Self, A Useful Abstraction

Today in Zen, before Kenney kicked me out because she was covering material she covered in Religion in Japan, we talked about Non-Self, one of the most important ideas in Buddhism. As you know, after the Buddha came up with all that about suffering and how it was escapable, he became a selfless teacher. But selfless means more than altruistic. In this case, Non-Self.

I used the word abstraction in the title because I am a student of computer science and abstraction is what we do, more or less. Self is an abstraction, it takes a complex system, say the brain( reptile, and the other later bits), the body, and mind(the patterns in the brain) and makes it seem like it is one entity. I think that this is a useful thing. Thinking and being aware of all the connections of those subsystems takes a lot of time and energy, so it is simpler just to roll it into one idea.

The same is true of many things like cars, computers, skyscrapers, etc.

Buddha advocated a sort of hacking of the mind. Get down closer to the metal(maybe meat would be a both more appropriate and less appropriate word for several reasons) and look at how things interact on a lower level. By doing that, you have finer control over how the mind works, emotion, pain etc. You can’t get rid of these things, but without the self, their value is no longer defined in the same way.

It is not “My hunger,” it is just “Hunger.” And “Hunger” is easy to ignore, millions of us, the supposedly better off people in the world, ignore others’ hunger every day.

What are the components of the self?

One way of categorizing them, uses 5 different categories, aggregates (skandhas).

色 Matter The body

受 Perception sensations, feelings

想 Conception mental ideas and images

行 Volition Will, impulsive desires, predispositions

識 Consciousness Awareness, cognition

Of course there are other ways of dividing the sub-components. In fact, Kenney said that there are two groups who are arguing, in the Buddhist scholarly way, over whether there are 88 or 120 some categories. I like to think that there are effectively an infinite number, because if you look at the wetware (brain, body, lymphnodes, etc.) the number of possible states is really, Really big, like more than there are hydrogen atoms in the universe big.

But I digress.

I think that non-self is a good way of disassociating from emotion, and body experiences. And it seems to me so far, that that is the reason given for why do it when Buddhists are asked by incredulous outsiders. Why give up the self, the thing that is most definitely me? The truth is, they say, that the self doesn’t exist, never did. It is just an illusion.

I happen to think this is pretty much correct. But, I think that self is a useful abstraction. It would get tiring to say the last sentence as, “This aggregate of various skandhas has thoughts that this idea is pretty much correct.” Also it is easier to use abstractions when talking about objects as well.

Take cars for instance. Cars are aggregate objects made up of subcomponents, but you don’t say, “my steel body, 12 cylinder engine, four door, red taillight etc collection of assembled parts is in the drive way.” Unless, your saying something about the state of your car. The other this is that abstractions make it easier for people to ignore those details.
Important people through out history have noticed this tendency to abstract away detail. That is why islam does not allow idols, why Jews study the Torah and why … It is easy to begin to use just the abstract concept as the system it represents without thinking about the system. But when the abstraction breaks down, surprising things happen.

They shouldn’t be surprises though, because ideally people would know the components of the systems they use. This is what my friends in Computer Science say is important and I think why in harder parts of Computer Science more and more Zen like influences show up.

When I program I work simultaneously at different layers of abstraction. It is hard to do, to keep in mind what I am doing now. And what the overall purpose of the program is. And what the specs say. And how to fix the specs if they are not quite what is needed. And, I realize some of the above ‘sentences’ were more fragments than otherwise. Just keeping you on your toes.

Until next time, whenever that may be.

This post contains parts from the lecture as well as the notes from today’s class, though I stray pretty quickly. Just FYI

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