The Freedom to be No One: Buddhism, Mind and Experience

Stephen Batchelor

This unpublished essay was written for a conference on Buddhism and Psychology in Los Angeles in May 1998.


Here is a poem that suggests, I hope, the theme of this essay. The writer is Nagarjuna. He lived in India about seven hundred years after the Buddha.


Blocked by confusion
I survive by forging a destiny
Through impulsive acts.

I enter situations
Where personality unfolds
And world impacts
On my sensitive soul.

Personality creates
Just as attention,
The eye and a colourful shape
Trigger vision.

Impact is the meeting
Of self-consciousness
Senses and world.
It leads to experience
I crave to have and avoid.
Craving makes me cling
To sensuality, opinions
Rules and selves.

Clinging is to insist
On being someone;
Not to cling
Is to be free to be no one.

To be someone is to be
Self-conscious, impulsive,
Thinking, feeling body,
Which is born, ages, dies,
Suffers torment, grief, pain,
Depression, anxiety.

Anguish emerges
When someone is born.

Impulsive acts
Are the root of life.
Fools are impulsive
But the wise see things as they are.
When confusion stops
Through practising insight
Impulsive acts will cease.

By stopping this
That won’t happen.
Anguish will end. 1

It would undermine the power of Nagarjuna’s poem to dissect it for general psychological truths. When a poem speaks to us, it doesn’t impart information, which we can retain and analyse, but responds to the questions life poses. It helps us experience ourselves in another way. Yet both Buddhist tradition and Western scholars insist on regarding Nagarjuna as a philosopher rather than a poet. He is known as the founder of the Madhyamaka school and considered the personification of Buddhist critical thought. Nagarjuna’s poems are buried beneath an overlay of systematic polemic. His verses are reduced to logical propositions. Poetry is abandoned in favour of reason.

The status of Buddhism is as problematic as that of Nagarjuna. The word "Buddhism" has no exact equivalent in the Asian societies where the Buddha’s teachings flourished. It was coined by Western scholars in the 19th century in order to describe the diverse views and practices found through Asia that trace themselves to the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. Scholars likewise regard as normative the institutional structures such as monasteries and temples common in Asian societies. They assume what they call "Buddhism" to be a religion, broadly comparable to what we understand by the word "religion" in the West.

Such assumptions are difficult to weed out once they have taken root. If we assume Nagarjuna to be a philosopher, we will want to spell out his position — although he refuses to be drawn into any such stance. If we assume Buddhism to be a religion, we will want to know what it has to say about God — even though Buddha never used a term that suggests what we in the West mean by "God."

So is Buddhism a psychology or psychotherapy? While the interface between Buddhism and these fields is a fruitful area of contemporary intercultural dialogue, it is as problematic to equate Buddhism with psychology or psychotherapy as it is with philosophy or religion. In each case, we fall prey to the same tendency to identify Buddhism with something comparable in our own culture. Such identification makes it easier to grasp what otherwise appears amorphous, ambiguous and confusing.

It is not that Buddhism has nothing of interest to say to psychologists, theologians or philosophers. We could mine any number of seams within it and uncover a range of psychological, philosophical and even theological material. But this mining metaphor suggests another question: what kind of thing is it in which these "seams" occur? I find it useful to think of "Buddhism" as a culture. Or more precisely: a culture of awakening. 2 As a culture of awakening, the term "Buddhism" denotes an internally-coherent set of values and goals ( "awakening," "intelligence," "compassion," "non-violence," etc.) to be realized through a range of philosophical, psychological, ethical, social, contemplative and artistic practices. To reduce it to any one of these values or practices would undermine its integrity as a culture. Just as (following the Buddha’s example of the blind men and the elephant) we would fail to honor the integrity of an elephant if we identify it with either its trunk, its legs or its tail.

To think of "Buddhism" as a transnational and transethnic culture of awakening forces us to compare it with Western culture in its totality rather than with any one of Western culture’s many aspects. The very attempt to identify Buddhism with a particular component of Western culture betrays the (probably unconscious but nonetheless hubristic) exercise of Western cultural hegemony. While it may be convenient to treat Buddhism as an oriental outpost of psychology, philosophy or religion, to do so effectively contains the Dharma (as Buddhists call Buddhism) within a managable and familiar compartment of Western discourse. By thus making Buddhism our own, we neutralize the strange disquiet of its otherness, and find ourselves confidently announcing the immanent emergence of "Western Buddhism." 3


As soon as we start regarding Buddhism as a psychology or psychotherapy, we determine in advance the kind of questions we are going to ask of it. We assume and expect Buddhism to have something worthwhile to say about the nature of mind. And given the way that certain schools of Buddhism have evolved, we do find doctrines and practices that confer to "mind" (citta / manas / vijnana / hsin / sems / rig pa) exactly the sort of primacy we might expect. We are pleasantly surprised to find how psychologically astute this ancient tradition turns out to be.

This is nothing new. Ever since Westerners have been interested in Buddhism, they have read their own preocuppations and desires into its texts. From Schopenhauer onwards, Western advocates of Buddhism have been impressed by the compatibility of its teachings with their own way of seeing the world. Buddhist teachings have confirmed the views of theosophists, fascists, environmentalists, rationalists, quantum physicists and new-age shamans alike.

From a wide range of available canonical materials we tend to choose only those texts that confirm what we are already predisposed to find there. Given the prevailing interest in psychology, translators translate, writers write and publishers publish texts that affirm the pre-eminence of psychological insight in Buddhism. In response to this interest, Asian Buddhist teachers offer courses on Buddhist psychology. A similar process must have happened when Buddhism found its way into other non-Indian cultures (such as China, Japan and Tibet) in the past. Buddhist practices will only be taken up if they can be articulated in a way that responds to the specific needs of people living at specific times and places. The forms Buddhism assumes are to a considerable degree contingent upon the cultures in which it finds itself. So in a secular and psychologically literate culture, it is hardly surprising that Buddhism is presented as secular and psychologically literate so that answers can be found for our secular and psychological problems.

Collapse into a solipsistic tailspin is avoided, however, by an equal pull in the opposite direction. Whenever it finds itself in a new situation, Buddhism is faced with a dilemma. It has to find a language which appeals and makes sense to its audience, while presenting ideas and practices that are counter-intuitive and unsettling. The Buddha described what he taught as "going against the stream" (patisotagami). Just as we may be attracted to the Buddhist analysis of the psychological origins of anguish, we may be intuitively uncomfortable with the language of nirvana, no-self and emptiness. To engage with Buddhism is not only to pursue ideas that resonate with one’s own intuitions, but also to confront ideas that conflict with one’s own intuitions.

In the early Pali discourses, the Buddha rarely confers on "mind"(citta / mano / vinnana) the sort of primacy it has come to assume in the later contemplative traditions, which have become so prominent in the transmission of Buddhism to the West (e.g Zen, Dzogchen, Mahamudra, Vipassana). 4 In describing experience, the historic Buddha uses neither mentalist ("mind") nor dualistic ("body and mind") language. His most common frame of reference is that of five "aggregates" (skandha): physicality (rupa), feeling-tone (vedana), perception (samjna), impulse (samskara) and consciousness (vijnana). This list strikes Western readers as awkward and puzzling. 5 We do not intuitively think of or feel about ourselves as five interactive "aggregates." It’s hard to imagine people anywhere intuitively relating to themselves in this way.

Confusion about and resistance to the idea of "aggregates" is illustrated by how it is sometimes assumed that the aggregate of physicality (rupa)refers to the body alone. This allows us to treat the five aggregates as an elaborate way of talking about "body and mind." But traditional texts make it quite clear that physicality refers to the entire range of material conditions both inside and outside our bodies. It includes not only the sense-organs but also their objects: colours/shapes, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, as well as such disparate things as space, gender, heat, nutriment, decay, impermanence and so on. 6 As we study this model, a picture emerges of a seamless, dynamic process of experience, where not only the body/mind split but also the subject/object split is dissolved. Learning to experience things in terms of these five aggregates thus erodes our sense of being "a mind inside a body inside a world."

Nagarjuna (the author of the poem cited above) is often regarded as the first distinctive voice to emerge from Buddhist tradition after the historical Buddha. In his seminal work Verses from the Center (Prajnanama mulamadhyamaka karika), he both recovers the spirit of the early tradition and launches the movement of critical and imaginative thinking that came to be known as Mahayana Buddhism. Intelligence consists of twenty-seven poems, each of which is a playful and unsettling reflection on a central theme of Buddhist teaching (e.g. conditions, senses, aggregates, actions, anguish, self, time, nirvana, views etc.). Yet not one of the poems takes "mind" as its theme. The term "mind" is barely mentioned in the entire work of four hundred and fifty stanzas.

Given the failure of the Pali texts and Nagarjuna’s Verses to emphasize the primacy of "mind," how are we to account for the subsequent outpouring of mentalist language in both philosophical and contemplative doctrines during the following centuries?

Only after Nagarjuna did there begin a systematic development of Buddhist philosophy. The emergence of formal logic and epistemology in India around the time of Nagarjuna provided a new language in which ideas could be articulated and debated. Four broad schools of Buddhist doctrinal philosophy (siddhanta) emerged from this context of conflicting theories. In Western terms, these schools encompassed philosophical ideas we might label as "realist," "nominalist" and "idealist"(though other ideas lend themselves less easily to such comparisons).

One of the most influential trends came to be known as the Cittamatra ("Mind Only") school. Here mind is regarded as the substance (dravya) of reality itself. By failing to recognize this, beings find themselves trapped in a subject/object dualism, in which they unwittingly assume the existence of an external non-mental world. Through both logical reflection and meditation practice, the yogin is able to see through this illusion of duality and come to rest in a liberating insight of "non-duality," in which the whole of reality is realized to be the nature of mind alone.

Although the Cittamatra’s central claim is counter-intuitive, its terms of reference affirm the commonsense assumption that experience starts with a sense of mind/body duality. For the Cittamatra, the sense of being "a mind inside a body inside a world" is mistaken because we fail to recognize that world and body in fact exist "inside" mind. While this inversion of commonsense can only be realized through mystical intuition, the Cittamatra nonetheless developed an intricate mentalist vocabulary to provide a rational explanation of their views.

Another trend, known as the Madhyamaka (Centrist) school (whose proponents saw themselves as successors to Nagarjuna), sought to refute the mentalist views of the Cittamatra. They never entirely succeeded. As a result, most of the contemplative traditions of Mahayana Buddhism today bear the imprint of Cittamatra thought.

In many of the Buddhist meditative traditions "Enlightenment" (bodhi) is assumed to be a private illumination occuring inside the confines of one’s mind. It is an exclusively psychological event, sometimes described as a realization of "true mind," "one mind," "innate awareness." This kind of language reinforces a tendency in the Buddhist community toward a subjective mysticism. 7 The solitary contemplative who spends all his or her time meditating is viewed as the exemplary practitioner of the Dharma. Futile discussions about whether someone is "enlightened" or not (or to what degree) follow, premised on the notion of a person having had or not had particular subjective and hence non-public insights.

This privatization of Buddhism with its accompanying cult of Enlightenment also strengthens the idea of a subtle (mental, nominal or energetic) entity that survives physical death to be reborn in another body. Yet the Pali tradition, while accepting the notion of rebirth, refrains from explaining it in terms of such body/mind dualism. (One of the questions the Buddha famously refused to answer is whether mind and body are the same or different.) To this day Theravada tradition speaks of all five aggregates being immediately reconfigured through the force of craving and action the moment after death. Exactly how this works is unclear, but it illustrates again how "mind" is not given the primacy attributed to it in later tradition.


Buddhism is essentially concerned with how we perceive and respond to reality in such a way that we experience anguish, and with how we can transform those perceptions and responses so that the experience of anguish is resolved. While this process may lead to asking legitimate philosophical, psychological and religious questions, such questions are of secondary concern. Yet throughout its history in Asia Buddhism has offered many answers to such questions, sometimes by drawing on and elaborating traditional Indian ideas, sometimes by adapting ideas from other traditions, and sometimes by developing original theories of its own. One of the tasks of a contemporary interpretation of Buddhism is to differentiate between teachings which address primary existential questions and those concerned with secondary philosophical, psychological and religious questions.

By distinguishing between primary and secondary questions, we learn to differentiate the core liberative project of Buddhist practice, which is not contingent on historical time and place, from philosophical, psychological and religious projects, which support the core project but are historically and situationally contingent. Since Buddhist practice never has and never can operate in a cultural void, the line between its core and secondary projects will always be blurred. In principle, though, as long as dharma practice remains true to its core, it should be free to discard theories and disciplines that are no longer supportive and acquire others that are. In practice, this has been the key to Buddhism’s survival. Each time it has moved from one cultural situation to another, it has succeeded in reinventing itself by doing precisely this.

To understand the liberative project at the core of Buddhist practice, we need to know what kind of liberation is envisioned. What does one seek to be free from? What is the nature of unfreedom?

In the classic formulation of the "twelve links of contingent emergence" (pratityasamutpada), the Buddha traces the source of unfreedom to an existential confusion (avidya). This confusion describes a "stance" in which the five aggregates are configured in such a way that we feel ourselves to be "a self inside a mind inside a body inside a world." Each element of this Russian-doll reality is experienced as a discrete, isolated thing. Intellectually, we might regard such a description of experience as naive. But this confusion is not an intellectual problem and will not be resolved by intellectual solutions.

Such confusion is experienced as feeling "blocked." Having configured "self," "mind," "body" and "world" as discrete things, each feels cut-off from the other, thus blocking the flow of life. This leads to degrees of alienation, in which we feel "out of touch" with our body, our emotions, other people, the environment etc. Although there are moments (with nature, a lover, a child, through art, psychotropic drugs, or in meditation) when the blocks are temporarily removed, their vengeful return leads to a depressed feeling of being trapped in a destiny over which one has no control.

Yet despite having glimpsed a vital, unblocked, interactive and interpenetrating reality, we still insist on the "self inside a mind inside a body inside a world" version that depression reinforces. Moreover, we continue to be preoccupied with strategies to ensure the survival of such "a self inside a mind." Such strategies are often unconscious, impulsive and habitual, frequently driven by social expectations and pressures. In longing to be someone who stands out, we become inwardly absorbed in our destiny as an acutely sensitive, self-conscious personality. Such introversion intensifies the subject/object split, which in turn intensifies the feeling of being blocked.

What one refers to as "my experience" springs from the impact between an inwardly absorbed subject and an unreliable, unpredictable world. What primarily matters in "my experience" is whether I like it or not. If I do, I’ll adopt strategies to sustain or repeat it. If not, I’ll do whatever I can to avoid it. The tension between "self" and "world" becomes dominated by a Janus-faced craving: pulling toward one things associated with pleasure and pushing away whatever is associated with pain. The pull/push dynamic of this thirst describes the underlying struggle to create a safe and secure space for the "self" to inhabit inside "mind," "body" and "world." It is also the pre-condition for obsessive and addictive behavior. Such behavior focuses on acquiring and repeating sensual experiences that are sufficiently intense to obliterate the unease of feeling alienated and blocked. The push/pull dynamic, with its inevitable mood swings, also seeks to stabilize itself by obsessive beliefs and opinions, which try to define and defend the space inhabited by "self." Further control is sought through attachment to (often arbitrary) rules and codes that provide the "self" with conviction in its moral authority.

Such obsessive clinging seeks to sustain the compartmentalized sense of reality configured by existential confusion. It intensifies a fixed and solidified sense of "self," which is felt to be both the agent and object of its obsessions. In moments of lucidity, the inherent contraditions and even absurdity of this situation may become apparent. But one cannot simply choose not to cling. One realizes in such moments the extent to which one is locked into strategies that keep one trapped. The very insistence on being "someone" blocks the tantalizing freedom of being no one. This hypnotic fixation drives us helplessly into conflict with a reality which displays those very features against which we seek to secure our "selves": elusiveness, ambiguity, unpredictability and utter disregard for the ambitions of "selves." Aging and death, the inevitable consequences of birth, become intolerable. As soon as "someone" is born, the anguish of torment, grief, pain, depression and anxiety is inevitable.8

The core liberative project of Buddhist practice is rooted in an intuitive understanding of how existential confusion configures an alienated and blocked sense of reality that predisposes us to impulsive and obsessive behavior that generates anguish. It is not particularly difficult to grasp the logic of this process. Indeed, what has been described might sound like no more than a psychologized account of the somewhat tragic but unavoidable lot of being human. "Self," "mind," "body," "world" seem so self-evidently discrete that we find it hard to imagine them otherwise. Yet the claim of Buddhism is not merely one of making life more tolerable, but of re-intuiting our experience in such a way that behavior that generates anguish stops. It is not surprising that traditional texts speak of the project of liberation as taking many lifetimes to complete. Even if one doesn’t believe in rebirth, a multi-life model serves as a powerful metaphor to suggest the radically counter-intuitive nature of the task at hand. It implies that to release the grip of existential confusion — in such a way that makes a difference — requires far longer than the brief span of a single human life.

From this perspective, the prospect of a solitary "self" diligently practicing "Buddhism" in the privacy of its own "mind" and "body" in the hope of gaining "Enlightenment" so it can engage in compassionate acts in the "world" seems not merely doomed but comic. The earnest spiritual ambition that colors the prose of so many Dharma books is at variance with the ironic self-regard and humility one might expect from a more sober reading of the traditional texts. The Buddhist emphasis on self-reliance has nothing in common with the narcissitic individualism of the late 20th century. Such self-reliance comes from an unromantic assessment of one’s situation, which leads to engaging in a practice to dismantle the very assumptions of a discrete "self," "mind," "body" and "world."

The rhetoric of the solitary quest for Enlightenment, which is found in all Asian Buddhist traditions, has to be understood against the backdrop of societies in which the concept of individualism as we know it did not exist. The Buddha’s invitation to men and women to "go forth from home to homelessness" encouraged a degree of individualism that was radical in its time. But to assume that this seizing of personal initiative was broadly similar to that of ambitious Western individualism would be a mistake. For liberation was understood to take place over several lifetimes within a defined community (sangha), with the aim of dismantling the fiction of an inherently existent "self." Moreover, the Buddha described this process as a path, which required the cultivation (bhavana) of a broad range of skills, covering everything from worldview, to ethics, livelihood and mindfulness.

So instead of seeing dharma practice as performed by individuals, why not regard it as performed by communities? Instead of seeing it as a private religious or psychotherapeutic process that offers solace in this life, why not regard it as a cultural process of liberation that evolves over generations? Why do we tend to evaluate the Buddhist tradition in terms of its exemplary personalities? Why not turn this assumption on its head and evaluate it in terms of the communities, societies and cultures of awakening that produced such people? Might the counter-intuitive challenge of the Buddha’s teaching impel us to imagine a communal and cultural practice of Dharma as a corrective to the current emphasis on individual practice? What does "going forth from home to homelessness" mean when "homelessness" best describes the condition we are already in? For a postmodern alienated individual, shouldn’t this formula be reversed? Wouldn’t "home" as a locus of community and culture be a more appropriate metaphor for what Buddhist practice seeks to realize?


1    This is a working draft of a free verse translation of the Tibetan text of Nagarjuna's Prajnanama Mulamadhyamaka Karika chapter 26, "Investigation of the Twelve Links of Being." Cf: Jay Garfield (tr.) The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. New York/Oxford: OUP, 1995, pp. 77-8. Since delivering this paper, I have published a complete poetic translation of Nagarjuna's great work. See Stephen Batchelor. Verses from the Center: A Buddhist Vision of the Sublime. New York: Riverhead, 2000. [Back to text]

2    This idea is further developed in my Buddhism Without Beliefs. New York: Riverhead, 1997, pp. 19-20 and passim. [Back to text]

3    Curiously, we do not speak of the emergence of "Western Hinduism " or "Western Islam. " [Back to text]

4    When primacy is attributed to mind (as in the opening verses of the Dhammapada), it is moral rather than ontological in nature. Mind is seen as the paradoxically free-but-unfree source of mental, verbal and physical acts, which generate and color experience. [Back to text]

5    And is not helped by the fact that no two translators can agree on how to render the terms. [Back to text]

6  &nbspThese examples are taken from Ven. Nyanatiloka. Buddhist Dictionary. Kandy: BPS, 1980, p. 102-3. [Back to text]

7    Although I have suggested here that the tendency to subjective mysticism derives from Cittamatra thinking, one could also argue that Cittamatra thought arose from a growing interest in subjective mystical experience. Another name for Cittamatra is "Yogacara" ( "practitioners of yoga "), which suggests the importance of spiritual practice and mystical insight as a basis for Cittamatra ideas. This raises the question: why did the Buddhist community become preoccupied with these experiences and ideas? To explore this important question would lead to social and historical considerations, which are beyond the scope of this paper. [Back to text]

8    A similar attempt to outline the 12 Links in contemporary psychological language is found in Buddhism Without Beliefs. pp. 67-74. [Back to text]

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5 respuestas a The Freedom to be No One: Buddhism, Mind and Experience

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