Saturday, November 3, 2012

Saying No to a "Unitary Self"

Scott Bradley

Perhaps the most important insight in Chris Jochim's critique ("Just Say No to No Self" in Wandering at Ease in the Zhuangzi, Roger Ames, ed.) of the near universal mistake of reading modern conceptions of "self" into the Zhuangzi is that "self" for Zhuangzi was not a "hypostasized" and "unitary" reality, but a "pluralistic" complex of behaviors, habits, and functions. In order to avoid the cultural baggage that inevitably takes over with mention of "self", therefore, he suggests it be translated "person". There is no specific, identifiable entity called "self". Thus, concepts such as no-self and true self give the wrong impression that there is an entity to lose, on the one hand, and an entity to discover on the other.

This leaves those with an interest in transformative experience a la Zhuangzi with the task of self-cultivation, not the eradication of one entity in favor of another. What changes are (largely conceptual) habits and behaviors. I have written before that "self is a bad habit", and, where self is understood as the "egoic habit", not the person, this still holds true. Here is how Jochim translates Zhuangzi's pivotal summation of the "ultimate person":
"The ultimate person has no ego concerns,
The spiritual person has no merit concerns,
The sage has no name concerns."
Having no "ego concerns" is a world apart from having "no self", which is the usual translation. It is not that the latter is mistaken, but that our understanding of it is likely to be so.

None of this dismisses the possibility of radical transformation as advocated by Zen and other traditions that aspire to it; it only re-interprets what actually takes place. For my part, I do dismiss concepts such a “buddha-nature” and “original nature” which give the idea of realities beyond this actual apparent experience. There is nothing to find, simply something to grow and develop; it is a question of human potential, becoming what our humanity presently (though rarely) allows, not discovering some pre-existent reality. This is it.

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

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