Selflessness and Selfishness
November 29th, 2009 · 1 Comment
Buddhism is; in respect to selflessness one of the most unique religions in history. Buddhism characteristically describes ‘existence’ in terms of process and relation rather than an entity or substance or creation, and therefore does not believe in the existence of a self or soul (considered the same) the idea of a separate soul is an invention of early church philosophers found in the west and is a philosophical notion of an immortal and immaterial essence left over at death.
It is important to understand the etymology of the modern idea for soul for the western mindset. Early Greek philosopher Plato 427 – 347 BC, drawing on the words of his teacher Socrates, considered the soul ‘as the essence of a person, being, that which decides how we behave.’ He considered this essence; ‘as an incorporeal, eternal occupant of our being. As bodies die the soul is continually reborn in subsequent bodies.’ The Platonic soul comprises three parts:
1. the logos (mind, nous, or reason)
2. the thymos (emotion, or spiritedness, or masculine)
3. the eros (appetitive, or desire, or feminine)
An early glimpse of the idea of soul has a Buddhist framework. Not surprising when considering the time line. Buddhism had been in existence for over 200 years and Buddhist monks traveling the trade routes were present in Greece at that time. Some 1500 years later Thomas Aquinas 1225 – 1274 AD understood the soul to be the first principle, or act, of the body. However, his theory required that, since the intellectual soul is capable of knowing all material things, and since in order to know a material thing there must be no material thing within it, the soul was definitely not corporeal. Therefore, the soul had an operation separate from the body and therefore could subsist without the body. Now we have the framework for western thought, and the idea of a separate soul and body.
Remember that Buddhism characteristically describes ‘existence’ in terms of process and relation rather than an entity or substance or creation, and therefore does not believe in the existence of a self or soul.
The idea of selflessness is a concept of Buddhism, perhaps one of the most important Buddhists teaching is a core idea called anattā, which translates to “selflessness” or “no soul”. The existence of selflessness promotes a genesis of non-attachment to people, places, things, ideas and the notion of self. Thereby in itself, promoting attributes of kindness, altruism, generosity and compassion.
The Buddha felt that all existence is characterized by anattā, impermanence (anitya), and suffering (dukkha). The Buddha taught the doctrine of anattā because he believed that a “self” resulted in egoism, craving, attachment and consequently in suffering.
There are two ideas or mental concepts that are psychologically rooted in the human psyche: self protection and self preservation. Man created, outside the existence of God, a notion of God as a protection for the self and reason for existence. Man conceived the idea of a immortal soul as a means for self preservation. However in his ignorance, weakness, fear, and desire, man needs justifies these two concepts to comfort himself. He clings to them obsessively. Wars have been fought and countless lives wasted on the clinging to these two notions. This is the idea or notion of selfishness. Selfishness is the constant desire to fill all the voids, to answer every craving, to fill every cup to its fullest.
In the west the question of selflessness is often answered by what is the opposite of selfishness. It is difficult for westerners to find reason for a need in selflessness because of the concept of goodness. For Buddhism goodness is and activity and action and understanding of what is good. It is learned. In the west we are told all goodness come from god. The idea that good; any good can only come from outside the self negates the right understanding, notion and right action of any person exercising the will to create good.
Doing some act of goodness is an altruistic act which promotes the development of goodness and causes no harm. Altruism is action motivated by desires whose object is another’s benefit. We have every reason to believe that there are such desires and so our intuitive practice is justified. Believing in the pure act of selflessness we give way to the benefit of others. In any act of kindness we are thinking of others. Thinking causes investigation. Investigations uncover the truth, and as my counterparts in western religions are fond of saying; “and the truth will set you free”.
Be at peace with all you do. Happiness is really very relative. If a thought plagues you as to whether you’re doing something just for your own edification, expand the notion to fully accept your part in it and how it will affect the other persons in the involvement. Do this without losing sight of yourself. Make your motive pure. Do things not out of sympathy or some form of self gratification, but rather because it is good for the betterment of all. Try to keep in the forefront of your thoughts, not to harm anyone….including yourself.
I Wish You Peace,
Bhante n. Kassapa Bhikkhu
Buu Mon Temple
Port Arthur, Texas, 77640