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East West Perspective on the
Metaphysical Aspects of Self

by John Eberts

In Western philosophy, the Cartesian model of the self as Universal went uncontested among most of the main stream philosophers. The few who did challenge this model placed the self in a context shaped (constructed) by social, cultural, economic and historical factors. The Universality of this view has been challenged by Postmodernism and various other cultures, esp. Buddhism. One sees in the literature from the East a counter argument against this metaphysical self developed in the West. The challenge laid forth is that the self is not separate, individualistic, egoistic, nor for that matter, permanent. The concept of the self is considered the root of attachment, conceit and desire in Buddhism.

"The world of concepts is not the world of reality. Conceptual knowledge is not the perfect instrument for studying truth. Words are inadequate to express the truth of ultimate reality...But if conceptual knowledge is fallible, what other instruments should we use to grasp reality? According to Buddhism, we can only reach reality through direct experience. Study and speculation are based on concepts. In conceptualization we cut reality into smaller pieces that seem to be independent of one another. This manner of conceiving things is called imaginative and discriminative knowledge (Vikalpa) according to Vijnanavadin School of Buddhism. The faculty that directly experiences reality without passing through concepts is called non-discriminative and non-imaginative wisdom (nirvikalpjnana). This wisdom is the fruit of meditation. It is a direct and perfect knowledge of reality. Buddhism is a form of understanding in which one does not distinguish between subject and object. It cannot be conceived by the intellect or expressed by language."

Tich Naht Hanh (1995), pp. 41-43

If through both Postmodernism and Buddhism the individual's sense of center (as we perceive it in the metaphysical West) is no longer fixed, is there any foundation that gives man meaning? If life is segmented, carrying different meanings for each segment, then "Who am I"?

The metaphysical world gave man his identity. In the Postmodern world, we are forced to realize that our identity is a creation, developing through the interaction of the individual and society. Yet these differentiated meanings are relative, and there is no absolute truth. This disjointed dialectic causes a crisis of identity. With the loss of metaphysics, we experience the 'Homeless Mind' thesis presented by Paul Berger. Postmodernism is only a step — but a step into pluralism — a plurality of meanings which replaced the one (metaphysics). Although Postmodernism qualifies as being Nihilistic in nature for removing the foundations of our metaphysical world view, it is not a negative type of Nihilism. If one looks into one's self and examines not only his belief system but the inner knowledge gained through an eastern approach (meditation), there is promise. There may not be any different answers, but that in itself is an answer: to move beyond the categories and to see the questions as opportunities, to build toward a global culture and a pluralistic society. This gives us the opportunity to realize the interdependentness that encompasses the All, and see society and man for what they are, which is just that "they are".

The world doesn't exist independently of those who observe it. The world's existence derives from the existence of a relationship (interdependence) between the world and its observer. There is a perspective that arises within the individual and society to construct a metaphysical system that acts as a reference point or anchor, giving one solid ground in seeing himself and others. "The philosophers have said that man is a metaphysical animal, and it can be said that this definition is fundamental and common to East and West" (Abe, 1985. p. 83), the development of a metaphysical system is endemic to our instinct for self-preservation and its relationship to the development of self identity and the creation of the ego-self. This creation of the ego-self 'I' arises from the need of discriminating, putting the individuals at the center of everything, as well as a counter measure to the development of nihilism. In the West, this ontological need has been accomplished through the individual's social construction of reality. "From its beginning, Western philosophy points towards the constructive subject that is always remaking the world in its own image," (Taylor, 1986. p. 33) therefore presenting the world as real. In the East, Buddhism has taken a different approach. In Zen Buddhism, according to Masao Abe, "The true self, is realized only through the total negation of the no-self, which is in turn the total negation of the ego-self." (Abe 1985. p. 10) With the denial of the self also comes the denial of the need for the construction of a metaphysical system. Both these movements for realization, although following different premises, arrive at the same conclusion: the self is a social creation; in reality it is not attainable and is in fact an illusion.

In Western Postmodern Philosophy, the self becomes transparent, relegated to the margins of our World View, instead of occupying its center. Postmodernism is seen as a state of flux, discontinuity and decenteredness. According to Olson, "Within the world of flux, there are no universal and timeless truths to be discovered because everything is relative and indeterminate, which suggests that our knowledge is always incomplete, fragmented, and historically culturally conditioned." (2000. p. 20)

In the Buddhist's view, the problem of the self and the center is treated very differently. Nishitani sees the center of everything as sunyata, or emptiness, where there are no limitations. For example, "Each thing in its own selfness shows the mode of being of the center of all things. Each and every thing becomes the center of all things and, in that sense, becomes an absolute center. This is the absolute uniqueness of things, their reality." (Nishitani, 1982. p. 146) For Nishitani then, the idea of selfness, authentic selfhood and the absolute center are only obtainable with emptiness. When the self is negated by moving from the field of nihility to emptiness, a shift from an ego central state to a state of non ego selflessness occurs. Nishitani would agree that the self represents our primary identity, but the self is seen in terms of emptiness. It is a temporary self. The self is not something one can possess, but rather "when our 'self' is true then our self is not ours and not others — it is the four elements and the five shandhas." (Dogen, 1986. p 47) For Dogen then, true self is concrete, not transcendental, and this no-self is unchanging and permanent. The self which we create, the self of illusion, is constructed. It is the illusionary self that people feel they possess, but one or the other in reality is not possessable. It is a self that is in constant flux with no presence, and as a result of this constant changing, it is impossible to possess. Yet through our construction of reality, we equate this ever changing illusionary self with the attribute of permanence. However, a genuine self still exists for the east; it is a self that represents the immediacy of experience.

In Buddhism, nothing is independent or self-existing. With the concept of dependent origination everything 'Is'. Although one has impermanence, there is dependent co- arising without an eternal or substantial selfhood. When the individual is enlightened or fully realizes that it is one's attachments to materialism by which we create the illusion of self, they realize ultimate or true reality. The idea of the negation of being, existence, and substantiality are realized in the concept of sunyata or emptiness, which is not nihilistic. Emptiness is without Form and is neither Being or non-being, moving the individual past duality. Emptiness embraces yet transcends the concept of duality. Transposed into the Western dialectic, it would be the negation of negation, which affirms both its emptiness and fullness. By translating this into the Western structure, one sets up a dialectic of 'I' and 'me', superimposed with the 'u' and 'mu' and a psychological idea of identity would develop, containing the 'I' and 'me' and Non-being and Being. If these parts generate equal force, then in reality they would be complementary and reciprocal, and neither would have ontological priority. Only by directly transcending the duality of this concept do the individuals realize that they are emptiness without permanence. It also becomes necessary to realize that emptiness is in itself non-emptiness. With this awareness, one sees one's existence as a self-contradictory oneness of non-being and Being, dependently arising to the true self (self-awareness). The necessity of this, according to Nishitani, is that "self-awareness is a nexus at which the self and knowledge are emptied, although this self-awareness is a non-knowing that represents the self as non objective." (Olson. 2000. p. 216) In essence, by each thing being itself in not being itself and conversely not itself in being itself, all things are interconnected and share the same basis as all other things. This is all made possible in the field of sunyata (emptiness).

Considering that, in the final analysis the Buddhist system shares the conviction stated by Kant that there is a unity of self and that if it can become aware of its own identity there is some affinity between the two systems. In Kantian terminology, "I am conscious of myself not as I appear to myself, nor as I am in myself, but only that I am." (Kant, 1964. pp. 152-153) This makes the empirical self known and is an idea essentially similar to Hume's. Kant goes on to explain, "Consciousness of self according to the determinations of our state in inner perception is merely empirical and always changing. No fixed and abiding self can present itself in this flux of inner appearances." (Kant. 1964. p. 136) Therefore it becomes impossible to know or prove the existence of a transpersonal self. Furthermore, since the self we do experience undergoes change and is in a state of flux, it can't represent reality or be permanent.

In this way, we find that both Eastern and Western thinkers have developed some type of philosophical system to deal with the problem of metaphysics. From its beginning with Platonic Forms and the Middle Way of Tsang, through Universals and materialism in particular, through Idealism, Phenomenonology and Postmodernism, the main problem is to develop a classifying system of understanding. It is this cognitive dimension that takes the world of experience and the phenomena we see as objects, in terms of our cultural and linguistic patterns, and make them real.


Abe, M., (1985). Zen and western thought. Ed. William R. LaFleur. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Berger, P.L. & Luckmann, T., (1967). The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Anchor.

Dogen,. (1986). Shobogenzo — The eye and treasury of the true law. vol. I. Translated by Kosen Nishiy Ama and John Strevens. Tokyo: Nakayama Shobo.

Hanh, T.N. (1995). Zen Keys: A guide to zen practices. London: Thorsons.

Kant, I.. , (1964). Critique of pure reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith (London: Macmillan and company Ltd.) New York: St. Martin's Press.

Olson, C., (2000). Zen and the art of postmodern philosophy. New York: State University of New York Press.

Taylor, M.C. Ed. (1986). Deconstruction in context — literature and philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

(c) John Eberts 2003