Science, Buddhism, and No-Self

I read an article today about the connection between Buddhism and Quantum Mechanics. I agree. Science tells us that everything changes form. Science tells us nothingness has creative qualities. Science tells us we’re all connected. I want to discuss a key component to Buddhism: no-self (or anatman). I believe science would agree with these spiritual insights.

Despite what you might think, Buddhism and Science getting along doesn’t mean it’s without empathy.

Buddha believed in no-self
Buddhism and Quantum Mechanics both agree on no-self.

Sometimes non-attachment and no-self are misinterpreted. Non-attachment isn’t dispassion for people you care for. And it’s not cold-heartedness either. It’s the opposite. The highest wisdom—of knowing that everything is truly emptiness—fosters compassion. Non-attachment isn’t the lack of passions or negative thoughts. It’s a healthy non-reaction to biological imperatives and a realization that you aren’t your own property, but borrowers.

Buddha didn’t deny the existence of self—he wanted to banish the illusion of static identity. You’re always changing. You don’t stay the same in any way: your physical composition alters; your thoughts and feelings ebb and flow; you live and die.

Bearing this in mind, what are you in the absolute sense? You came from, and you will return to, the same state. The universe emerged from emptiness. Nothingness inflates and scaffolds space and time. It’s the only thing that can travel faster than the speed of light. Emptiness, the vacuum, then—like what we’ve found with Quantum Mechanics—is interestingly more ample than substance. Emptiness doesn’t have shape. It has more existence, ironically, because its lack thereof. That’s your accurate stagnant identity. That’s your soul: Nothingness. Emptiness. Infinity. Ego attempts to muddle this by glossing all moments into a continuum.

No-Self Poem 1

I awaken now!

The vacuum craves existence,

But temporary.

The outset informs the birth

At this no-place and no-time.

Non-attachment builds from this reasoning. Since our physical existence is impermanent, you ought to identify with our realer existence as part of everything, as the nothingness that cradles these life experiences. You ought to perform action for the system, for others, instead of selfishness.

You shouldn’t be attached to the idea that you’re an individual, because that won’t be correct forever. You’ll always be part of God’s plan… no matter what. Work to preserve it. See the divine design for this cosmic play: observation, meaning making, and love.

No-Self Poem 2

Pure tranquility.

Absolute regard for life.

Joy through completion.

Willingness to fill the gaps

And be a divine agent.

Why is human life important? (Shouldn’t this be the first question everyone has to answer before purchasing a gun, driving a car, getting married, becoming a politician or military leader, etc.?) You create meaning.

No-Self Poem 3

Poïesis: our role.

We create significance

By naming our world.

Non-attachment and no-self ought not to be applied merely retroactively, but in all situations. It informs the value of human life every moment. You realize that once a person is born, their funeral pyre is already lit—their being formed like a fixed structure. You see God in them, as each person builds entire worlds. Cognitively, their perception is unique and essential to the Supreme Being. You appreciate that their time here is finite. No-self and non-attachment yields complete gratitude for life and true understanding of reality.

The first time I remember experiencing attachment, I felt a pang of despair, regret, and overwhelming dissatisfaction. It’s like I didn’t appreciate gravity until weightlessness. It was like not paying attention to a movie, so I had to see it again. It was like not tasting, so I over-indulged. It was like I made a decision out of ego instead of love, so I felt like wailing endlessly in grief. I can share the anecdote now with a smile, because I understand why I felt the way I did. I’ve enough distance between myself and the event:

I was in kindergarten or 1st grade. My mother had come in to teach arts and crafts. I believe we decorated pumpkins. At the end of the lesson, my mother asked me in front of the classroom, “Dan, would you like me to take you home today?”

My ego craved recognition of maturity from my peers. I’d feel embarrassment to go home as if we didn’t have busses. “No,” I said, with my chest puffed out. “I’m going to take the bus home like a big boy.”

My mother agreed with a smile.

As soon as my mother left, I deeply regretted the decision. I could have been home earlier if I went home with my mom. I’d be sitting in the comfortable car, versus those stiff bus seats. I could have been with my mom again. What if she got into a fatal car accident before I could see her again?

What have I done? My mind raced. I felt restless as these regretful sensations and thoughts reverberated and echoed throughout my being. It was like a song stuck in my head—affecting me more each successive iteration.

I cried out to my teacher with a raised hand, “Can I still go home with my mother?” I was panicking.

“Okay,” she agreed. “See if you can still catch up with her.”

I ran down the hallway, trying to reach the front entrance where I was sure her car must have been. As I did, I thought about how shameful it was going to be after making that scene. Maybe my classmates would forget that I behaved like that over the weekend if I made it back home with my mom, but if my mom had already left, then I’d have to walk back into the same classroom and wait.

My mom left before I could catch her in time. So I walked back, depressed, pitying my situation, and wishing things were different in the immediate past. I didn’t want to talk to anyone.

No-Self Poem 4

An eye forges truth.

Sentience: a fragile thing.

The inner light dims.

What is possibility

Without imagination?

What I should’ve known then—that I’m trying to learn now—is that you don’t own yourself. You don’t own your mother. You don’t own your friends. You don’t even own your reactions to events. It’s all borrowed, rented. You lease out your ego like everything else. It isn’t really you. The ego is as much you as the 6-year-old you is you. It’s merely a temporary expression. It’s like a car you drive in for a lifetime and then—after it breaks down with age—you get a new one. Ego is a tool that you should train.

No-Self Poem 5

Don’t get so upset.

Your ego is so fickle.

Teach it to be still.

Sing songs of mortality.

Ego: under foster care.

Ego ought to be dealt with the same as racism, or any other instinctive drive. Watch as your ego creates thoughts and stiches disparate events together. Your mind’s song is as a stream, with anchorless lily pads flowing towards a waterfall. Each lily pad is a thought. But it certainly isn’t really your thoughts. It’s merely thoughts in your field of view. When your ego says, “Be alert. Black men [or stereotype of your choice] approaching. They’re dangerous. We must protect our body,” realize those paradigmatic reactions may have been useful in the past, but are like biological programming only useful for keeping an organism alive. True understanding comes from engaging with another person in conversation and being open-minded and cognizant to wisdom (which comes from all sorts of places you wouldn’t guess).

Be mindful of the greatest truth: You aren’t your ego. You aren’t these temporary states. You aren’t this transitory thing alone; you’re inextricably connected with everyone. You don’t own yourself! Nobody does.

No-Self Poem 6

Nothingness becomes

Everything. But there’s a catch.

It all must return.

We must go back to nothing:

The Formless Supreme Being.

To actuate your non-attachment and no-self, you must develop right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. By right, I believe Buddha meant your view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration has to be informed by your impermanence; it should reflect how everyone is connected, and not be attached to selfish desires of the ego, which is essentially evil. That’s not to say ego is necessarily evil, but that does seem to be the default behavior of ego—to look out for itself above all others.

No-Self Poem 7

Awaken to the

Wisdom of connectedness.

We need our planet,

Other people, bacteria,

To exist for this moment.

Since your ego is finite and won’t last forever—and since all our spirits return to the Supreme Being—in a very real sense, you and I are one. You’re me. I’m you. We’re one being. We’re part of the same body. We’re two heart cells attempting synchronization, pumping blood where it’s needed: everywhere. We’re trying to love ourselves too. That’s why understanding no-self and non-attachment will always lead to compassion. You won’t put yourself above others’ interests anymore. You’ll gladly help others without any benefit for yourself because helping others actually helps yourself. The distinction between us is strictly illusionary—just an ego trick.

Daniel Neumann

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