I love the idea that "I" don't exist.
Life sure seems like it'd be a lot simpler without a "me" around. Most of my problems aren't physical, but psychological. So if my body is real, but my self isn't, potentially that removes a large source of difficulties.
Fortunately for the "me" who I don't want to be, modern neuroscience has come to a pretty firm conclusion that, indeed, the self is an illusion.
Such is the central theme of a book by Bruce Hood I've started to read, "The Self Illusion." I blogged about an interview Sam Harris did with Hood here. (Where I mistakenly called the book "Illusion of the Self," mixing up the title of Harris' blog post with the title of the book.)
In his introductory chapter, Hood offers props to Buddhism for getting right many hundreds of years ago what science has confirmed only recently: that who we are isn't a solid "pearl" of identity, but a complex "bundle" of processes, interrelationships, networked connections.
Still, we have to remember that Buddhist/Zen practices evolved during a pre-scientific phase of human culture. Some of those practices may still make sense today; others may not.
Thumbing through The Self Illusion, I could see (spoiler alert!) that Hood ends up saying that even though the self doesn't really exist as almost everybody feels it does -- as an entity separate and distinct from the goings-on of the brain -- there are good reasons why evolution has left us with a sense of "me."
So this implies that two significant goals of traditional spirituality, especially those of the Eastern variety, aren't worth pursuing.
(1) Self-knowledge or self-realization is out, because there is no self to know or realize.
(2) Losing or doing away with the self is out, because there is no self to lose or do away with (and also, because we need some sort of sense of self to function, even if that sense is illusory).
If early Buddhists had access to the findings of modern neuroscience, I suspect Buddhism would have turned out quite differently. Could be wrong about this, of course, since there's no way to redo history.
For us today, though, we can take books like The Self Illusion to heart. We can imbibe knowledge that wasn't available to all of those devoted Buddhists who have meditated and koan'd away for many years in attempts to know that the self which seems to be so real, isn't.
Now, traditional Buddhists would argue that reading a book about the self illusion isn't the same as actually seeing through the illusion.
Well, I need to finish reading The Self Illusion before deciding to what extent I agree.
But at the moment I'm inclined to argue with that traditional argument. Yes, Hood does say that it very difficult for anyone (Buddhists included) to deeply understand that conscious human experience is solely the product of brain processes, no "self" required.
Yet who gets to decide the extent to which someone does realize the self illusion? In the Zen tradition, a lineage of masters has the franchise on this deciding. If a Zen master declares you "enlightened," then, bingo, you are.
Absent such a declaration, you're a pretender. (Unless you're a Taoist, Hindu, or whatever, with different standards of enlightenment.)
As I've noted before, to me it's a lot like knowing that the Earth revolves around the Sun.
People who know this may say "that's a beautiful sunset," but if you asked them to explain those words, they'd add that this was just a way of speaking, since they know that the Sun stays put while the Earth revolves and rotates.
Who has the right to declare that one person really knows what produces a sunset, while another only has an intellectual knowledge? It'd be tough to get inside someone's head and figure out what they're experiencing when they watch a sunset.
Is an astronomer more sunset-enlightened than a poet? Is the author of The Self Illusion more cognizant of how the self is illusory than a Zen master? Could we ever tell? And... who cares?