Beyond Substance:
The Curative Value of Egolessness
and the Ethical Importance of Compassion in Buddhism

Sharon Belfer
Department of Psychology
Simon Fraser University


Having been trained in the scientific, hypothetico-deductive enterprise of psychology, many students of psychology expect personality theories to be accordingly nomothetic and analytic. Nomothetic theories of personality consider personality to be a consequence of the universal laws of nature; analytic theories suggest that people are best understood by reducing them to their quantifiable, observable parts (Paranjpe, 1995a). In contrast, theories of personhood are idiographic and synoptic: idiographic in that they emphasize the relative, particular nature of personality beyond universal variables; synoptic in that they suggest that people can be understood only by contextualizing the gestalt of their unified parts (Paranjpe, 1995a). As a relative, ethico-legal concept, personhood implies that legal rights and responsibilities are only awarded to those individuals who meet the three preconditions for personhood: cognition, affect and conation (Paranjpe, 1993). In emphasizing the human capacity to understand, feel and will appropriately, theories of personhood express a concern for individual health and self-actualization, and therefore tend to endorse curative and ethical goals. A theory is curative to the extent that it is a rationale for therapy; and ethical to the extent that it describes the process by which an individual can become fully self-actualized.

Although Buddhism is best known as a contemplative Asian religion, it is also a philosophy with well-defined curative and ethical goals, and can therefore be understood using the Western construct of personhood. As a curative theory of personhood, Buddhism provides a rationale for the synoptic treatment of a person deficit in one or more of the three preconditions of personhood (i.e. cognition, affect and conation). In emphasizing the curative value of moral thought, feeling and action, Buddhism provides a relative, idiographic theory of personhood which focuses on the particular qualities of an individual's situation. As an ethical theory of personhood, however, Buddhism describes a process of self-actualization contingent on the understanding of the fundamental laws of absolute reality. By emphasizing the nomothetic nature of the path to self-actualization, Buddhism provides an absolute theory of personhood, transcending both ethico-legal dualism and moral dialectic. By analyzing the Buddhist path within the context of both relative and absolute personhood, I will contrast the curative goal of dualistic, dialectical morality with the ethical goal of absolute, self- evident compassion.

The Four Noble Truths

When Gautama Buddha founded Buddhism in the 6th century B.C., he described his basic ontological assumptions as the "Four Noble Truths" (Rahula, 1974). Gautama's First Noble Truth is that the nature of life is suffering, or Dukha. A broad term for which there is no direct English translation, dukha refers to the ubiquitous, indiscriminate nature of suffering, pervading both pleasant and painful experiences. According to Gautama, none of the physical, social or psychological aspects of our individual world (dasein) have any permanence, and their continual, inevitable change is dukha (Rahula, 1974). Thus, although we typically emphasize the difference between pleasant and painful experiences by accounting for them with various efficient causes or stimuli; Gautama emphasized the commonality between these experiences by accounting for all of them with the overarching formal cause of impermanence.

If every aspect of existence is impermanent and therefore the essence of suffering, one might think that Gautama's First Noble Truth destines us to a lifetime of inescapable misery. However, Gautama's Second Noble Truth is that the origin of suffering lies not in impermanence itself, but in our ignorance of impermanence (Rahula, 1974). Because we do not recognize the constantly changing nature of our dasein , we nurture the hope of one day attaining permanent satisfaction in the physical, social and/or personal realm. Unfortuantely, any satisfaction derived from these realms is impermanent: healthy bodies get old and sick; friends become estranged or die; pleasant feelings dissolve unexpectedly and without reason, etc. Our insatiable craving for permanent satisfaction thus becomes the efficient cause of dukha or suffering.

The Third Noble Truth follows logically from the Second Noble Truth. If ignorance is the origin of suffering, then the cessation of ignorance, Gautama argued, should be the cessation of suffering (Rahula, 1974). Note that this ambitious proposition does not imply the cessation of impermanence. The cessation of impermanence would result in a very strange, static world, contradicting both Gautama's fundamental ontological assumption (i.e. the First Noble Truth) and common sense. Rather, Gautama is suggesting that ignorance, despite its tyrannical power over our lives, is potentially and conceivably eradicable. By suggesting that the universal human birthright is realization, not ignorance, Gautama is presenting the theoretical basis for the curative and ethical goals of his theory: every human being can not only liberate herself from the sickness of ignorance, but can also achieve the fully self-actualized state of realization.

Having laid the theoretical foundation for his curative and ethical goals, Gautama then provides an actual treatment for the sick/and or unactualized. His Fourth Noble Truth is the truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering; i.e. to health and self-actualization. This path consists of four stages, corresponding to the three conditions for personhood. The first two stages are cognition-oriented, and they involve listening to the teachings of the Four Noble Truths and reflecting on their meaning (Gyamtso, 1988). These stages are designed to develop intellectual confidence in the truth of the teachings. However, since intellectual acceptance is conducive to but not identical with emotional acceptance, the third stage of the path involves meditating on the relevance of the Four Noble Truths to one's own experience (Gyamtso, 1988). In accordance with his synoptic approach, Gautama stressed that both cognitive and affective understanding must be cultivated: an individual who meditates without studying is likely to become a "stupid Buddha", and an individual who studies without meditating is not likely to become a Buddha at all (Michael Greenleaf, personal communication, February, 1994).

The fourth stage of the path could be considered the will to actually travel the path in the first place. Although Gautama provided a detailed path for the "cure" of suffering and the actualization of one's enlightenment potential, he emphasized that no external authority or situational pressure could actually bestow health or self-actualization on an individual (Rahula, 1974). In other words, cure and self-actualization cannot be attained without a teleological motivation to achieve these goals. Thus, to follow the path of the Buddha, one must have the appropriate will, cognition and affect. In this respect, Gautama's theory is undeniably one of personhood.

Personhood and Reality

A synoptic, ethico-legal concept, "personhood" implies that legal "rights and responsibilities" are only awarded to those whose cognition, affect and conation function together in a socially appropriate manner (Paranjpe, 1993). Cognition refers to the ability to know which actions are proper and improper in any given situation; affect refers to the ability to feel appropriately in any given situation; and conation or will refers to the ability to initiate and sustain a course of action. A deficit in any aspect of this "trilogy of mind" prevents an individual both from assuming full responsibility for his actions and from being granted the same rights enjoyed by fully functioning members of society (Paranjpe, 1993). In other words, a cognitively impaired individual cannot be understood as "two thirds of a person"; cognition must function and interact appropriately with both affect and conation for an individual to be understood as a person at all.

Gautama's path for the cessation of suffering is designed to facilitate a three-fold comprehension of reality -- cognitive, affective and conative -- and is thus a path for the realization of personhood. Interestingly, many personhood theorists describe only a phenomenal, relative reality which is characterized by an ongoing dialectic between "good" and "bad" states of being (e.g. authentic and inauthentic in Existentialism, identity versus role confusion in Erikson, etc.) (Rychlak, 1981). Gautama, however, describes both an individual relative reality and a universal absolute reality (Gyamtso, 1988). Although these realities are inseparable, each one is identified with a different value of the Buddhist path: the curative value is associated with an understanding of relative reality; and the ethical value is associated with an understanding of absolute reality.

Ethico-Legal Personhood and the Path to Cure

In his curative approach, Gautama argued that people must develop a three-fold understanding of the nature of relative reality, i.e. of impermanence and egolessness (Rahula, 1974). Impermanence refers to the insubstantiality of all aspects of relative existence, and egolessness refers specifically to the insubstantiality of self. One may achieve a cognitive understanding of egolessness by dispassionately attempting to "find" the self (Gyamtso, 1988). Where is this feeling of "I AM" located? What validity does it have? What justification is there for its existence?

In eighteenth century Europe, Hume attempted to answer these questions through introspective observation. Expecting to find an observable "self", Hume instead found that "mind was in a constant state of flux; he could find in it no idea or entity that remained unchanged, and might be called the self" (Paranjpe, 1994, p. 8). Hume had reached a cognitive understanding of egolessness, and had therefore achieved a one-third understanding of the nature of relative reality. However, because Hume had achieved cognitive understanding independent of affective and conative understanding, he was still emotionally attached to his lost self, and "fanc[ied] himself in the most deplorable condition imaginable" (Paranjpe, 1994, p. 8).

Whereas Hume could not imagine a "selfless" morality, Gautama has suggested that a denial of the self enables a gestalt morality in which other people's needs are seen to be as important as one's own. Gautama noted that our emotional attachment to our "self" is the cause of "all the troubles and strife in the world" (Rahula, 1974, p. 30). Because of our affective ignorance of impermanence, we feel (if not think) that there is some kind of absolute, continuous entity inside of us in need of protection and defense. As our essence, this possessable entity is extremely precious to us, and we feel justified in acting as if our "self" were the most important thing in the universe. However, by cultivating an affective understanding of egolessness, we realize that this overwhelmingly intense attachment is to a hypothetical entity, impermanent, constantly changing, and completely uknownable. As a result of this emotional understanding, our attachment, with all of its resultant selfishness, gradually subsides (Gyamtso, 1988).

In accordance with the ethico-legal perspective, Gautama argued that the emotions of attachment and non-attachment can only have future consequences for people's rights and responsibilities if they intentionally act on those emotions. However, despite the common emphasis on conation, Gautama's curative theory of personhood, more than other such theories (e.g. Rogers, Erikson), stresses the pre-determined nature of actions. For example, in the ethico-legal perspective, credit and blame are awarded in accordance with the dualistic, relative laws of a particular society. In the Buddhist perspective, however, credit and blame are awarded in accordance with the dualistic laws of relative reality, or karma. According to the interdependent law of karma, one's present actions are not only the result of some present condition, but they will also be the cause of a future condition for similar actions to arise (Rahula, 1974). In other words, if I willingly performing a jealous action in the present, this action will plant the karmic seed for a future condition to arise (e.g. an unfaithful lover) which will predispose me to act jealously. This future action will plant another karmic seed, and so on. [Aside: Because karmic predispositions are the inescapable fruition of chosen actions, Gautama's karmic determinism is significantly different from both Skinner's environmental determinism and Freud's biological determinism (Rychlak, 1981)]

Like the laws of society, the law of karma is more concerned with the intention behind an action than the actual action itself. However, because karma is not distributed by any deity or higher power but simply is, whether or not one understands the consequences of one's actions does not affect one's responsibility for those actions (Rahula, 1974). Moreover, the only "right" emphasized by Gautama was the inalienable right of every sentient being to his or her birthright of enlightenment (Rahula, 1974). Although the existence of this fundamental right remains unaffected by external circumstances, the more selfless or egoless actions one performs in the present, the more conducive one's future will be to realizing this right of enlightenment. Likewise, the more selfish actions one performs in the present, the more conducive one's future will be to remaining in a state of ignorance and suffering. Therefore, to achieve a three-fold understanding of relative reality (including the law of karma), one must not only believe in truth of egolessness, but one must also intentionally act in accordance with that belief. Thus, a conative understanding of relative reality involves the performance of egoless, "self"-less actions.

By attempting to treat the whole person (i.e. each aspect of the trilogy of mind), Gautama's path to treatment results in the strengthening of an egoless morality through the intentional performance of selfless actions (rendering Hume's panic about the implicit immorality of egolessness unneccesary and premature). Note that Gautama is stressing the curative effects of selflessness (thesis) as opposed to the pathological effects of selfishness (antithesis). In this respect, the morality of egolessness is a dialectical, relative morality, with individuals cultivating one quality while rejecting its definitional opposite. Gautama's relative morality of egolessness is therefore analogous to the dialectical, relative morality of ethico-legal personhood and the socio-legal world in which it exists.

Since the rules of society are as impermanent as the self, Gautama's curative path towards ethico-legal personhood provides only for a relative, idiosyncratic morality, one dependent on causes and conditions for its arising and cessation. In his ethical path to self-actualization, however, Gautama describes an absolute morality, beyond both society and impermanence. The fruition of Buddhist self-actualization, therefore, is to become a person in the absolute sense, with cognition, conation and affect functioning according to the immutable, nomothetic laws of absolute reality.

Absolute Personhood and the Path to Self-Actualization

Whereas Gautama's path to cure focuses on the insubstantiality of self, Gautama's path to self-actualization focuses on the insubstantiality of the dualism between self and other. In other words, once one's cognition, affect and conation have been cured of ignorance of egolessness, one has only achieved an understanding of relative reality. To become a fully self-actualized person, however, one must achieve a three-fold understanding of both absolute and relative reality.

A cognitive understanding of absolute reality involves an intellectual recognition that "all experience is basically a manifestation of mind. . .the whole of existence is empty of a duality of substance between mind and matter" (Gyamtso, 1988, p. 39). According to Gautama, the essence of this universal mind is luminous, unborn awareness; absolutely real, yet "empty" of concepts and preconceptions. Once one realizes that the essence of absolute reality is indiscriminate and nomothetic, one will inevitably realize that the nature of everyone's mind is this luminous awareness. At this point, one intellectually understands that there is no absolute basis for the relative experience of duality between self and other (Rahula, 1974). Note that Gautama is neither denying the existence of individual differences nor suggesting that all people are really just one big Person. Rather, he is suggesting that the essence of all people (and of the entire world, for that matter) is the same indestructible, unalterable quality of luminous awareness. Accordingly, although differences among people obviously exist, they are meaningful only on a relative level.

An affective understanding of absolute reality involves an emotional experience of the lack of duality between self and other. Having already experienced the relative realization that there is no "self" to protect and prioritize, one now experiences the absolute realization that there is no "other" to be compassionate towards (Trungpa, 1975). Because there is no longer any sense of "mine" and "yours", one's primary emotional state is characterized by spontaneous compassion, beyond contrivance or condescension. At this point, one has transcended both the intellectual dualism between self and other, and the emotional dualism between giver and receiver (Trungpa, 1975).

As the third aspect of Gautama's path to nondual, nonconceptual self-actualization, the conative understanding of absolute reality transcends the duality between intention and action. Remember that in the relative reality of ethico-legal personhood, people are held responsible only for actions with deliberately intended consequences; people are not held responsible for actions which have unforseen or unintended consequences. Implicit in this distinction is a recognition that people are either not interested in being aware or are not able to be aware of all the consequences of their actions. In contrast, in the ultimate reality of Gautama's absolute, self- actualized personhood, one is always aware of the consequences of one's actions, and one always acts with the intent of achieving a desired result.

In relative reality, people's actions are caused by both the efficient motivators of unconscious karmic predispositions, and the teleological motivators of conscious intentions. In absolute reality, however, one is no longer subject to the unconscious, self-perpetuating force of karma , and one's actions are therefore entirely motivated by the conscious intent to achieve a desired end result (Trungpa, 1981). Free of all karmic tendencies to act mindlessly and habitually, one now realizes that there is no absolute basis for the relative distinction between the giver and the act of giving (Trungpa, 1981). Moreover, one's sense of morality is no longer constrained by the arbitrary, dualistic distinctions of relative reality. Once one has developed a three-fold understanding of the indestructible luminosity of one's mind and one's world, cognition, affect and conation become synchronized beyond the relative dictates of culture and law. One may not always think, feel and act in a culturally appropriate manner, but one will always think, feel and act in a way that manifests the absolute nature of one's mind (Trungpa, 1994). Therefore, although Gautama emphasized the ethical value of the synoptic functioning of cognition, affect and conation, his path of self-actualization is really one of absolute personhood, in which the fundamental essence of a person is universal and nomothetic.

In distinguishing between relative and absolute reality, Gautama was aspiring to make his theory applicable to all human beings, beyond the relative boundaries of culture, financial situation and social status. Contrary to the stereotype of the disheveled Buddhist struggling to escape the grime and grit of everyday reality, Gautama's curative goal of ethico-legal personhood stresses the importance of being able "to function as normal human beings" within the shared reference point of relative reality (Gyamtso, 1988, p. 21). Moreover, Gautama's ethical goal of absolute personhood does not contradict or deny the importance of relative truth. Although "self" and "other" may not exist in an absolute sense, they still have a relative existence which enables us to communicate and function within the constraints of common sense reality. For Gautama to deny the importance of relative reality, encouraging each student to believe that "the world is his own invention and that nothing exists outside of himself. . .would be like some kind of madness" (Gyamtso, p.38, 1988). As Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso (1988, p. 14) has pointed out: "without a proper understanding of the vast aspects of the relative truth, meditation on Emptiness [i.e. absolute reality] can be misleading and even dangerous". Therefore, to follow the path of the Buddha is not to deny the importance of our relative situation; but to realize that our absolute essence remains unaltered by the happiness or misery of our present situation. Like the sun which has been temporarily covered by passing clouds (Rahula, 1974), absolute truth pervades and sanctifies the poignancy of our relative truth, even on our sickest and most un-actualized days.

About the Author

Sharon is a fourth year undergraduate student and a practicing Buddhist whose interests are in applied psychology.


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