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Stepping Out of Self-Deception: Is Anatta “Anti-American?”

June 4, 2012

‘American Dream’ byvia Flickr.com

Anatta is one of the most difficult teachings of the Buddha, but also one of the most essential.  This word is variously rendered as non-self, not-self, or no-self in different schools of Buddhism.  I prefer non-self.  Buddhist have long argued over the meaning of these teachings, some negating the existence of “self” or atman, others upholding it, others dividing it into the relative and the ultimate, while still others quite rightly point out the paradox.  Whichever side one comes down on, all agree that whatever the self is (or is not), it isn’t what we think it is.  The self is fundamentally mis-perceived and this basic ignorance of our true nature is at the root of all suffering.

Therefore, for Rodney Smith to try to tackle this subject in a single 224-page book, Stepping Out of Self-Deception, seems daunting, at best.  Right from the outset, he says:

The term anatta, which means no permanently abiding self or soul, is at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching, but with our Western emphasis on psychological health it is perhaps inevitable that this essential aspect of the teaching is downplayed or even avoided.  Emptiness, after all, stands in opposition to many of our most important values, such as self-reliance, individual initiative, and the pursuit of pleasure.  We want the contentment and happiness promised by the Buddha, but with “me” fully stabilized and intact.

In fact, this has been the focus of much of Western psychology: a healthy sense of self.  It is also the basis of the so-called American dream and the mechanism by which capitalism itself operates.  Modern economic theory holds that each individual will act according to her own self-interest when making economic choices.  It holds that economic choices, in fact, are the most important choices we make.  They lead to the American dream, which is a dream of comfort, wealth, and social mobility – for me.  The American dream is in turn the culmination of the pursuit of happiness (and we’ll simple define happiness as freedom from most, if not quite all, suffering).

But what if our worldview were to radically change?  What if we were to understand at a fundamental level that the source of all our happiness was not “out there?”  A high-paying, high-powered job cannot make us happy.  A house in the suburbs with a two car garage cannot make us happy.  A smart, beautiful spouse and 2.5 kids cannot make us happy.  Heck, even the dog can’t make us happy.  Why then would we pursue these things?  What would happen if we stopped making choices in our own “self”-interest?  What if we simple stopped making “economic” choices at all? (And instead made only moral or spiritual choices?)  Wouldn’t society break down and America as we know it end?  I do believe it might.

I’m not advocating this, mind you.  I’m just posing interesting questions.  Because this is what the teaching of anatta is fundamentally about – not abandoning our way of life, but abandoning the delusions we hold about it by letting go of our attachment to the “self” which undertakes it.

Just as the house, job, car, spouse, kids, and dog can’t make us happy, neither can they make us unhappy.  In no way should we construe that these as bad things.  In fact, Smith goes out of his way to uphold the value of lay life, pointing to the sacred qualities of every moment.  Enlightenment is always within our grasp, whether we’re in the beige cubicle or the meditation hall.  Moreover, the ability of humans to form together into more-or-less stable societies has allowed for the perpetuation of the species and therefore the continuation of the Buddha’s teaching, giving ever more and more people an opportunity to be free.  That doesn’t mean society is without its flaws or dangers, only that it exists for good reason.

So is anatta anti-American?  Probably, in my humble opinion, if you accept the classic conception of the American dream – but only insomuch as it points to the shared social delusion about the source of our happiness.  Is someone who has glimpsed or understood the truth of anatta unable to be a good American?  Certainly not.  In fact, I would argue that they migh even t be a better American, endowed with wisdom and compassion, able to help their fellow Americans in that most basic of American quests – the pursuit of happiness.  They would be able to point out where happiness truly lies.  It’s not in the “American dream,” but in freedom from all such dreams of material salvation, and ultimately freedom from ignorant notions of “self.”

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