Tuesday, February 1, 2011


 "What is the self?" is, in my view, the most important question in human experience. It is the central focus and starting point for modern philosophy. Yet for most of us, it is one of the questions that we make the most assumptions and have the most presuppositions about. But however you answer this question, your conclusion will have profound implications for every dimension of your daily life, and for other questions you raise in regard to ethics, epistemology, ontology, psychology, religion, political theories, and notions of (black or white, male and female, and cultural) personal identity.
For those interested in an introductory, brief Western tour through this matter, I would suggest beginning with Meditations on First Philosophy (Meditation II,), by
Rene Descartes, the father of modern philosophy whose cogito ("I think") situated the subject of experience (and subjectivity) at the forefront of the philosophical enterprise.
Turn next to David Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, Part IV, section V on "Personality Identity," where he writes, "For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception."
Next work as best you can with Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. (Believe me, it will pay dividends.) Then, because he felt "I owe what is best in my own development to the impression made by Kant's works, the sacred writings of the Hindus, and Plato," and because the dialogue continues today about his relationship to Buddhism and Eastern thought, look at Arthur Schopenhauer's The World As Will and Representation (1818) for a fascinating 19th century Western bridge to the East.
The Eastern part of this tour should include a study of The Bhagavad Gita. For those interested in a masterly text that includes a transliteration and nano-level analysis of Sanskrit grammar, I suggest the translation by Winthrop Sargeant. For lay readers who would appreciate a lively commentary on the Gita as it relates to contemporary life, I recommend the three-volume translation The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living by the late, great meditation teacher, Eknath Easwaran, who was always a witty writer, and former English professor (Obviously, that endeared him to me). I also suggest the Advaita Vedanta classic Astavkra Samhita.
 Among the Buddhists, this tour should include Nagarjuna's "Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way," Vasubandhu's "Treatise on the Three Natures," Dogen's philosophical and cultural masterpiece Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, and the Middle Length, Long and Connected Discourses of the Buddha, translated in three volumes by Bhikkhu Bodhi, Maurice Walshe, and Bhikkhu Nanamoli. (Pardon me for the absence of diacritical marks with these titles and names.)
All this is but the tip of the ice berg, and just begins the tour or introductory course---The Self 101--- for broaching the meditation, "What is the self?" The rest of the journey or course will probably take a lifetime.

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