Why is Buddhism so insistent on anatta? Why are Christians, and indeed all religions, so insistent that selfishness is not a good thing? The answer must lie in the nature of the person and in the nature of reality itself. There is so much here that needs to be thought out.

First, as humans we are social beings. What is born is a living body with the potential to become a person. We are made persons as a result of the social interactions of our families with us and our interactions with the surrounding milieu. How good a job is made of making us persons depends on the quality of these contacts. The more loving, the more they give, and the more we are allowed to grow. We are easily damaged and stunted by rejection, indifference and exploitation. Therefore what exists is not an ā€˜Iā€™ with a right to claim priority for itself over all others, or even some others. What exists is not an independent individual in total possession off itself.

What exists is an amalgam of relationships. A person is a dynamic nexus of interacting relationships not something whole and complete in itself. This applies to everything in fact. There is nothing which is independently self-existing. Everything is what it is a) because of the relationships of its component elements, and b) because of its relationship to everything else in the scheme of things. This is what Buddhists mean by everything being empty.

This applies to our physical bodies; it also applies to us as persons. We are persons only in that we relate to other persons. So when a person acts selfishly, putting himself before others without taking account of their rights, needs, or feelings, he is denying the fundamental reality that he is part of them and that they are part of him. By diminishing them he is diminishing himself. By hurting them he is hurting himself.

Secondly, it goes deeper than this. Empirical reality is only the tip of the iceberg and the beneath-the-surface dimension cannot be ignored. Our first awareness is of sensation and out of the sensations the empirical world emerges. It imposes itself on us through our senses. We become aware of rough and smooth, hunger and satiety, pain and pleasure, light and dark. We become aware of noises and shapes and then the noises and shapes become speech and faces and I become me, and I responds to you, and the world is no longer part of me and becomes an it. A gulf appears between me and not-me. The process of individuation has begun.

What I do not realise is that the gulf is a mental construct. My mind has created the gulf, that distinction between me and not-me. But in reality there is no gulf, there is no separation. In a way we are like trees. When we look at a tree we tend to see only that which is above the ground. We do not see the network of roots, as extensive as that of the branches. We do not see the transpiration of the leaves, the action of photosynthesis, or the absorption of water and minerals by the roots. We do not see the tree as a source of life, an environment, a habitat for a multitude of other creatures. We see a static object. We do not see a dynamic organism part of and interacting with its environment.

Similarly when we look at ourselves we see actors playing out roles on the stage of the world. We think that we are no more part of the stage and the scenery than are actors in a theatre, that we are no more linked to each other than are the players brought together by the selection process of the theatre company. We see ourselves as self-contained individuals. Such a view is even more wrong than the view of a tree as a static object. Like trees we emerge onto the surface of conscious and empirical reality from roots that are plunged deep into the fabric of Being. Only when we become aware of our roots will we begin to understand what it is to be.

D. W. Mann has this to say

With bodily birth the self is born. The universe of self-experience comes into being through the severance act of birth. But the resultant separateness, which I have said lies at the heart of the self-experience, is from a biophysical perspective more illusory than real. While the body lives, it remains a standing wave of active earth, gathered and propelled by the happenstance channeling of genes into an amnesic emissary from the mineral world. We are of earth but not within it, moving ever so slightly beyond it but always in its outstretched stream, borrowing and returning, dust to dust. Into this fabric each of us weaves, from earth, through man and woman, man into woman, out of woman aloft into life, and finally back into earth, our single stitch of life. The generations quit the earth, like ragged seams. In all but ecstatic moments we feel separate, but in physical fact our bodies join us to the earth, to one another, and to the seemingly separate universe that envelopes us.
Mann D.W., A Simple Theory of the Self, W.W. Norton, New York, 1994 p.42f

And he is only talking about ‘physical fact’. If only we could be aware of the beneath-the-surface dimension. If only we could be aware of the pattern woven by our single stitches.

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