For a long time in my spiritual seeking career -- about 1968 to the present -- I thought "self-realization" was a worthy goal.
I knew people who were active in the Self-Realization Fellowship founded by Yogananda. I followed a meditation practice that taught "self-realization before god-realization." I avidly read books by people who has supposedly found their true self.
Now, I'm much more inclined to the Buddhist viewpoint: there's no such thing as the self, so self-realization isn't possible.
This differentiates Buddhism from other religions, spiritual philosophies, and mystic paths which hold that we humans have (or are) a soul which needs to be united with God, spirit, or whatever other name is given to a hypothesized ultimate divinity.
Now, I readily admit that my understanding of Buddhism doesn't come from being an actual Buddhist. I find Buddhism too organized, religious'y, and dogmatic for my churchless taste, even though if I was offered a million dollars to join an organized, religious'y, dogmatic faith, I'd instantly yell "I choose Buddhism! Money please!"
Meaning, of the world's main religions, I dislike Buddhism the least.
In fact, I definitely like Buddhism when it is stripped of its supernatural elements, along with its hierarchical side -- teachers, masters, enlightened beings, and such who are considered to be loftier non-souls than the rest of humanity.
Case in point: after learning about Sam Harris' recommended reading list, I headed off to the Amazon (web site, not the rain forest) and ordered a couple of Buddhist books on the list. This morning I read the first three chapters of "Introduction to Emptiness."
Emptiness is an idea that fascinates me. I really like the notion that nothing is the essence of everthing. This is what stimulated me to start my personal Wu Project, which became a blog category with quite a few posts, starting here.
The Buddhist view of emptiness, though, is different from "nothing." Guy Newland, the author of "Introduction to Emptiness," does a good job explaining it. (Newland is a Buddhist scholar and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Central Michigan University.)
We suffer unnecessarily because we do not know ourselves. Like addicts fiercely clinging to a drug, we cannot let go of the sense that we are substantial, solid, independent, and autonomous.
...To be real, to be alive, we feel that we must deep down somehow exist in a solid and independent way. Death tells us a very different story, but for that very reason we find a million ways to avoid hearing the message of death.
That message is that we are impermanent. Our bodies are disintegrating moment by moment, right now. And though we desperately wish to believe otherwise, the truth is that beneath our ever-changing minds and aging bodies there is no eternal and essential self. We have no natural existence, no independent way of existing.
We exist contingently, interdependently. We exist, but only in dependence on our ancestors, our body parts, our food, air, and water, and the other members of our society. We could not and do not exist otherwise. Devoid of any independent or substantial nature, our existence is possible only because it is far less rigid, less concrete, than what we imagine it to be.
Rather than seeing things as they are, we superimpose upon ourselves -- and on things around us -- a false existence, a self-existence or essential reality that actually does not exist at all. In the Buddhist philosophy explained here, the ultimate truth is the sheer absence, the lack, of any such essence.
This is emptiness (stong pa nyid, shunyata).
While this may sound bleak, disappointing, or frightening, it is the very nature of reality. And it is reality -- not fantasy -- that is our final hope and our refuge. The path to freedom from needless misery, for ourselves and others, is through profound realization of this fundamental reality.
By and large, I think Newland and Buddhism (Mahayana variety) have it right. Emptiness, in the Buddhist sense, is wonderfully compatible with modern science, including modern neuroscience. There's no enduring self to be found within the brain.
Nor outside of it, notwithstanding the widespread religious belief in an ethereal soul which somehow floats around independent of body and mind, while also somehow being intimately connected with them as a source of life and consciousness.
Of course, I could be wrong. Buddhism could be wrong. Guy Newland could be wrong. This is the way of science: uncertain, open to new evidence, provisional.
Heck, even The Onion could be wrong, as shocking as that sounds. I bet, though, that "Search for Self Called Off After 38 Years" is much closer to ultimate truth than the teaching of any religion is.
CHICAGO—The longtime search for self conducted by area man Andrew Speth was called off this week, the 38-year-old said Monday.
"I always thought that if I kept searching and exploring, I'd discover who I truly was," said Speth from his Wrigleyville efficiency. "Well, I looked deep into the innermost recesses of my soul, I plumbed the depths of my subconscious, and you know what I found? An empty, windowless room the size of an aircraft hangar. From now on, if anybody needs me, I'll be sprawled out on this couch drinking black-cherry soda and watching Law & Order like everybody else."
"Fuck it," he added.