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.