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Buddhadharma : Summer 2009
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly summer 20 0 9 30 Beyond No-Self According to many Buddhist philosophical schools, grasping at the notion of a real and substantial self is the root of ignorance. But while insight into the truth of personal selflessness, or no-self, is an important step, says the Dalai Lama in his new book, The Middle Way, it doesn’t go far enough. paintings by Lisa Foster T he teaching on the twelve links of dependent origina- tion is common to all Buddhist traditions; however, the interpretation of the twelve links, their processes, and particularly the explanation of the first link, ignorance, is different for the Madhyamaka school than it is for the other philosophical schools. The other schools define fundamental ignorance as grasp- ing at the self-existence of the person. Grasping at the self- existence of a person means believing there is a self that is somehow distinct from our body and mind—our aggregates. Such a self is thought to act like a master over the physical and mental components of a person. The seventh-century Indian Buddhist philosopher Dharma- kirti gives an example of this belief in his Exposition of Valid Cognition (Pramanavarttika): Say an old person whose body is deteriorating and is full of aches is given the opportunity to exchange his body for a much healthier body. From the depths of his mind would emerge a ready willingness to take part in such an exchange. This suggests that deep down, we believe in a self that is distinct from our body, yet somehow master over it. Similarly, if a person with a poor memory or some other mental deficiency were given an opportunity to exchange his or her mind for a fresh one with superior cognitive powers, again from the depth of the heart would arise a real willing- ness to enter into the transaction. This suggests that not only in relation to our body but also in relation to our mental faculties, we believe in a self who would benefit from such an exchange, a self that it is somehow the ruler or master of the body and mind. The other schools define grasping at self-existence as the belief in this kind of discrete self—a self-sufficient and substan- tially real master that is in charge of the servant body-and-mind. For them, the negation of that kind of self is the full meaning of selflessness, or no-self. When we search for such a self by investigating whether it is separate from the psychophysical aggregates or identical to them, we discover that no such self exists. The other schools’ interpretation of the twelve links of dependent origination therefore defines fundamental ignorance as grasping at such a self-sufficient and substantially real self. Madhyamikas would agree that gaining insight into such a selflessness does open the way to reversing the cycle. How- ever, as Nagarjuna argues, while this is a form of grasping at selfhood, it does not get at the subtlest meaning of self- lessness. With insight into this grosser type of selflessness, From The Middle Way: Faith Grounded in Reason, by the Dalai Lama, and translated by Thupten Jinpa. © 2009 Reprinted with permission from Wisdom Publications.