Personhood or Non-Self: Christian and Buddhist Approaches to the Self in the Context of Modern Scientific Results

Personhood or Non-Self: Christian and Buddhist Approaches to the Self in the Context of Modern Scientific Results

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The question

A basic doctrine of Buddhism is the statement that no Self exists, the doctrine of Non-Self, Anatta1. This doctrine can be even be considered as the fundamental point of Buddhism. Its origin is linked to the Atman-Brahman-teaching of early Hinduism, which claimed the identity of the individual soul (Atman) and the world soul (Brahman). The realization and regaining of this identity was the core of salvation in the Yoga schools, from which Siddhartha Buddha studied meditation techniques. On the background of this teaching, Buddhism denies the existence of a soul, both the individual soul and the world soul, and included this denial into the core of its own teaching2.

Is this denial of existence of a soul (including the denial of a subject as a centre of action, as an ontological entity) a demythologization, which corresponds to the materialistic approach of modern neuroscience? It appears that this idea is appealing to quite a number of scientists in this field. Buddhism appears to be embraced as the religion that is most adequate to modern thinking, as it demythologizes religion and places it in its proper field, namely as a technique of psychological training to peace the mind and to find subjective happiness.

More generally this idea lies in a line that has been popular in the Western adaptation of Buddhism since 200 years, rejecting Christianity as a mythological and pre-modern religion.


The actual question goes further. Not only the Christian religion is questioned, but even the concept of the individual human person, which belongs in some sense to the base of Western culture. If the existence of a human person as centre of thinking and free acting, and to whom responsibility can be assigned, is an illusion, then human rights and human dignity are in question.

In this talk I want to question this idea that the teaching of Buddhism is more adequate to modern science, especially to the concepts of neuroscience, than Christianity. This is not at all intended to depreciate Buddhism. The intention is rather to find clarify what the proper teaching of Buddhism on the existence of the human person is, how it is related to scientific results, and to relate this teaching to the Christian position.

Person, Self and I : Definitions

In this article the distinction between the terms “person”, “self” and “I” will be more or less ignored, since a thorough differentiation on the terms is not required in the context of the points in question. But the terms are different. David Galin gives a good definition from a standpoint of Western psychology in dialogue with Buddhism: “A person is a dynamically changing, self-organizing, multilevel, quasi entity without sharp boundaries, and embedded in a causal thicket; self is the current organization of the person; and I is the self’s point of views, its set of current possible discriminations.”3

Buddhism as materialism?

A first and crude way of linking Buddhism and modern science is to consider the Anatta-doctrine as a kind of materialism, as if it would deny all non-materialistic entities like mind, person, and of course all supernatural entities, God, heaven, etc. .

The teaching of non-self, which is the reference point of this talk, is explained in a somewhat primitive but instructive form in a famous text in the MilindapaÒha. An analogy is given with the existence of a chariot. N‚gasena, a monk, explains the teachings to the king Milinda. He questions him about his chariot:4 “Is it, then, your majesty, something else besides pole, axle, wheels, chariot-body, banner-staff, yoke, reins, and goad which is the chariot?”

The king cannot find anything else. He has to admit that his chariot is simply a composition of these elements, which N‚gasena has enumerated. N‚gasena concludes that the same is true with respect to the self or I (Ego): “Thoroughly well, your majesty, do you understand a chariot. In exactly the same way, your majesty, in respect of me, N‚gasena is but a way of counting, term, appellation, convenient designation, mere name for the hair of my head, hair of my body . . . brain of the head, form, sensation, perception, the predispositions, and consciousness. But in the absolute sense there is no Ego here to be found.”

Form, sensation, perception, the predispositions, and consciousness are considered to be the five “skandhas”, the elements that form a person, a self.

It is clear that this view is not at all materialistic. Most of the skandhas are mind-like. The skandhas have been analysed in the early Buddhist doctrine to consist of more basic elements, the dharmas. The enumerations of dharmas are not standardized, but they clearly involve non-material elements.

To take the Buddhist teaching as a sort of materialism is therefore definitely not compatible with traditional Buddhism. It could be justified as a sort of modernized Buddhism, analogous to the demythologization of modern Christianity.

Buddhism and transcendence

One of the most important contributions and challenges to the understanding of early Buddhism can be attributed to Peter Masefield.5

Masefield argues that the demythologization of Western Buddhism results in a complete misunderstanding of Buddhism. The Buddhist teaching is a revelation and its transmission from Buddha to his followers is a transcendent event. He uses the provocative term “divine revelation”, though Buddhism clearly does not assume the existence of a God. His intention is to stress that in Buddhism enlightenment and salvation are supposed to be supernatural and in complete discontinuity with the normal world.

Masefield refers to the early Buddhism. A philosophical more sophisticated view is the one of Mahayana Buddhism. The Mahayana doctrine has been developed some centuries after the death of the historical Buddha. Nevertheless it corresponds well to Masefields insights. In the following, this talk will refer mainly to this school of Buddhism. A basic term of Mahayana Buddhism is “great transcendent wisdom”. The teachings of non-self, as quoted above from the Milandhapanha, can be understood to ascribe no existence to the self, but only to the skandhas or dharmas. But Mahayana Buddhism claims the “emptiness” of all dharmas. This implies that the non-existence of a self cannot be understood to mean that the self or person is composed of more basic elements. Rather the basic question is how existence and non-existence are related to each other. The existence of everything is illusionary and is grounded in emptiness, in non-existence.6


Another Western Buddhist concept: The Self as a network of relations

While a materialistic position cannot be reconciled with Buddhism without giving up basic intuitions of this religion, another position is much more appealing. It can be summarized as questioning the substantiality of the self. The self is then comprehended as a “network of relations”7. Some interesting articles in this line have been collected by A. Wallace8 in the book “Buddhism and science”. These articles are especially relevant for the context of this talk, since they include authors from the fields of neuroscience.

A very instructive contribution comes form David Galin9. He points to a convergence and mutual complementation of the research results of psychology, neuroscience and of Buddhism: “Western perspectives of cognitive neuropsychology and adaptive evolution may add to Buddhist understanding of the inborn view of self, and why it is so difficult to transform, and of how the ‘correct’ view is attained.”10

Galin understands the concept of non-self as follows: “In the Buddhist ‘correct view’ the Self is seen not as an entity, or as a substance, or as an essence but as a dynamic process, a shifting web of relations among evanescent aspects of the person such as perceptions, ideas and desires.”11 In that sense Non-Self means “self-is-not-an-essence-or-entity” and “is misunderstood in the West because anatman meaning ‘self-is-not-an-essence-or-entity’ is taken as ‘self-does-not-exist-at-all’ by people who have not imagined any scheme of existence other than entities of essences”12.

The view of the self as an entity arises from pragmatic conditions as a result of the urge of evolutionary adaptation: “We adapt to constant change and information overload by heuristic approximations, by entifying and simultaneously mitigating the oversimplifications with contextual knowledge presented in explicating awareness.”13

A similar view can be found in Waldron’s article in the same book14.

A notable difference between Waldron’s and Galin’s positions is that the latter affirms positively the natural reasons for the construction of the concepts of I, self and person. Galin acknowledges its pragmatic grounds, and seeks “remedy” not in a pure denial of these concepts, but rather in a “rebalance”15. Waldron on the other hand stresses that the concepts of identity are the root causes of suffering, much in a traditional Buddhist manner. He is a scholar of religion whereas Galin has a scientist’s background, which might explain the different perspectives on the same phenomena.

Science on ontology and epistemology

The first one to really explore deeply the correspondence of Anatta and modern science was probably Francisco Varela16, prior to Waldron and Galin and others. And in some sense Varela’s approach goes further and is more to the point. The difference is instructive.

Varela’s starting point is the science of cognition as connected to basic questions of philosophy of science. His philosophical position has been counted as a sort of constructivism, but it is somewhat particular. He links the Buddhist teaching of non-self to a scientific and philosophical position that denies the existence of the world as independent of the organism that perceives the world and vice versa. Organism and world are entangled, therefore there is no objective world that could be perceived.17

The Mahayana doctrine of emptiness

Nagarjuna, the most important philosopher of Mahayana Buddhism, expresses the Madhyamika philosophy of emptiness as follows: “If there were to be something non-empty, there would then be something called empty. However, there is nothing that is non-empty. How could there be something empty. The Victorious Ones have announced that emptiness is the relinquishing of all views. Those who are possessed of the views of emptiness are said to be incorrigible.”18

The interesting point is this: Emptiness is a non-standpoint. It is not another ontology or anti-ontology, but a dynamics of giving up any philosophical standpoint. The Mulamadhyamakakarika, Nagarjuna’s main opus, is full of this rhetoric, of the refutation of any standpoint. It ends with the words: “I reverently bow to Gautama who, out of compassion, has taught the true doctrine in order to relinquish all views.”19 The true doctrine is not another doctrine more advanced and truer than other doctrines. It is a dynamics of giving up any doctrine.

That does not imply that all doctrines are useless and false. The Madhyamika philosophy states a relation and difference between “absolute truth” and “relative truth”. The absolute truth is ineffable. In that sense the giving up of any view is the way to approach the absolute truth. Nevertheless there are doctrine that are ways to approach the absolute truth. The teachings of these ways are relatively true. “Relatively true” is meant in the sense that these doctrines help people to find the way to absolute truth, but in the ambivalence that they can also become an obstacle to this way. Therefore, truth cannot be separated from those who teach and understand the truth, from their particular situation and position.

The following words summarize Nagarjuna’s explorations of the doctrine of Anatta:

“The Buddha’s have made known the conception of self and taught the doctrine of no-self. At the same time, they have not spoken of something as the self or as the non-self. When the sphere of thought has ceased, that which is to be designated also has ceased. Like freedom, the nature of things is non-arisen and non-ceased.”20

This is the basic concept of Mahayana philosophy: The ceasing of the self is the ceasing of the sphere of thought, rather than a concept of self or non-self. It is obvious that this implies techniques of meditation as a way to approach truth, going beyond philosophy.

Convergence of science and Buddhism?

Can a convergence of science and Buddhism really be found? The investigations presented above suggest a distinction of several levels of convergence and non-convergence:

1. Science as relative truth

In the terms of Madhyamika philosophy the positions of Galin and Walsh belong to the level of relative truth. They take scientific results as starting point and lead to some understanding of the self that goes beyond an ontology of substantialism.

Relative truth is true as a way of approach to absolute truth. But it is essential to understand that there is not an approach on the level of abstract meaning, but on the level of leading humans to understanding. Relative truth is always completely different from absolute truth.

To consider the self as a network of relations is just another view or standpoint beyond naÔve Aristotelism, beyond the view that self, I or person refer to a sort of substance. The views of Galin and Waldron may be true in the scientific, i.e., pragmatic context. But science cannot go beyond relative truth. Absolute truth remains ineffable.

Thus, such views as “the self is a network of relations” are true in a pragmatic sense, if they lead humans to an understanding, which is a way to approach absolute truth.

On the level of the meaning of this dynamic and relational view of the self, the basic problem with Buddhism is the question of existence. If no substance exists, but only relations, these still do exist. But Mahayana is not content with the naÔve existence of anything, neither of substances, nor of relations. Science is based on such a concept of existence, whereas Mahayana Buddhism never separates ontology from epistemology. The ceasing of existence is the ceasing of the sphere of thoughts, as it was stated above.

2. The relinquishing of all views

The position of Varela belongs in some respect to the first level, but it also points to another level. Varela is a scientist and he argues on the scientific level, but he enters the level of more fundamental questions, employing philosophical methods and drawing on Buddhist concepts. His result is a questioning and critique of any naÔve concept of perception, that any concept that separates the perceiving subject, the relation between subject and perception and the world that is perceived. His ontology opens up in an entanglement with epistemology. He points to limits of any knowledge about “the world”, since subject and world cannot be separated and there is no “world” as such.

This position, which Varela’s research points to, argues that science has a fundamental limit of knowledge. This reasoning is derived from science itself, analogous to Nagarjuna’s way of the refutation of any view. Nagarjuna presents his arguments on the field of philosophy, Varela’s approach can be regarded as a modernized version of Nagarjuna’s method.

3. Beyond science

I quote again Nagarjuna: “Those who are of little intelligence, who perceive the existence as well as the non-existence of existents, do not perceive the appeasement of the object, the auspicious.”21

The concept of existence is the root of illusion. There is no existence prior to knowledge, existence as opposed to non-existence. But a concept of non-existence fails in the same way. Assertion and denial of the self are both wrong. The real doctrine is a way of realization, beyond existence and non-existence, beyond thinking and non-thinking.

This goes beyond science and on this level all the attempts to show convergence of science and Buddhism fail. They involve a simplification of Buddhism that distorts its basic concepts. Any theory about the self or non-self involves such a simplification and distortion of the truth. Buddha “has taught the true doctrine in order to relinquish all views.”22. To relinquish all views is the realization of non-self, since the self constitutes itself in views about self and world. This way of wisdom and realization is beyond existence or non-existence of the self, rather it is a dynamics of forgetting the self, dropping the self, in meditation and in compassion.

Personhood in Christianity

It was noted at the beginning of this article that the concept of personhood belongs to the heart of Western culture. It can be considered to be the core of a humanized and demythologizised version of Christianity. Therefore the claim that a consistent demythologization will put an end to this concept involves the call for a fundamental transformation of Western culture. If free will is an illusion, as was claimed to be a result of Libet’s famous research23, the very basic structures of politics and education are affected.

It has also been noted above that the association of a strong concept of personhood with Christianity has been turned into an argument against Christianity, as if Christianity were promoting an old myth of the existence of autonomous persons, who have a free will and a sort of mental substance.

It must be conceded that the Western concept of personhood has originally been developed in the context of Christianity and as part of Christian theology. And it is very instructive to look at the steps of this development. The theological “problem” that gave the urge to develop this concept was the question how to elucidate the trinitarian expressions in the Bible without loosing the monotheistic tradition. These expressions have been shaped, like all Christian theology, more and more in accommodation to Greek philosophy. The threefoldedness of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, was essential as to express the God-nature of Jesus Christ and the mission of the Holy Spirit. In search for an adequate expression the Latin word “persona” was adopted for the three “persons”. The most common use of “persona” at that time was for the masks in theatre, denoting the role of an actor. The trinitarian nature of God was expressed with the expression “one essence, three persons”.

The most interesting point in this historical context is that this notion of personhood did orignally neither imply the idea of a person as a substance nor as a subject, but quite the contrary. God was not considered to consist of three substances. Personhood referred to the distinctiveness of the three persons in one essence and one substance24. The concept of subjectivity was no problem at this time.

It appears that this first and vague notion of personhood was dissatisfying for the theologians, who were striving for an ontological definition, which should be in accord with Greek philosophy and particularly with Aristotelism. In course of time and most explicitly with Boethius (c. 480 – c. 525 CE) the concept of personhood was reshaped. His famous definition was: “Persona est naturae rationalis individa substantia.”25 It appears that the theologian have not realized at that time that the inclusion of the substantiality implied an important change in the meaning of “person”. This change was an important step on the way of inculturation of Christianity into the philosophical culture of the time.

Later in the Western culture the stress in the definition of personhood shifted to subjectivity and to the autonomy of the individual person as actor. Immanuel Kant can be regarded as a representative promoter of both elements. Subjectivity on the one hand implied for Kant the subject as a centre of perception and thinking.26 The autonomy of the individual person on the other hand involves responsibility and freedom.27

Modern theology took the challenge of this transformation of the concept of personhood. Interestingly enough the concept of the Trinity became the most important point of reference for claims that the modern concept of personhood needs to be corrected by Christian doctrines. Most commonly the autonomy of the person is complemented and qualified by a relational concept: Person constitutes itself in relation to others.28 An interesting philosophical correlate is the philosophy of dialogue29.

Nevertheless, these modern theological approaches have the structure of adding corrections to the concepts of personhood. They do not imply a radical reshaping. The challenge of science could be to search for a more radical solution. And the challenge of Buddhism can show a direction for this radical rethinking of personhood.

Christianity beyond personhood, beyond philosophy

The challenge of Buddhism and the seeming congruence of Buddhism and scientific questions on the existence of personhood and self could be a chance for Christianity to come back to its original stance as to what concerns the concept of person.

Buddhism stresses the realization of non-self as the way to salvation. Christian theology and concepts have largely been formulated in debates and accommodations of Greek philosophy. But the origin of Christianity as religion can be found in the event of the death and resurrection of Christ. The biblical sources stress that this death and resurrection is a radical self-giving of Christ, even into complete abandonment by God, the Father, and a new existence out of this self-giving. St. Paul claims that this is the model of existence for all Christians: Dying with Christ in order to be resurrected with him: “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” (Rom 6,8). “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Gal 2,20)

Paul states that this teaching is opposed to human wisdom, which includes philosophy: “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” (1 Cor 1, 22-25)

What Paul denotes as “man’s wisdom” cannot be identified with Greek or Latin philosophy in general. Nevertheless his words can be read on the background of the transformation of the concept of personhood in Christian theology: In dialogue with Greek philosophy, especially with Aristotelism, the concept of personhood was more and more reshaped to include substantialism. Later the focus shifted to subjectivity and the self as centre of action, again in accordance with the philosophical development. The challenge for Christianity is to not forget its original idea of self, for which Christ’s self-giving is the model beyond reasoning and understanding.


As first conclusion I want to point out an interesting analogy between the way how Buddhism can be set in relation to modern science and how Christianity has related to Greek philosophy. It was pointed out above that there are correlations between scientific results and the concept of Anatta. At the same time Buddhism is distorted, if these correlations are taken too literal as to imply the same meaning. Rather the correct Buddhist approach is to regard science as a pointer to truth, in a pragmatic context of leading religious seekers on their path to truth, but to a strictly limited extent.

The accommodation of the Christian teaching to Greek philosophy can be understood in the same way: It involves a distortion of the Christian teaching about personhood, if the doctrines developed in this line are taken literally. But it can lead humans to approach truth, especially those rooted in a certain culture, the Western culture that has been shaped by Greek philosophy and its further development. Nevertheless, the usefulness of these concepts depends on the cultural context. There are good reasons to assume that in the context of modern science the concepts of Christianity have to reshaped. I have tried to show that this reshaping could lead a rediscovery of the original Christian intuition that the self constitutes itself in a radical self-giving.

In this perspective an apparent contradiction between Christianity and Buddhism with respect to a fundamental question in both traditions, the status of personhood, becomes much weaker and relative to the frameworks of interpretation. The challenge of dialogue on this question is more to Christian theology, and it will be a precondition for a real inculturation of Christianity into the cultures of East-Asia, but also into a modernized Western culture.



1 This article employs the Pali term Anatta. The Sanskrit: notion is Anātman.

2 The real implications of this teaching are debated. Interesting examples of two different positions are books of M. Wachs and of Perez-Remon. Wachs analyses the teachings of many Buddhist schools, compares them to the background of Non-Buddhist schools in India and comes to the conclusion: “The impersonal nature of being, the lack of Self, has never been negated. It is a constant factor in Buddhism.” M. Wachs: Seele und Nicht-Ich (Frankfurt 1998), S. 240. Perez-Remon shows that Buddhist writings, including the very early texts, talk about Self and Non-Self without a definitive option for the denial of Self. Cf. J. Perez-Remon: Self and Non-Self in Early Buddhism (The Hague 1980).

3 D. Galin: The concepts “Self”, “Person”, and “I” in Western Psychology and in Buddhism, p. 136, in A. Wallace: Buddhism and science (New York 2003).

4 The following texts are quoted from an online-source:

5 P. Masefield: Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism (London 1986). The basic ideas have been published online:

6 On the philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism cf: G. Nagao: The foundational standpoint of Madhyamika Philosophy (Delhi 1990). G. Nagao: Madhyamika and Yogachara (Delhi 1992). P. Williams: Buddhist Thought (London 2000).

7 D. Galin: The concepts “Self”, “Person”, and “I” in Western Psychology and in Buddhism, in A. Wallace: Buddhism and science (New York 2003), p. 108.

8 A. Wallace: Buddhism and science (New York 2003).

9 D. Galin: The concepts “Self”, “Person”, and “I” in Western Psychology and in Buddhism, p. 107-142, in A. Wallace: Buddhism and science (New York 2003).

10 Ibid., p. 108.

11 Ibid., p. 108.

12 Ibid., p. 108.

13 Ibid., p. 136.

14 William S. Waldron: Common Ground, Common Cause: Buddhism and Science on the Afflictions of Identity, S. 145-191, in: A. Wallace: Buddhism and science (New York 2003).

15 D. Galin: The concepts “Self”, “Person”, and “I” in Western Psychology and in Buddhism, p. 107-142, in A. Wallace: Buddhism and science (New York 2003), p. 136.

16 His most important book in this context is: F. Varela, E. Thompson, E. Rosch: The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (MIT Press 1991).

17 F. Varela, E. Thompson: Der mittlere Weg der Erkenntnis (Bern 1992), p. 295.

18 D. Kalupahana: Mulamadhyamakakarika of Nagarjuna (Delhi 1991), p. 222f, Chap. 13.

19 Ibid., p. 391, Chap. 27.

20 Ibid., p. 267f, Ch. 18.

21 Ibid., p. 151f, Ch. 5.

22 Ibid., p. 223, Chap. 13.

23 B. Libet: Mind time: The temporal factor in consciousness, Cambridge, MA 2004.

24 A. Halder in: Lexikon f¸r Theologie und Kirche, J. Hˆfer, K. Rahner (Ed.). Bd. 8, Freiburg 1963, p. 290f.

25 Ibid., p. 288.

26 I. Kant: Kritik der reinen Vernunft, English: Critique of Pure Reason.

27 I. Kant: Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, English: Critique of Practical Reason.

28 Cf. the article on person in the new edition of dictionary that was cited above: G. Greshake in: Lexikon f¸r Theologie und Kirche (Ed.: W. Kaspar, Bd. 8, Freiburg 1999, p. 46-50. The article does not mention the original concept of personhood had originally been developed without the implication of substantiality, which is an interesting difference to the older version of dictionary, in some sense a regression.

29 Buber: Ich und Du. Leipzig 1923.