Thursday, November 1, 2012

Saying No to "No-Self"

Scott Bradley

This post is a first response to an article by Chris Jochim in Wandering at Ease in the Zhuangzi (Roger T. Ames, ed.) entitled "Just Say No to No-self in Zhuangzi". I like the term "response" because it alleviates (I hope) my responsibility to actually understand and faithfully relate what the work at hand says. This is especially necessary when, as in the present instance, I haven't even read the work! Though I do wish to understand what I read, I also see them as sounding boards and stimuli for my own thought. My response here is stimulated by the title alone.

It is a curious thing that that thing seemingly the closest to us, our 'self', is something about which we have a most indistinct understanding. What the hell is it? Does it 'exist' at all? Is it a problem? Is it something to overcome or to be embraced and affirmed? What are we to do with it or with the illusion of it?

I already feel assured that I am going to find much in Jochim's article with which I will agree and which I will find stimulating. Some time ago I wrote: "Let's hear it for self!" And despite all my advocacy (admittedly as a mere theorist) for the transcending of the egoic-self, and the realization of unfixed identity, I still think it mistaken to speak of "no-self" as if it meant the elimination of the self altogether.

In the first place, self, whatever it is (or isn't) is an integral and essential part of the human experience, and that is Dao. What nature has wrought might not be the 'best' imaginable, but it is ludicrous to judge it one way or the other. What happens is Dao, and self has happened. In this it calls for affirmation.

Again, I must repeat myself and declare that self, whatever it is, is a product of human evolution, not of some "fall from grace" or divergence from a golden age. This does not render it sacrosanct, anymore than our pre-self experience swinging in the trees was or is sacrosanct. One thing that self allows us is the possibility of self-transformation, and the exercise of this is not the negation of self, but the further realization of self. No negation is ever truly necessary. If the 'egoic' aspect of self is problematical in the sense of impeding the full enjoyment of the human potential for contentment, then we are in full agreement with self in seeking to ameliorate the situation.

There are, of course, those noisome voices in the background — those persons who have actually experienced something they call 'no-self'. How dare they intrude into our theoretical discussions! But they do intrude; they do write books and give lectures; and this I take as ample demonstration of the fact that, whatever they have experienced, a self remains. And we need to remember, too, that these are just words and our task in using words is to try and make them point just a wee bit more precisely.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

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