Ethics and ‘non-self’

Article published in April 2015 issue of Shabda, the internal journal of the Triratna Buddhist Order.


I just gave a talk at the Manchester Centre entitled “The Dhyanas: the path of skilfulness” (the video should be available soon on the MBC website and on Video Sangha.) It was quite interesting giving that talk as it pushed my thinking along in relation to how insight (and therefore any realization of ‘non-self’) is inextricably woven together with ethics. I have come to realize that insight in Buddhism is always insight only in the context of an ethical view.

The Buddha urged his monks to practise dhyana, and in his early lectures Bhante Sangharakshita talks a lot about dhyana. He focuses particularly on how to get into the dhyanas: he says one has to become integrated, both horizontally – by integrating ones emotion and reason on the conscious level – and vertically – by integrating ones conscious with ones unconscious. He says that when one does that ones’ energies flow together in the same direction and you feel quite naturally happy. He goes on to say that gradually as one ascends the dhyanas a higher element comes in. In the second dhyana ‘the purified, integrated conscious mind is itself integrated with the superconscious. And the energies of the superconscious – energies, that is to say, which are purely spiritual – begin to be tapped.’ And that this higher element gradually dominates ones experience the higher in the dhyanas one goes.

We don’t really talk about dhyana very much these days. Perhaps this is because people think of them negatively, in terms of spiritual materialism, or maybe they are just confused as to what they are exactly. So in this thread I want to try to clarify what they are, and how they connect with insight.

The Buddhist texts describe Gautama as firstly remembering the rose-apple experience and then as ascending through the dhyanas. There is no account of the practices he must have used to get there. There is nothing, to my knowledge, in the scriptures along the lines of: ‘I practiced loving kindness and so attained the first dhyana.’ So I want to piece together an account of the process Gautama must have gone through to get into the dhyanas.

The first dhyana arises ‘in seclusion from sensuality and unskilful mental states.’ In other words it is a skilful mental state. And as the ‘superconscious element’ that Sangharakshita mentions become stronger the higher in the dhyanas one ascends, we can see each dhyana as an intensification of the skilfulness of the one before.

There is however a certain danger in using the idea of a superconscious element coming as it were from outside of oneself, and that is that we can then begin to think of the dhyanas as some kind of ‘gift’ that the cosmos bestows upon us for being pious, which reflects a rather romantic view of the spiritual life! Put perhaps over-simply, we just have to do the right things and be nice, even if that is a bit passive, and wait to be blessed by having some pleasant experiences in meditation! In my view the dhyanas are a more active and therefore ‘self-power’ process than that

We get into the dhyanas by being skilful: that is, by developing the mental states of loving kindness, generosity, contentment, truthfulness and mindfulness. But how do we develop these? We do so by transforming our apperceptions. An apperception (sanna) is ‘a perception which serves to identify an object.’[1] Suppose we already know what a chair is, the next time we see a chair we compare that object (of perception) to the data in our memory, and we recognize (apperceive) the object as a chair.

But our apperceptions can be more or less accurate. And therefore the mental states we construct upon them can be more or less skilful. But we can bring mindfulness to our apperceptions and try to make them more accurate, and this is what we do in all the meditations that we practice. For instance, in the metta bhavana (the cultivation of universal loving kindness) we bring mindfulness to our apperceptions of living beings and ask ourselves if they are dead objects that just get in our way or if they are living beings sensitive to their experience. And the mindful answer is that they are living beings and that we should therefore care for them. In the mindfulness of breathing we bring mindfulness to our apperception of whether or not we are really being mindful. And the usual answer is no. So that change in our apperception then leads us to try to be a bit more mindful. And in the reflection on impermanence practice we bring mindfulness to our apperception of whether the phenomena of experience are fixed or impermanent. And we realize that we have been seeing them as fixed when they are really impermanent. And that change in our apperception then leads us to loosen our attachment to the phenomena of experience. … and so on with the other meditations.

As our apperceptions become more accurate we enter into the first dhyana. When these are completely accurate (there is nothing left to transform, therefore no need to think) we enter into the second dhyana. If we are practicing the metta bhavana we are completely clear about what living beings are and that they need to be cared for, and being clear that the world really needs our metta, we work to make it stronger and stronger, and it does become stronger. Then in the third dhyana certain qualities come in: mental agility; flexibility; workability; proficiency and ethical uprightness. These only come about because we have thoroughly worked our mind in meditation to make it like that. These are the qualities the mind needs to be really skilful, which is why the third is a happy state: we are happy because of the happiness our mental states are going to create once we leave the meditation cushion. And in the fourth dhyana our drive to be skilful is undeterred, whether our own experience is blissful or painful. Our mindfulness and metta are completely powerful!

Once we are in the fourth dhyana, which correlates with the Spiral Path stage of concentration, insight then arises naturally:

“For a person endowed with concentration (samadhi,) consummate in concentration, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May I know and see things as they actually are.’ It is in the nature of things that a person whose mind is concentrated knows and sees things as they actually are.” – Cetana Sutta.

Samadhi is the coming together of a person’s being in one direction (sam-, complete; adhi, direction.) When their focus has been more and more on caring for living beings, being mindful of their situations and what is needed to bring happiness to them, on contentment with their experience and generosity, and on concern for the truth, it is not difficult to see that at the peak of the fourth dhyana, where that coming together (samadhi) is complete, that a person so motivated to help living beings would naturally want to see things as they really are, because in order to really help living beings they really need to know that!

So if we adopt this reading of the dhyanas, insight in Buddhism: seeing things as impermanent, devoid of true selfhood and unsatisfactory, is only meant to be understood in the context of an ethical concern for living beings. If we hive off insight and treat it as something separate we end up with unfortunate consequences. A ‘decontextualized’ use of the idea of ‘non-self’ can, for instance, lead to nihilism.

I recently came across an article by Alison Gopnik [2] on the philosopher David Hume, who is famous as one of the leading lights of the Scottish Enlightenment. Hume came up with the idea that rather than it being reason that decided how people acted, it was their passions! Does this sound familiar? He also said he couldn’t see any self; there was only the phenomena of experience. People have puzzled how some of his ideas seem quite close to Buddhism, but they couldn’t understand how in the early 1700s he could have come across it, but the article convincingly argues that he did. He wrote his major work ‘A Treatise of Human Nature’ in France in a place called La Fleche, in seeming isolation. But it turns out that the Royal College of Le Fleche was the hub of a global Jesuit intellectual network, from which Jesuit fathers travelled the globe. One of the 100 fathers who lived there. Ippolito Desideri, spent 5 years in Tibet and another, Charles Francois Dolu, was part of a French embassy to Siam, his colleagues having trained in a Siamese monastery. Desideri was in Le Fleche 14 years before Hume, but Dolu coincided with both Desideri and Hume. So it is quite likely that Hume heard about Buddhism from Dolu.

In any case, Hume had the idea ‘non-self,’ but being a philosopher and not a practicing Buddhist, he did not contextualize the idea ‘non-self’ within his own personal ethical framework but instead framed it abstractly within the framework of knowledge. Hume was influential on his contemporary Adam Smith and Smith produced The Wealth of Nations, which became the blueprint for the development of capitalism and all that follows, which illustrates that the concept ‘non-self’ on its own is independent of ethics. As Buddhists then, we need to take care to see the concept of ‘non-self’ from the perspective of wanting living beings to overcome suffering and what will practically help them do that, in other words, we need to always see it from having the perspective of skilfulness.


[1] Gombrich, R. (2009) What the Buddha thought. Equinox: London. 12.

[2] Could David Hume Have Known about Buddhism? Charles Francois Dolu, the Royal College of La Flèche, and the Global Jesuit Intellectual Network

‘Hume and Buddhism’ – Interview with Alison Gopnik on Philosophy Bites

Author: Mahabodhi

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