On Buddhist philosophy (Vasubandhu)

Hello everyone,

Thank you for taking the time to read my question. I am currently taking a Buddhist philosophy class. One branch of Buddhist philosophical thought insists that the existence of the “self” is actually just a collection of “Dharma”. In other words, we are simply made up of different types of matter (not the same as what the atheist thinks). They do admit that there are individual components to being a human just like anything else, for example (Fingerprint, unique memories) but, they believe this does not prove the existence of the self. They insist that the conceptual construction of the self is really just an idea of the self and not the reality of the self. They say that we cannot describe what the “self” is without paraphrasing. Obviously the Bible teaches against this. However, Buddhists philosophers do not except the reality of a deity. So I seem to be left to fighting this with basic logical thought. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to dispute their claim. They would say that just as someone would not feel anything less then their full self if they’re were to lose an arm in a wood chipper (please pardon my graphic imagery), that tells us that just because we have a body does not mean that we are a self. It sounds crazy, but the evidence they lay out is quite compelling. I really need some assistance. Rest assured I am not struggling with my faith because of this. I just think it is important to properly refute this claim.

Sincerely,

John

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Hi John

I am certainly no expert in Buddhist thought and so others more qualified will hopefully be able to provide some greater input. You mentioned with this Buddhist philosophy, that they would say that the idea of the self is only conceptual and not real. I still am unsure how they would argue the validity of this claim? The example of the person losing an arm in a woodchipper accident does nothing, from what I can gather, to show that we are not a distinct self. The reason “I” know that I have lost a body part is because I have lost an individual component of what helps to make me, me. However, from a Christian perspective, if I lose an arm, I have only lost a contingent part of myself, not a necessary part. If I lose a finger or a strand of hair, I don’t cease being the self or person, Brian. If I lose my life, a necessary component of being the person, Brian, then somebody talking to my corpse is no longer talking to “who” I was. In Christianity, many believe that we have dual natures, that we are both physical and spiritual. If our bodies die, then our spirits, our essential self’s, continue to exist as distinct personal entities.

A couple of quotes from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Vasubandhu that might help with this discussion read:

“The majority of the argument assumes a Buddhist interlocutor, and is intended to prove that no Buddhist ought to accept the reality of a so-called “self” ( ātman ) or “person” ( pudgala ) over and above the five aggregates ( skandhas ) in which, the Buddha said, the person consists. (The aggregates, as their name suggests, are themselves constantly-changing collections of entities of five categories: the physical, feelings, ideas, dispositions, and consciousness.)” https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/vasubandhu/#DisSel

“Vasubandhu does not attempt, here, to prove the karmic causality that justifies his soteriological exclusivism. Instead, he moves directly to prove the non-existence of the self. What is real, he says, is known by one of two means: perception or inference . Seven things are known directly, by perception. They include the five objects of the senses (visual forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and touchables), mental objects (mental images or ideas), and the mind itself. What is not known directly can only be known indirectly, by inference. As an example, Vasubandhu provides an argument that the five sense organs (eye, ear, nose, tongue, skin) can each be inferred from the awareness of their respective sensory objects. But, he says, there is no such inference for the self.” https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/vasubandhu/#DisSel

So hearing a sound infers an organ that can hear the sound. My direct experience of sound can only be known by inference through indirect means. My struggle with much of this Eastern thought is, “who” is perceiving the sound and “who” is inferring a sense organ for hearing sound? If what is real can only be determined by perception or inference, and ultimately, the 5 senses, mental images and the mind, are known directly by indirect interpretation, then why can’t my direct perception of my “self” mean that I can’t infer that the person, Brian, is also real? The philosophy appears “self”-contradictory :sweat_smile:.

Having a body does not disprove the self, neither does it prove it. Likewise, just because I hear a sound does not prove that I did not imagine the sound. A sense organ is inferred because it makes rational sense that such an organ exists. My sense that I am a distinct person with feelings, ideas and a consciousness that is unique and distinct from others, would seem to lead to the rational conclusion that my “self” also is more likely real than not. The argument from Buddhism would, therefore, not appear to be constructed on a strong logical basis, but more so the outworking of a chosen religious foundation.

I hope that may give some assistance as you reflect on trying to find answers to the implications of such a worldview. Sounds like some interesting study that you are doing but can be quite difficult to get your head around :slightly_smiling_face:.

Blessings

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Hello John,
I like @Brian_Upsher, am not an expert in Buddhism either, but as I read what you have described,

A thought comes to mind…if there is “no self”, “who” is it that is doing the teaching, “who” is explaining this theory and why should anybody (any self) take it seriously if there is no personal self, "someone (who is not a self/person) trying to tell me (a none self/person) something meaningful about being a self/person/human?
I think there is a disconnect here at the foundation of their philosophy.
Maybe I am missing something here :upside_down_face:

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Hello John,
As I think about Buddhism a little more I am reminded that what we believe about spirituality plays it’s self out in the way that we live our lives. :frowning_face: I am not sure if they have taught you how Gotama Buddha (the founder of Buddhism) search for his “self” played out in his life. At the age of 29 years of age Gotama left his wife and new born child…in the middle of the night. He never said goodbye…just left, so that he could find his “self”. He strove to not be attached to anything in life, which included his new born son and wife. Gotama’s father was a leading man in his community and as such Gotama was surrounded by everything he needed in life, but he left it all to find his “self”. As I reflect on how this search for “self” turns our focus in life inward, it seems to me to cultivate a life of self-centeredness. Life becomes all about ourselves, no love for other people. :neutral_face:
By contrast I am reminded of Philippians 2:1-8. Loving others is how we are to live, giving our lives in service to others…desiring what is best for them, thus sacrificing our desires for theirs. :blush:
Not only is this where we find real meaning and fulfillment in life but it is what gives depth to our relationship with God.
Blessings :smiley:

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Mr. Baker,

Thank you for the insight the you have presented. I also came to the same thought process when thinking about the Buddhist argument that there is no “self”. Who is experiencing if there is no “self”? Who is feeling? Who is loving?
The response I received when I presented that question was simply that I was paraphrasing instead of actually giving an explanation of what the “self” is exactly.

Sincerely,
John

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For example if someone had a brain injury then their 'self’may change,

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Theres an example they use of a mango tree saying that the mangoes dont belong to any one (the one whom planted is different to the same self who sows. If someone were to steal a mango, are they really stealing when it belongs to noone anyway and should the same person, who may be a different self several days later face a punishment

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