July 30, 2002

Reading The Monk and the Philosopher* – so far an excellent introduction to Buddhism  – disappointing, though, on anatta. Much is made of the illogicality of the self. On analysis its existence is seen to be impossible, but the argument makes the assumption that the self is a thing, just as the body, or the brain, are things. When one looks for the location of the self it is nowhere to be found. He fails to make a clear distinction between a phenomenal and a substantial self. Buddhism readily admits to a phenomenal self. How could it not? It is the idea of a substantial self that is the problem. This problem is made more difficult because the terminology implies that the argument concerns a ‘thing’. If, however, the self is considered as a dynamic relational process a whole new perspective is opened up. Of course the self is not a thing; nor does it reside in the body, or the mind – although these are part of the dynamic process which generates, if that is the right word, the self. The self implies an other and without this other self cannot come into existence. If the self can be said to reside anywhere it is in the aidagara, the between, the relationship of self and other. It is the other who calls out the self in the newborn baby. It is the baby’s response to the other that discovers its latent self. Ultimately it is God, the Absolute Other on whom all relationships depend. 

*The Monk and the Philosopher: East Meets West in a Father-son Dialogue, Jean-Francois Revel, Matthieu Ricard, HarperCollins, London 1998

Leave a Reply