the value and meaning of human existence that Anatman invalidates, can be shattering, undermining both sanity and morality.
Fortunately, however, Searle and Buddhism also provide as clear escape route from this dark pitfall. The first step on this road is to see that we do, in fact, have free reign to pursue actions of our own choosing. “The aim [of understanding Anatman] is not to deny common sense reality to things as experienced in the common sense world,”16 meaning that we can endorse the reality that “human freedom is just a fact of experience.”17 Given that “a series of powerful arguments based on facts of our own experience inclines us to the conclusion that there must be some freedom of the will because we all experience it all the time,”18 Searle releases us from the controlling grips of mere atomic interactions. One can further escape the grim ambush of nihilism by visualizing that humans are, in fact, individual and coherent organisms, with identities and essences that are above and beyond our mere physical characteristics.
These beliefs of free will and of human essence are perfectly compatible with the earlier mechanistic view of the universe of Anatman. In order to find the agreement between the seeming contradictions, one must be willing to understand reality on several different levels simultaneously. Rahula states, “there are two kinds of truth: conventional truth and ultimate truth. When we use such expressions in our daily life as “I”, “you”, “being”, “individual”, etc., we do not lie because there is no self or being as such, but we speak a truth conforming to the convention of the world … a person [can] be mentioned only in designation, but not in reality.19
There are realities, then, that are true on a level of human thinking, speaking, are interacting, and that are, in an absolute sense, false. This two-tiered reality applies to the idea of human free will: “just as we continue to speak of ’’sunsets” even though we know that the sun doesn’t literally set, so we continue to speak of “acting out of our own free will” even though there is no such phenomenon.”20 Through a simultaneous understanding of the worlds of both “absolute reality” and “mundane reality”,21 to use Mythologist Mercea Eliade’s labels, one is free to continue to “think of ourselves as conscious, free, mindful, rational [and existent] agents in a world that science tells is consists entirely of mindful, meaningless physical particles.”22 One’s sanity is saved in understanding that one need not give up one’s common sense life upon reaching deeper levels of insight.
In fact, abolishing one’s everyday worldview upon realizing Anatman is a plan of action that is plainly harmful to one’s bundle of atoms and electricity. The usage of the illusory free will is compulsory because making many conscious and seemingly free choices every hour is necessary for human survival. We are greatly served by our mirages as we performing such imperative actions as choosing to eat, sleep, and wait before crossing the street in order to keep our fleetingly united package of atoms from being dissipated. We also utilize our misconception majestically when we choose to eat human food, and not the slime in the garbage dumpster, because the two have different effects on the chemistry of our non-beings, even though both consist of similar molecules. The crux of the matter is that “we can’t act otherwise than on the assumption of freedom, no matter how much we learn about how the world works as a determined physical system.”23
“Evolution has given us a form of experience of voluntary action where the experience of freedom, that is to say, the experience of the sense of alternative possibilities, is built into the very structure of conscious, voluntary, intentional human behavior;”24 we must use our seeming free will, even if we chose to see the deeper reality behind it and if we choose to be baffled by its existence. For enigmatic reasons, the human group of atoms appears to be different from almost all of its environment in that it appears to be above nature, acting a manner that seems free, independent, and active. “Perhaps no one can ever really understand the cosmos or understand why we were made aware of our journey through it,” mused American psychiatrist David Viscott25; however, while the reasons behind our conscious and volitional state of affairs stand mysterious, we have no choice but to act despite our confusion.
While acting practically, however, one also benefits from understanding one’s deeper nature as a non-existent, non-choosing collection of physiological processes. For example, the Buddhist scholar Rahula lists the many sufferings that one can abolish by eliminating a self-concept of oneself as a free entity that is in possession of a soul above and beyond nature. He states that “harmful thoughts of “me” and “mine”, selfish desire, craving, attachments, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egotism,” “grief, lamentation, suffering, distress, tribulation,” “and other defilements, impurities, and problems”26 can all be eradicated through such an emancipation.
Most Western psychology disagrees with Rahula’s idea, and states instead that the problems he lists are the results of maladjustment to one’s environment and of unmet needs, rather than any belief in free will or in a soul. However, paradoxically, understanding Anatman can be is all the more helpful and rewarding in the Western paradigm of existence. In psychological setting, one can see that viewing oneself as a determined bundle of atoms can help resolve many distresses by destroying the toxic shame that “is the core of most forms of emotional illness”27 and psychopathology.
Toxic shame, the psychological consequence of humiliating trauma, manifests itself in two main ways, those being that one has either a combative relationship with oneself28, seeing oneself as wormlike and “less than human”, or one temporarily fortifies oneself against the pain of this disgrace and sets oneself up as godlike and “more than human”29. Both of these ways of being are deeply harmful and dishonest, and shame can be seen as “the source of [most] complex and disturbing inner states.”30 Happily, one way of addressing this self-rupture is through understanding Anatman.
Once one grasps that one is, in an ultimate sense, merely an electro-chemical organism operating in a purely cause-and-effect manner, many of the hurtful effects and actions of toxic shame are dispersed. For example, Anatman helps one make the distinction between one’s actions and one’s being that is “one of the great learnings of … life”31; one sees that one is an actor, capable of both moral or immoral actions, but remaining a collection of molecules in either case, and one is able to love oneself more and address shortcomings more honestly and openly. Similarly, once one sees the universe as purely equal, one is able to move beyond the subjective realities of good and bad, helping one to stop the harmful and deluded classification of oneself and others as evil or as godlike; as one sees actions as part of the flow of the universe, one is able to forgive oneself and others for past hurts. One begins to lose the need for approval from others, as one sees that one is the same bundle of atoms with or without it. Perhaps most fundamentally, one ends a striving to be more than what one is, a struggle to be somehow more worthy or higher in moral standing, as one sees such a goal as empty and impossible. Instead, one arrives at “aversion, dispassion, cessation, tranquility”32 and seeks to change oneself only when it serves to make one’s own or other’s lives easier.
Paradoxically, then, understanding the emptiness that underlies human existence leads to a great increase in freedom and richness of life. The Buddhists have understood this reality for many centuries: “Monks in training who are ridden with feeling of guilt and shame … are told to appease their guilt by meditating on its emptiness. This does not give them license to sin, but it liberates them from the burden of evil.”33 Eliminating ideas of souls or free will has many positive implications for the microcosm of the individual human psyche.
Understanding Anatman also has positive implications for the macrocosm of the human community. For example, comprehending the equivalence of the whole universe has the positive social effect of helping to evaporate human bigotry and hatred, as individuals lose as disdainful conviction that others are subhuman. Instead, each being can grow in compassion for a fellow bundle of atoms trying to make its way through the cosmos. The philosophy can also aid in our fulfilling our human responsibi1ity to our sustenance, the planet Earth. “Man and nature are against each other [in the West] … very strange,”34 commented Daisetz Suzuki, as he recommended a more Buddhist and more pantheistic understanding of creation. I believe that understanding human mortality will destroy the image of a humanity made in image of god, above nature and animals, that has lead our race on a foolhardy and hellbent drive towards destruction.
If we fall in this task of penetrating reality and achieving personal and societal transformation, I fear that we will endure much suffering on our conventional and common sense level of reality. I am also afraid that we are on our own with this: if
we destroy ourselves, the many atoms of creation, some of which formerly constituted homo sapiens, will go right on spinning along their predestined way, obliviously. We can expect no help in this campaign from the ultimate reality of the universe, even if it is self-aware.
1. Willard L. Johnson and Richard H. Robinson, The Buddhist Religion (Belmont. California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1982), p. 69.
2. Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught (New York: Grove Weidenfeld), p. 53.
3. Ibid., P. 55.
4. Ibid ., P. 51.
5. Ibid., P. 66.
6. Ibid ., P. 65.
7. John Searle, Minds, Brains, and Science (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1984), p. 24.
8. Ibid., p. 9.
9. Ibid, p. 18.
10. Ibid ., p . 23.
11. Ibid., p . 92.
12. Rahula ., p. 54.
13. Searle., p. 86.
14. Rahula., p. 54.
15. Searle, p. 86.
16. Johnson. , p. 69
17. Searle., p. 88.
19. Rahula., p. 55.
20. Searle., p. 92.
21. Mercea Eliade, Mythand Reality (San Francisco:Harper Colophon Books, 1963), p. 139.
22. Ibid., p. 13.
23. Searle., p. 97.
24. Ibid., p. 98.
25. David Viscott, The Language of Feelings (New York: Pocket Books, 1976), p. 158.
26. Rahula., p. 51, p. 58.
27. John Bradshaw, Bradshaw on: Healing the Shame that Binds You (Deerfield Beach, Florida: Health Communications, 1988), p. viii.
28. Ibid., p. 10.
29. Ibid., p. 100.
30. Ibid., p. viii.
31. Ibid., p. 158.
32. Johnson., p. 10.
33. Ibid., p. 70.
34. Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By (New York: Bantam Books, 1972), p. 96.