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I have frequently discussed how early Indian Buddhism, like Jainism, takes an integrity perspective in an ethical or practical sense. I’ve said less about the theoretical side of its integrity approach. But I think that side is very much there. And it’s that link between theoretical and practical philosophy that makes the concepts of intimacy and integrity so appealing: they go “all the way down”.

I find it particularly important to discuss the theoretical integrity of early Buddhism because I think this is a place where Thomas P. Kasulis – from whom I take the very concepts of intimacy and integrity – has misapplied his own theory.

Figure 12: The Self of Integrity Kasulis’s book illustrates the intimacy/integrity distinction on the self with a helpful set of diagrams that I reproduce here. (The diagrams are entirely Kasulis’s creation and I reproduce them here in the spirit of scholarly dialogue and fair use.) His figures 12 and 13 illustrate the difference between an intimacy and integrity view of the self. In each of these Figure 13: The Self of Intimacyfigures there is a self a surrounded by other entities b through i. On the intimacy model (figure 13), the self a overlaps with b through i, such that it is constituted at least in part by its relations with them; on the integrity model (figure 12), it exists independently of them, connected only by an external relation R.

Figure 14: The Buddhist Self?Now how does this apply to Buddhism? Kasulis, a Buddhologist himself, creates another diagram, figure 14, which he claims depicts the Buddhist self. This figure depicts the Buddhist self as the extreme version of the intimacy self: the self is now wholly constituted by the other entities it overlaps with. The question is: is this depiction accurate?

Kasulis is an expert on Japanese Buddhism and especially Zen. It would not surprise me if Zen Buddhists typically understand the self in just this way, as the extreme of intimacy. But if that is so, it just goes to show how remote East Asian Buddhism is from the Indian tradition that grew up around the original figure of the Buddha.

It is of course true that early Buddhists, as found in the Pali texts, critique the concept of an individual self. But that doesn’t mean that they view the self as consisting in a web of larger wholes. The problem here reminds me of what Ken Wilber used to call the pre/trans fallacy: the modern West is so hung up on the individual self that we tend to conflate different conceptions of what isn’t self, even when they’re opposite. In Wilber’s account of psychological development (which I suspect is accurate), this means that we mistakenly associate an unhealthy failure to form adequate ego boundaries with a spiritually advanced transcendence of selfishness.

Kasulis’s problem is not quite the same thing. It’s not necessarily that one Buddhist view of the self is worse than the other (as is the case in Wilber’s pre-trans fallacy) but that they are nevertheless deeply and importantly different, to the point of being almost opposite.

Specifically: to critique the self by claiming it’s really larger wholes is very different than to critique the self by claiming it’s really smaller parts. And that latter is just what early Buddhism does: not holism but reductionism. Probably the most famous discussion of the self in the early texts is the exchange in the Milindapañhā (Questions of King Menander). Nāgasena, the Buddhist monk who is this text’s protagonist, denies that his name has any real referent: “I am known as Nāgasena but that is only a designation in common use, for no permanent individual can be found.” This much might fit Kasulis’s description. But let’s see how Nāgasena replies when King Menander engages in debate with him. The king says that if Nāgasena’s claim were true, it wouldn’t make any sense to speak of Nāgasena at all. Nāgasena asks him whether conversely it would make sense to speak of a chariot, and the king agrees. After some discussion they establish that although a chariot cannot be identified with any of its parts, “it is because it has all these parts that it comes under the term ‘chariot’.” And so Nāgasena offers his theory of the self:

Even so it is because of the thirty-two kinds of organic matter in a human body and the five aggregates of being that I come under the term “Nāgasena”. As it was said by Sister Vajīra in the presence of the Blessed One, “Just as it is by the existence of the various parts that the word ‘Chariot’ is used, just so is it that when the aggregates of being are there we talk of a being.” (Bhikkhu Pesala translation)

Kasulis diagram revisedNotice how Nāgasena’s argument works here. The self is not being equated with its overlapping wholes, but with its component parts, the five aggregates. In Kasulis’s diagrams, this self would look less like Figure 14 and more like a diagram where the self a is a fuzzy conceptual line around component parts j through q – each of which is related to other component parts only by an external relation R, just as it is to the other items (b through i) outside the postulated self.  Graphic design is not my forte, but I hope the drawing beside this paragraph illustrates the main point: the early Buddhist self is the opposite of what Kasulis depicts as the Buddhist self, in that it reduces even more to component parts linked by external relations.)

Why does this metaphysical discussion of self matter? Because it’s at the heart of bigger questions of intimacy and integrity. Metaphysically as ethically, Indian Buddhist thinkers follow their Jain forebears in insisting on separation, distinction and reduction rather than union and wholeness. And the point bears on modern questions as well. Modern ethical or political holists, thinkers in intimacy, like to complain that modern thought views individuals as too “atomized”. (One finds this phrasing in thinkers as far apart as Hannah Arendt on the left and Francis Fukuyama on the right.) But the Pali Buddhist critique is that we don’t think of individuals as atomized enough!

In the Pali texts, certainly the Milindapañhā but also the suttas and Abhidhamma, over and over the self is literally atomized: broken down into the five aggregates. Unlike Democritus, Epicurus and modern physics, Pali Buddhism does not have a materialist atomic theory. But an atomic theory it has – and the importance of that theory, the reason it’s so frequently stressed, is as a way to break down the self, literally atomize it into its smallest component parts.

Thinking through these points has adjusted the way I think about early Buddhism and its relation to Jainism. Jains, unlike Buddhists, believe in and even exalt the independent self; because of that, I used to see non-self as something that put Buddhism a bit closer to intimacy, on the intimacy-integrity spectrum, than was Jainism. But now I see that that’s not true. Non-self is exactly the same integrity that characterizes Jainism. In a certain sense it’s even more so, for it carries on the reduction of wholes in an even more thoroughgoing way.