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Selfless Persons by Steven Collins

Selfless Persons: Imagery and thought in Theravada Buddhism by Steven Collins.  Cambridge University Press, 1982.  323 pages.

This book is a uniquely sincere and in-depth scholarly effort (note emphasis) to understand an extremely difficult subject, that of the Buddhist anatta, or “not-self.”  Both the book and the topic are deserving of special consideration, so this review will be longer and more detailed than my usual offering.

The fight Collins is wading into is one that’s been going on for thousands of years, that is, the argument over what the Buddha meant by anatta.  Did he, per the mainstream interpretation, say that if you look at the contents of your experience you will not find any subject, controller or locus of identity, or did he instead (in the words of the Japanese scholar Hajime Nakamura) teach “avoidance of a wrong comprehension of non-atman as a step to the real atman” (Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples, p. 90).  While anatta is generally considered by everyone concerned one of the most misunderstood of the Buddha’s teachings, I would in fact argue the whole of the Buddha’s teaching is generally misunderstood—and that it is for this reason that people are confused about anattaSelfless Persons offers an excellent window onto this dilemma and the debate it has engendered.

The controversy becomes immediately apparent when one reads reviews of Collins’ book on Amazon.  Consider the following:

  • “Steven Collins, like so many others of his ilk, finds the fundamental Buddhist doctrine of Self difficult to understand, and makes it his stock and trade to reinterpret Buddhist texts, to provide a doctrine acceptable to his prejudices which betray a secular attitude. It never dawns on him that there are many positive statements in the Buddhist canon with regard to Self.”   —A.E. Hollingsworth
  • “This book would presume by its cover to prove that Buddhism is nihilism, but since there is no evidence as such in Sutta, this book has nothing within it but opinions and has nothing from the Suttas (Nikayas) to back up the authors missguided [sic] sectarian false views in contradiction to the corpus of Buddhism.”  —Kenneth L. Wheeler, self proclaimed Philosopher and “Buddhologist”
  • “The reader is warned that this book is written based upon the views of Theravada Abhidhamma secular anti-foundationalism/nihilism. Amazingly enough, Steven Collins makes the fallacy of composition from sutra that since ABCDEF is not X (Soul), therefore Buddhism denies the Soul. This entire book is 99.999% opinions, and the very very few citations Collins provides does not support his claim in any fashion that Buddhism denies/negates the Soul.”  —Denise Anderson

What’s obvious from the vehemence of these strikingly inaccurate assertions (for example, despite two readings I am still at a loss as to what the “secular attitude” is that Hollingsworth decries, or how Collins is proving “nihilism” or proclaiming “secular anti-foundationalism”—whatever that is—or how, despite many dozens of primary source quotes, Wheeler is able to say—with a straight face, no doubt—that Collins has “nothing from the Suttas… to back” himself up), is that their authors are quite ideologically invested in a belief that the Buddha could not possibly have taught anatta as it is commonly understood, and they assert this belief even against the formidable array of evidence Collins has assembled.  (For the record: Despite my eight years in Asia, most of which I spent living in temples and hermitages alongside monks of both Mahayana and Theravada persuasions, never once did I meet a monk who claimed to be searching for his atman or True Self.   I don’t know what books these critics read or what sorts of meditations they’ve practiced, but they certainly didn’t go to the school I went to.)

Collins addresses this controversy head on.  Pages 4-10 quote from a number of Theravadan authors—Walpola Rahula, Malasekera, Nyanatiloka—whose remarks represent the mainstream position.  He then contrasts their views against those of the opposition (Mrs. Rhys-Davids, Christmas Humphreys, Radhakrishnan et al) who argue for a substantialist, True Self version of anatta.  What struck me most in this discussion was that even among the traditional anatta folks I found serious misunderstandings of the Buddha’s teaching.  Rahula was reliably accurate, but Malasekera (like Nyanatiloka) seems to think that anatta is the bedrock of the Teaching and its only unique feature.  This is patently false.  The Four Noble Truths are the bedrock (remember the first sermon, anyone?), and every one of those truths is unique to the Dhamma.  (See my “Letter To Christian Buddhists” for more on this point.)  Moreover, if I had to single out one aspect of the teaching as fundamental, it would not be anatta but dependent arising, for the Buddha himself said, “He who sees dependent arising sees Dhamma; he who sees Dhamma sees dependent arising.”  It is interesting that Collins chose the passages he did, for one criticism I will hit him with later is that, just the like the authors he quotes, he actually overemphasizes the importance of anatta within the scheme of the Dhamma.

The following from Collins is a nice summation of the reason for the controversy with regards to anatta, and stands as a fitting comment on the Amazon reviews as well:

It seems to me that a great deal of the confusion on this issue arises from a need felt by many with strong religious convictions, and by some neutral scholars, to come to some final conclusion of their own—in terms, necessarily, of their own indigenous categories of thought—on the reality depicted by the conceptual products of other cultures” (p. 12).

While I agree in the main with this statement, there are two critical comments I would make on it.  (1) I have yet to encounter a “neutral scholar.”  Fact is, if scholars—and I include Collins here—were decidedly less neutral and more subjective and committed, they might actually allow themselves the opportunity to understand some things that can’t simply be read about in books but must be experienced and known directly.  (2) The Dhamma is something other than a mere “conceptual product” of long dead Indians.  It is, rather, a road map to the development of human consciousness, and as such applies with equal force to twentieth century scholars as to medieval peasants.

The following should do as a summary of Collins’ central thesis:

I have argued that the doctrine of anatta is, in the last analysis, a linguistic taboo in technical discourse; and that this taboo functions as a soteriological strategy, in two ways: in detail it forms part of a particular style of meditative self-analysis within the practice of Buddhist specialists; in general, acceptance of the linguistic taboo preserves the identity and integrity of Buddhism as an Indian system separate form Brahmanism” (p. 183).

By way of support, Collins musters a prodigious array of primary source evidence (hence my bafflement at Denise Anderson’s assertion that the book is “99.999% opinions… [with] very very few citations”).  His first step is to describe Brahmanical society with its emphases on the sacrifice, the continuance of life and the support of the social order, as well as the opposing undercurrent of ascetic, renunciate culture that existed alongside it.  He also examines the critical soteriological concepts of Indian religion—namely karma, samsara, and moksha—and traces how they developed from the interplay between Brahmanical and shramanic society.  The Buddha, of course, began life firmly ensconced in the former but made his name in the latter.  Part I concludes by discussing the varieties of Buddhist discourse regarding the self, person, personality and not-self, and this sets the stage for Part II, which specifically discusses the doctrine of not-self.

Much of the strength and worth of the book lies in this section.  Collins’ basic assertion, per his thesis, is that anatta is more than a statement about the reality of the individual understood by Buddhists; it is also a “strategy” of mental culture.  He discusses this notion within the framework of other important Buddhist concepts, such as views, attachment, “emptiness,” the “unanswered questions,” and the practice of “careful attention” (yoniso manasikara).

One of the biggest problems (from the standpoint of critics) with anatta has been how to describe what a person is and how he/she “continues” and is reborn.  Parts three and four, entitled “Personality and Rebirth” and “Continuity,” respectively, tackle these problems from the standpoint of both the suttas and the later exegetical tradition, making particular use of the Visuddhimagga and Milinda Panha.  Various common patterns of imagery—the house, vegetation, water, rivers—are discussed along the way, and the book concludes with an in depth look at the doctrines of momentariness and bhavanga-mind.

Overall, the tone of the book is serious, scholarly, and sophisticated.  It is well written, erudite, insightful, and as far as I know, unique as a work of scholarship focusing entirely on the anatta teaching.  His linguistic discussions of the critical terms atta (pp. 71ff) and sankhara (pp. 202ff) are noteworthy.  Regarding atta, he effectively debunks those who would make every fortuitous occurrence of the word into a declaration regarding a metaphysical Self (with a capital “S,” of course—which distinction does not exist in the language of origin, by the way, as Collins points out).  Usually the word is nothing more than a reflexive pronoun, though translation can sometimes seem to turn passages into an assertion regarding a/the self.

A particularly acute example of this is provided by a passage in which the Buddha comments on the remark of a king and queen that “no-one is dearer than oneself.”  He remarks (in verse) “surveying the whole world in one’s mind, one finds no-one dearer than oneself [or “than a man’s self”]; as everywhere others hold themselves dear [literally “self is dear to others”] the man who loves himself should not harm others’.  It would be possible to translate atta here as “the Self,” as if the idea were that a single cosmic self was shared by all (as in some Upanishads); but then the whole Buddhist ethical point would be distorted.  The idea here is simply that since each person is naturally concerned with his own welfare, a truly moral agent should realize that to cause suffering to others is to cause them the same distress which the agent knows well enough in his own experience (p. 74).

One would of course expect a scholar of Buddhism to have a firm grasp of the linguistic connotations of key Pali terms.  Where Collins begins to set himself apart, however, is in his clear understanding of the phenomenological thrust of the Buddha’s teaching.  He hits the nail on the head, for example, when he writes “It is pointless to speak of a self apart from experience” (p.98).  This passage occurs within the context of a discussion of the Buddha’s three denials of identity: “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.”  The Buddha, for his part, is clearly trying to drive home that since nothing you can experience can properly be identified as atta, it is pointless to cling to the notion there is such a thing.  Collins in effect repeats the Buddha’s lesson when he says “it is crucially important not to draw the inference that if the constituents of the personality are ‘not-self’ and ‘not yours’ then something else is” (p. 98).  Yet this is precisely what Collins’ critics have done.  (Bhikkhu Bodhi, in a note in his translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, is uncharacteristically blunt towards those who would cling to the belief that the Buddha left open the door for a self, or was just denying the “small self” to clear way for the “True Self.”  He writes (on p. 1457, n.385) “The Buddha declares that ‘all phenomena are nonself’ (sabbe dhamma anatta), which means that if one seeks a self anywhere one will not find one. Since ‘all phenomena’ includes both the conditioned and the unconditioned, this precludes an utterly transcendent, ineffable self.”)

There are a number of excellent and illuminating passages in the book.  On p. 192 Collins correctly understands the first noble truth of dukkha as not pessimism but as “part of a specific soteriological project”—meaning the verdict of normal life as suffering is meant to inspire, motivate and direct the efforts of a practitioner towards a goal.  Pages 136ff are a thorough review of the “unanswered questions” and why they are unanswered, and page 207 presents a rare discussion of the distinction between nibbana-with and without-remainder.

There are even cases of accidental illumination provided by the text.  While reading chapter eight, for example, I was suddenly struck by how scholastic and abstract the subject of discussion had become (“how long is a moment?”) as compared to the problems pondered over earlier in the book.  The Buddha was nothing if not practical, and the suttas reflect this; they are prescriptive and transformative.  But the exegetical tradition, judging by this presentation, lost sight of that and squandered its energies on matters that had no bearing on the problem of suffering and its end.  The whole doctrine of momentariness, for example, bore a distressing resemblance to the medieval debate over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

Selfless Persons, though, is not without its weaknesses, and some of them are significant.  For one, the book is a “scholar’s view.”  This is hardly surprising—it originated as a doctoral dissertation, after all—but for people who want not only to study but to practice the Buddha’s teaching, this shortcoming may weigh heavily.  When I read the following passage—“The task of scholarship is endlessly to investigate, by any and every academic discipline which proves necessary, the words in which beliefs and doctrines are presented…” (p. 12), my immediate question was: “What about actual practice?”  Pure textual studies are appropriate in many cases (medieval literature, for example), but not when the “beliefs and doctrines” are things you are actually expected to do.  And so I was not surprised when Collins repeated a typical layman’s superstition that “It is generally considered impossible in our time to attain nibbana…” (p. 16).  I have to wonder if beliefs like this have not infected “neutral scholars” who do not feel inclined to practice what they study.  The scholarly attitude of objective indifference is especially puzzling when it concerns the scholar’s own existential dilemma as a conscious being who knows he will one day die.  Do scholars never consider that the Buddha was addressing them to?

There is also a tacit assumption of the untruth of certain beliefs.  For example: “We have seen the hypothesis that the doctrine of samsara in Brahmanical thought was influenced by little tradition ideas” (p. 33; see also p. 51).  And on page 60, we are told the history of how the atman/Brahman idea developed.  Thus everything is reduced to objectively knowable ideas and their history.  There is no consideration that someone might actually have experienced something that directly gave rise to these beliefs, for example, remembering past lives, or states of unitive consciousness, etc.  Even when Collins does acknowledge that someone might experience something (on p. 62) he minimizes its import to “a few individuals.”  (Go to Dharma Overground and you’ll see these “few individuals” are really not so few after all.)  Such experiences are not taken seriously because they are outside the ken of mainstream scholarship, which is not surprising since most scholars of religion do not practice what they study.  I suggest that if a scholar does have practical experience of his subject matter, then his ideas as ideas will gain weight; both the tone of his writing will change as well as his ability to express with insight.  As insightful as Collins is, a three month vipassana retreat would certainly have taken his game to the next level.

Directly related to this is Collins’ treatment of anatta in the abstract, as an idea rather than experience.  But in Dhamma not-self is one of the “Three Marks” (ti-lakkhana), coincident with insight into dukkha (“suffering”) and anicca (“impermanence”).  The third of the insight knowledges is “knowledge of comprehension” [of the three marks] (sammasana-ñana) wherein the vipassana meditator begins seeing directly that objects of experience are fleeting, unsatisfactory and painful, and that they come and go without any agency behind them.  This first glimpse of anatta can be a visceral experience that, when developed, leads directly to the phase of “arising and passing away” (A&P)—a critical event in any practioner’s spiritual life.  But he mentions none of this; hence the practical effect of anatta is concealed, and its place in the Buddha’s training distorted and exaggerated.

Another problem that colors his work is Collins’ failure to clearly distinguish between the sutta and exegetical traditions as regards anatta and related concepts.  In effect, he blends them together, trying to create a whole cloth out of their disparate understandings.  For example, on p. 77 he foreshadows confusion in the later Theravada between the terms puggala (“person”) and atta (“self”).  The two meanings are utterly different, but in such texts as the Milindipanha and Visuddhimagga they are conflated to the detriment of the teaching.  Collins does nothing to redress this misunderstanding; he in fact perpetuates it.  (See especially pages 115, 154, and 156ff.)  What becomes clear from his discussion is that by the time of the Milindipanha, anatta as a known experience had been lost sight of and replaced by a dogma—an erroneous dogma, I might add.  (Thus when Nagasena is asked “Who is reborn?” he responds “name and form”—p. 185.  But the correct answer, the Buddha’s answer, is to reject the question as meaningless.  Cf. discourses involving Vacchagotta and the monk Sati—M.38.)  Again, Collins never lays bare this discrepancy between the suttas and exegetical texts.

Connected no doubt to the above confusions is Collins’ lack of discrimination between such terms as nibbana, “enlightened person,” arhant, and sekha; for the most part they are used interchangeably (see e.g. pp. 83 and 92).  Consider the following: “What this ‘conceit’ [asmimana] refers to is the fact that for the unenlightened man, all experience and action must necessarily appear phenomenologically as happening to or originating from an ‘I”” (p. 94).  This is, in a way, correct, but he should have noted that four types or grades of people have experienced nirvana—the streamwinner (sotapanna), once returner (sakadagmi), non-returner (anagami) and arhant—and while each of these is, to a greater or lesser degree, “enlightened,” only the last has totally done away with asmimana (the “conceit” I am); the other three are still sekhas (“learners,” “aspirants”).  In another passage he does obliquely recognize the sekha—“We saw that when the overt fetter of belief in a self (sakkayaditthi) is given up, the focus of attention then becomes the selfishness inherent in the affective structure of experience, which is the fetter of asmimana.  We might call this latter the ‘unconscious’ utterance ‘I am’” (p. 101)—but again he fails to identify the different grades of enlightenment and what constitutes them.  The result is a mishmash of ideas and concepts whose direct connection to anatta as one of the Three Marks or Characteristics is obscured, and which culminates in a doozey of factual error: “The final eradication of these tendencies [“greed, conceit, and so on”] is ‘liberation without remainder’” (p. 102).  No!–the arhant, who is nibbana with remainder (i.e. living body-and-mind), is the final eradication of these tendencies.

There are a number of other misunderstandings that leap out at me that I will briefly list:

  • I have a serious problem with the reduction of anatta to a mere “strategy in mental culture.”  It is much more—it is a fundamental characteristic of phenomena revealed through meditation, something Collins would understand if actually tried said meditation.
  • Quoting Dumont, Collins writes “without transmigration the liberation or extinction which [the Buddha] recommends would lose all meaning” (p. 64).  This is sheer baloney, a vapid assertion that again indicates the radical disconnect of the scholar from actual experience.
  • Collins misunderstands when he says “It is static, unalterable dogma which posits a permanent and reincarnating self or person which is the object of Buddhist censure” (p. 76).  Actually, it is the experience of self itself that is the object of the Buddha’s censure—and the source of human suffering.  The “unalterable dogmas” are simply the results of this.
  • “[T]he idea of being a person on the Path, and therefore at least a stream-winner, must originally have meant no more than being a monk” (p. 92).  I have no idea where anyone would get such an idea.  Even he barest acquaintance with the suttas should be able to dispense with this notion.

My final assessment of this work is that it is both indispensable, a must read, as well as deeply flawed.  I would add too that it is most certainly not a beginner’s text—the subtleties of arguments, both good and bad, right and wrong, are likely to be lost on someone who does not yet know their way around the suttas and their terminology.  It should therefore be kept later as part of a capstone reading in Theravadan ideas.

My Amazon rating: 4 stars


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