On Selves and Masters

“Taken as a whole, man is nothing but a resultant, always changeable, of all his diverse faculties, of all his autonomous tendencies, of brain cells and nerve centers. All are related so closely to one another that they each react on all the others, but they lead their own life without being subordinated to a central organ — the soul.”

Petr Kropotkin

The name of this project, “No Selves, No Masters”, started out as pun on the classic anarchist slogan “No Gods, No Masters” and sounded catchy enough at first. After having been at this a couple of months I’ve begun to see theoretical value in the slogan which I didn’t initially expect. For readers unfamiliar with Buddhism (and perhaps some who are) it may seem a bit bizarre. So I thought I would try to open it up a bit and see where it takes us.

I’ll actually get to the “No Masters” half first because I think it is a bit more intuitive: Anarchists reject hierarchy (“unjustified” hierarchy according to Chomsky), and thus reject rulers, bosses, superiors, laws, authorities and “masters” — basically any person or rule which places itself in a position of domination in relation to others in society. A common complaint against anarchism is that taken literally (or totally idiotically), then even differences in skill, knowledge, role and ability are things which are anarchists against, supposedly advocating that humans do ridiculous things like chop each others legs off to make sure everyone is equal in height or have ordinary people vote to tell doctors how to perform a surgery.  Social equality does not equal conformity, and expertise, or “mastery”, does not mean hierarchical rule. Bakunin famously addresses this criticism in God and the State by responding, “Does it follow that I reject all authority? Far from me such a thought. In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or engineer. For such or such special knowledge I apply to such or such a savant. But I allow neither the bootmaker nor the architect nor the savant to impose his authority upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism and censure.”

In a Buddhist context, the word Master is often used to describe highly attained persons within the Dhamma, often teachers, including the greatest “Master” himself, Siddhartha Gotama, “Old Uncle Sid”, the Buddha. From Bakunin’s argument, it is obvious that anarchists are not rejecting the “authority” of enlightened or wise teachers on matters of the mind, and therefore it is no problem for Buddhist anarchists to seek counsel from good teachers and defer to their relevant knowledge. What is important for us to be aware of and criticize is the imposition of the teacher’s authority on oneself, particularly when it concerns matters other than how to walk the noble eightfold path. There are far too many instances of religious “authority” being abused this way and becoming precisely the kind of authority which anarchists reject. Even in the original slogan, “No Gods” had less to do with divinity itself than with the imposition of rule by cults, clerics and kings in the name of gods. Despite being a deity-optional religion (non-theistic, as opposed to atheist, though I rather agree with Bakunin’s anti-theist statement: “The idea of God implies the abdication of human reason and justice; it is the most decisive negation of human liberty, and necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind, both in theory and practice…if God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him.” no offence to you libertarian theists out there), Buddhism has spawned countless instances of the tyranny which the spirit of “No Gods” rejects. Indeed, such “Gods” (clerics, kings, oppressive cultural views) in Buddhism are targets of criticism for Buddhist anarchists, as they are what has enabled the worldly distortion of important Dhamma teachings throughout history and continuing now. When lead astray by such “Gods”, ordinary people fall into wrong view, wrong action, wrong livelihood and surely create great negative karma at the insistence of supposedly holy “masters”.

Even the Buddha provided guidance which bears some resemblance to Bakunin’s argument: In several suttas (MN 47, MN 95, AN 4.192, AN 65) the Buddha advises monks and lay-followers to judge a person’s spiritual authority by observation of their character, their knowledge, and their intelligence, and ultimately to judge the worth of religion on their own direct experience rather than appeals to divinity, tradition, authority, and so on. Bakunin;s view appears to support this, “If I bow before the authority of the specialists and avow my readiness to follow, to a certain extent and as long as may seem to me necessary, their indications and even their directions, it is because their authority is imposed upon me by no one, neither by men nor by God…I bow before the authority of special men because it is imposed upon me by my own reason.” Insofar as figures like the Buddha are abstracted, idealized, de-humanized and made into “Gods”, they ought to be rejected. Thankfully, modern Buddhism has strongly affirmed the Buddha’s humanity, but worship of Buddha-as-God is still quite common, and his cult is often closely aligned with the State. Even in its modern, “protestantized”or secularized forms, Buddhism may yet find ways of affirming the State, for as Bakunin wrote, “It [protestantism] is the bourgeois religion par excellence. It accords just as much liberty as is necessary to the bourgeois, and finds a way of reconciling celestial aspirations with the respect which terrestrial conditions demand”. More recently, Zizek has commented on modern Buddhism, “The “Western Buddhist” meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanity.” So the question for Buddhist anarchists, and perhaps other anarchists of faith, is how might we safeguard the Buddha or the “Divine” (and the many liberating practices of faith) from the clutches of God and the State? Is there a way to do this without turning Buddhism into a “spiritual-but-not-religious” self-help market commodity which, “transforms Buddhism from a bold bearer of the good (?) news about the human Real into an apostle of a New Age apocalypse”? Perhaps by attaining “Mastery”, or at least competency and critical thinking, ourselves, we all might hope to help steer the ship into freer waters.

Now, that’s all relatively straightforward. Anarchists reject hierarchy. Religious anarchists reject religious hierarchy while affirming faith in particular practices, principles, rituals and elements of religion which they find important. But what kind of crazy anarchist proclaims “No Self”? Isn’t anarchism all about individual and collective liberty? Without a self, what is an individual and how can it experience freedom? I think to get started, and for consistency’s sake, I’ll go with another slogan that is pretty easy to scratch into a bathroom stall wall: “Kill the Cop in Your Head”. Sounds pretty rebellious, a little bratty, but like before, actually quite profound. For one thing, taken literally, it makes an important observation of how authority and policing functions: Rulers cannot rule by force alone. Policing isn’t only the role of police officers, or even the broader system of laws and law enforcement. For policing to function it requires the active collaboration and passive acceptance of the people subjected to it. In reward for collaboration it confers (or affirms) special privileges to people, mostly in the form of less policing applied to themselves and the convenience of having people who make you uncomfortable tortured on someone else’s dime behind walls and bars, in courtrooms where you can’t see them anymore. In America’s racial caste system, the upper class, and white people in particular, are trained from birth to collaborate in racist policing of non-whites and the poor, even when we don’t agree with what the police may do when alerted. The act of calling the police on someone seen as “suspicious” is an obvious example, vigorously propagandized since childhood. But even before someone picks up a phone to dial 9-1-1, there is the mental process, often brief and barely conscious, which identifies and labels a person as “suspicious” or “dangerous” based on internalized biases and social norms or acceptable behavior. When someone is seen as “violating” these norms (for example, being Black while simply jogging through a suburban white neighborhood, or appearing homeless, loitering, having too much fun, etc) the ”cop in our head” springs into action, usually before we have even realized it. (Does this imply the need for a “mindfulness of not calling the cops” training in compassion?)

So what does this have to do with the self? I’ll get there, but first an apology: To be honest, the phrasing “No Selves” is a bit misleading. Perhaps a more accurate translation of anatta (Pali, also called anatman in Sanskrit), suggests Thanissaro Bikkhu, is not-self, as in regards to: mental-sensory phenomena which are experienced as “I, me or mine”, identified with, clung to, and when clung to, lead to craving and dukkha (suffering, stress, etc). But “Not-Selves, No (or Not) Masters” doesn’t really work as a catchy blog title. 

Another way of framing the distinction is that what psychology treats as a person’s self — our accumulated histories, habits, character and self-image, ego — is quite real, or at least tangible and important to our wellbeing and survival. This can be accepted even though when examined more closely, in meditation and in scientific research, it can be understood is nothing more than an ongoing process of “selfing” which the mind performs automatically, particularly in the brain’s “Default Mode Network”, most active while our minds wander and we engage in self-relfective thinking, remembering, and so on.

Buddhist philosophy describes this process as consisting of five “aggregates” (skandhas), or processes of sensory perception and congnition which constitute our entire phenomenal experience. It is said that when examined closely, nothing resembling an indivisible, fundamental, unchanging, totally-under-our-control or transcendent self can be found, only more-or-less stable patterns, processes, and potentials.

Is the pain in my knee myself? Are my memories my self? Is my inner monologue my real self? What about the consciousness which watches and listens to everything? These are the kind of questions people are encouraged to pursue during analytical meditation on anatta.

The supposedly stable personality we walk through the world and share the inside of our heads with is quite real. It has some degree of self-awareness, volition and ability to influence events in the world. It’s just that it’s real in the same way that an eddying current in a stream is real: a consistent pattern composed of changing parts. So from this view, clinging to the molecules flowing through the pattern is likely to cause some friction (dukkha) for our little eddy, and is not only frustrating, but impossibly so, because we are nonetheless compelled to do so anyways, like Sisyphus and his Rock.

In the same way, questions like “what is reborn if there is no self or soul?” are not so perplexing: the pattern, and even personality, persist even when their parts are replaced. Other classic similes used to explain this apparent contradiction include rebirth being like a flame passed from one candle to another, or like a seal being pressed into hot wax. I didn’t really get these before, but thinking about them as a repeating pattern composed of new matter is helpful. And even better, if you’re like me and somewhat agnostic about the matter of literal rebirth, anatta can also contribute to a present-moment concept of death and rebirth, in which the self rapidly recreates itself each mind moment. Even if we don’t speculate beyond the end of our lives it is easy to see how not only do we never step into the same river twice, we are never the exact same person we were a single step ago. But enough of the pattern and process persists (or is clung to) that we feel like it’s the same me from second to second, day to day, year to year, life to life and so on.

This is of course only my own interpretation of the anatta doctrine at this point in my study. The Buddha discouraged speculation on the issue because he thought that it might lead to excessive metaphysical theorizing, which hinders insight into the four noble truths, direct experience of anicca (impermanence), anatta and dukkha, and the cessation of suffering in this life. But here I am speculating anyways. In the future I hope to expand this argument to include the Mahayana conception of sunyata (emptiness), which is itself a sort of expansion on anatta which includes all objective, subjective and non-dualistic phenomena, but I will leave it at that for now.

Alright, back to killing the cops (in your head). 

First of all, much of what we call the self is socially constructed, including internalized structures of rule and subjugation (like head-cops, or head-bosses, head-abusers, and other voices of internalized oppression). As far as I’m aware this is not something traditional Buddhism talks about, but anarchists and socialists certainly do. Much like concepts of race, gender and nationality are social constructs — abstract categories without grounding in fact but which nevertheless have real consequences and are imposed by society — the self is something profoundly shaped by its environment. It is an individual unit, but the unit, much like a single ant in a colony, cannot survive, thrive or form a strong identity without its collectivity. Even within the personality it is recognized that various elements of culture, early childhood experiences, family and friend groups profoundly influence our identity, behaviors, beliefs and values, at least some of which we might consider as partially constituting our “self”. It is within this matrix of socially-constructed symbols, selves and ideologies out of which our selves are born, shaped by and go on to reproduce, which we, as Buddhists, anarchists and humans with a moral backbone, become faced with the impossible challenge of “being good” in a world/culture/collective-self which programs us to be “evil”. This may be even more true now than in the Buddha’s time, leading Tom Pepper to the conclusion that, “We cannot improve the self without improving the collective symbolic/imaginary system of which it is a part”, and thus not be truly free without engaging in ethical “social action”, or perhaps more specifically, social revolution. But most of the time we are not aware of this, which is why it is so difficult to write “objectively” and why acknowledging identity and standpoint is important for uncovering biases and blindspots on particular topics. When we cling to these social elements of the self-identity as “I, me, or mine” it is very difficult to find the necessary distance to analyze them from.

As a means of observing the five aggregates first-hand, Buddhist meditation (and ideology) gives meditators the means to alter their relationship to the process of self-aggregation, or “selfing”. This can be useful for a few reasons, but also comes with its dangers. On the positive side, over time meditation has the ability to loosen the “stickiness” of the self, particularly clinging to elements which cause us suffering like desire and aversion. Another word for this process of un-selfing (as phrased by Goleman and Davidson in “Altered Traits”) is “dereification”. Reification is when when our minds or societies make abstract concepts out to be real, substantial things. Money (or Debt, as David Graeber would have it) is a great example of such a powerful fiction.  It then follows that de-reification is the process of dispelling such illusions and seeing them clearly for what they are, be they money, memory, or consciousness.

Not surprisingly reification plays a large part in Marxist ideas about alienation. Gajo Petrovic writes, “Reification is a ‘special’ case of alienation, its most radical and widespread form characteristic of modern capitalist society,” which includes not only theoretical objects, but, “transformation of human beings into thing‑like beings which do not behave in a human way but according to the laws of the thing‑world”. So, while with a slightly different focus, it is interesting to consider how meditation might contribute to dereification of not just the self, but of our alienation more generally. Marxists and anarchists have tended to focus on overcoming the material causes of alienation, but in combination with practices geared to reduce our own subjective sense of alienation from our most basic sensory experiences — unconsciously mediated by a reified self — it may be possible to expand the domains of freedom to which revolutionaries aspire. 

When Ichikawa Hakugen speaks of “vertical” and “horizontal” freedoms in relation to his “Sunyata Anarchist Communism” and “Origin Humanism”, I think that this is the sort of alienation overcome by development of the vertical dimension of freedom-through-emptiness. This does not of course necessarily challenge material/social/horizontal alienation, but it at least has the potential to lighten its “emotional baggage”. With a lighter, less sticky, less reified and alienated self, a Buddhist anarchist may have more energy to put into the struggle for horizontal freedom with compassion and clarity. Communitarian anarchist John Clark says of Zen meditation, “As anti-statist as we may try to be, our efforts will come to little if our state of mind is a mind of state. Zen helps us dispose of the clutter of the authoritarian ideological garbage that automatically collects in our normal, well-adjusted mind.” 

Of course, no compassionate Buddhist argument would be complete without extending a token of salvation towards the oppressors, who are just as caught up in this delusion. Especially considering how in one part of our life we may be the oppressed, and in others we may be the oppressor, whether we like it or not. You might also look at struggle against oppression you experience in part as struggle to free the oppressor as well as oneself, considering the karmic harm the oppressor is doing to themselves. This is the praxis of Compassion, but not necessarily sympathy or even “kindness”. Something a little more stern is often needed, and usually not appreciated to the person on the receiving end of such compassion. To quote Bakunin once more, “It is the characteristic of privilege and of every privileged position to kill the mind and heart of men. The privileged man, whether politically or economically, is a man depraved in mind and heart. That is a social law which admits of no exception, and is as applicable to entire nations as to classes, corporations, and individuals. It is the law of equality, the supreme condition of liberty and humanity. The principal object of this treatise is precisely to demonstrate this truth in all the manifestations of human life”. Gary Snyder further recommends, “Fighting back with civil disobedience, pacifism, poetry, poverty—and violence, if it comes to a matter of clobbering some rampaging redneck or shoving a scab off the pier.”

Personally I can attest to at least one period in my life when I was practicing meditation intensively while doing an eco-anarchist direct action campaign with much greater courage, vigor and selflessness than I could ordinarily muster. This is also where I became acquainted with the dark side of selflessness.

After being lifted on such a wild wave of radical altruism, when the time came to face consequences, I thought that my practice would be strong enough and that I would be prepared. But I wasn’t. Despite my personal life falling apart, I moved, dove even deeper into activism, this time in community-organizing anarchism following the 2016 US elections, all while being ground through the slow torture of the legal system, from charges, to hearings, motions, trial, pleas and probation. I was fortunate to get off so easy, but even that was enough to deplete my reserves of compassion for several years. When so urgently compelled to help others, without generating energy for one’s self, particularly the healthy, functional qualities of our ego, it is easy to fall into self-neglect, burnout, depression and resignation, or as Hakugen pointed out in his criticism of Imperial Way Zen, even self-sacrifice and fanaticism in support of a “holisitc” totalitarianism, deploying Buddhist concepts of no-self to inspire young men to throw away their lives on the battlefield in gratitude for the Emperor. Reflecting on my own experiences now, it was as if in my attempts to live by the “fourfold bodhisattva vows” mutated into some sort of toxic, hyper-zealous altruism, in which my own self-esteem became inseparably linked to my ability to literally fulfill literally impossible goals. Losing one’s sense of self in the world/void of compassion and emptiness is a real risk. I’m still trying to figure out what an antidote or balance might be.

One might also consider examples such as modern corporate mindfulness trainings, sold as a means of making, happier, more productive workers (implicitly, willing and able to take on greater work loads without greater pay) and various abusive guru cult’s use of meditation to brainwash followers as what Enrique Galván-Álvarez calls “oppressive technologies of the self”. Looked at with this critical lens, it should be clear for anarchists that none of these ideologies or practices, especially when deployed for worldly ends, are “all good” and above being subject to critical thinking. Even for people with the best of intentions, embracing an extreme interpretation of “no-self” can case great harm. Thus Buddhist anarchists should consider insight into anatta as necessary, true in the absolute, but insufficient for effective praxis without employing a gestalt of other ethical principles which affirm individual autonomy and wellbeing in the relative, worldly sense of self.

Much like other “technologies” employed by anarchists, meditation and Buddhist ideology can be used in the world as means of oppression or liberation, and thus a theory of Buddhist anarchism is needed to protect, develop and promote its use as a liberatory “technology of the self”, which ultimately leads us to freedom from the authority of the state and the authority of the self. As part of this process one needs to cultivate “self-mastery” to tame the mind, which on its surface appears to refute my argument. But what is meant by self-mastery is not an authoritarian notion of rule from a single seat of power in the mind. It has the same meaning as the term “self-governance” when applied by anarchists to indicate the kind of radical democracy we are in favor of. It is an order, or a discipline, which arises naturally as a product of equality, self-actualization and social/emotional freedom. Doing away with sovereigns, we learn to take responsibility for ourselves and for each other. From killing the cop in our head we come to killing the “God”, or “Buddha” in our head: by seeing through it, releasing our grasping and attachment to it, and letting the self rest in its fluxing suchness without anxiety. From this point, we may “emerge from the ruin of our practice,” prepared, as Glen Wallis puts it, “To struggle against the powers of the World.” The revolutionary purpose of realizing our selflessness is in fact to develop strong, actualized, compassionate selves so that we may resolve “To clash with Hell.”

To summarize my argument:

There is no master, no soul, no essence or first cause, neither in the mind nor in the world, only the illusion of one. Our phenomenal experience is the result of the anarchic democracy of the six sense spheres and the five aggregates. Rulers, bosses, patriarchs, narcissists and the people who obey them only believe that they are in control/controllable. Control is impossible if no controller can be found…and yet we obey. To free our minds from psychic tyranny we must engage in psychic struggle, even as we struggle to survive, fight against the evils of the world, and realize “Wellbeing for All” in this life. Another world is not only possible: when seen in the light of emptiness-impermanence, it is inevitable. However, it is up to all of us, our views, our choices, and our karma, which worlds will come to pass and what freedoms we might win in this very life.


Mikhail Bakunin “God and the State”

Gajo Petrović, “Reification”

Richard J. Davidson and Daniel Goleman, “Altered Traits”, Chapter 8 “Lightness of Being”

Bruce Tift, “Already Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy On The Path of Liberation”

Christopher Ives, “Imperial Way Zen: Ichikawa Hakugen’s Critique and Lingering Questions for Buddhist Ethics”.

Thanissaro Bikkhu “Not-Self or No-Self?”

Enrique Galván-Álvarez “Meditative Revolutions? A Preliminary Approach to US Buddhist Anarchist Literature

John P. Clark “Zen Anarchy

Slavoj Žižek “From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism

Glenn Wallis “Stranger Sutra” and “A Critique of Western Buddhism”

Tom Pepper “Taking Anatman Full Strength

3 thoughts on “On Selves and Masters

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