Buddhists readily admit that this view is counterintuitive if it were intuitive we would all be liberated , and many doubts may arise when it is posited: If there is no self, then what is the same about me as a child and as an adult? What is named by my name? What perceives perceptions, or experiences experiences, or enacts actions, if not the self? What is memory, without a self? And crucially, from a Buddhist perspective, what transmigrates from one body to the next, and reaps the karmic fruit of good and evil deeds, if not a self?
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Buddhists readily admit that this view is counterintuitive if it were intuitive we would all be liberated , and many doubts may arise when it is posited: If there is no self, then what is the same about me as a child and as an adult?
What is named by my name? What perceives perceptions, or experiences experiences, or enacts actions, if not the self? What is memory, without a self? And crucially, from a Buddhist perspective, what transmigrates from one body to the next, and reaps the karmic fruit of good and evil deeds, if not a self?
These are all questions of great importance in Buddhist philosophical treatments of the doctrine of no-self, and Vasubandhu will address them each in due course. Vasubandhu begins, however, by focusing on certain commonsense advantages to the no-self view, and exposing the difficulties in holding to the reality of the self.
Vasubandhu places it in the latter category. Abstract entities have no causal impetus and are unreal. Some Buddhists accept for instance that space and nirvana are real, though unconditioned.
Vasubandhu says, instead, that all things that are engaged with the causal world must be, themselves, conditioned this is a corollary of his proof of momentariness , so he rejects the causal capacity of eternal, unchanging entities. That is a non-Buddhist view, which Vasubandhu treats later on.
For, the aggregates are temporary and impermanent in the extreme. The whole issue at hand is how to account for the continuity of the person as the aggregates change. If the aggregates are the cause s of the person, then the person, too, must change as they change.
Yet for Vasubandhu, if the cause cannot be specified, then the person must be conceptually constructed. He adduces the following as an example of conceptual construction: When we see, smell, and taste milk, we have distinct sensory impressions, which are combined in our awareness.
The sensory impressions are real, but the milk is not. The Personalists are willing to accept that the person is a conceptual construction, but they do not accept that this makes it unreal, or causally inert.
There is, for Vasubandhu, no acceptable explanation of conceptual constructs as real entities. This is how Vasubandhu resolves some of the standard challenges to the no-self view, such as the question of how experience can exist without an experiencer. The object is an aspect or shape of the consciousness itself. What is really occurring is only a series of discrete elements in the continuum of aggregates, which arise successively, causally linked to one another.
The reason I remember my past is because my aggregates now are the causal result of the past aggregates whose actions I remember. My consciousness today arises with the shape of my past aggregates imprinted upon it.
And, perhaps more importantly, not everything is said by the Buddha to be ineffable, or at least not equally so. For instance, when the Buddha denies the reality of the self, he does so in contradistinction to the sense bases. The Personalist challenges Vasubandhu to explain how it can be, if everything is only a constantly-changing fluctuation of causally-connected separate entities, that things do not arise in predictable patterns.
Why is there so much unpredictable change, the Personalists are asking, if there is no independent person who enacts those changes?
This is a question that seems to be affirming a greater degree of freedom of the will than would appear possible were there not some outside, uncaused intervener in the causal flow. Seeing a woman, he says, causes you to think thoughts that you tend to think when you look at women. But of course, Vasubandhu adds, just because the mind is subject to conditions does not mean that it will always be the same. On the contrary, it is fundamental to the definition of conditioned things that they are always changing.
It is with this setup that Vasubandhu turns to address the non-Buddhist sectarians, asking them to account as elegantly as his causal, no-self view does, for the changing flux of mental events.
For, the non-Buddhist opponent believes in an independent self who is the agent and controller of mental actions. If that is so, Vasubandhu challenges them, why do mental events arise in such disorder? This is an important point, because it implies that Buddhists might use as evidence what is introspectively obvious to any meditator—namely, the difficulty of controlling the mind. Each temporary collection of psychophysical entities generates, through causal regularities, another collection in the next moment.
It is widely considered a difficulty for the Buddhist no-self view that it has trouble accounting for our intuitive senses of continuity and control. But here we see Vasubandhu turning a disadvantage into an advantage. The intuitive sense of control is a mistake.
Of course, the non-Buddhists have a panoply of theories explaining the relation between the self and the mental events with which it is complexly entwined. This is territory over which Indian thought contemplates free will and determinism. Vasubandhu does not enter into these debates in any detail. Here Vasubandhu addresses a number of common worries about the no-self view, including the questions of experience and agency without a self.
An individual, momentary consciousness does not need to be possessed by a self in order to have a certain appearance. So what does the self do here?
The last argument in the work addresses the crucial, Buddhist concern about karmic fruits. If there is no self, how can there be karmic results accruing to the agent of karmic acts? The way the question is phrased is in terms of a technical question about the nature of karmic retribution. The way that karma works in the non-Buddhist schools is, naturally, via the self. If there is no soul that is affected by the karmic residue, how can you be affected at a later time by a previous cause?
How can something I do now affect me at the time of my death, if at that time the deed will be in the past? Vasubandhu gives a clear, if quick reply. A complete answer to this question would require a fuller discussion of the question of continuity.
The short answer is simply that the past action inaugurates a causal series, which eventuates in the result at a later time via a number of intermediate steps. When I act now, it does not alter some eternal soul, but it does alter the future of my aggregates by sparking a causal series.
Why not apply such figurative use to the term overall? Close philosophical and introspective attention reveals that what seemed like a solid, coherent whole is in fact a false mental construction based upon a failure to notice its countless, fluctuating parts. Buddhists rejected the notion of substances with changing qualities, and affirmed instead that change was logically impossible.
To be, for Buddhists, is to express certain inalienable characteristics, whereas to change must be to exhibit the nature of a different being.
Vasubandhu certainly shared this view, and he drew upon the premises of impermanence and the impossibility of change to establish momentariness in his own works. Yet, as von Rospatt has shown, Vasubandhu added a new twist to the argument. What he added was that things must self-destruct, for destruction cannot be caused. And why not? Because a cause and a result are real entities, and the ostensible object of a destruction is a non-existent.
How, he asks, can a non-existent be a result? Given that things must bring about their own destruction, then, Vasubandhu needs only to recall the impossibility of change to establish momentariness. If things have it as part of their nature to self-destruct, they must do so immediately upon coming into being.
If they do not have it as part of their nature, it can never become so. The standard Buddhist explanation is that usually, when things go out of existence, they are replaced in the next moment by new elements of the same kind, and these streams of entities cause the appearance of continuity. Modern interpreters often illustrate the point with the example of the apparent motion on a movie screen being caused by a quick succession of stills. This is said to be the case with the many entities that appear to make up the continuous self, and of course this was the main reason the Buddha affirmed his doctrine of impermanence in the first place.
Yet for some phenomena, to call their continuity merely apparent causes philosophical problems, even for Buddhists. The problem comes from an apparent inconsistency among well-founded early Buddhist scriptural positions. On the one hand, there was the orthodox belief that the body was kept alive by consciousness. Even in deep sleep, it was believed that there was some form of subtle consciousness that was keeping the body alive.
On the other hand, there was the very old belief, possibly articulated by the Buddha himself, that there are six kinds of consciousness, and that each of them is associated with one of the six senses—the five traditional senses, plus the mental sense which observes mental objects. The problem was that there are some meditative states that are defined as being completely free of all six sensory consciousnesses.
Related to this is the problem that, given that each element can be caused only by a previous element of a corresponding kind in an immediately preceding moment , there does not seem to be any way for the consciousness, once cut off, to restart.
Equally problematic is the same issue in reverse: Without some doctrinal shift there does not seem to be any way that beings born into formless realms, with no bodies, could be reborn among those with physical form. See the section concerning disproof of invisible physicality.
The need for such an entity reflects a conundrum unique to Buddhist morality, premised as it is upon the lawlike, causal regularity of karma operating in the absence of any divine intervention. The issue at hand is not in itself the question of karmic continuity in the absence of a self, but rather a particular aspect of that larger problem. See the sections concerning disproof of the self and momentariness and continuity.
But how do actions of speech and body—such as insulting, or hitting someone—bear their karmic fruit in the mental continuum? Surely forming the intention to hit someone is a consequential mental act. We might think that Buddhists would simply say that it is karmically equivalent, then, to intend to do something which is a mental act and to actually do it. Although there is some blurring of the line here the Buddha does give great moral weight to merely intending to act , intentions and the bodily or vocal acts that follow from them are understood as distinct types of actions with distinct karmic results.
Furthermore, the Buddha is said to have indicated that the karmic effect—and so the moral significance—of doing something is additionally dependent upon the success of the action. Attempted murder is not punished to the same degree as murder, even karmically. I can see how my plunging a knife into someone affects him; but how his dying which may happen later, in the hospital affects me is invisible, or uncognized.
How does what goes around, come around? Although here Vasubandhu answers through the mouth of another and so, presents this position without explicitly endorsing it , he advocates something like this position more forcefully in his later, Explanation of the Establishment of Action. But the difference does not come from the accomplishment of the result itself—that is, it does not come from the death of the murder victim.
Rather, the karmic effect is the result of my experience and my beliefs. If I experience myself stabbing someone, and I know that the person died even if by reading the newspaper the next day , I gain a fuller karmic result than I would have by simply intending to act.
My action was the same either way. These vows generate a karmic benefit in spite of their being fulfilled through not acting.
Abhidharmakosabhasyam. Vol. I
This includes a potent acting causes, such as a seed for a sprout, and b impotent acting causes, such as the space that allows a sprout to grow and the mother or the clothes of the farmer who planted the seed. Simultaneously arising causes [note 5] — causes that arise simultaneously with their results. This would include, for instance, characteristics together with whatever it is that possesses the characteristics. Congruent causes [note 6] — a subcategory of simultaneously arising causes, it includes causes share the same focal object, mental aspect, cognitive sensor, time, and slant with their causes—primarily referring to the primary consciousness and its congruent mental factors. Equal status cause [note 7] — causes for which the results are later moments in the same category of phenomena. For example, one moment of patience can be considered the cause of the next moment of patience. Driving causes [note 8] — disturbing emotions and attitudes that generate other subsequent disturbing emotions and attitudes in the same plane of existence, though the two need not be of the same ethical status.
L'abhidharmakosa. Traduit et annoté par Louis de la Vallée Poussin
Treasury of Abhidharma