“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.
This was not a very encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
“What do you mean by that?” said the Caterpillar sternly. “Explain yourself!”
“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.”
“I don’t see,” said the Caterpillar.
“I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,” Alice replied, very politely, “for I can’t understand it myself, to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing. “
“It isn’t,” said the Caterpillar.
“Well, perhaps you haven’t found it so yet,” said Alice; “but when you have to turn into a chrysalis—you will some day, you know—and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you’ll feel it a little queer, won’t you?”
“Not a bit,” said the Caterpillar.
“Well, perhaps your feelings may be different,” said Alice; “all I know is, it would feel very queer to me.”
“You?” said the Caterpillar contemptuously. “Who are you?”
—Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
James Hillman, the patriarch of Jungian thought in America, wrote that “whatever one says about the human soul—if it hits the mark at all—will be both right and wrong.”
One of the Buddha’s solutions to this dilemma was to say nothing at all. When the recluse Vachchagotta asked the Buddha if there was a self, the Buddha remained silent (Samyutta-nikaya 4.400). Vachchagotta then asked if there was no-self, and again the Buddha remained silent. When the bewildered hermit finally departed, one of the Buddha’s more intimate disciples asked why he had not replied. The Buddha responded by saying that no matter what he might have said, the result would have been a misunderstanding.
In recent years there has been a marked rise of those willing to step in where the Buddha bowed out, that is, willing to provide the occasion for just such a misunderstanding. Little wonder that editors groan and scholars grind their teeth when faced again with that “hideous theory of no-self,” as one friend designates it. And yet, for many, the Buddha’s presumed denial of self is precisely what makes Buddhism distinct from all other religions and traditions.
What, then, is this “self” that everyone is making such a fuss about?
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