Montaigne & Buddhism Part 3: Anatman/Anatta – ‘No-Self’

This is Part 3 of my Montaigne & Buddhism series. In this video I talk about the similarities between Montaigne’s view of ‘The Self’ and the Buddhist doctrine of Anatman/Anatta.  Below you’ll find a rough transcript. Enjoy!

Alan Watts explains that “The doctrine of anitya is” not simply “the…assertion that the world is impermanent,” but also that “the more one grasps at the world, the more it changes” (46-47). Because the world and everything within it evades a solid and stable grasping, it goes without saying that the doctrine of Anitya/Anicca also applies to the ‘self’.Owen Flanagan explains that “‘the self’ is like many other natural things, and as such “Personhood is [but] one kind of unfolding” (69). The ‘self’ is impermanent and transitory. There is no fixed or permanent ‘self’. Even the ‘self’, no matter how firm or steady it seems, is also an event or process of becoming and unfolding. Montaigne says “I study myself more than any other subject” (Montaigne). One of the chief objects of Montaigne’s mindfully concentrated observation was his own subjectivity, his own mind, his own consciousness, his own ‘self’. In the attentive awareness he devoted to his ‘self’ he noticed, and gained insight into, this transient impermanence. He writes that “the features of my picture alter and change,” and thus, “I cannot fix my object” (Montaigne). The ‘self’, as object of Montaigne’s investigative awareness, is “always tottering and reeling” (Montaigne). Montaigne can only take the ‘self’ “as it is at the instant [he] considers it” (Montaigne). He cannot paint the “being” of the ‘self’, he can only “paint its passage” (Montaigne). The passage of the ‘self, Montaigne notes, is “not a passing from one age to another, or… from seven to seven years, but from day to day, from minute to minute” (Montaigne). Montaigne says that the ‘self’ so rapidly alters and changes that “I must accommodate my history to the hour,” wondering “whether it be that I am then another self” (Montaigne). Montaigne saw in his ‘self’ “a subject void of form” and it was all he could do to “couch it in this airy body of voice” (Montaigne). Montaigne seemed to recognize that the ‘self’, like the world in which it is a part, is not only impermanent but, ultimately ungraspable. Grasping at the ‘self’ is like grasping at the wind, the more one reaches for or attempts to capture the ‘self’, the more the ‘self’ evades being held, vanishing from sight.

Here, Owen Flanagan suggests that the human subject is “a transient being constituted only by certain ever-changing relations of psychological continuity and connectedness” (28). The human subject is an amalgamation, constantly in motion, and changing before it can ever be fully grasped. In this regard, the doctrine of Anitya/Anicca, when applied to the ‘self’ gives way to another central thesis of Buddhist thought, i.e. the doctrine of Anatman (Sanskrit) or Anatta (Pali), that is the doctrine of ‘no-soul’ or ‘no-self’. Walpola Rahula, a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk and author of the book What the Buddha Taught, explains that the doctrine of Anatman/Anatta proposes that just as “there is nothing permanent, everlasting, unchanging, and eternal in the whole of existence,” so too is “what we call ‘I’, or ‘being’…only a combination of physical and mental aggregates, which are working together interdependently in a flux of momentary change” (66). Rahula states further that “What we call a ‘being’, or an ‘individual’, or ‘I’,” is but a naming convention, it “is only a convenient name or a label given to the combination of these…impermanent” and “constantly changing” aggregates (25). In this regard, according to Buddhist philosophy a human being is a coalition comprised of five Skandhas (Sanskrit) or Khandhas (Pali), that is, what is commonly called the Five Aggregates.

The Five Aggregates that comprise a human subject, as outlined and explained by Zen Buddhist monk Brad Warner, are form (body, matter, or materiality), feelings (sensations or sensorial experience), perceptions (cognition or cognitive functions and operations), “impulses toward actions” (volition, mental formations, or conditionally directed responses to phenomenal experience), and consciousness (Warner 69). There is little in Montaigne’s Essays that directly or explicitly address the detailed specificity of the listed Five Aggregates that constitute a human being (though research for this writing has certainly made an attempt to do so). Given the immense breadth of Montaigne’s Essays, perhaps it is possible to undertake the task of attempting to draw specific comparisons to the Five Aggregates in Montaigne’s writing yet, such a task is beyond the scope of this paper. However, suffice it to say for now that Montaigne does seem to agree with the general trajectory of the idea that the human being is an amalgamated collection, a conglomerated coalition. Indeed, not only does Montaigne recognize that the human subject is “infinite in matter, infinite in diversity,” and “evermore flowing and running, without ever remaining stable and permanent,” he also seems to see the human being as a mass of interwoven connectivity (Montaigne). Montaigne writes that “We are all lumps, and of so various and inform a contexture, that every piece plays, every moment, its own game, and there is as much difference betwixt us and ourselves as betwixt us and others” (Montaigne). Montaigne presents an evocative imagery of the human subject as a lump, so various, informing a contexture. Such an analogizing portrait seems to be firmly in keeping with what is at the heart of the Buddhist notion of Skandhas/Khandhas. It is interesting to note that the literal translation for Skandhas/Khandhas means “heap” (Warner 67). In Buddhist philosophy a human is a ‘heap’, or more specifically a ‘heap’ made up of five interconnected ‘heaps’ (the Five Aggregates). Put in the terms of Montaigne’s thought, perhaps one could say that a human being is a ‘lump’ of ‘lumps’, a ‘lump’ made up of various ‘lumps’, that is to say a collection of aggregations, an aggregated totality. In other words, it seems that according to Montaigne, the human subject is an irregular and indefinite, “compact mass of a substance” (“Lump, n1), “a mass of things,” that is “interwoven together…to form a connected whole” (“Contexture, n1”), marked by both variability and instability.

 

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Montaigne & Buddhism Part 2 (Video)

This is the second part in my Montaigne and Buddhism series, excerpted from a paper I wrote for a graduate course I’ve recently completed. Here, we take a look at Montaigne and the ideas of ‘Impermanence’ and Anitya/Anicca. Enjoy!

Montaigne & Buddhism Part 1 Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ugn9r… Montaigne & Buddhism Part 2 Blog post: https://duanetoops.wordpress.com/2018… Montaigne & Buddhism Part 1 Blog post: https://duanetoops.wordpress.com/2018…

Books Utilized:

The Bodhisattva’s Brain by Owen Flanagan: https://www.amazon.com/Bodhisattvas-B…

How to Live by Sarah Bakewell: https://www.amazon.com/How-Live-Monta…

The Way of Zen by Alan Watts: https://www.amazon.com/Way-Zen-Alan-W…

Montaigne & Buddhism Part 2: Impermanence & Anitya/Anicca

This is the second part in my Montaigne and Buddhism series, excerpted from a paper I wrote for a graduate course I’ve recently completed. In part one I discussed Montaigne and ‘meditation’, or more specifically the parallels between Montaigne’s literary approach and the Buddhist ideas of Dhyana/Jhana and Vipassana. You can read part one here and you can watch the video of part one here or here. In part two we look at Montaigne and the ideas of ‘impermanence’ and Anitya/Anicca. Enjoy! 

 

If one concedes, or agrees, that Montaigne’s attentively concentrated awareness to the present moment did, in fact, cultivate a special way of seeing, one may still pause to wonder or to ask, what insights into the fundamental nature of reality did Montaigne discover? Montaigne’s forays into something closely akin to Dhyana/Jhana and Vipassana/Vipasyana seem to have provided him with two very Buddhist insights into the nature of existence; impermanence and the illusion of the ‘self’.  Here, Montaigne’s meditations, as seen throughout the Essays, seems to display a similar parallel with one of the central doctrines of Buddhism known as Anitya (Sanskrit) or Anicca (Pali). The doctrine of Anitya/Anicca is the doctrine of ‘impermanece’, that is, the doctrine of Anitya/Anicca, in its simplest definition, states that the entirety of the phenomenal world is impermanent. Everything that is, is subject to change, whether material or mental. Nothing is static. Nothing is stable. Nothing is concrete. There is no constancy. Further still, the doctrine of Anitya/Anicca suggests that not only is everything transient, but also that everything is in-transit. Everything is in transition. Everything is transitioning, arising and passing away. In his book, The Bodhisattva’s Brain, Owen Flanagan writes that “Everything is in flux” and “Each kind of thing in the cosmos is an unfolding” (69). “The Buddhist wisdom” of the Anitya/Anicca doctrine, Flanagan continues, “says that everything is becoming…What there is, and all there is, are events and processes” (20). Every-thing that is, is an event. Every-thing that is, is a process. Indeed, Alan Watts highlights that “objects are also events,” and “our world is a collection of processes rather than entities” (Watts 5). The example Flanagan uses to illustrate this point is that of the Himalayas which appears to be a fixed, static, and stable object if ever there was one, but, in fact, is “a very slow unfolding,” albeit at an incremental rate over the course an extremely long time (69). All this is extremely reminiscent of what Montaigne writes in the Essays. Montaigne writes that “the world eternally turns round; all things therein are incessantly moving, the earth, the rocks of Caucasus, and the pyramids of Egypt, both by the public motion and their own” (Montaigne). Here, Montaigne goes on to say that “Even constancy itself is no other but a slower and more languishing motion” (Montaigne). Stability and fixity, according to both Montaigne and the doctrine of Anitya/Anicca, are not as they seem. Instead they are simply examples of an incremental gradualness of becoming and unfolding.

Montaigne & Buddhism Part 1 (Video)

Montaigne & Buddhism, Part 1: Dhyana & Vipassana

 

For a Western European writer steeped within the Renaissance era, Montaigne’s approach and content seems uncannily Eastern, or, more specifically, the content of his writing seems to be uniquely Buddhist. One can only speculate as to whether or not Montaigne was familiar with Buddhist philosophy. It seems to be an unavoidable truth that there is little to no evidential support as to whether or not he had ever even encountered Buddhist thought. It would, then, be academically and intellectually irresponsible to suggest that Montaigne, a committed catholic (though not in the most orthodox of senses), was, somehow or in some way, a secret student of the Dharma. Thus, it is not the aim of this paper to make such a claim. However, what this paper does intend to highlight is that, whether Montaigne intended as much or not, there are deep resonances and immense parallels found between his thought and Buddhist philosophy, especially in regards to the ideas of mindfulness/meditation, impermanence, and the self.

‘Mediation’ or ‘Meditations’ within the Western philosophical tradition are not foreign concepts. For example, two pivotally important philosophical texts donning the moniker of ‘meditation’ are the Meditations of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and the Meditations on First Philosophy by renowned French philosopher Rene Descartes (Descartes, himself, being a kind of purveyor of modern thought). In these two examples ‘meditation’ is used “in the common sense of ‘thinking things over’ or ‘musing’” (Watts 54). Here, it would be easy enough to class Montaigne’s Essays as an example of this sort of meditative ‘musing’ or ‘thinking things over’ yet, such a classification would seem to be a diminution of what one witnesses in the writings of Montaigne. In this regard, there seems to be a dichotomy between ‘mediation(s)’ in the Western sense of the term as a kind of pondering rumination, and in the more Eastern/Buddhist sense of the term (more on this to come). Montaigne’s mediations seem to be much more than a mere intellectual pursuit or activity. The suggestion that Montaigne’s Essays is indicative of something more than musings of the intellect is not intended to be interpreted as a refutation of Montaigne’s intellectuality. Even a scant or peripheral perusal of the Essays will clearly reveal a thinker of incredible intelligence and robust reasoning. However, what is being proposed is that what Montaigne demonstrates in his meditative writing seems to be much more in line with the Buddhist concept of Dhyana (Sanskrit) or Jhana (Pali). Dhyana/Jhana are the words translated as ‘mediation’ yet, the word ‘meditation’, as seen in the usage of Aurelius and Descartes, is “a most misleading translation” (Watts 54). Dhyana/Jhana is not an example of a musing rumination but, instead “can be described as the state of unified or one-pointed awareness” intensely “focused on the present” (Watts 55). ‘Meditation’, or Dhyana/Jhana is a focused and concentrated awareness fully present to the present moment and all of its contents, including all the contents present within consciousness, that is, both mental and material. Indeed, as Jon Kabat Zinn explains, the only goal of the kind of mindful meditation exhibited in Dhyana/Jhana, if there can even be said to be a goal, is the deepening of “attention and awareness”, deepening the attention and awareness to one’s own mind, deepening the attention and awareness to one’s consciousness, and, ultimately deepening the attention and awareness of the present moment, accepting all the realities of the present just as they are (Zinn xvii). In this regard, as Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh writes, and as Montaigne will show, “It’s better to be than to think” (85).

Dhyana/Jhana goes hand in hand with Vipassana (Pali) or Vipasyana (Sanskrit). Vipassana/Vipasyana is derived from two root words; Passana meaning “seeing and perceiving”, and Vi meaning “in a special way” (Gunaratana 27). Vipassana/Vipasyana, then, is a special way of seeing and perceiving, which provides ‘insight’ into the fundamental or basic nature of reality (Gunaratana 27). It is the cultivation of ‘insight’ that sees and perceives “into and through” the reality of what is observed with the “clarity and precision” provided by the focus and attention of a one-pointed awareness (Gunaratana 27). This seems to be precisely what Montaigne presents in his Essays, a special way of seeing, a mindful, meditative awareness fully concentrated upon the present, seeing though to the very core of what is.

Montaigne writes the following:

When I dance, I dance; when I sleep, I sleep. Nay, when I walk alone in a beautiful orchard, if my thoughts are some part of the time taken up with external occurrences, I some part of the time call them back again to my walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of that solitude, and to myself (Montaigne).

Clearly, Montaigne attempted to live his life with, what Sarah Bakewell calls, “an almost Zen-like discipline”, demonstrating “an ability to just be” (27). Yet, Montaigne’s ability to just be with the present moment, mindfully focused and attentively aware of the present, is an ability he not only speaks of in his writings but, is a mindfulness concentration taken up by and acted out by his writings. Everything which occurs within the present moment of everyday life is of noteworthy importance to Montaigne. Nothing is too trivial, too mundane, or too ordinary to be documented. Montaigne states that “whatsoever presents itself before us is book sufficient; a roguish trick of the page, a sottish mistake of a servant, a jest at the table, are so many new subjects” (Montaigne). Montaigne proposes “a life ordinary and without lustre” as being of “richer composition” (Montaigne). Regardless of each essay’s proposed topic, each essay contains constant diversions and sidetracks. Montaigne writes that one of his aims is “to record all the little thoughts that present themselves,” saying that “I give ear to my whimsies, because I am to record them” (Montaigne). These ‘diversions’ are not instances of distraction but, rather an example of Montaigne’s mindful observation of his own mind, a transcription of all that arises within consciousness, a transcription of arising consciousness, which he accepts and embraces non-judgmentally, just as they are. Sarah Bakewell notes that “Even when his thoughts are most irrational and dreamlike, his writing follows them” (6). In this regard, Montaigne’s Essays is not only a transcription of his meditation practice, but rather the writing of the Essays, itself, is his practice of Dhyana/Jhana and Vipassana/Vipasyana, his mindful meditation, his insight.

Montaigne & the Instability of the Self (Video)

A few weeks ago I posted a blog on the same topic and with the same title. It was a paper written for a graduate course, in which I attempted to highlight Montaigne’s ideas about the ‘Self’. Here, I just wanted to try and make a quick video providing an overview of the paper and topic in a more conversational tone. Hope you enjoy!

Montaigne & the Instability of the Self

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Recently I’ve been taking a graduate course examining the writings and thinkers of the Renaissance. One such provocative writer and thinker examined was Michel de Montaigne. One of the things that I am struck by in Montaigne’s writings is the way in which he seems to view the ‘Self’. It seems to me that Montaigne’s estimation of self-hood is very similar to that of Buddhist philosophy (which I’ve attempted to discuss in three previous video posts found here, here, and here). What follows, then, is a short paper I wrote for the class discussing Montaigne’s concepts of the ‘Self’. Enjoy!

 

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne represents not only a literary turning point within the thought and writing of Renaissance Humanism but, a veritable revolution in the history of Western literature itself. To say that Montaigne is a unique figure is an understatement. Ahead of his time, Montaigne is truly the first of his kind, single-handedly inventing a whole new genre of writing and a bold new form of literary expression. The most candid, and thus the most human, of writers and thinkers, Montaigne is a firebrand of radical introspection. The cusp of Montaigne’s work is found in his probing observations and analyses of the intricacies of his own subjectivity. Montaigne utilizes a deeply contemplative mindfulness within his meditations upon his own consciousness, his own thoughts, feelings, actions, perceptions, conceptions, behaviors, ideas. Closely and intimately examining his own materiality, and all the other minutiae of every-day existence, Montaigne reveals a clarity of vision regarding the universality of the human condition that is utterly poignant and unavoidably prescient. Yet, in doing so Montaigne presents a description of the Self that was not only subversive within his own time but, that continues to subvert even the modern world’s sensibilities of self.

Michel de Montaigne witnessed a world of violent instability all around. He watched as his country was torn apart by civil wars. His most beloved of friends, Etienne de La Boetie fell victim to the plague (Bakewell 13). He mourned the death of his father (Blackwell 13). He was shocked by the unexpected death of his brother (Bakewell 24). He grieved the loss of 5 of his six children, “only one survived to become an adult” (Bakewell 2). This mounting and all-pervasive instability, this world beset by impermanence, is what led Montaigne to put pen to paper and what kept the pen in motion for over two decades, writing his voluminous and monumental work, Essais, or Essays.
Yet, in crafting Essays Montaigne was no memoirist. Sarah Bakewell explains that Montaigne “did not write to record his own great deeds and achievements” or to “lay down a straight eyewitness account of historical events” (Bakewell 3). Instead, his writings are deeply ‘reflective’ explorations, and ‘reflective’ in two senses of the term. In the first and most obvious sense, his writings are ‘reflective’ in that they are profoundly introspective, that is, deeply ‘self-reflective’. They are concentrated ruminations and deliberative musings. David Hansen writes that Montaigne is keenly aware of his own “thoughts, emotions, intuitions, and actions” (128). In his essay “Of Experience”, Montaigne, himself, states that “I study myself more than any other subject; ‘tis my metaphysic, my physic” (Montaigne). The central object of Montaigne’s investigative reflecting is himself. Montaigne is an explorer of his own subjectivity.

However, Montaigne’s writings are ‘reflective’ explorations in another sense. Because Montaigne delves so deeply into his own humanity, his writing becomes ‘reflective’ of the whole of humanity, that is to say, ‘reflected’ within Montaigne’s self-reflections one finds a reflection of themselves. When one explores the reflections of Montaigne, one is exploring one’s own reflection., one is exploring a reflection of one’s own subjectivity, one’s own Self-hood. Sarah Bakewell states that “This idea” of “writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity” is a cultural invention that is traced back singularly to Montaigne (1). Montaigne writes that “Authors communicate themselves to the people by some especial and extrinsic mark; I, the first of any, by my universal being; as Michel de Montaigne, not as a grammarian, a poet, or a lawyer” (Montaigne). In other words, as Montaigne goes on to say in “Of Repentance”, is that “every man carries the entire form of human condition” (Montaigne). As Ian Fraser explains the “Universal moves through the particular and the individual” (87). In Montaigne’s writing one sees a simultaneity between the universal, the particular, and the individual. The universal is reflected in the particular and the individual, and the individual and the particular are reflected in the universal.

Yet, what, specifically, is the universal particularity, or the particular universality, that one sees reflected in the explorations presented in Montaigne’s Essays? It seems that part of what one sees in the exploratory writings of Montaigne’s particular Self-hood is the universal impermanence and instability of the ‘Self’. Montaigne sees the Self as something in constant motion. The Self, “the features of my picture,” like the world, like “the earth the rocks of Caucasus, and the pyramids of Egypt” moves incessantly and is perpetually altered and changed (Montaigne). The Self, the object of his reflective deliberation, cannot be fixed, “tis always tottering and reeling” (Montaigne). Instead the Self can only be taken “as it is at the instant” it is considered (Montaigne). Thus, his portrait of the Self is not so much a still life or a still frame but, instead functions as a kind of time lapse photography, capturing neither the stable substantiality nor the concrete constancy of “being”, but rather the “passage” of the Self “from day to day” and “from minute to minute” (Montaigne). Montaigne notes that “Even constancy itself is no other but a slower and more languishing motion” (Montaigne). Montaigne emphasizes becoming, and in exploring the landscape of the ‘Self’ Montaigne’s Essays are a cartography in motion, charting a moving geography constantly shifting.

Montaigne’s reflective explorations of introspection into the human condition reveal that the Self is amorphous and unstable. He demonstrates that the Self is a material conglomeration of temporal thoughts, fleeting feelings, insubstantial sensations, and impermanent perceptions, a constellation of ephemeral actions and variable patterns of behavior. This patterned constellation, though recognizable, is empty of absolute essence. To impose the idea of a solid Self onto these ‘patterns’ is nothing short of an example of apophenia (false pattern recognition). There is no one unchanging, stable Self. The varying objects of one’s materiality are also events, and the substances of the Self are also processes which implore one to live fully within the present moment, “not because it is fleeting, but because it is full” (Mijolla 62).

Works Cited

Bakewell, Sarah. How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. Great Britain: Random House UK, 2010. Print.

Fraser, Ian. “Two of a Kind: Hegel, Marx, Dialectic and Form.” Capital & Class, vol. 18, no. 61, Spring97, pp. 81-12. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=9702240185&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Hansen, David T. “Well-Formed, Not Well-Filled: Montaigne and the Paths of Personhood.” Educational Theory, vol. 52, no. 2, Spring2002, p. 127. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=7186551&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Mijolla, Elizabeth de. Autobiographical Quests: Augustine, Montaigne, Rousseau, and Wordsworth. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1994. Print.

Montaigne, Michel de. Essays. 8 Aug. 2016. Project Gutenberg. Web. 23 Mar. 2018.