La identitat al primitiu budisme

Sense res millor a dir, introdueixo el meu darrer treball sobre la noció de identitat permanent al primitiuu budisme. En concret, comparo algunes ideas de les questions del Rei Milinda amb nocions del Chandogya Upanisad

The second book of the questions of the King Milinda contains one description of the self, where this notion is compared with a chariot. It is one of the most famous and quoted passages of the Buddhist literature. Nâgasena, the monk who is introducing the Buddhist point of view, analyzes what is a chariot and establishes that whatever it could be it, it must be different from the pole, the axle, the wheels or any of the different material parts, which compound it. None of these parts is the chariot and there is nothing outside them which could be the chariot[1]. In the same way, none of the constituents of a being must be identified with a self. Nâgasena does not coincide neither with his hair, his nails or any other part of his body nor with his ideas, sensation or consciousness[2] A being is a way of coexistence of the khandhas, and there is nothing more just as there is no chariot beyond the coexistence of its several parts[3].
The question seems to be very meaningful for the monk, which if fact induces the enquiry, presenting himself as Nâgasena, but highlighting that these is only a designation in common use, a name. No permanent individuality is involved in the matter, he says. This point is considered quite astonishing by the king and later we will have to come back about this astonishment. Now it is important to remark that if Nâgasena is eager for starting this enquiry, it is because he must consider it as leading to a very important point of his teaching. Certainly, that there is no self is the third point of the most common Buddhist theory of reality which is deeply interwoven with the second, there is noting permanent, and therefore is the real cause of the first: everything (all compound things) are unsatisfactory[4]. There is no doubt that Nâgasena is aware of the fact that through this notion is presenting one of the features which made a difference between his doctrine and most of the previous conceptions. The image of the chariot does not seem to have been chosen in a random way. Peter King[5] remembers that this analogy had already been used in the Katha Upanishad. However in this text it is used just to defend the opposite point of view[6]: the existence of a permanent self[7]. In fact, the point is really crucial because, as we will explain later, without the acceptance of the no-self doctrine it is impossible to find out the way to liberation or rebirth, which is actually the only aim on the Buddhist doctrine. Furthermore, we can say that if we understand what does this lack of self means, we will have understood what it is reality from a Buddhist point of view, although Buddhism is not a philosophy, according to the western point of view, and does not intend to attain theoretical goals. Anyway, a possible danger is to understand what Nâgasena is saying in a completely literal, and therefore nihilistic, view. According to the text, to deny that there is a self could be not less absurd that to refuse the fact that chariots can exist. What is really denied is its permanence, not the being itself. The chariot in which the king Milinda has travelled is not a fiction created by the mind, but it depends only on the parts which once assembled compound this reality. Nothing different of them could be found. Something analogous is the case with the human being, which is finally the assembling of different, changing and moving elements, revealed in each case by the lived experience[8].
From my point of view, what has been denied is something very similar to the notion which was called substance by Aristotle. This point of view could be reinforced in the following passages of the book. So, in the dialogue between Nâgasena and Anankataya, Nâgasena replies to the idea of the second that the soul is the inner breath which comes and goes, that there is no soul in the breath, as there is no soul in a trumpet[9]. Here the emphasis is focused on what is substantial and permanent. Later, is the the King who asks for the soul, introducing an analogy between the soul and himself sitting in his palace and looking through the windows[10]. The analogy is denied by Nâgasena, who says that if this were the case, then it would be possible to perceive indiscriminately any quality with any organ. In different ways, it concludes in each case that the powers are not united one to another indiscriminately[11]. The core of the argument developed by the monk is stated clearly by Gethin when he says that the first argument against the self is that there is not inner controller[12]Although probably the argument most coincident with the point of view which we have tried to defend is the third used by Gethin, when he talks about the meaningless of the term self, every time that this term come up apart from concrete and particular experiences[13]. The only feature that seems to belong properly to the self is its elusiveness[14]. Anyway, it is worth to consider the point of view introduced by scholars as Williams or Harvey[15], when they remember us that one of the main characteristics of Buddhism is its refusal of metaphysical questions. The question about the self is useless, if it is not in the way to Nirvâna. In fact, the defence of speculative points of view is explicitly rejected. Buddha is a physician more than a philosopher as it is illustrated in the image of the man wounded by an arrow[16]. As Hamilton says, the problem for Buddhism is how things, and human being is not an exception, operate, not what they are[17].
The objection posed by the king, when he hears Nâgasena describing his self as a void sound, has a moral meaning. Without self a moral life seems completely impossible. There would not be difference between merit and demerit; there would be the same to be an Arahat or a murder[18]. The answer of Nâgasena, the aforementioned image of the chariot, is not a direct answer to this question, whose only possible answer is introduced in the next section, when Nâgasena faces the question put by the king, how many years of seniority has him, using the notion of causality[19]. In fact what has been said by Nâgasena, the rejection of the permanency of the self, has a deep moral sense. One of the aims of the doctrine is to avoid, to cut off from the root, every form of selfishness. This is the main tool to accomplish the overcoming of attachment. Going on, It is in I:5, when the dialogue between Nâgasena and the king starts again, where the King asks him directly about his way of life: renunciation[20], which was not new at that time, but it continued to be one of the most distinctive features of the Buddhist movement. This way of life was fiercely opposed to the traditional point of view, that is to say the vedic, about how should we live and obviously it has to awake the perplexity of a king, who although with intellectual interests has a very different choice about his life. Williams has insisted on this point which he considers, and I agree, quite decisive. Buddha, like his followers, was a drop-out[21] and his way of living openly defied the old tradition in which the excellence was associated with the success of the life as a householder[22]. This life is focused on a range of values which obviously tend to keep having in mind this idea of self, which had to be eradicated. It is a life based on craving and there is no craving without assertion of the self[23]; giving up attachment is impossible in this way of life[24]. For the Buddhists, the itinerant life experienced by the Buddha was without any doubt superior and the doctrine of the lack of self was a sociological sign, as remember us Peter King.[25]From a personal point of view, I have found this conflict really amazing, because it reflects one of the most basics problems which the human race had had to confront and also one of the oldest, probably a question posed since the neolithical revolution. Then, arose two ways of life, completely opposed: those developed by the settlers and the life of the nomads, being none of them completely satisfactory. In each case, we human beings feel that something important is missed. But both are incompatible and one has to be chosen. Buddhism and Vedism make their choice in the most radical way[26]. But the conflict happens in many other cultures. In a much less sophisticated way, it is interesting to note that this election is the central point, for instance, in many westerns focused precisely in this subject. Incidentally, this is in a certain way the question posed by Freud in his Das Unbehagen der Kultur, our life can not be lived without culture, but culture, too contradictory with our inner life, make us unhappy.
Anyway, Buddhism could not be described only in terms of opposition to the ancient point of view. It defined itself as the middle way and it is thought that Buddha Himself has knowledge of some of the Upanishads[27]. So it is not surprising to find sometimes something like a family resemblance between the Buddhist ideas and themes of the aforementioned book. The point of the text where most vividly I have had this sensation, occurs in the first book when the king asks Nâgasena about the characteristic mark of wisdom and the Monk answers that it is cutting off, the action made by the barley reapers when they are doing their work[28].This statement remembers me another which can be found in the Upanishads, the definition of self as dam[29], because the purpose of a dam is also to cut off. On one side of the dam, there is evil, old age, death and grief, most of the things which compound life for Buddha, making it unsatisfactory, on the other side of the dam, there is something which could more or less be expressed with the metaphor of light. Probably, is not a matter of chance that in this Upanishad appears ideas, like the avoiding of rebirth and the superiority of the renouncing life. Although, opposed in many points, the Buddhist teaching has some of its roots also in the brahamanic tradition.
What replaces the notion of a permanent self is the doctrine of the dependent causation. It is relatively easy to make a general account of this doctrine in spite of the obscurity of some formulations. The main statement is that there is no a permanent unity; every subject differs from itself after any period of time. But these differences do not mean that the subject must be considered as completely different. The subject X1 has become after some time the subject X2, Jordi when began his curs about Buddhism and Jordi when it is finished, both subjects, in this case perhaps I should properly say we, are not the same, but there is a link between them; a link founded in causal connexion. My way of being now, my way of doing and living, determines the future from this someone, who strictly is another, but from whose life I am entirely responsible. The causal connectedness becomes the condition of possibility of the moral and makes rebirth possible without having to postulate the existence of any kind of permanent self[30]. The point is exposed in a clear way in the beginning of the second chapter, where Nâgasena states that the man who is born again is neither the same nor another[31]. It is in this chapter, where could be found the image of the milk in order to illustrate what is rebirth. The milk turns to curds, then to butter and finally to gee. Each one of these states is different but they are produced from the preceding state. They have an only and direct cause which determines inexorably its being[32].
The statement that the notion of soul must be replaced by the succession of cause and effect is indeed not an interpretation, but it is something explicitly told by Nâgasena in the chapter second. When the King asks the monk, what is reborn, he answers that name and form. Not the same name and form, but another name and form arisen out of the deeds of the former, that is to say, from its kharma[33]. The statement is followed by a serie of stories, about mango stealers, bought brides, glasses of milk and different kinds of arsonists, in order to illustrate the point previously questioned by the king: if moral nihilism becomes unavoidable according to the doctrine defended by Nâgasena. In each one of the cases, the king is moved to assent to the fact, that causal connectedness implies moral responsibility[34]. As it always happens in the dialogues of Plato, in this dialogue it is only said, what is required by the situation: the king is not the proper interlocutor for serious metaphysical disquisitions, but it is interesting to note that something is said in order to deepen into the knowledge of the Buddhist point of view. When the King asks for a more definite explanations of what does name and form means[35], Nâgasena says that Form is whatever is gross and name whatever is subtle and mental. Both are connected and spring into being together in the same way that the yolk and the egg-shell[36]. The explanation is by no means complete, especially if we consider, as Sue Hamilton does, that both notions are crucial[37], but it defines, at least, the first step of the ladder.
The Buddha always refused to answer any metaphysical question, claiming that if they do not help in the way to Nirvâna, they have to be considered as useless. Nonetheless, Buddhist thinkers were arguing with systems of ideas, which have developed throughout its history its own ontology and epistemology. Although only with an instrumental aim, Buddha and his followers were forced into outlining some kind of alternative, which was later completely developed through the Abbidharma. Perhaps more than in strictly philosophical terms, it would be useful to recover the old notion of “Weltansachaung” to designate the set of differences between early Buddhism and its rival conceptions. Buddhism entails a new way of looking at the reality and, consequently, of being in the world. Some of the features which distinguish this new way are related to Metaphysics but not all of them. From my point of view, two of these features can be found in the dialogues of King Milinda. I will finish my essay making some remarks about each one of the two following points:
- An Ontology without neither identity nor difference. From the point of view introduced by the doctrine of dependent causation, the chain of causation makes unnecessary to postulate the notion of identity. The doctrine implies a dynamical conception of reality, based on the notion of permanent change[38]. The refusal of early Hindu eternalism entails a different logic and a different conception of what it is the meaning of being. As Peter King says, this denial of eternal substance consequently leads to reject the notion of absolute difference which would be another way of denying the causal continuity between past, present and future[39]. A consequence of this change has to be considered as what Williams calls the ethicisation of the world[40]. Action, morally relevant action, is the heart of this conception.
- A different and new conception of time, whose meaning is strongly connected to the notion of dependent causation. The doctrine of the Buddha makes time the most important dimension of reality or, to speak in a most precise way, of reality as it is experienced by humans[41], in contrast to the way shown in the Upanishads which tends to deny the reality of time[42]. In fact the notion of time seems to be very central for some of the authors of the Abhidharma, that conceive time as a kind of dimension through which dharmas travel[43], but the question also appears in our text. The king asks Nâgasena about the meaning of time. He answers, in the most obvious way, that time is past, present and future, but the question of the king is focused on knowing whether time is something real[44]. Now, the answer of Nâgasena is more detailed. Time refers to these causes which still have a possibility of producing an effect. Where there will be reborn, time actually is, whereas time is not real for those who have attained Nirvâna[45]. To escape from time is not different to run away from dukkha. This point is stated in the clearest way in the next chapter, when Nâgasena says that Ignorance is the root of time and afterwards develops his own version of the doctrine of dependent arising[46]. The following section provides some illustration of the fact that the ultimate point of time is not apparent, that is to say, that the cycle of time has not an end, if the subject is unable to attain Nirvâna[47]. The most important metaphor of this chapter represents khandhas, that is to say the ultimate root of reality, as seeds. Time is presented in this way as endless and circular.
The main aim of this essay has been to compare some ideas introduced in the second book of the Questions, with some teachings contained in the Upanishads, especially in the Chandogya Upanishad, concerning the notion of self. In fact, the text itself seems to ask for this comparison, since it begins denying human self in a way which is widely open to a polemical questioning of the tradition. Throughout the essay, we have intended to show, that from these different positions on nature of the self, it must be deduced a different understanding of the reality, even although the main purpose of the Buddhism was not related to challenge the previous theoretical conceptions. However the negation of the self leads, perhaps we must say unavoidably, to an alternative weltanschaung, which is based on reformulated notions of time, identity and causation and begets a dynamical, procedural understanding of the whole[48]. It could not be denied, that there are also points shared by both doctrines. Otherwise, it would be contradictory to consider the Upanishads as a root of the Buddhist teaching. At least, the purpose of avoiding rebirth is common to both traditions. However they pursue the same goal with very different means. The Upanishads often seems to look at the past in a conciliatory way. The old conceptions of the vedic religion are perhaps rectified but never completely discarded, whereas Buddhism is bitterly opposed to the patriarchal way of living that is defended in the Vedas. In fact, the confrontation reflects a polemics which is not only religious and metaphysical, but also political and sociological.


Translated and edited by Valerie J.Roebuck (Penguin classics, 2003)

Translated by T. W. Rhys Davids, (Dover publications, 1983)

THE LONG DISCOURSES OF THE BUDDHA. A Translation of the Digha Nikaya
Translated by Maurice Walshe (Wisdom Publications, Boston, 1995)

Richard King, Georgetown U.P. 1997

Rupert Gethin, Oxford U.P., 1998

Peter Harvey, Cambridge U.P., 1990

Paul Williams with Anthony Tribe, London, Routledge, 2000

Sue Hamilton, Curzon Press, 2000

[1] P. 43-4. When there is no other indication, the quotations belong to The Qustions of King Milinda
[2] P. 42-43
[3] P. 45
[4] King, 77
[5] ib, 81
[6] (3-3-4); in fact the text is interesting because although the self is conceived as permanent it seems to be outside of the chariot. It has to be identified with the owner who can not be linked to any part of it.
[7] The comparison is also interesting and tempting for the readers of Plato. But it could be also misleading because it is very easy to forget, in fact it has often happened, that he context where this idea springs up is a myth. From my point view is very difficult to discern if the theory of the soul in Plato is about a permanent soul, ;even, I do not dare to discern if there is such a theory in Plato
[8] It is interesting the way in which Hamilton (op. cit., p. 123) deals with the question. The world is what I experience and nothing that I experience, that is to say I know, can be identified with the self. The doctrine of the no self is more epistemological than ontological.
[9] P. 39-40
[10] P. 86
[11] P. 87-8
[12] Gethin, p. 136. Interestingly enough in order to explain the fact of perception Nâgasena introduces the successions of cause and effect, a discourse which has been drawn from the Abbidharma, according to the text itself.
[13] Ib. P. 137 i 138
[14] This point of view must be connected with opinion of Hamilton, when she says that the most relevant fact to understand the question of the self as it is posed, is its connexion with Ignorance, the first root of the chain of dependent causation (Hamilton, 36)
[15] Harvey, 53
[16] Williams, 36
[17] Hamilton, 24
[18] P. 41-2
[19] P. 45
[20] P.50
[21] Williams, 17
[22] Ib., 28
[23] Ib. 47
[24] Gethin, 162. Hamilton highlights also this point remembering that the expression “homeless” is used to signify that an individual has embarked on the spiritual quest for truth. (p. 102)
[25] King, 79
[26] Although finally Buddhism chooses a less radical way of living based on monastic institutions.
[27] Williams, 12
[28] P. 51
[29] Chandogya Upanisad VIII,4
[30] Williams, 69
[31] P. 63
[32] P. 66
[33] P. 72
[34] P. 72-76
[35] P. 77
[36] P. 77-78
[37] Hamilton, p. 151
[38] Williams 70. Death and rebirth are two points of change but not differents in itself from any other point or our ordinary life.
[39] King, 82.Although the notion of absolute difference must not be completely forgotten. Between me and my neighbour there is a complete absence of connectedness which does not happen between me and who I used to be thirty years ago.
[40] Williams, p. 73
[41] Nirvâna can be also described as an escape of time, because time is a reality which belongs only to the pre-Enligthment experience. (Hamilton, 173)
[42] This is the consequence of an eternalistisc point of view. Even although this point is not usually highlighted, it could be easily inferred: if the most important part of reality is unchanging, then time has to be illusory.
[43] Gethin, 220
[44] P. 78
[45] P. 79
[46] P. 80; this version has some differences with the most standard form which is discussed, for instance, in the book of Gethin (p, 150)
[47] P.80-82
[48] A point of view perhaps still more challenging to the western tradition, which since Parmenides has usually tended to associate perfection with stability

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