By Keith E. Yandell

Causally connected continua [sequences] of events [or states] seem to have been found, by the Buddhist tradition in India, inadequate to perform the explanatory tasks required of them. It is more difficult than it seems to dispose of [enduring] mental substances, and the debates among the Indian Buddhist schools concerning the attainment of cessation [enlightenment] make this especially clear.1

There are scholarly disputes as to the interpretation of various Buddhist texts. Even more controversial is how relevant philosophical issues should be decided. I believe that what follows is defensible, both as interpretation and as philosophy, concerning what it discusses.

Generic Buddhism

The Buddhist tradition is rich and varied, encompassing several views as to what there is in the world. On the surface, it embraces the doctrines of reincarnation— without beginning you have lived lifetime after lifetime—and karma— one’s actions, good or bad, bring inevitable effects to you. If at death you have karmic consequences coming to you, you will be born into a new life. In every such life, nothing you can lose is an ultimate good, and there is nothing that you cannot lose. Thus every lifetime is unsatisfactory. “Suffering” – the more common term for “unsatisfactoriness” – is not limited to migraine headaches or panic attacks. Not getting what you want comes under “suffering”, as does losing what you want, or finding out that you did not really want it. Since all lives are unsatisfactory, the goal of religion is to get you out of the reincarnation cycle.

A Buddhist is expected to know the Four Noble Truths: (1) life is painful, (2) pain is caused by craving, (3) the cessation of craving is detachment, and (4) detachment comes from following the Noble Eightfold Path of right views, intention, speech, action, livelihood, mindfulness, and concentration. Your refuge is in the Buddha, the teachings, and the Buddhist community. This is central to “everyday Buddhism.”

Enlightenment and True Doctrine

The core of Buddhism is found in seeking enlightenment. The way of escape is said to require having an experience that includes lack of attachment—absence of desire, presence of peace and bliss. There is also intellectual content and it is here that the importance of Buddhist doctrine becomes central. You must come to see your real nature.

Thus far, we have presented the Buddhist tradition as if it believes that a single person is beginningless, endures through countless lifetimes, and perhaps becomes enlightened so that her reincarnation cycle ends. This is what Buddhism presents to the world. It stays close to common sense belief, for which persons are the enduring-over-time beings that they seem to be, but adding that persons are caught up in a reincarnation cycle from which, under certain conditions, they can escape. While this is indeed held in one Buddhist tradition, that tradition is atypical and was officially declared to be heretical—an extremely rare occurrence that emphasizes the marginality ascribed to this tradition in Buhhadom.

Various views as to what there is occur within the Buddhist tradition. We will focus on two . One adds to common sense belief and experience. The other rejects common sense belief and experience and endeavors to replace it. The common sense belief and experience perspective is what is usually presented as Buddhism, and it is this perspective that people can comprehend without extraordinary effort. Here one finds emphasis on compassion, and the sentiment that everyone can be a Buddhist though all religions are “equally valid” (whatever exactly that means). Less advertised is Buddhist exclusivism, expressed clearly in various Buddhist texts and by the current Dalai Lama when he was asked whether only the Buddha can provide the “ultimate source of refuge.” He said, “Here, you see, it is necessary to examine what is meant by liberation or salvation. Liberation in which ‘a mind that understands the sphere of reality annihilates all defilements in the sphere of reality’ is a state that only Buddhists can accomplish. This kind of moksha or nirvana is only explained in the Buddhist scriptures, and is achieved only through Buddhist practice.” Enlightenment is for Buddhists only; only those who have the right beliefs become enlightened. But what are the right beliefs? There is not just one Buddhist answer.

One Buddhist tradition, atypical and heretical, helps to set more typical Buddhist teachings in context. Personalist Buddhism holds that enduring persons go through reincarnation cycles, live under the law of karma, and can become enlightened, retain their identity as persons in and through enlightenment, and escape unsatisfactoriness. They argue that the Buddha taught that we should lay down our burdens—our false beliefs, our attachment to transitory things, our evil desires, and the like—and become free from them. But this presupposes that we are distinct from our burdens—they are what we carry, and can lay down, and so are not what we are. Thus we are subjects of experiences, beings that have experiences rather than are composed of them. In this respect, Personalist Buddhism does not forsake common sense. This is exactly where the bulk of the Buddhist tradition parts company with Personalist Buddhism.

An almost universal Buddhist doctrine is that there are no enduring persons or selves. Probably the most typical version of this denial offers a non-common-sense account of what talk of persons really amounts to—of what there actually is to which such talk refers. Rather than there being enduring subjects of experiences, there instead are what we can call bundles and sequences. A bundle is made up of simultaneous momentary states or events that are causally connected. A sequence is composed of sequential bundles that are causally related. A bundle is nothing over and above the states or events that compose it. Similarly, a sequence is nothing more than the bundles that compose it. The slightly technical term for this sort of view is “reductionism”—a whole is not more than the sum of its parts. A mind is not more that the conscious states that compose it. A Personalist, or a common sense, view will not put things this way—conscious states are things that a mind is in, a mind has, or is the subject of. Not so for reductionism.

To this is added a claim that is typically put in everyday terms, though it cannot be true when it is stated in these terms if Buddhist reductionism is true. The doctrine tells us that the mind forms beliefs that are false without being aware of the process or knowing that they are false. They are hard to get rid of, and having them prevents you from becoming enlightened. Thus, having them is religiously fatal—it condemns you to the cycle of rebirth. Central among these beliefs is the view that we are enduring minds, subjects of conscious experience that exist from one moment to the next for considerable periods, and can act and be the very same enduring persons who receive the consequences of their actions. On the reductionist view, there are no such enduring minds. It cannot, consistent with that view, be true that the mind over time comes to form one false view after another, by which it is then deceived until and unless it becomes enlightened.

At this point we need to expand our understanding of the context in which the Buddhist view is held. Another part of the view, not itself essential to reductionism, is the claim that the items of which minds are made (and bodies as well, for those reductionist parts of the tradition that think there is anything physical) are momentary, transitory, and fleeting. These items exist so briefly, as one description puts it, that sixty-five come and go in the time it takes a strong man to snap his fingers. (Note again the common sense way of putting the very view that entails that, strictly speaking, there is no man that lasts long enough to snap his fingers.) The elementary Buddhist items last only long enough for them to exist rather than not exist at all. It is this part of the Buddhist view that combines with reductionism to yield the conclusion the a bundle of states that compose a mind at a moment exists only so long as the elements in that bundle exist, and that this time is extremely short. A reductionist view is joined by a momentariness doctrine to lead to a Buddhist view of minds or selves or persons. The Buddhist claim is that this is what persons really are—one momentary bundle of momentary states after another. You are a bundle of conscious states at a time and a sequence of bundles over time. Buddaghosa, a fifth-century monk, wrote the classic Theravada Buddhist text Visuddhi – magga where we read: “Misery only exists, no one miserable; No doer is there, naught but the deed is found; Nirvana is, but not the man who seeks it; The Path exists, but not the traveler on it.” States exist, but no selves.

This leads to two questions: What ties individual states together into a bundle? What ties individual bundles into a sequence? Once these are answered, we can return to the question as to how what the Buddhist tradition regards as false beliefs come to be held. The answer closest to hand is that both questions have the same answer: causality. An important Buddhist doctrine concerns co-dependent arising, which says that every item that exists at a given time is caused to exist by previous items, and also depends on other items simultaneous with itself. Nothing (nirvana aside) exists independently from everything else. (This is one source of the Buddhist rejection of God’s existence.) States in a bundle, and bundles in a sequence, are strongly causally related to one another. But more is needed to make one bundle distinct from another.

An important clue to this “more” is given by the Buddhist notion of enlightenment experience. Enlightenment occurs when full acceptance of the typical Buddhist doctrine of what lies behind talk of a self is joined by bliss, peace, and detachment. In a meditative state, you “see” the structure of your existence as nothing more or other than a collection of states. But this introduces a new element— something that is aware of the collection. The relation being aware of is not, or not merely, causal. That one thing is causally connected to another does not entail that it is aware of the other. The floor is causally impacted by a shoe dropping, but each lacks awareness of the other. Perhaps the only plausible move available here is appeal to the unity of consciousness. You see the pancakes, drink the juice, and smell the coffee. Each of the sensory phenomena are united into one overall experience—one subject is aware of a unified sensory field. This explanation of what ties a bundle of conscious states together is not compatible with the “no self” view, the denial that experiences have owners. Nonetheless something is said to “see” the structure of what lies behind talk of persons. The most a “no self” view permits is appeal to there being second-order conscious states—states that have other states as objects of awareness—or to states that are aware of themselves. This veers too close for comfort to offering a subject of experiences for a “no self” view. What is a second-order or self-aware state but a short-lived subject of experience? The defender of Buddhism will answer that it is just a more complex sort of state. But the question concerns this: why think that the state-bundle-sequence theory is the best way to account for unity of consciousness, selfawareness, memory, responsibility, and the content of enlightenment experience, without reference to an enduring mind, when one has to appeal to conscious states of such complexity that, save for the name, they are short-lived substances (and why continue to claim that they are short-lived)?

One might try to escape this by offering a criterion for being more closely causally connected in terms of the contents of conscious states that fit together into a coherent overall experience—for example, together offering a coherent sensory picture. But then this picture must be the object of awareness of some one state, and we are back with second-order experiences.

Two objections are relevant here. One is that what individuates conscious states from one another—that in virtue of which this state is distinct from that—is not just time of occurrence and content of the state. The fundamental metaphysical basis of distinction between one state and another comes in terms of whose state it is. Thus, there cannot be ownerless or subjectless experiences or states. The second objection, as noted, concerns the similarity of second-order or self-aware states to short-lived subjects of experience. These objections are joined by a third, which has at least two central foci: karma and enlightenment. Jainism is an Indian religion competitive with Buddhism and it holds, as a central doctrine, that there are enduring selves, subjects of experience that are not momentary (and that they are inherently immortal, though this need not concern us). The point is that there is an Indian religion that is as far from the “no self” view as it is possible to get. Jainism accepts the doctrine of reincarnation and karma as literal truth, understood in terms of a common sense notion of persons. Jainism has its own doctrine of enlightenment experience in which to become enlightened is to have an experience whose affective content is similar to that of Buddhist enlightenment but whose cognitive content involves observing yourself as an enduring subject of experience.

The relevant objection can be put in terms either of justice or enlightenment. Justice requires that the person who performs the action be the same as the one who receives the karma from it, and enlightenment is a real hope only if the one who seeks it can be the one who finds it. The Jain contention is that the “no self” view allows neither of these things to occur, since the bundles that acted or began to seek enlightenment are long gone before the karmic consequences or an enlightenment experience occurs within a later bundle. (Given the brevity of the existence of a bundle, many must be involved in an action or in seeking anything.) The obvious response is to reply that so long as both action and consequences, or seeking and finding, occur “within” the same sequence, justice is satisfied, the agent gets what he deserves and the seeker finds what she sought. But there is an equally obvious counter-response: for the reductionist, the sequence is nothing more than the bundles, and the bundles are nothing more than their composing states. “Bundle” and “sequence” are but manners of speaking, conventional terms referring to no real things, but mere shorthand for talking about nothing more than individual transitory states. So there are not bundles or sequences just as, for reductionist Buddhism, there is no chariot over and above chariot parts. The Personalist Buddhists had a real point.

It is time to return to the Buddhist claim that we unknowingly form false beliefs that are extremely hard to uproot. If we state the idea in terms consistent with the “no self” Buddhist view, we get this: conscious states occur which have a certain cognitive content, namely, beliefs to the effect that experiences have subjects and that these subjects endure through time. They also have affective involving or feeling content involving desires for, and attachment to, fleeting things. (Since everything except nirvana is fleeting, there is plenty of opportunity for attachment to fleeting items.) The result is ignorance constituted by false beliefs and attachment to what is not of ultimate worth. It is this ignorance and attachment from which we need to be freed—where the “we” is one bundle of conscious states after another, where “bundle” is just a collective term for conscious states. Since, according to much of the Buddhist tradition, this is what exists (beside nirvana, to which ignorance and attachment are necessarily inapplicable), it is all there is to which such terms as “being ignorant” or “becoming enlightened” can refer. Enlightenment occurs when a bundle contains no belief content that is false and no feeling of attachment. Then later the same sequence will contain no false belief contents and no attachments. No bundle lasts longer than it takes for it not to have failed to exist. (This seems to rather limit the degree to which it is significant whether or not a bundle satisfies the conditions of being enlightened. The worst suffering and the greatest bliss last only for something like a nanosecond.)

The overall situation is nicely described by Donald S. Lopez, Jr. in The Story of Buddhism:

The tension between the notion of a person as an agent, capable of winning salvation, and the notion of a person as a fiction, indeed a dangerous fiction that is the source of all woe, would persist in one form or another throughout the development of Buddhist thought in Asia. It would be stated perhaps most powerfully in the Diamond Sutra, where the buddha-to-be, called a bodhisattva, is said to vow to lead all beings into the final nirvana, knowing that there are no beings to be led to the final nirvana.2

As we have noted, a Buddhist reply appeals to sequences in which bundles containing no false belief content or attachment feeling occur again. We have seen the problems that this line faces.

One more Buddhist tradition emphasizes ineffability. Something is ineffable if we cannot, in principle, give true descriptions of it. One problem is that if this is so regarding some item X, then the proposition X is ineffable is not true. If, however, you make an exception, you find ineffability slipping away. If you allow X is ineffable as a truth, then it follows that X exists, and nothing can exist without having properties, and this sends you off on a long list of other things that are true of X. Further, were something ineffable, then what religious interest could it have? It could not love, act, be a source of bliss or peace, or anything else. It is easy to dismiss these as mere verbal quibbles. In fact, it leaves the proponent of ineffability without even a consistent thesis to offer.

Buddhism and Christianity

For the Buddhist tradition, there is no God to sin against, no need for repentance or forgiveness. If you are a sinner, there is no hope for you here. Buddhism and Christianity
are often compared by saying that both teach selflessness. As we have seen, in a Buddhist
context this means the doctrine of “no self”— attachment to self prevents enlightenment
because there is no self to whom to be attached. In a Christian context, selflessness is understood in the context of the two Great Commandments to love God with all your soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. In Christianity, a personal God has created us in God’s image, and is to be worshiped and obeyed, since to love God is
to obey God. The second commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself, and hence
to love yourself as you do your neighbor. Love is a matter of deep attachment, and is not compatible with detachment. There is a world of difference here, not a deep similarity.

The role of the Buddha is defined in much of the Buddhism tradition as that of a human being who, having become enlightened, can teach others the way. Had he never lived, so long as someone else became enlightened and taught the way to enlightenment, this would make no deep difference. The role of Christ in Christianity is that of God incarnate who lived without sin, died on the cross for us, and was raised the third day from the dead. Without the efficacy of what Christ did for us, we would still be “in our sins,” unforgiven. There is deep difference between Buddhism and Christianity. This is no basis for anyone persecuting or being intolerant. It is a basis for enough clarity to see that the Christian diagnosis of our plight is radically different from the Buddhist, and the rescue offered by Christianity is deeply diverse from the rescue offered by Buddhism.

Keith E. Yandell (Ph.D., Ohio State) is the Julius R. Weinberg Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Maddison. He is the author or numerous works including Philosophy of Religion (Routledge, 1999).


1 Paul J. Griffiths, On Being Mindless (La Salle, IL,: Open Court, 1986), 113.
(New Youk: HarperOne, 2002), 23; cf. p. 16.