A Feminist Exegesis of Non-Self: On Classical Buddhist Understanding of Personhood and Identity

A Feminist Exegesis of Non-Self: On Classical Buddhist Understanding of Personhood and Identity

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Buddhism and feminism appear to be two very different strains of thought. One originated in ancient Northeast India and the other gained momentum in the modern West. Traditional Buddhist discourses have rarely tended to the issue of gender except in a handful of Mahāyāna scriptures1 whose authenticity is questioned by some Theravādins, while Western feminists often too easily label Buddhism as just another patriarchal religion that is inevitably sexist and oppressive to women. More than twenty years ago, however, Rita M. Gross pointed out three similarities between Buddhism and feminism: both begin with life experiences and stress experiential understanding, both evince the will and courage to go against the grain and see beyond the conventional points of view, and both explore the ways in which habitual and conventional patterns of thinking and behaving operate to block basic well-being of people and cause great suffering.2 A fourth similarity was added some years later: both speak of liberation, albeit the definitions of liberation may seem different.3

Classical Buddhist teachings and recent feminist theories inspired by Foucault and poststructuralism further converge on the constructedness of individuals. One of the most widely known and possibly the most perplexing teachings of Buddhism is the teaching of Non-Self (Pāli: anattā; Sanskrit: anātman), which seems to categorically negate the existence of individual persons and thereby deny the efficacy or necessity of moral actions taken by individual persons. Coincidentally, one of the contemporary feminist theories that draw the most critical attention is the theory of the social constructedness of the subject with its concomitant negation of complete autonomy. Yet Buddhism, especially early Buddhism and Theravāda Buddhism, places much emphasis on self-control and individual moral responsibility, which is reflected in the Buddhist teachings regarding kamma. And contemporary feminist theorists argue the lack of autonomy does not dissolve moral agency. The consonance between these two strains of thought is more than just intellectually stimulating. They provide an exegetical framework as well as a basis of critique for one another. The Buddhist teaching of Non-Self may be easier to comprehend with the assistance of the feminist analysis of the constructedness of gender identity, which has been curiously overlooked in the traditional discourses of Buddhism, a tradition “so dedicated to noticing and reflecting on habitual patterns of conventional ego.”4 The classical Buddhist analysis with regard to the relations between person construction, attachment, identity, and dukkha (Sanskrit: duhkha; unsatisfactoriness, existential anguish, suffering), along with its emphasis on moral discipline and mental training, in return, may provide different perspectives and contribute much to contemporary feminist theories and social practices. This paper expounds the teaching of Non-Self by employing the analysis of the Five Aggregates on the one hand, and the feminist analysis of gender identity and subject formation on the other.

Five Aggregates: The Constitution of Individual “Self”

Buddhism is well known for its radical assertion of anattā, the negation (“an-”) of “attā” (Sanskrit: ātman). With the word “attā” commonly translated as “self” or “soul” in English, this core Buddhist teaching, it seems, reads “No Self” or “No Soul.” The translation of “attā” as “self” or “soul,” though not completely incorrect, is highly misleading. In the ancient Indian usage, “attā” means neither “self” in the sense of an individual person with his/her unique combination of life experiences and characteristics, nor “soul” in the sense of mental-spiritual functioning of an individual person. Anattā thus does not mean that no person exists, or that all beings exist only as bodies with no mental-spiritual dimension left after bodily death. Both nihilism (natthika-vāda or natthika-diţţhi; the view that no person exists) and annihilationism (ucchedavāda or uccheda-diţţhi; the view that a person exists only as a body and perishes completely at the breakup of the body) are rejected by the Buddha. Such views deny the validity of ethics and are called “pernicious views” in the Nikāya-s, the early Buddhist texts.5 The Buddhist teaching of anattā negates “Attā” (or, in Sanskrit, “Ātman”) only in the sense of eternal, never-changing, independently-existing innermost “Self-Essence” of all beings. In the Upanişads this is identical with Brāhman, the permanently existing Ultimate Reality (Sanskrit: sat), Pure Consciousness (Sanskrit: chit) and Bliss (Sanskrit: ananda). This eternalist view of “Self” is also called a “pernicious view,”6 and it is this peculiar definition of “Self” — “permanent, stable, eternal, not subject to change”7 — that the Buddha refutes. The Buddha’s teaching of Non-Self is frequently summarized in the Nikāya-s in these two succinct sentences: “What is impermanent is suffering. What is suffering is not attā.”8 “Self” (Ātman), by the Upanişadic definition, is eternal bliss, and any individual person, being subject to change and subject to suffering, simply does not match this definition.

Instead, Buddhism teaches that a person and his/her consciousness interdependently co-arises with the given phenomena in the world and therefore cannot be unchanging or stay uninfluenced by life experience. The twin central teachings of Buddhism, Non-Self and Interdependent Co-Arising, are the same concept stated from two different angles. In response to “the eternalist view” (sassatavāda) of “Self,” Non-Self is taught, and in response to nihilism and annihilationism, Interdependent Co-Arising is emphasized. Individual persons and their consciousness do arise and therefore are not entirely non-existent, but they exist only in relation to their bodies, to other selves, and to all non-self entities in their surroundings.9 Nicholas F. Gier and Paul Kjellberg put it this way: “You wouldn’t be the person you are if your family, friends, and acquaintances all weren’t the people they are, if you hadn’t had the experiences you’ve had, lived in the society you live in, and so on.”10 This relational existence is subject to change: “the physical bodies change; feelings, beliefs, desires, and intentions all change; consciousness is intermittent; and our selfconceptions change over time. None of the things we can point to as the self remains the same.”11 Individual persons co-arise with, and are contingent on, their surroundings, and therefore do not exist as unchanging, permanent, blissful pure consciousness that is separate from, and independent of, worldly phenomena.

While rejecting both of the extremes of nihilism and eternalism, in the early texts the Buddha seemed to be more concerned with refuting the eternalist view than the nihilist view. The eternalist “Self” was compared to a lump of foam on a river, a water bubble during rain, a mirage, a plantain trunk, and a magical illusion.12 The counter-eternalist teaching of Non-Self is further elaborated through breaking personhood down to the Five Aggregates and then stating that a person is neither identical with any one of the Five Aggregates, nor an independent spiritual entity possessing the Five Aggregates, nor containing the Five Aggregates, nor being contained by any one of the Five Aggregates.13 All of these views are called “identity views” because they are considered conducive to, and reinforcing, egocentric clinging. They lead to unsatisfactoriness or outright suffering (Pāli: dukkha; Sanskrit: duhkha).

The meaning and scope of the Five Aggregated have to be understood to see the subtleties of the teaching of Non-Self and the ways in which this teaching is highly morally demanding. In the classical Buddhist understanding, an individual person is understood in terms of the Five Aggregates: the entity we consider “self” is a psycho-physical compound of material forms (Pāli/Sanskrit: rūpa), sensations (Pāli/Sanskrit: vedanā), perceptions (Pāli: saññā; Sanskrit: samjñā), volitional constructions (Pāli: saņkhāra; Sanskrit: samskāra), and consciousness (Pāli: viññāņa; Sanskrit: vijñāņa). David J. Kalupahana expounds, “Rūpa or material form accounts for the function of identification; vedanāor feeling and saññāor perception represent the function of experience, emotive as well as cognitive; saņkhāraor disposition stands for the function of individuation; viññāņaor consciousness explains the function of continuity in experience.”14

What is noteworthy is that in the ancient Indian perspective (orthodox teaching of Brāhmanism as well as the “heterodox” teachings of Buddhism and Jainism) there are six senses, and the term rūpa refers to both of the sense organs and their respective sense-objects. Mind is treated as one of the sense organs alongside the ordinary five sense organs of eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin. Serving as the objects of these six sense organs, otherwise termed “internal sense bases,” are the six classes of “external sense bases”15: that which can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched and felt, and that which can be cognized. With mind being considered a sense organ, virtually all phenomena in the world can be considered the “external sense bases” for the mind. Virtually all phenomena in the world can be considered mind-objects since they can all be processed in one way or another by the mind. Colors, for example, are objects for the eyes, and yet the difference between two colors may be an object for the mind. Thus considered, “external sense bases” encompasses not only concrete objects with physical dimensions, but also abstract entities without physical dimensions, such as languages, philosophies, histories, social conventions, cultural norms, political institutions, and the sentiments involved in interpersonal relationships in the past, the present, or the future.16 That is to say, the Pāli/Sanskrit word rūpa is better rendered “material and socio-cultural forms” or “material and symbolic forces” than simply “material forms,” given that the word rūpa actually encompasses both the abstract and the concrete, the mental and the physical, the internal and the external, while the word “material” in quotidian English usage does not usually include mind or mind-objects.

Another one of the Five Aggregates whose complexity is not readily discernible in its English translation is saņkhāra. This term is variously translated as “mental formations,” “mental proliferations,” “dispositions,” “volitions,” or “volitional constructions.” The various translations themselves are puzzling since in English it is difficult to consider mental formations, dispositions, and volitions to be in the same category. Etymologically, the word saņkhāra means “put together,” and Pāli scholar Bhikkhu Bodhi explains, “saņkhāras are both things which put together, construct, and compound other things, and the things that are put together, constructed, and compounded.”17 On account of the references to “things that are put together, constructed, and compounded,” saņkhāra is translated as “mental formations” or “mental proliferations;” on account of the references to “things which put together, construct, and compound other things,” the same word is rendered “dispositions” or “volitions.” A person’s disposition and volition both result from the things that have been put together and affect the ways in which things are being put together. In other words, one’s dispositions and volition shape the ways in which one’s thoughts are formed, and the thoughts formed in turn mold one’s dispositions and volition.

Corresponding to and co-arising with the six senses and their respective sense-objects are six classes of sensation, six classes of perception, six classes of volitional constructions, and six classes of consciousness: eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body-consciousness, and mind-consciousness.18 As fire always burns on fuel, consciousness is always consciousness of some material or symbolic forms. The fire that burns on gasoline is not identical with the fire that burns on a match — they may differ in temperature and color and duration and extension, albeit they are both fire and both burning. In the same way, consciousness varies from one class of rūpa to another, from one event to another, from one round of “mental formations” to another, from one individual person to another, albeit different kinds of consciousness are all abstract mental functioning of individual persons.

It says in the Samyutta Nikāya: “When there is name-and-form (Pāli/Sanskrit: nāma-rūpa), consciousness comes to be; consciousness has name-and-form as its condition.”19 In this passage the term nāma is used to refer to the Aggregates other than rūpa and consciousness, i.e. sensations, perceptions, and volition l constructions. Sometimes, however, it seems that nāma encompasses only sensations and perceptions, for in the “Twelve Links of Interdependent Origination” volitional constructions are discussed separately from nāma-rūpa: “With ignorance as condition, volitional constructions come to be; with volitional constructions as condition, consciousness comes to be; with consciousness as condition, nāma-rūpa comes to be…”20 The discrepancy between the above two usages of nāma shows saņkhāra’s affinity with sensations and perceptions but at the same time indicates that it functions in a different way and is far more important. Like sensations and perceptions, saņkhāra is a kind of nāma. It is a kind of “internal” mental functioning that depends on the “external” sense-objects to exist. Yet saņkhāra, being constructive as well as constructed, is much more complex. In fact, among the fifty-two “mental factors” (cetasikas) enumerated in the Pāli Abhidhamma, the aggregates of sensations and perceptions each count as one mental factor, and yet the aggregate of saņkhāra is further divided into fifty mental factors, including greed, delusion, hatred, mindfulness, malleability of consciousness, compassion, appreciative joy, and so on.21 Saņkhāra can put together existing sense-objects to form new mind-objects that are prior-to-now non-existent in the socio-cultural realm, and then the newly formed mind-objects are fed to consciousness just as the existing mind-objects are. One’s consciousness, in turn, affects the ways in which s/he senses and perceives rūpa, thereby also affecting the mental formations to come. That is, besides the material and symbolic forces that one is exposed to (rūpa), one’s consciousness is also influenced by the functioning of one’s nāma, especially saņkhāra. The constructive aspect of saņkhāra accounts for individuation. It accounts for the fact that people exposed to the same rūpa do not necessarily have the same personality or consciousness.22

A person’s consciousness does not exist independently or eternally and is subject to change when new phenomena are experienced. Moreover, it is not unified or monolithic, for in response to every situation multiple consciousnesses would co-arise. Multiple mind-consciousnesses co-exist at the same time, and the outlook of one’s personality depends on which consciousness is most consistently prompted to him/her by the things and people in his/her surroundings, as well as by his/her own “mental formations” and “dispositions.” The preceding and ensuing experiences, together with the concomitant mental formations, may consistently prompt a person to choose to identify with one particular consciousness, or they may support the choice for a while and then lean toward a different choice, or they may feed into multiple possibilities at the same time and allow them to compete with each other. At any rate, it is possible that the choice changes frequently and rapidly, for consciousnesses are constantly arising with every single contact between the “external sense bases” and “internal sense bases” as well as every single “mental formation”: “Just as monkey roaming through a forest grabs hold of one branch, lets that go and grabs another, then lets that go and grabs still another, so too that which is called ‘mind’ and ‘mentality’ and ‘consciousness’ arises as one thing and ceases as another by day and by night.”23 A person may be consistently prompted with a certain consciousness and identify with it for a certain period of time, and then may choose, or be prompted by further life experiences, to identify with a different consciousness some time later.

The Buddhist theory of the Five Aggregates points to the conditionality of personhood. An individual person is, and continues to be, a product of socio-cultural conditionings and his/her life experiences, the latter being affected by his/her own dispositions/volition/mental formations. A person as such is socially constructed as well as mentally constructed. Traditional Buddhist discourses elaborate abundantly on the process of mental construction but somehow come short in explicating the sociality of existence and its implications. Human existence is always social, and to be a person is to become a person in a matrix of social forces. What one holds onto as the identity of the self does not come into existence without the material and symbolic forces that have been suggesting and reinforcing it. An identity as such is not permanent and does not stay static. It is subject to change, and it changes when new experiences arise or when new situations prompt new ways of putting together old experiences. The Buddhist teaching of Non-Self, at least in its classical sense, merely denies the idea of permanently-existing, never-changing individual self-essence that is abstractly defined (by the most privileged stratum in society) and uninfluenced by worldly phenomena or day-to-day experiences. In the next section, I will further illustrate the meaning and social implications of the Buddhist teaching of Non-Self, of seeing an individual person as a process, by looking at the constructedness of gender identity.

Seeing “Non-Self” through the Making of Gender Identity

As Gross observes, there is something curiously illogical in many Buddhists’ understanding and acceptance of the central Buddhist teaching of Non-Self: “while most Buddhist do not believe in the existence of a permanent, abiding self, their attitudes and actions nevertheless indicate that they do believe in the real existence of gender.”24 When the issue of gender is raised in Buddhist communities, people often appeal to the idea that the Buddhist Dhamma transcends gender, thereby either dismissing gender justice as a petty samsāric concern that is irrelevant to the ultimate Buddhist goal of nibbāna and “unfettered mind,”25 or defensively denying and willfully ignoring the persistent gender discrimination, gender stereotypes, and rigid assignment of gender roles in both of the voluminous traditional Buddhist texts and the day-to-day operation of Buddhist institutions.26 Karma Lekshe Tsomo also observes that in modern Buddhisms when the issue of gender inequality arises, “The most common attitude is to ignore the problem altogether, dismiss it, deny it, and trivializes it.”27 The central teaching of Non-Self, the lack of eternal, unchanging, self-existing essence, is invoked from time to time in response to various kinds of contentions and disputes, but it is rarely remembered when conventional gender roles are described, expected, and even imposed.

That is, theoretically, the Buddhist Dhamma transcends gender. In everyday life, however, it often seems it is gender that transcends the Dhamma, for the Dhamma is supposed to cover every aspect of Reality/Existence but somehow is hardly ever applied to gender. This reluctance to acknowledging the existence of gender discrimination within the Buddhist traditions, Gross rightly notes, “is a more destructive and dangerous form of opposition to gender equality than outright opposition to egalitarian reforms,”28 for it precludes the possibility of reform by making it impossible to even bring up the topic of reform.

Most Buddhists seem to be familiar with the theory of the Five Aggregates and its relation to the teaching of Non-Self: a person is impermanent and subject to change because s/he is constituted of material forms (rūpa), sensations, perceptions, volitional constructions, and consciousness. Many also seem to be familiar with the notion that there are six sense organs and mind is considered one of them. Few, however, grasp how much is encompassed within the term rūpa, especially when it comes to the sense-objects for the mind. This lack of understanding may have resulted from the common but rather misleading rendering of the term rūpa as “material forms” on the one hand, and on the other hand from the unfamiliarity with ancient Indian thought from which Buddhism sprang. Should the scope of the aggregate rūpa be properly understood, there would be no justification for excluding gender from the consideration of identity construction and the concomitant attachment to the identity constructed. After all, the aggregate rūpa does include the sense organ of the mind and the sense-objects for the mind, and what, if not sense-objects for the mind, are the social conventions and prescriptions that strongly suggest, support, impose, and reinforce gendered identities and gendered behaviors through gendered colors, toys, chores, career ambitions, postures, uses of language, etc.?

The cultural scripts about genders are certainly a form of rūpa, and the Buddhist teaching of an individual identity being constructed and subject to change is consonant with poststructuralist feminist analysis of gender formation. Drawing on Simone de Beauvoir’s claim that one is not born but rather becomes a woman under cultural compulsion, poststructuralist feminist Judith Butler observes in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity,

Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being. A political genealogy of gender ontologies, if it is successful, will deconstruct the substantive appearance of gender into its constitutive acts and locate and account for those acts within the compulsory frames set by the various forces that police the social appearance of gender.29

Gender is produced through repeated bodily performances of the cultural scripts that define masculinity and femininity. Since the beginning of their existence in human societies, people are systematically inculcated with, and disciplined to perform, certain behaviors and roles that are supposedly appropriate for their anatomical characteristics. The compulsory repetition of bodily performances of gender norms has a materializing effect and “congeal[s] over time,” for the gender norms repeatedly performed by the body are thereby inscribed on the body, which is an integral part of a person’s self-identity. Since gender norms are inscribed on the body and thus become part of the person, gender is not like an outfit that can be taken off at will. That is, gender is not something that can be undone or changed with just one alternative performance because it is not created once and for all with one socially-prescribed performance. Still, gender “has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality,”30 nor is it a “substance” that is necessitated by anatomical characteristics. It appears to be substantive and “natural” because the body has been compelled by social expectations and cultural conventions to perform the various gender-specific acts over and over again, and the very repetition results in the illusion of an abiding “gender core.”31

Some colors are associated with, and used on, girls, while some other colors are associated with and used on boys. It is very common, in the United States at least, for people to put baby boys in blue clothes and bassinets, and baby girls, in pink. When I was a child in Taiwan, the colors red, pink, and orange were commonly considered as “girly colors,” while the colors green and blue were called “boyish colors.”

Children learn their gendered identities through toys as well. Girls are still commonly given dolls or items of sedentary and domestic nature to play with, while boys are often encouraged to play with toy cars, trains, airplanes, tanks, guns, robots equipped with weapons, and generally items that are mobile and/or destructive. Supposedly girls do not like to move about, and supposedly they like to play house, imagining being wives and mothers and enjoying the imaginary cleaning, cooking, and taking care of other members in the family.

The assignment of household chores is frequently gendered as well, if boys are expected to do chores at all. In Taiwan and other Chinese societies, some parents expect only girls to help out with chores, while some others train their boys to perform tasks that require a little more physical strength, such as mopping the floor. In the United States, in families that do expect both boys and girls to do household chores, girls are more likely to be assigned more “domestic” chores such as tasks in the kitchen or tasks related to caring and nurturing, while boys are more likely to be expected to take on chores of higher mobility such as taking out the trash, mowing the lawn, shoveling the snow, etc.32

As an extension of the gendered assignment of household chores, jobs are frequently gendered, and boys and girls are often encouraged to envision their future careers according to cultural conventions. Some occupations are still strongly associated with the female gender, such as nurses and teachers for the very young, although the male monopoly of certain occupations, such as doctors, scientists, and politicians, is gradually breaking down.

Boys are encouraged to take up physical space, running around and sitting with their arms stretching out and legs wide open. If, in the process of using their bodies, they are a little disruptive and destructive, they are “just being boys.” Their postures are rarely corrected except when their parents grow concerned with their spinal formation and tell them not to slouch. Girls, on the other hand, are allowed a lesser range of postures and bodily movements, especially in areas where population density has been high for many centuries and space has been quite limited, such as coastal cities in China and Taiwan. They are taught “lady-like” behaviors from very early on, such as sitting with their legs together or crossed.33 The perceptions of “lady-like” postures, however, vary across cultures and generations, too. For instance, Chinese and Taiwanese girls have also been taught to be “lady-like,” but people of older generations consider it impolite, for both males and females, to sit with their legs crossed.34 Mo e Westernized younger