Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Repair of Anatta

With permanence postscript.

In Buddhism, the term anattā (Pali: अनत्ता) or anātman (Sanskrit: अनात्मन्) refers to the doctrine of "non-self" – that no unchanging, permanent self or essence can be found in any phenomenon.[note 1] While often interpreted as a doctrine denying the existence of a self, anatman is more accurately described as a strategy to attain non-attachment by recognizing everything as impermanent, while staying silent on the ultimate existence of an unchanging essence.

The issue is Siddhartha wrote in Sanskrit, and I'm reading in English. I don't exactly trust La Wik to understand nuances. 

However, at least regarding Western interpretations of anatta, it's suicide for the squeamish. Too much of a pussy to drag a knife down your arm? That's cool: meditate on destroying your ego until you don't have a soul anymore and become a zombie. That's dumb, let's fix it.

1: no fixed essence.
Impermanence is very real (although it’s a blessing, not a curse). We have a nature, as do all other entities and events. Everything has a list of properties which describe it; the least-redundant form of such a list is its essence. E.g. maybe a rock is a collection of misaligned silica crystals, and likewise we can describe what silica is. However, it changes constantly. You can’t step into the same river twice, as they say – you can’t even be the same person who stepped in the river the first time, never mind the river itself.
More, I prefer to describe everything as an event. Stable "objects" are merely events that tend to cause themselves to re-occur. They are events that re-create themselves, which re-creation re-creates itself again. A door right now causes a door to be in the doorway in the next second, which causes a door to be there in the third second, and so on. By contrast a fire doesn't cause the same fire to re-appear.

Yet more: to write out the full list of an event's properties (even if you have the immortal capacity to not die before you finish) means writing out the list of properties of the entire universe. There are no hard boundaries; all is one (although the Dao looks like two everywhere). To fully describe an event means describing the things it is currently interacting with, which means describing what they, in turn, are interacting with, and then you end up having to describe literally everything, the alpha and the omega. Luckily full understanding is not necessary to get on with it; a distinctly impoverished list of properties can get you like 99% of the way there.


2: physics, as an objective, external world, is somewhat illusionary.
It is in fact not external – treating it as external is something like a shorthand or a compression. It’s close enough that it works, but if you truly want to understand, you have to realize the physical world you see is, to summarize for brevity, just you, but again. It’s me over here, and it’s me over there too. 

What we perceive as the "external" world are in fact our internal noumena which we don't have willful control over. The blue cube "out there" is in fact your thought/perception of a blue cube, and thoughts are inside. What makes the thought fixed is that it's [our] thought instead of purely [your] thought; you can't change my mind, just as I can't change yours, so if we both have a thing in mind at the same time, neither of us can change it. The "external" world isn't outside, it's merely shared. 

Note that this is more or less my repair of Descartes' proof of God. Minds actually can't share; that's the nature of subjectivity. Unless, that is, they are in fact both part of a greater mind. An overmind, if you will, which is imagining two minds that perceive themselves as separate. Also, imagining a world so vividly and consistently that we can't tell the difference between that consistency and lawful physics. 

3: even Easterners say they have no "real" ego any more than, say, Lara Croft has a "real" ego. I would say Lara Croft really does exist, rather than that I don’t exist, except that Lara Croft is distinctly less complicated than I am. 

Lara suffers* a lot more from impermanence. I can’t be switched off at the push of a button, and if I am switched off, I can’t be easily switched back on either. My complexity comes with inertia, you might say. As a result, stuff done to me (or by me) is much more lasting than stuff done to Croft. This, however, is a difference of degree, not a difference in kind.
*the joke is impermanence is not suffering 

Likewise, it's not that dreams aren't "real" exactly. Rather, dreams have bonus impermanence. The long term is truncated, 0) making the short term much more valuable by comparison and 1) meaning the total value of events in a dream much, much lower. We don't much care what happens in dreams because, ultimately, much less happens in dreams. It's not actually 0 events, though.

This is important, because sometimes physical-world events are also highly impermanent, and yet it's easy to treat them as "real" even though they have consequences exactly of the same magnitude as actions in a dream.


The issue is Siddhartha wrote in Sanskrit, and I'm reading in English. Maybe this is exactly what Gautama-sensei meant by anatta. Or maybe he would virulently disagree. Maybe I even missed the point. Hard to tell. It's easy to imagine he would know more about it than I do.

P.S. Mistakes cut off future possibility of virtue. If permanence were real, mistakes would accumulate until they choked out all existence. Impermanence forgives all your mistakes, sooner or later. The price of this forgiveness is having to re-up your good decisions periodically. 

Try to remember that if it feels bad to re-up a particular good decision, you need to start doing accounting. Most likely the event's impermanence is too high and it's not worth doing. The problem isn't impermanence, the problem is you want unprofitable things to be profitable, and Gnon says, "No." 

P.P.S. Sadly the modern world is highly anti-intellectual, so it's unlikely I will ever meet someone a) willing to explain on Siddhartha's behalf & b) not too couch potato to grasp the intended idea. Gotta do your reps unless you want to give me carte blanche to walk all over you, scholastically speaking.


Anonymous said...

I read the quote as being, basically, a call to nihilism.

Let's quote Fred lazily

"Every belief, every considering something-true is necessarily false because there is simply no true world"

“Nihilism is . . . not only the belief that everything deserves to perish; but one actually puts one’s shoulder to the plough; one destroys”

Your quoted paragraph has much the same tone/ spirit as the first.

The second quote is also accurate, too, as you point out in your first comments - it's suicide. If nothing means anything, no point being alive.

There's no fixing it. You need a value structure or you may as well be dead.

(As an aside, I believe that Herman Hesse' intention was to write Siddharta to be a Zarathustra-esque character. )

And so why would the buddhists make this a part of their philosophy? There's the real question.
What easier way to deal with NPC's who ask - why do I suffer - than to convince them that they should let go of everything? Stops them from complaining and causing a ruckus.

Hmm... let's JBP the shit out of this one. Siddharta was a prince, probably he had responsibilities. What better way to avoid them than by adopting the philosophy of nihilism?

Finally, sorry. Promoting nihilism is satanism. "Have no attachments so I can take everything you have".

Example : " anatman is more accurately described as a strategy to attain non-attachment by recognizing everything as impermanent, "

Does someone who achieve this state of being care for property rights?
By definition they will accept any and all abuse, since, its impermanent.

Alrenous said...

Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing to steal.

Ryokan returned and caught him. “You have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.”

The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.

Ryoken sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, “I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon.”

Looking at this in a positive light, yes, I too wish I could give him the beautiful moon.

Realistically the "master" is encouraging thieves, meaning encouraging theft, which means more folk are going to be too poor to relax and realize the moon is actually nifty keen.

As with all Communism, if you take this "virtue" seriously, everyone ends up dead. And not in the "went to nirvana" sense. Corpses don't appreciate the moon either.

While I've extracted some neat Hinduisms from Buddhism, ultimately the latter does nothing but ugly up the place.

"Alrenous, the but-for-real zen master, wished he/she/it could give Ryokan this beautiful honour, responsibility, and property rights."

Anonymous said...


It's like everything. It can all be a virtue or a vice; it's all a balancing act.

Envy can be a motivation for productivity (I want what my neighbour has)

Generosity can bankrupt.

Social shaming can be used to shape or destroy.

In a way, the story above is a terrible indictment on the character of the thief. He was still so attached to gaining "things" that mean nothing he was willing to take the used clothes off the masters back. They could have told it a different way; where the thief "takes" the appreciation of the moon.

Anonymous said...

Ah another thought crossed my mind.

You note in a previous post the peasant view on firearms as strictly negative (its just a device for killing people!).

No nuance.

So, to deconstruct Siddharta a little more, it's like philosophical gun-control.
"Stop wanting things and you'll be happy"

Pretty close to

"stop wanting MY things, they're mine!"

Alrenous said...

Generosity that bankrupts you is ungenerous. If you go bankrupt you can't afford to keep giving; it's a backhand way of rebelling against a exogenous demand to be generous. On the contrary the bankrupt person is now consuming charity, leaving less for the rest of the recipients.

Envy that creates and envy that destroys are strict opposites; that they can even be named with the same word in English is a terrible indictment of English.

Envy that motivates is self-love, and giving face to the glorious.
Envy that destroys says good things are bad; it says "I can never be glorious," which is a form of self-hatred.

Anonymous said...


You already knew the answer. Killing your ego to the point that nothing matters is suicide, just as you said at the start.

Can't fix it.

Regarding words inappropriately having two meanings - yes, this is thought and ultimately behaviour control.

Thoughts are a behaviour.

"I want that, I'm going to work really hard to get it! I'm MOTIVATED!!!"
Oh shit they might terk my jerb
"Oh so you ENVY what someone else has? What a sin!" etc.

Alrenous said...

Same thing with "ambition" and how "power" refers almost exclusively to political power. Rarely even to W = N * d / s.

It used to be normal to say things like "great powers of mathematics" referring to someone whose especially good at arithmetic, but it's okay, they fixed it.