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  • Rudy Bauer

The Absence of Self and The Presence of Self in Buddhist History:

An Existential Phenomenological View: The First Epoch


By Rudolph Bauer, Ph.D. Diplomate in Clinical Psychology ,A.B.P.P.

The Washington Center for Consciousness Studies and The Washington Center for Phenomenological and Existential Psychotherapy Studies

The focus of this essay is the experience of the absence of self and the experience of the unfolding presence of self in the developmental epochs of Buddhism. The focus in this essay is on the presence and absence of self within the early historical phases of Buddhism from within the view of existential phenomenology. We focus within the epochs of Buddhism in the context of Indian Buddhism. This paper is followed by a series of three more papers on absence of self and the presence of self in the unfolding of the later epochs of Indian Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism.

The First Epoch: Absence of Self As Absence of Being 6th Century BCE

Early Buddhism is based on Gautama’s teaching. The four seals of Dharma are often described as the essence of early Buddhism and Buddhism itself. The four seals are: All compounded things are impermanent. 2. All emotions are painful . 3. All phenomena are without inherent existence 4. Nirvana is beyond description.

Following the understanding of the experiential base of four Seals, there follows the understanding and teaching of the Nobel truths. The Nobel truths describe the following 1.Life is suffering. 2. The cause of suffering is desire. 3. To liberate oneself from desire is the path of detachment and dissociation. 4. Detachment and dissociation are the path to self-liberation. This path is expressed in the eightfold path of liberation.

The Four Seals Understood in light of Existential Phenomenology.

The First Seal: Phenomena of Form is Made up of Parts

In early Buddhism the understanding is the mind’s knowledge of form. In the early Buddhism there is only the knowing of mind and the knowing of form. The Four Seals foundational assumption reflects the knowing of mind alone. The mind only knows form. The mind does not know Being. The knowing of mind is distinct from the direct knowing of awareness. Awareness knows Being. There is no knowing of awareness in early Buddhism. The knowing of mind and the knowing of form are impermanent. The knowing of form alone is empty of the experience of knowing the “Being” of the form. In early Buddhism there was the orientation to transcend experience and to dissociate and detach from the immediacy of lived experience. Experience is considered illusionary and not actual.

Within the view of the Four Seals there is a no knowing of awareness and there is no knowing of Being. There is a foreclosure on the knowing of awareness. There is this foreclosure of the knowing of Being. There is only the knowing of form. Form is impermanent and empty of Being. The four seals are empty of Being. Form is Being-less, form is emptiness. Empty of what? Empty of Being.

Early Buddhism does not know Being. Early Buddhism does not know through the medium of awareness. Early Buddhism does not focus on lived experience. Early Buddhism is locked in mind alone. Early Buddhism is a detached and dissociative rationalism! The phenomena of form that the mind mentally knows are totally impermanent and empty of Being. The phenomena of mind only knows the form of phenomena without knowing the Being of the phenomena. The phenomena of mind is empty of Being and the empty of the corresponding sense of self.

The phenomena of the mind is empty of the self of Being. Mind without awareness is Being-less knowing. The knowledge of form alone is Being-less and baseless. The knowledge of form is mentalistic. Form is empty of Being. Form is baseless and source-less. There is no radiance of Being, there is no field of Being, there is no medium of Being. There is no presence of Being. There is no presence of self. The sense of self is the sense of our Being as our sense of self.

In early Buddhism the forms of the mind are the functions of the mind. The mind is made up of parts. The mind is impermanent and contingent. The sense of self is impermanent, contingent and illusionary. There is no ongoing sense of mind and there is no ongoing sense of self. There is no ongoing sense of the Being-ness of one’s self or even of the world. The sense of mind is detached from lived experience. In Early Buddhism the praxis was to transcend and to go beyond experience and to go beyond our experience of phenomena. Detachment and dissociation from the immediacy of lived experience was method and considered a skillful means.

Detachment and dissociation weaken our sense of the actuality and reality of our human experience, as well as the sense of the actuality of our own experience of self. Detachment and dissociation can foreclose our sense of the actuality of our sense of self, our lived experience of our world and those we love.

Knowing by mind alone forecloses our knowing simultaneously both the form and Being of form. When mind and awareness are in union within the one knower, the one knower can know the form of Being and the Being of a form. Our mind knowing only form forecloses our knowing our self as our Being. In Dzogchen language this Ma Rigpa. This is ignorance of Being.

The Second Seal: All Emotional Life is Suffering.

All emotional and relational life is suffering. Yes of course! When the form of relational life and relational experience is without the base of Being, life is suffering. Both Dzogchen and existential phenomenology describe that knowing of Form alone is Ma Rigpa or ignorance. Ma Rigpa is the ignorance of Being. Ma Rigpa is the lack of the experience of the base and the medium of the field of Being. Without our knowing the base of Being of form, then form is empty of Being.

The absence of the sense of Being in human life is suffering. The ongoing praxis of dissociation and detachment from experience creates a weakened sense of reality and a distorted sense of the actuality of our human experience and personal judgment. The practice of detachment and dissociation weakens our sense of relatedness to the world and to the beings of the world. The practice of detachment and dissociation weakens our sense of the reality of our experience of phenomena. In this context of detachment and dissociation things begin to feel “as if”. The world begins to feel unreal and lacks the actuality of experience.

The phenomenological absence of the Being of form results in all phenomena of form being empty of Being. Without Being ,the sense of self is absence and the sense of who-ness becomes thingness. The sense of self is without the base of Being and our sense of the other is without the base of Being. Detachment and dissociation from the immediacy of lived experience can lessen and weaken our sense of embodied Being and lessen our sense of the reality of the world as it is. Our life and the world becomes “as if .“

The Third Seal: All Phenomena Lack Inherent Existence

All phenomena lacks inherent existence. Of course! Since there is no Being of phenomena and no phenomena of Being there is nothing inherent. Phenomena is empty of source. Phenomena lacks the base of Being. Phenomena is made up of parts and is impermanent. The base of phenomena is without the base of Being. There is no base of Being. Since the experience of Being is foreclosed there is no knowing of Being. There is no knowing of the base of Being, there is no knowing the base of phenomena and there is no knowing of the base of self.

There is no knowing of awareness. There is no awareness knowing Being. Because of our our dissociation and detachment from our own lived experience of the world, the world can feel to be “as if.” The world lacks the sense of being real and becomes more illusionary and lacks the actuality of existence. The light of Being illuminates human experience. Without the light of Being, there is living within dissociation and living within detachment from personal experience and the personal experience of the world. We and the world become impersonal.

In Existential Phenomenology The Nature of All Phenomena is The Nature of Being

The nature of phenomena is the nature of Being. There is only one nature. Being Self manifests as the Being of beings. Being self-manifests phenomena and all phenomena are the nature of Being. Without the knowing of awareness, phenomena is experienced as Being-less. Without the knowing of awareness phenomena is experienced as source-less. Without the base of Being, phenomena lacks inherent existence. There is only absence . Without living within the lived experience of our experience, there is a growing sense of empty absence of the sense of the actuality of our self, and our sense of the actuality of the reality of the world. Only impermanence and contingency exist.

Without the presence of Being both the self, and the world is experienced as schizoid. The word schizoid simply means self-less and Being-less and lacking presence. The sense of presence is the radiance of Being. The sense of presence is either missing in early Buddhism or is considered an illusionary experience. This distorted understanding of our human experience is amplified by the praxis of dissociation and detachment. This view creates suffering.

The Fourth Seal: Nirvana is Beyond Description

The experience of Nirvana is beyond mentalistic description and beyond the experience of mind alone. Of course! There are the different connotations of Nirvana. The tantric understanding of the experience of Nirvana goes beyond Being-less-ness and absence. In Tantric Buddhism the experience of Nirvana is the experience of the Bliss of Being. In Tantric Buddhism Bliss is path. In Tantric Buddhism, there is the luminous understanding and the luminous experience that the Bliss of Being overcomes suffering. Bliss is the nature of Being. The nature of our experience of Being is Bliss. The nature of our experience of the Being of beings is bliss. The nature of the Being of the world is Bliss. The nature of Being is Purity and the Nature of the Purity of Being is Bliss. This is the meaning of Nirvana in Tantric Buddhism.

Nirvana in early Buddhism was cessation. Cessation is beyond description. Cessation is beyond language. Cessation is nothingness. Cessation is Absence. Cessation is absence of Bliss. The Nirvana of cessation is the Nirvana of the sutras. Early Buddhism was Sutra. Tantra is a later development following Nagarjuna. In Tantra Nirvana is Bliss. Bliss is Tantra. Early Buddhism is without Being. Tantra is the ongoing Bliss of Being. Early Buddhism is liberation through cessation. Tantra is liberation through Bliss of Being.

And so the Tantras’ declare that “The experience of the Bliss of Being overcomes suffering.” Being is known through awareness and through the immediacy of experience. All experience is the doorway into the Bliss of Being. Bliss is not a dissociative and detached experience. Bliss is absorption. In becoming aware of awareness, we most directly experience Being as it is within everything and and everyone. Within experience and through experience is the field of Bliss. Within all experience is the field of Being. The field of Being is the field of immanence. In becoming aware of awareness we directly experience our experience opening into and opening as luminous Beingness. The essence of luminous Beingness is Bliss. Bliss is not simply a psychological conjuring. Bliss is the very essence of Being.

Without awareness , there is no knowing the Being of phenomena and there is no knowing the phenomena of Being. There is no knowing of Bliss. The Bliss of Being overcomes suffering. Nirvana of the Tantras’ is the Bliss of Being as non- duality. Nirvana of Tantras’ is the Bliss of Oneness within the context of difference and duality. When there is oneness within difference, and there is non- duality within duality, this is Nirvana . This is Bliss of Being. The sense of our self is our sense of our Being, and the sense of our self is the bliss of our Being. This is the nature of our self. Without awareness there is no authentic sense of self and there is no authentic bliss of the self. Without awareness and without Being there is dreary-ness and suffering. The world of early Buddhism is dreary and is suffering. The four seals describe this suffering.

The Four Nobel Truths Naturally Follow the Four Seals

Nobel Truths

All life is Suffering . The source of suffering is desire. The liberation from suffering is through detachment and dissociation. The eightfold path makes explicit the path of detachment and transcendence. The four Nobel Truths are liberation through cessation.

Without our direct knowing of Being, our sense of Self is Being-less and our sense of phenomena is Being-less. The sense of the world is empty of Being. Without Being, form is empty. Life is empty. Without the ground of Being, desire does not have the power to bring forth the fruition of desire into Being. To detach oneself from desire is to dissociate from Being’s self -manifestation in the world as the world. Detachment is the path of cessation.

To become detached and dissociated from the world is to experience schizoid life. Life without self and self without life is schizoid. Schizoid is not a moral word, but a description of selfless and Being-less experience. The detached self is beyond the nature of Being and the detached experience from phenomena lacks the nature of Being. Without the knowing of awareness, there is no direct knowing of Being which Being is the very nature of all phenomena.

Reality is Absence

In Early Buddhism reality is absence. There is our mind knowing form. And this form is empty of Being and the knower of the form is empty of Being. The mind can only know form and mind cannot know the Being of form. Awareness knows Being. Early Buddhism only values mind and the knowing of mind. There is no valuing the knowing of awareness and corresponding knowing of Being. Gnosis manifests much later in the culture of Buddhism. Gnosis is the direct knowing of Being as Being.

The second epoch of the unfolding of Buddhist thought and understanding will be discussed in a following paper. The paper of the Second Epoch is the Evolutionary Phase of Luminous Nagarjuna.

Rudolph Bauer, Ph.D. Diplomate In Clinical Psychology, A.B.P.P.


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Rudolph Bauer, Ph.D. Diplomate in Clinical Psychology, A. B. P. P. The Washington Center for Consciousness Studies and the Washington Center for Phenomenological and Existential Psychotherapy Unbearab