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Apr 17, 2018 - However, to reconstruct a self from the scraps of the no-self view is to, I think, misunderstand the stra...


JASR 29.3 (2016): 223-241

JASR (print) ISSN 1031-2943 JASR (online) ISSN 1744-9014

The Abhidharma Version of No-Self Theory Monima Chadha Monash University

Abstract This paper elucidates the Abhidharma attempt to revise our ordinary ways of thinking and our ordinary conceptual scheme in which the self (minimally conceived of as the referent of ‘I’) occupies a prime position. This revisionary metaphysics provides an intellectually and morally preferred picture of the world that lacks such a self. The no-self theory is no doubt deeply counter-intuitive. In response to this some contemporary scholars offer a weak version of the Buddhist no-self account which incorporates elements of Abhidharma and Mādhyamika philosophies. I analyse two such influential attempts by contemporary philosophers who weaken the no-self account in a bid to show that we can retreive a minimal notion of self from the Buddhist account. However, to reconstruct a self from the scraps of the no-self view is to, I think, misunderstand the strategy employed by Vasubandhu. In this paper, I argue that it is a mistake to interpret the noself view as allowing for a minimal self. To be true to the spirit and arguments of the Abhidharma Buddhist philosophers we need to deny the self, period.

Keywords Buddhism, Abhidharma, No-Self.

Introduction In the intellectual milieu of ancient India where Brahminical views dominated the philosophical landscape, the Buddha puts forward a revisionary metaphysics which lacks a ‘self’ in order to provide an intellectually and morally preferred picture of the world that lacks such a self. The view is deeply counterintuitive and Buddhists are acutely aware of this fact. Accordingly, the Abhidharma-Buddhist writings are replete with attempts © Equinox Publishing Ltd, 415 The Workstation, 15 Paternoster Row, Sheffield, S1 2BX.


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to explain the phenomenology of experience in a no-self world. To evaluate the merits of the preferred Buddhist-Abhidharma worldview the first task is to understand the target of the no-self doctrine. This task is urgent in the contemporary context as the interest in the notion of self is not just restricted to philosophers and phenomenologists but also a variety of other disciplines including psychology, neuroscience, developmental psychology, psychiatry, anthropology, cultural studies, and so on. As a result of this ongoing discussion there are many different conceptions and notions of self floating around in the contemporary literature and correspondingly there are many different versions of the no-self views among contemporary Buddhist and non-Buddhist philosophers. I am not going to attempt a taxonomy of the different notions of self in the literature for no such taxonomy is immune to revision and raises further questions about the relations between the notions, some of which are complimentary and others that are conflicting. 1 Nor will I make the assumption, as some in the literature do, that the target of the Buddhist no-self account is the Hindu view of self as a substantial, independent self existing apart from the mental and physical states (Thompson 2014). The deeply counterintuitive nature of the no-self doctrine drives ancient and contemporary Buddhist philosophers to qualify the Buddhist rejection of self as the denial of a substantial self that is independent of the mental and physical aggregates that constitute us. Gold (2014) presents an impressive summary of the Buddha’s rejection of the self as a false construction in the hands of the famous Abhidharma philosopher Vasubandhu. Gold’s reconstruction softens the force of Vasubandhu’s denial of the self, in saying that Vasubandhu emphasises that the self is not denied entirely but just made into a ‘figurative’ designation for the aggregates (2014: 61). Garfield (2015) masterfully enunciates the Mādhyamika teaching of dependent arising, the teaching of the Middle Way, neither reifying conventional phenomena nor rejecting them as nonexistent. Phenomena exist dependently and conventionally. There are no hidden real essences; all existing things are like reflections or echoes rather than entities. This teaching is extended to the nature of persons. There is no core nature that establishes a separate self, no center to which mind and body parts or characteristics belong. Tables, fire, people, and all phenomena are designated by thought in dependence upon relationally characterised parts. They do not exist objectively, from their own side. Again, Garfield’s reconstruction of the Mādhyamika teaching emphasises that the denial of the self is not an outright denial of its existence, but only that it exists independently and separately from the aggregates. 1. Many taxonomies have been offered in the literature. See Neisser 1988; G. Strawson 1999; Zahavi 2005; Ganeri 2012. © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2017.

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In light of the fact that the ancient Buddhist philosophers also disagreed about the right way of interpreting the no-self view, it is hardly surprising there is little agreement about which self is denied by the no-self view. Just as we cannot say this is ‘the’ definition or right way of thinking about the self, some like Zahavi (2011: 67) advise that self-skeptics should settle for the modest claim that they are denying a special kind of self. Zahavi’s claim is motivated by the fact that two well-known interpreters of the noself view, Albahari (2006) and Dreyfus (2010), both insist on distinguishing subjectivity and selfhood. Zahavi, however, thinks that although subjectivity or the phenomenal mineness of experiences does not provide an exhaustive understanding of what it means to be a self, it is sufficient to warrant the use of the term ‘self’ (2011: 67). Furthermore, he clarifies: that the for-me-ness or mineness in question is not a quality like scarlet, sour or soft. It doesn’t refer to a specific experiential content, to a specific what, nor does it refer to the diachronic or synchronic sum of such content, or to some other relation that might obtain between the contents in question. Rather, it refers to the distinct givenness or how of experience. It refers to the first-personal presence of experience. (2012: 149)

The later Abhidharma-Yogācāra epistemologists are led to introduce the notion of self-awareness or reflexive awareness (svasaṃvedana) to account for the subjectivity of experiences.2 In the absence of a self this raises the further question: What are we aware ‘of’ in self-awareness? The Buddhist-Abhidharma answer is to say that self-awareness is not to be understood as awareness of a subject having or possessing different experiences, rather it is simply a conscious state being aware of itself or being given to itself in a first-person way. Zahavi’s phenomenological characterisation of the minimal self makes it seem that it is nothing more than the subjectivity of experiences. Thus, the Abhidharma Buddhist philosopher who accepts subjectivity of experience should have no qualms about accepting this minimal notion of self. In the Western tradition it is commonly assumed that the very idea of conscious experience involves the existence of a subject of experience. By definition, to say that a mental state is conscious is to say that there is some distinctive way it ‘feels’ to be in that state. The ‘something it is like’ must mean ‘something it is like for the subject’. The minimal claim is merely that ‘an experience is impossible without an experiencer’. Christopher Peacocke calls this a ‘…constitutive, metaphysical point about the nature of consciousness’ (1999: 292). Galen Strawson credits this point to Descartes in the Second Meditation: the existence of the thinker, subject, or experiencer cannot be doubted even if one is wrong about the 2. The terms ‘reflexive awareness’ and ‘self-awareness’ are used interchangeably in the literature. © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2017.


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substantial nature of this experiencing something (2003: 281). Strawson here boldly notes that nothing in Buddhism challenges this point. He clarifies that the notion of an experiencer is that of a ‘thin’ subject which does not and cannot exist at any given time unless it is having an experience at that time. Then, however, Strawson ends up identifying the subject, the experience, and the content of experience and claims that a thin subject in this sense is sufficient to warrant the use of the term episodic self. If the subject is nothing over and above the experience itself, the Buddhist-Abhidharma philosopher should have no trouble accepting that there are thin subjects. Surely they can admit that there are numerically distinct minimal selves: dependently conditioned, temporary subjects that arise, exist, and pass away within the span of an occurrent episode of consciousness. But the Buddhist-Abhidharma philosopher will deny that thin subjects in this sense can be thought of as selves in any philosophically established use of the term. I do not want to consider the so-called minimal selves as selves, since they are not ‘good enough deservers of the name’ (Lewis 1995: 140). In Lewisian speak, I concede that the search for perfect deservers of our folk-psychological, pre-theoretical notion of ‘self’ is futile, because there aren’t any perfect occupants of the role and hence no perfect deservers of the name. But the so-called minimal selves in the Buddhist-Abhidharma sense are so imperfect that they do not deserve the name. The task of this article is to make a case for the claim that in the Buddhist-Abhidharma scheme of things it is best not to talk about a self, period. It is, therefore, important to distinguish the Buddhist-Abhidharma notion of self-awareness from various notions of minimal self in the literature. The notion of a thin self is closely related to that of a minimal self in the phenomenological tradition; minimal self just refers to the distinct givenness or how of experience (Zahavi 2012: 149). Gallagher explains that the minimal self is the consciousness of oneself as an immediate subject of experience, leaving aside questions about the degree to which it is extended beyond the immediate present (2000: 14). However, even the unsuspecting phenomenologists’ notion of a minimal self is not as innocent as it appears to be. Zahavi equates a minimal self with the ‘very subjectivity of experience’ (2005, 2012), but that notion is thicker than the Buddhist-Abhidharma philosopher can willingly endorse. The phenomenologists’ notion of experience is not innocent and builds in temporal width. Such a notion of experience, although necessarily subjective is not acceptable to the Abhidharma Buddhist. For Zahavi, consciousness and self-consciousness have temporal structure and an extension in time, unlike the Buddhist-Abhidharma universe in which conscious experiences, like everything else, are momentary events. The same applies to © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2017.

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Gallagher’s (2000) notion of minimal self and Damasio’s (2012) notion of core self as they both include the sense of agency and ownership which is not part of the Buddhist-Abhidharma notion of self-awareness. Similarly, the notion of minimal phenomenal self proposed by Blanke and Metzinger (2009) is too rich as it involves self-location, self-identification, and body-ownership. The Buddhist-Abhidharma philosophers deny that we own our bodies and also dismiss self-identification as a delusion we must learn to get rid of. This is what I take to be the central issue between the proponents of the self and Abhidharma no-self theorists, namely, the question of whether there are ultimately real persisting entities, even though they may be short-lived. Zahavi would argue that experiences and our consciousness of experiences are temporally extended. The denial of the self amounts to the denial of persisting entities. So, I think this is not merely a semantic issue, nor is it merely a terminological debate about what we call the ‘self’. Briefly, the plan of the paper is as follows. In Section 1, I discuss Vasubandhu’s central argument in Abhidharmakośa-bhāsya for the claim that there is no self. Vasubandhu takes a lot of care to give an account of how we are supposed to explain the facts e.g., memory, moral responsibility, etc., in the absence of selves or persons. In Section 2, I consider some contemporary rational reconstructions of the Buddhist view of no-self which argue that the Buddhist need not deny the self as the owner of experiences and the agent of actions. I argue that these reconstructions are misguided as they distort the motivation and the overall project of Abhidharma philosophy in particular, and Buddhist philosophy more generally. 1. Self and No-Self in Vasubandhu’s Philosophy Vasubandhu begins with the question: How do we know that the term ‘self’ refers to a series of aggregates of mental and physical states (skandhas) and not to something else? Vasubandhu responds by saying that we know this because no proof establishes the existence of a self apart from the aggregates. There is no proof for the existence of the self by direct perception, nor by inference. He elaborates further that we can know objects of the five senses and the objects of mental consciousness by perception. And we can know about the existence of the five external sense organs on the basis of inference: despite the presence of some of the causes of perception—e.g., external objects, light, attention, etc.—the blind and the deaf cannot perceive certain objects. Thus we can infer the existence of the sense organs as a cause whose presence together with the other factors brings about a perception. But it is not like this for the © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2017.


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self, hence it does not exist! We cannot perceive the self, nor are there any considerations that would lead us to infer or postulate a self; so we can conclude there is no self (Pruden 1988: 1313-14).3 The central argument comes later in the text. It launches a direct attack against the inferential proof for the self put forward in Nyāya-sūtra 1.1.10. The Nyāya-sūtra argument goes: Desire, volition, etc. would not be possible without a single agent that cognises and recognises the object, and this single agent is the self. The weight of the argument rests on memory to defend the reality of a diachronically extended single agent. In his response Vasubandhu outlines an alternative explanation of memory in terms of causal connections between momentary mental events in a series. The next concern raised by the Hindu opponents is: How can we make sense of agents of physical actions and that of knowledge without there being a self? And, the list goes on: cognition, happiness, and pain are qualities had by a substratum—what is the substratum of these qualities? Who is the referent of the notion of ‘I’? Who is the one who is happy or unhappy; and, finally, who is the agent of karma and the enjoyer of the results of karma? Vasubandhu’s strategy is to respond to each of these concerns by giving an alternative explanation of the phenomena at issue by appeal to nothing but ultimately real momentary events and the relations of cause and effect combined with conventional practices or the way we talk about these phenomena. So, for example, the need to postulate an agent for bodily actions like eating, bathing, walking, etc., is explained in the following manner. We do not need a self as the agent of an action of the body, since we cannot infer it as a cause. A self contributes nothing to the arising of an action, for the desire to eat, say a mango, arises from a memory of enjoying a mango in the past, from this desire arises a consideration as to how to satisfy this desire, and from this consideration arises an intention to move the body for the sake of satisfying the desire and then from this movement, say of the hand to acquire and cut a mango, which finally leads to the action of eating a mango. There is no need to invoke the self as an agent at any point in this explanation. For the Abhidharma Buddhist the self is an ontological dangler without a causal role or an explanation. Vasubandhu says that by the very fact that we cannot apprehend the capacity of the self, any more than a capacity of the various chants uttered by a quack doctor when it is established that the effect has been brought about by the use of certain herbs, we must conclude that the hypothesis of the self is problematic. 3. Duerlinger (2003) presents the most detailed reconstruction of Chapter 9 and its arguments. It will become evident that my reading of the text differs from Duerlinger’s. He suggests that the Vasubandhu argument is that we are not selves and that we ultimately exist. I cannot see any reason to attribute such a view to Vasubandhu. © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2017.

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The point of these explanations is not just that there is a better alternative explanation of the phenomena, but that these alternative explanations show there is no need to postulate or infer a self to explain these phenomena. Hence, Vasubandhu concludes that there is no inferential basis for a belief in a self. What can we claim about the notion of the self in the background of the debate with the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣikas? The self, according to Vasubandhu, is not a subject of experiences, nor an owner of memory and other cognitive states, nor even an agent of actions in the sense that the subjects, owners, and agents are separate from and over and above the cognitive states themselves. And there is no permanent or at least persisting self required to explain phenomena like memory and karmic causality. Furthermore, Vasubandhu also denies the need to postulate a self as the substratum of qualities. All these phenomena which are regarded by the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣikas as inferential marks of the self can be explained without postulating a self. Vasubandhu argues if, as the NyāyaVaiśeṣikas claim, the self they are talking about is separate from and causally independent of the series of mental and physical states, then such a self is causally ineffacious and thus cannot explain anything. There is no need to posit such a self. I will not evaluate the success of Vasubandhu’s argument at this stage. I am well aware of many concerns that arise in the mind of the reader about the outright dismissal of the minimal self as a serious candidate for the self, the suspected incoherence in explicit denial of the need for an owner of experiences or agent of actions, the adequacy of the explanation of memory, and so on. For now, we will assume that there is good reason to think that a relatively permanent self which is distinct from and independent of the aggregates of mental and physical states does not exist. 2. Contemporary Reconstructions of the No-Self Theory So far we have discussed the kind of self that is the target of Vasubandhu’s refutation. On this distinctive Abhidharma view the aggregates or the sequential psycho-physical processes supervene on collections of ultimately real momentary atoms (dharmas). Vasubandhu’s interpretation of the Buddhist no-self doctrine is to say that the word ‘self’ is only a designation for the series of aggregates (skandhas) and that selves do not exist apart from the aggregates. No self exists, not even in the minimal sense as an owner of experiences and agent of actions. This strong interpretation of the no-self account is not only counterintuitive but, some might say, indefensible. In response to this some contemporary scholars © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2017.


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offer a weak version of Buddhist no-self account which incorporates elements of Abhidharma and Mādhyamika philosophies. My aim here is not to defend the Abhidharma no-self view, but only to present it as the backdrop for the Abhidharma account of mind. In this section I analyse two such attempts by contemporary philosophers who weaken the no-self account in a bid to show that we can retreive a minimal notion of self from the Buddhist account. After all the self has important work to do in our ordinary conceptual scheme. However, to reconstruct a self from the scraps of the no-self view is to, I think, misunderstand the strategy employed by Vasubandhu. So, I am not even going to try to reconstruct a minimal self. Rather, I will concentrate on showing why contemporary reconstructions of the Buddhist no-self view are not an adequate representation of the Abhidharma-Buddhist view. Some contemporary Buddhist philosophers, for example, Ganeri (2007) and Thompson (2014), are inclined to argue that to say that the self is not ultimately real is not to say that the self is an illusion. Ganeri, for example, says that persons are conventionally real or ‘real with reference to conception’ and should not be considered as an illusion. Person-involving conceptual schemes are subject-specific or interestspecific; they are positional observations, but not for that reason subjective illusions (2007: 173). They are ways of thinking about the real; they are not false but they are imperfect. The self, insofar as it is a construction, just like pots and tables, is not an illusion. Persons, in this sense, are not natural kinds, but they are not for that reason not real; they are artificial kinds. The person-involving conceptual schemes are artificially constructed; persons are real in the sense in which the European Union is real. But the construction of the European Union is imperfect; we could do better. So too it is with persons and selves. According to the Buddhists, the conceptual schemes containing persons and selves are morally and intellectually inadequate. These schemes are ways of thinking about the world as organised into persons, divided into me, you, ours, and others. There are no such strict divisions and boundaries at the level of reality. And furthermore there is no reason to endorse such a division; it only leads to suffering. The Abhidharma view, and the Buddhist view more generally, is not that the self is an illusion but that it is a delusion that needs to be deconstructed, as we are better off without it.4 If we are 4. The terms illusion and delusion are sometimes used interchangeably. However, they do have strict definitions in psychiatry, in the light of which I suggest the following distinction: Illusions are false perceptions of a real external stimulus, for example, the Müller-Lyer illusion. In contrast, delusions are abnormalities of thought rather than perception (although they may develop from the latter) and are defined as ‘fixed false beliefs, strongly held and immutable in the face of refuting evidence, that are not consonant with the person’s education, social and cultural background’, for example, delusions of grandeur. © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2017.

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able to get rid of this delusion we will reduce suffering, the overarching aim of Buddhist philosophy. Ganeri offers a philosophical reconstruction of the Buddhist no-self account by unearthing a constructive analysis of self offered by Vasubandhu in his later Abhidharma-Yogācāra incarnation, while rejecting their view that the self is an illusion, error, or fiction (Ganeri 2012: 147). 5 Ganeri sets out to defend a version of what he calls the ‘ownership view’ of the self and argues that Vasubandhu gives a constructive analysis of the so-called immersed self which is a component of the ownership view. This seems odd; at the very least it is in conflict with Vasubandhu’s noownership view as presented in Section 1. To understand what is going on here we must unpack the notion of ownership at play in this discussion. It will be useful to examine the Naiyāyikas’ objection and Vasubandhu’s response as stated in the Abhidharmakośa-bhāsya: If a self does not exist, [they ask] who remembers? [They claim that] What is meant by [saying that someone] ‘remembers’ is [that an agent] ‘grasps an object [of perception] with [the help of] a memory [of the object]’. But is [an agent] grasping an object [in this case] anything other than [the occurrence of] a memory [in a continuum of consciousnesses? Surely, it is not. No separate act of grasping is required, and consequently no self as the agent of this act is required, to explain the occurrence of a memory of an object. If they ask] what produces the memory [of the object if there is no self, we reply that] the producer of the memory, as we have [already] said, is the special kind of mental state that causes a memory. Although we say Caitra remembers, we say this because we perceive a memory that occurs in the continuum [of aggregates] we call Caitra. If the self does not exist, [they ask] whose is the memory? [They say that] the meaning of the use of the possessive case [indicated by the use of ‘whose’] is ownership. It is the owner of a memory in the way that Caitra owns a cow. [In their view] a cow cannot be used for milking or for carrying anything and so on unless it is so owned, [and in the same way a memory cannot be directed at an object unless it is so owned]… [In your example] what is called ‘Caitra’ is called the owner of the a cow because we are aware of a single continuum of a collection of [phenomena] causally conditioning [other] phenomena [within the same continuum] and assume a causal connection [of phenomena within this continuum] to the occurrence of changes of place of, and alterations in, [the continuum of the collection of phenomena we call] a cow. But there is no one thing called Caitra or a cow. Therefore, there is, [even in the Tīrthikas’ example] no relation between the owner and what it owns other than that between a cause and its effect. (Duerlinger 2003: 97-88, translation of Section 4 of the ‘Refutation of a Theory of the Self’) 5. It is important to emphasise that the purpose of the disjunction is to note that there is disagreement among the Buddhist traditions as to whether the self is an illusion or error or fiction. I am not sure whether Ganeri mentions delusion in this context; perhaps it is already included under the umbrella term fiction. But I think it useful to be explicit about it. © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2017.


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The objection raised by the Naiyāyikas is that the Buddhist account cannot explain facts about ownership, specifically the idea that we own our experiences, memories, and so on. Ownership, for the Naiyāyikas, consists in the capacity of the object to be used as one wishes (yatheṣṭhaviniyogayojyatva) (Ganeri 2007: 176). Vasubandhu’s reply is to say that the fact about ownership can be reduced to causal facts: there is no relation between the owner and the owned over and above that between a cause and its effect. Notice, however, that ownership in the Nyāya is spelt out in terms of dispositional properties: a capacity, right, or entitlement. Ganeri complains that Vasubandhu’s reductionist account in terms of causal relations cannot make sense of these dispositional properties, nor can it easily explain the disanalogy between ownership of experiences and ownership of property (2007: 177). I can transfer my property but I cannot transfer my experiences. There is reason to doubt whether the Nyāya analysis of ownership is right. We must ask the question whether the self as the owner really has the capacity to control one’s experiences according to one’s wishes? There is evidence to think otherwise. Empirical research shows that we spend 30–50% or our conscious waking lives mind wandering (Kane et al. 2007; Killingsworth and Gilbert 2010; Schooler et al. 2011) which involves an unnoticed loss of mental control and epistemic agency. This is to say, on average we spend 6 or more hours of our waking time not really having conscious control of our mental experiences. The Buddhist also believes that we do not have much control over our bodily experiences. For, as Buddha himself points out in the Saṃyutta Nikāya 3.67 ‘…it is not possible to say, “Let my body be like this, let my body not be like this”’ (trans. Gethin 1998: 136). Furthermore, Ganeri’s scepticism concerning the analysis of a capacity in terms of causal facts stems from the concern that a capacity can go unexercised, so there may be no causal connections corresponding to it. But this scepticism is misplaced, the concepts causation and dispositions often appear together in philosophical and experiential contexts. More importantly, the analysis of both causal concepts and dispositional concepts in terms of counterfactual conditionals has been the favoured philosophical analysis for the last two decades (Lewis 1973, 1997; Mumford 1998). Ganeri’s other concern about the lack of transferability of experiences is reminiscent of Strawson’s attack on the no-ownership view. Ganeri (2007) is right to point out that Vasubandhu’s denial of the self as the subject and owner of experiences is prone to the charge of incoherence. Peter F. Strawson (1959: 95-98) famously dismissed the ‘noownership’ view, ascribed tentatively to Wittgenstein and Schlick, as incoherent. Wittgenstein urges against the use of the personal pronoun ‘I’ © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2017.

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(or ‘my’) as subject of private, immediate experiences as in ‘I can see a red patch’ since it misleads us into thinking that that one owns or has the experiences to which we refer using ‘I’. The no-ownership theorist claims that experiences do not belong to an owner or a subject of experience. Strawson’s argument for incoherence depends on the claim that particular private experiences can only be identified by reference to particular persons. He writes: It [the no-ownership view] is not coherent, in that the one who holds it is forced to make use of that sense of possession of which he denies the existence, in presenting his case for the denial… States, or experiences, one might say, owe their identity as particulars to the identity of the person whose states or experiences they are. (Strawson 1959: 96-97)

Thus, Strawson argues that reference to persons is inevitably involved in the explanation of the illusion of ownership. The illusion of ownership is grounded in the contingent fact that the class of experiences that are mine are those that are causally dependent on a particular body. But that fact, Strawson claims, cannot be stated without reference to ‘my’ or any other expression that has a similar possessive force. The no-ownership theorist calls into question the idea of possession, which is the defining characteristic of this class of experiences: they are ‘mine’, or ‘my experiences’ or ‘experiences of some person’. Ganeri (2012: 73) argues that in the absence of the referent of ‘I’ Vasubandhu’s model has the resources to sidestep Strawson’s incoherence challenge against the no-ownership view. The no-ownership theorist need not deny that a sense of ownership accompanies experience. In his later Yogācāra phase, Vasubandhu posits the notion of afflictive mind (kliśṭa-manas) or simply mind (manas) as an aspect of experience that presents my experiences to me as mine in a more basic, preattentive, and nonidentifying way. My thoughts, emotions, feelings, sensations are presented to me as mine. This sense of mineness is based on introspective attention which requires picking out a given thought or experience and identifying it as one’s own. In addition, in this model the basic or storehouse consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna) is a neutral, baseline consciousness that serves as a repository of all basic habits, tendencies, and karmic latencies accumulated by the individual, providing some degree of continuity to momentary mental states. This basic consciousness is misapprehended by means of a conceptual transformation as a self (Dreyfus and Thompson 2007: 97). The afflictive mind is responsible for generating a sense of self which is articulated in ‘I-Me-Mine’. But these I-thoughts and I-statements, as we saw above, are necessarily mistaken because they involve a transition from being aware of oneself as being in a certain mental state to explicitly formulating the thought that one is, and asserting © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2017.


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that one is. Vasubandhu’s model claims that this transformation is based on conceptual fabrication and thus cannot justify our use of the language of self. The term ‘I’ is only a metaphor used to designate a supposed referent that does not really exist. Ganeri uses these Buddhist ideas to construct what he calls an ‘immersed self’ while rejecting their so called error-theory. The immersed self is nothing more than the phenomenology of the first person or simply the presented mineness of experience. But can this account really sidestep Strawson’s challenge? Ganeri makes different claims about ownership, which, although not contradictory, make competing demands on what qualifies as an owner of experiences or mental states. On a first reading, the immersed self or mind (manas) qualifies as the owner in that the sense of ownership comes with the phenomenal marking of an experience as ‘mine’ (Ganeri 2012: 8). On a second reading, ownership demands much more: For a state to be owned is precisely for it to engage the whole of one’s being through its potential to make normative demands on any other owned state. It is the defining feature of a first-person stance that one occupies and endorses one’s states of mind and is not merely a spectator of them,… The best argument for there being subjects of consciousness is that if one’s experience, intentions, preferences and values are to bear rationally on one another they must stand in a relationship of common ownership and not merely one of common causation. (Ganeri 2012: 12-13)

On this second reading owning a state t requires a synchronically and diachronically unified subject of consciousness, an engagement of whole being, and this requires a much thicker conception of subject or owner of experiences than the Buddhist mind (manas) has the resources to provide. Ganeri recognises this; he is not claiming that Vasubandhu’s mind can do the work of subject of consciousness in this rich sense. But he is mistaken insofar as he thinks that the Buddhist view has the resources to sidestep Strawson’s challenge. Strawson’s requirement demands the rich reading of ownership outlined above. Strawson says ‘our desires and preferences are not, in general, something we just note in ourselves as alien presences. To a large extent they are we’ (1992: 134). My beliefs, desires, and expectations are owned by me in this sense not only because they present themselves to me as mine but they also demand participation and commitment of my whole being, in all its rational, conscious, unconscious, and bodily dimensions. Ganeri’s talk about ‘whole being’ suggests a diachronically extended unified entity, a subject of experience which would clearly be rejected by the Buddhist. This notion of subject of experience is well-suited to play the role of owner of experience and meet the rational demands imposed by ownership and thus is well-placed to play the role of the self. The first reading of owner as the immersed self or © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2017.

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mind (manas) cannot, as Ganeri would agree, do the work of the self, by itself. It needs to be enriched with the notion of a participant self that is not an owner of one’s mental states in the sense of being a mere spectator, but in that one endorses these states as one’s own and thus is committed to be rationally governed and non-rationally motivated to use them as normative constraints on action. Something that can do the work of the participant self in this sense must be synchronically and diachronically unified to meet the above-mentioned demands. Furthermore, Ganeri adds that the notions of participation, immersion, and coordination find joint articulation in the idea of self (2012: 303). This idea of self is much closer to the Nyāya notion and should not be imposed on the Buddhist notion of manas. The Abhidharma Buddhist notion of mind (manas) lasting for no more than a moment, like everything else in the Abhidharma universe, does not deserve to be called a self, immersed or not. Ganeri is perhaps right to claim that the Buddhist analysis can be thought of as having logically and conceptually independent components: the constructive analysis of mind and the error theory (2012: 163). However, to say that they offer a constructive analysis or a descriptive metaphysics of the immersed self is misleading because it distorts the Abhidharma Buddhist motivation and their overall project. Ganeri claims that: The Buddhist aim is not merely to reject some given historical theory of self in the Indian discussion but to diagnose what they take to be a deep mistake in our conceptual scheme. It is incumbent upon them, therefore, to provide an accurate descriptive metaphysics of the self. (2012: 164)

The Abhidharma aim is indeed to correct the human tendency to seek a self, but their aim is not to provide an accurate descriptive metaphysics in the Strawsonian sense of the term (P.F. Strawson 1959: 9). The constructive analysis is the result of the Abhidharma enterprise of providing an account of the phenomenology of experiences in the absence of the self. The so-called constructive is best conceived of as a part of the Abhidharma model of mind. The storehouse consciousness (ālayavijñāna) and afflictive mind (kliśṭa-manas) are introduced as two distinct consciousnesses over and above the six kinds of consciousnesses found in the Abhidharma literature. Furthermore, Abhidharma and Buddhists are more generally are not interested in describing the structure of our actual thought about the world, their project is more aptly described as ‘revisionary metaphysics’. That is to say, their major concern is to produce a better structure, a structure that lacks a self. The stated aim of the Abhidharma is to give a systematic account of conscious experiences and of the world by analysing it into its basic constituents—the mental and physical phenomena are ultimately reduced to momentary mental © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2017.


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and physical dharmas. The Abhidharma metaphysics, in particular Vasubandhu’s Sautrāntika version, is shaped by a radical construal of impermanence as momentariness. The Sautrāntika-Yogācāra present a picture of the world in which the only ultimately real things that exist are the momentary, impartite atoms (dharmas). Abhidharma espouses a naturalistic explanation of the world and the mind in terms dharmas as the fundamental constituents of the phenomenal world. The analysis of the phenomenal world is terms of dharmas and the discernment of the nature of dharmas is not the result of a priori conceptual analysis, but is available in experience, albeit a special kind of experience had by expert meditators. Buddhist meditation training is aimed at an errorless insight into reality: ‘seeing things as they really are’. The idea is not to offer an inventory of all existing dharmas in their totality, but rather to recognise that they have ‘a dual soteriological purpose involving two simultaneous processes’ (Cox 2004: 551). First, the dharma typology maps out the constituents and workings of the mind to account for conscious experiences. The idea is that this practice enables us to see dharmas as dharmas. In this context, Gethin writes that meditation ‘involves watching how they arise and disappear, how the particular qualities that one wants to abandon can be abandoned, and how the particular qualities that one wants to develop can be developed. Watching dhammas in this way one begins to understand […] certain truths (sacca)—four to be exact—about these dhammas: their relation to suffering, its arising, its ceasing and the way to its ceasing’ (2004: 536). The second soteriological purpose served by the categorisation of dharmas reveals the fundamental Buddhist teaching of no-self. Vasubandhu writes, ‘[p]laced in the foundations of mindfulness having the dharmas as its universal object, he sees that the dharmas are impermanent, suffering, empty, and not-self. The detailed enumerations of dharmas demonstrate that no essence or self could be found in any dharmas since they are momentary. Even the handful of dharmas that are categorised as unconditioned (that is, having no cause and no effect) are shown to be not-self. The practice of the meditation involves discernment of dharmas which undermines the conception of the world and objects in it, including persons or selves or even experiences as continuing entities. Gethin notes ‘Try to grasp the world…and it runs through one’s fingers’ (1992: 165, emphasis in original). The revisionary metaphysics of momentariness supported by the insight achieved by expert meditators supports a strong interpretation of the no-self view. Thus, I think it is a mistake to think of the Abhidharma as presenting a constructive analysis of the immersed self.

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In another recent analysis, Thompson (2014: 358-60) offers a reconstruction of the Buddhist no-self, according to which the no-self doctrine is the denial of a substantial, independently existing thing, but not of the minimal sense of self that is the subject of experiences and agent of actions. Thompson agrees with the Abhidharma-Yogācāra that our sense of self is mentally constructed but does not think it follows that the self is nothing but an illusion, since all illusions are constructions but not vice versa. The minimal notion of self which involves thinking or experiencing of the stream of consciousness as ‘mine’ is not a delusion (2014: 359). Thompson explains that this mistaken interpretation is a result of assuming that the term ‘I’ essentially refers to a substantial self. However, this is a mistake. He explains that a minimal notion of self as a subject of experience and an agent of action can provide a legitimate and valuable notion of self. Legitimate because it allows us to experience ourselves as neither the same as nor different from the stream of consciousness and valuable because it allows us to individuate my experiences and actions as belonging to me as subject and agent without thinking of oneself as a substantial entity (2014: 361). Furthermore, in his defence of the minimal notion of self, Thompson appeals to the Mādhyamika view, rather than restricting himself to the Abhidharma position. The second reason offered in support of the minimal self is that the function of the term ‘I’ is not to refer. Rather, following the Mādhyamika philosopher Candrakīrti the term ‘I’ serves an appropriative function. The appropriation is to be thought of as an activity of laying claim to rather than asserting ownership of experiences and thoughts within one’s conscious stream. One individuates oneself as a subject of experience and agent of action by laying claim to thoughts, emotions and feelings—as well as commitments and social practices—and thereby enacts a self that is no different from the self-appropriating activity itself. Again, the self isn’t an object or a thing; it’s a process—the process of ‘I-ing’ or ongoing self-appropriating activity. (Thompson 2014: 363)

Thompson’s rich notion of the self as the subject of experiences and the agent of actions may well be an intuitively acceptable notion of self as process, but it is certainly not an Abhidharma notion of self. The reason why such a notion of self will be unacceptable to the AbhidharmaBuddhist philosophers is because the notion of a minimal self as a subject and an agent presupposes a diachronically extended unified self. As we saw earlier, the requirement that the self must be diachronically extended and unified is necessitated by the talk of commitments incurred by the agent, in this case the participant self, in Ganeri’s terms. Thompson (2014) does not talk explicitly about the temporal extension of the minimal self, but it is quite clear that continuity and temporal width is © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2017.


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built into the very Husserlian inspired idea of conscious experiences and consciousness developed by Thompson. Furthermore, the claim that autopoiesis (or self-production) is a necessary precondition for experience leads to the idea that the phenomenology of bodily experience is constitutively linked to ordinary experience, emphasising that there is a deep continuity of life and mind, and an embodied and enactive approach to cognition and mind (Thompson 2007: 232). This embodied and enactive approach brings in the idea of unity and continuity of mental states and mental life and also makes agency central to the idea of mind. The ideas of unity and continuity are in conflict with Abhidharma Buddhist metaphysics of conscious experience, according to which consciousness is really discontinuous and momentary, rather than a continuous flow. It is important to note here that the process of ‘I-making’ is thought to be afflicted and erroneous because it takes the storehouse consciousness which is itself a momentary series of conscious moments and transforms it into a permanent self. A good deserver of the name ‘self’ brings in the idea of continuity and at least some temporal width. But it is for this reason that any notion of self must be rejected by the Abhidharma. Thompson may simply say he is not defending an Abhidharma view, and that his aim is eventually to defend a weakened version which is closer to the Mādhyamika account of no-self. I think here too Thompson is mistaken that the Mādhyamika philosopher Candrakīrti will endorse his view because clearly all Buddhists think that self is a delusion. But that argument is not my concern here. I have argued that Abhidharma rejection of self as the owner of experiences and agent actions is underwritten by their denial of any entities that exist over time. As we saw in Section 1, Vasubandhu denies the need to postulate the self as the owner of experiences and the agent of actions. The causal connections among a series of mental states are adequate to explain mental and physical experiences and actions. The Buddhist concern is that the sense of self as the agent of actions creates an illusion of a diachronically unified self that has control over experiences and actions. This idea of an owner of experiences and agent of actions suggests that the self is the boss in charge of the mind–body complex (Dreyfus 2010: 137). Such a conception of self is not only denied in the Abhidharma texts, as we saw in Section 1, but also in the Nikāyas. For example: Body is not a self. If body were a self then it might be that it would not lead to sickness; then it might be possible to say, ‘Let my body be like this, let my body not be like this’. But since body is not a self, so it leads to sickness, and it is not possible to say, ‘Let my body be like this, let my body not be like this’. (Saṃyutta Nikāya 3.66–67, trans. Gethin 1998: 136)

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Chadha The Abhidharma Version of No-Self Theory


This argument from the lack of control over bodily states points to an illusory sense of self defined as being the owner of the aggregates and an agent in charge of the aggregates. But such a sense of self, the Buddhist argues is an illusion because it depends on the diachronically unified and bounded nature of the self which is separate from the rest of the world. This deluded sense of ownership and of agency insofar as it is based on an egocentric view of the world with a special referent for ‘I’ over and above the psychological and physical processes is not a faithful representation of how things really are according to our Abhidharma-Buddhist philosophers. Insofar as notion of minimal self is explicated in terms of ownership of bodily and mental states and agent in control of actions, according to our Abhidharma-Buddhists, there is no such thing. References Albahari, Miri 2006 Analytical Buddhism: The Two-Tiered Illusion of Self. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke and New York. Doi: 9780230800540. Blanke, Olaf, and Thomas Metzinger 2009 Full-body Illusions and Minimal Phenomenal Selfhood. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 13: 7-13. Doi: 10.003. Chadha, Monima 2015 Time-Series of Ephemeral Impressions: The Abhidharma-Buddhist View of Conscious Experience. Phenomenology and Cognitive Sciences 14(3): 543-60. Cox, Collett 2004 From Category to Ontology: The Changing Role of Dharma in Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma. Journal of Indian Philosophy 32: 543-97. Doi: Damasio, Antonio 2012 Self Comes to Mind. Vintage Books, New York. Dreyfus, Georges 2010 Self and Subjectivity: A Middle Way Approach. In Self vs. No-Self, edited by Mark Siderits, Evan Thompson, and Dan Zahavi, 114-56. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Doi: oso/9780199593804.003.0005. Dreyfus, Georges, and Evan Thompson 2007 Asian Perspectives: Indian Theories of Mind. In The Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness, edited by Philip David Zelazo, Morris Moscovitch and Evan Thompson, 89-114. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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Duerlinger, James 2003 Indian Buddhist Theories of Persons: Vasubandhu’s Refutation of the Theory of a Self. RoutledgeCurzon, London. Gallagher, Shaun 2000 Philosophical Conceptions of the Self: Implications for Cognitive Science. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 4(1): 14-21. Doi: 10.1016/S1364-6613(99)01417-5. Ganeri, Jonardon 2007 The Concealed Art of the Soul. Oxford University Press, New York. Doi: 2012 The Self: Naturalism, Consciousness and the First-person Stance. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Garfield, Jay L. 2015 Engaging Buddhism: Why It Matters to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, New York. Doi: 9780190204334.001.0001. Gethin, Rupert 1992 The mātikās: Memorization, Mindfulness, and the List. In In the Mirror of Memory: Reflections on Mindfulness and Remembrance in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, edited by J. Gyatso, 149-72. SUNY Press, New York. 1998 The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York. 2004 He Who Sees Dhamma Sees Dhammas: Dhamma in Early Buddhism. Journal of Indian Philosophy 32: 513-42. Gold, Johnathon 2014 Paving the Great Way: Vasubandhu’s Unifying Buddhist Philosophy. Columbia University Press, New York. Jha, Ganganatha (trans.) 1984 The Nyāya-sūtras of Gautama with the Bhāṣya of Vātsyāyana and the Vārttika of Uddyotakara. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi. Kane, M.J., L.H. Brown, J.C. McVay, P.J. Silvia, I. Myin-Germeys, and T.R. Kwapil 2007 For Whom the Mind Wanders, and When: An Experience-sampling Study of Working Memory and Executive Control in Daily Life. Psychol. Sci. 18: 614-21. Doi: Killingsworth, Matthew A., and Daniel T. Gilbert 2010 A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind. Science 330: 932. Doi: Lewis, David 1973 Causation. Journal of Philosophy 70: 556-67. 1995 Should a Materialist Believe in Qualia? Australasian Journal of Philosophy 73: 140-44. 1997 Finkish Dispositions. Philosophical Quarterly 47: 143-58.

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Mumford, Stephen 1998 Dispositions. Clarendon Press, Oxford. Neisser, Ulric 1988 Five Kinds of Self Knowledge. Philosophical Psychology 1: 35-59. Doi: Peacocke, Christopher 1999 Being Known. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Doi: 10.1093/0198238606.001.0001. Pruden, Leo 1988 Abhidharmakośabhāyam. English translation of Poussin, Louis de la Vallée (1923–1931[1980]), L’Abhidharmakośa de Vasubandhu. 6 vols. Institut Belge des Hautes Études Chinoises, Bruxelles. Asian Humanities Press, Berkeley. Schooler, J.W., J. Smallwood, K. Christoff, T.C. Handy, E.D. Reichle, and M.A. Sayette 2011 Meta-awareness, Perceptual Decoupling and the Wandering Mind. Trends Cogn. Sci. 15: 319-26. Doi: 05.006. Strawson, Galen 1999 The Self. In Models of the Self, edited by S. Gallagher and J. Shear, 124. Academic Imprint, Exeter. 2003 What Is the Relation Between an Experience, the Subject of an Experience, and the Content of the Experience? Philosophical Issues 13: 279315. Strawson, Peter F. 1959 Individuals. Methuen, London. 1992 Analysis and Metaphysics. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Thompson, Evan 2014 Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy. Columbia University Press, New York. Doi: Zahavi Dan 2005 Subjectivity and Selfhood: Investigating the First-person Perspective. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. 2011 The Experiential Self: Objections and Clarifications. In Self, No Self? Perspectives from Analytical, Phenomenological, and Indian Traditions. Edited by M. Siderits, E. Thompson, and D. Zahavi. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 56-78. 2012 The Time of the Self. Grazer Philosophische Studien 84: 143-59.

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