The empty ego in Buddhism as a promise of happiness

An alternative understanding to the occidental tradition

Author: Karl-Heinz Brodbeck
The idea that there is nothing permanent in the world and that everything is destined to change and transience has always pained man. From this direct experience, Buddhism also draws the radical conclusion that there is neither a permanent ego  – no I – nor an eternal soul, which constitute the essence of man. The author explains why it is precisely the letting go of concepts, including the ego concept, that can lead to happiness.

Perhaps the most alienating concept in Buddhism is the idea that there is no permanent ego, no soul, but also no eternal matter. This idea seems to contradict the entire Western tradition in religion, ethics or philosophy. Whether approving or disapproving, the occidental traditions have a main source in a sentence. This sentence with which the Book of Exodus YHWH answers Moses’ question about the name of God, is: “I am who I am” (3:14). Since this God is later believed to be the source of everything that exists, it can also be said that a divine I is the ground of everything. In a purely philosophical form, Johann Gottlieb Fichte expresses this thought much later. In the philosophy of German idealism, at the end of the 18th century. He attempted to derive an entire philosophical system from the ego.


In Fichte’s succession up to the philosophy of the present, the question of the ego, of the self as the core of a person, remained controversial in many ways. While some neuroscientists completely deny the existence of an I and a consciousness in humans – only anonymous brain processes are real -, philosophers and scientists can be found again and again, who almost dogmatically presuppose an I. Even in the so sobering philosophy of Fichtner, the question of the self as the core of a person has remained controversial. Even in the sober economic science one of its modern representatives says: “The I is the unity of the acting human being. It is unquestionably given and cannot be dissolved by any thinking.”

Obviously, the philosophy of René Descartes echoes here, who searched for an indubitable beginning of thinking and found that the thinking I itself represents this indubitable beginning: Ego cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). The I as the core of the individual mind faces a material multiplicity without mediation. The world seems to be dual and consists of two substances: Spirit and Matter.

If one looks at this Cartesian philosophy founding the modern thinking, the Buddhist conception of the not-ego (anatta) seems incomprehensible:

Surely no one can doubt himself while he doubts, that is, thinks?

But the matter is not quite so simple. One may be certain of one’s current thinking, but it still changes or sleeps at night. A permanent I does not show up here.


So what is consciousness? In Buddhist philosophy there are certain analogous elements with regard to the Western development. But it would be a mistake in thinking to simply translate the terms used there by ours. The word “consciousness” was first introduced into the German language by Christian Wolff in his book “Vernünftige Gedanken von Gott, der Welt und der Seele des Menschen” (1717).

The two terms used in Buddhism, vijnana and citta, are much older. They can be found in surviving scriptures from the beginning. They also have a recognizably different meaning. In the oldest Buddhist doctrinal poetry, the Dhammapada, the first sentence reads: “Things are preceded by mind.” One might be inclined to understand this sentence in terms of Hegel’s philosophy. Which interpreted the world as the self-development of an absolute spirit. On the other hand, the Buddha emphatically states:”Have I not many times declared that consciousness arises conditionally, that no consciousness can arise without cause?” (MN 38) The Buddha grew up in an environment for which, as in medieval Europe, it was natural to say: everything was created by a God (Brahman) and is maintained in being by him.

But if this Brahman, the Buddha asked, was good, “why doesn’t the so-shaken divided world put God Brahma in order?”
(Jataka 543)

The Buddha’s teaching thus begins with a thought that has also moved the theistic traditions many times. This discussion wears the title “theodicy”. How is it possible that a good Creator of all things would allow so much suffering? The Buddha simply turned this question around in view of experience:

Apparently, suffering is a fact, even a surefire fact.


The Buddha, on the other hand, emphasized each one’s own experience and rejected the existence of such an Atman.

He said that in the consciousness, if one observes it, nothing permanent can be discovered, no soul substance that everyone “is”. It reveals endlessly transient sense impressions, thoughts and feelings. His disciples later refined this insight in the psychological doctrine of Abhidharma. It is a kind of catalog of various states of mind, each associates with certain emotions and a moral evaluation, which practitioners systematically practice in meditation. The number of these states of mind varies between schools. It is primarily a practical matter of meditation, of expediency. In the Abhidharma-samuccaya of Asanga, used in Tibet, there are 51 mind factors. That which can be observed in quiet abiding in one’s own consciousness is ceaseless change. But because we consciously hold on to things or people when they make us happy, we experience the truth of all these phenomena – their endless change – as suffering.

There is no duration here. Nevertheless, we incessantly try to hold on to something. This happens predominantly by the fact that we grasp everything by Be-grips (thus by language). But even without language we know the holding on. It is a partly unconscious desire for duration and stability; it already characterizes small children, but also animals, which “bite down” as it were.

The longing for duration and permanence is disgraced again and again by the experience of transience.

This applies to experiences as well as to external things. If one observes all this exactly for a longer time, meditates on it, one comes to the deplorable realization:

There is no permanent self in us, no Atman, to which one could refer one’s own experiences as a basis.


Das leere Ich im Buddhismus als Glücksversprechen


How does the Buddhist view relate to this Western discussion? Here I have to differentiate a bit more precisely. There is, as already said, not only one view in Buddhism, but in its turn many schools. The only way to avoid total confusion here is to examine what questions these schools have asked and answered. In fact, within Buddhism about consciousness, world and ego quite contentious discussions arose. The first question is about liberation. The meditative practice, whatever the method, supposedly lead eventually to the final liberation from suffering. To a state called “Nirvana”.

But how can one imagine that from the dynamics of consciousness, the five Skandhas (= Samsara) something like a Nirvana could result as a silent, satisfied, even blissful state? How can the absolute (nirvana) emerge at all from the relative (samsara)? How can something that is not, suddenly become or be something? Parmenides had already asked himself this question and answered: Being cannot touch nothingness and therefore cannot emerge from it (creatio ex nihilo). Consequently, no gap, no nothing can arise or remain between the many being. But since movement always means the annihilation of an earlier state, there can actually be no movement, no time. Heraclitus had answered to it in the exact opposite: There is only movement at all; rest is an illusion.


About the author

Unser Autor Karl-Heinz BrodbeckDr. Karl-Heinz Brodbeck, professor emeritus of economics, statistics and creativity techniques at the University of Applied Sciences Würzburg-Schweinfurt. Author of numerous books on philosophy, Buddhism, economics and creativity. Buddhist practitioner for over 40 years.

Homepage: https://khbrodbeck.de/





This article appeared originally on the German Homepage of Tattva Viveka: Das leere ich im Buddhismus als Glücksversprechen

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