One of the main themes in Buddhism is the ‘extinguishing of self’ through ‘enlightenment’… or is it the other way around? They seem to go hand in hand; are they the same thing? Initially asking such basic questions on word meaning often helps when pondering life. The more basic question here is, “What is self in the first place?” The idea here is that understanding an issue as deeply as possible may help solve it.
“What is self in the first place?”
Let’s consider the self in the largest possible sense of the word. In biology there is the concept of emergent properties where simple structures, processes, and order, form a foundational pattern upon which structures, processes, and order that are more complex emerge.
I see this principle at work, not only in biology, but throughout existence. Indeed, what is biology but an emergent property of some more primordial order? It is helpful to think of the self as just such an emergent property, not only of biology, but also of something universal that extends ‘From the present back to antiquity’, as chapter 21 puts it. (See Tao as Emergent Property)
It helps to take into account the natural impetus in all things to maintain a kind of ‘self’ integrity: From the impetus that keeps an atom of hydrogen stable to the impetus that keeps the human heart pumping away. In all things, this impetus to maintain self-integrity is un-self-conscious, like a baby that has not yet learned to smile, as chapter 20 put it. The atom doesn’t think it has to ‘keep it together’, and neither does the heart as it pumps its life away. The worm, the tree, the crow all feel the impetus to ‘keep it together’… to survive, but none think they should. There is impetus to ‘just do it’, without any thoughts of choice or purpose. Humans are somewhat different, at least on the surface.
The emergent property of a mind knowing ‘I am’
The mind is an emergent property of thought, which allows us to think that we know. One of the earliest things we think that we know is “I am”. All the while, however, the impetus to maintain self-integrity (survival) is pulling the strings. Moreover, the more certain one is of “I am”, the harder it is to realize what is actually pulling the strings. About 400 years ago, the belief in “I am” got a real boost in the Western world from Descartes, “I think, therefore I am; or I am thinking, therefore I exist”. From a Taoist point of view, such certainty is just asking for trouble. As chapter 71 puts it:
Seeing all we think and do as an emergent property of something ancient, if not eternal, is very helpful once you can feel it in your bones. On the other hand, thinking “I am” and the other beliefs we hold to be true in their own right leads to never ending difficulty. For example, the idea of God hints at what chapter 4 calls a darkly visible, it only seems as if it were there something. However, the ‘naming of’ and ‘belief in’ a God fosters a perpetual focal point for division and strife. Still, as a tribal species, I guess we need something to squabble and fight over.
Buddha’s Second Noble Truth states, “The illusion of self originates and manifests itself in a cleaving to things”. His Third and Fourth Truth go on to say that “conquering self” and “whose self disappears before truth” will end suffering. Finally, Buddha’s Eight Fold Path offers a means to accomplish this task. The question is, does this set up an ideal that is impossible to achieve? As always, does believing in this create unnecessary difficulty for us? Then again, being a somewhat neurotic ape, perhaps we need some impossible dream to shoot for… and perhaps shoot ourselves in the foot as well.
Up to this point, we see that the thought of self is perhaps just an emergent property of a simpler universal reality. This gives some clues for our goal of extinguishing this illusion. Going forward, it will help to examine the ideal of extinguishing the self from an emergent property point of view.
Ideals as emergent properties
We can also see ideals themselves as emergent properties, not only of biology, but of something primordial as well. It’s not an accidental whim of nature that human thought is rife with ideals: spiritual, political, romantic, health, intelligence, knowledge, sports… you name it! Ideals provide the direction for our actions, our self-actualization. Question: What are ideals an emergent property of?
Let’s review: In biology, there is the concept of emergent properties where primary structures, processes and order, form a foundational pattern upon which more complex structures, processes and orders emerge. This principle is at work throughout Nature. The only primary ‘ideal’ I see in Nature is balance. This ‘ideal’ gives the impetus to maintain self-integrity for all phenomena. Likewise, Nature’s core ‘ideal’ of balance serves as the foundation out of which all human ideals emerge. (Whoa! That’s a big chunck to bite off, I’ll admit. Now, let’s bite of an even bigger one!)
The ideal of balance underlying the impetus of Nature to balance itself can never be realized! Ironically, any state of perfect balance is not perfect unless it allows for and incorporates imbalance. In other words, perfect balance is counter balanced by a necessary degree of imbalance. The ideal can never be reached for reaching it would become ‘one sided’, i.e., perfect and complete balance is essentially imbalanced. It is not the ‘big picture’ for it abandons imbalance. Ah, as chapter 78 says, straightforward words seem paradoxical. Not surprisingly, chapter 45 puts this principle more poetically… Great perfection seems chipped, Yet use will not wear it out.
The ‘how to’ of extinguishing the self
We have finally come to the ‘how to’ part of extinguishing self. Chapter 71’s warning gives us a clue… To know yet to think that one does not know is best; Not to know yet to think that one knows will lead to difficulty. The question is how can one know and yet think they don’t? This really boils down to the depth of faith you have in names and words. The more faith you have in them, the further from the constant you will unavoidably be; as chapter 1 suggests, The name that can be named Is not the constant name.
Chapter 56 gives us more clues: One who knows does not speak [think, write]; one who speaks [thinks, writes] does not know. I added ‘thinks, writes’ as those interrelate with ‘speaks’. To put this in an emergent property context: first comes think, then speak, then write. Chapter 56 also advices us to “Shut the doors, Blunt the sharpness; Untangle the knots; Soften the glare“. To me, these are metaphorical for softening our faith in names and words. Next, chapter 56 refers to “mysterious sameness“, which exposes the illusion of difference. Finally, an illusion of difference is essential to maintain meaning and faith in names and words.
Okay, I’ll admit, I am only beating around the bush of ‘how to’ extinguish self. This may be as far as I can ever go. Perhaps Buddha’s Second Noble Truth shows why. Namely, “The illusion of self originates and manifests itself in a cleaving to things”. Words, names, ideals, and beliefs are all things to which we can cling in order to maintain our illusionary sense of self. Yet, as we have seen, even absent these things, we would still experience the primary property of an un-self-conscious self. The illusion of self, itself, is a natural emergent property. Any notion of ridding ourselves of this is itself a delusionary ideal. Round and round we go!
This brings us back to the only escape I have found — mysterious sameness! The more I can see similarity in all things, the softer, and more muddled my faith becomes in apparent differences between words, names, beliefs, and ideals. I’m able to be more like other animals, less dominated by that which so easily throws me off balance — faith in words, names, beliefs, and ideals. This is as close to “A How-To for Extinguishing Self” I’ve come.
Perhaps chapter 36 offers the best view of the how extinguishing self plays out over time in each of us.