Chiang Mai: I met somebody in a coffee shop the other day and he was saying, it’s all just words, isn’t it? We were talking about the difference between the Advaita Self and the Theravada Buddhist no-self. I was saying no-self is a deconstructed form of Self. The man in the coffee shop wouldn’t say yes or no to that (it’s all just words). Theravadin Buddhism is about seeing through the constructedness of the ordinary self we all experience as who we are. Take that to pieces through meditational investigation and wise reflection, follow the Path and you end up with the state of final deliverance, the unborn, ageless, and deathless; Nibbana.

Advaita doesn’t need to get into that because the state of non-duality is pre-existing. You can’t break it down into its parts because it’s already there. You just need to ‘see’ it. Speculative conjectures, say the Theravadins. The quest to know the Self in Brahman is simply the mind’s natural yearning for a comprehensive unity; trying to reach ‘Nibbana’ by intellectual means. What we need to do is remain grounded in actuality and by humble, sustained spiritual practice, work to liberate ourselves from the dualities contained within human experience. This living experience of things as they really are, is the starting point and framework. Buddhism attempts to diagnose the central problem at the core of human existence, dhukka and to offer a way to its solution. ‘This is suffering, this is the origin of suffering, this is the cessation of suffering, this is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.’ The Buddha didn’t say exactly what happens after that.

In Advaita there’s a kind of built-in narrative that seems to be associated somehow, more literalist than what I’m used to in the Theravadin Buddhist way. This is where I return to at the end of the day. Maybe it’s because that’s how I started out on the Path. I learned how to take things apart carefully to see how it all works; how it can be reconstructed or deconstructed and it looks like there’s no final state, the ‘world’ remains as transformation; it’s all about phenomena that are dependent on other phenomena, and nothing in the world has a true independent reality.

This is different from the Advaitist ‘absolute reality’, the single homogenous and continuous structure of Brahman, the ‘Oneness’. The question is, what’s the difference between ‘absolute reality’ and ‘no independent reality’? An intuitive sense tells me both ‘absolute reality’ and ‘no independent reality’ are relevant to the Path – I don’t see why there should be an impossible difference between them because the ‘Oneness’ includes everything. Like my friend in the coffee shop says, it’s all just words, isn’t it? Take the words away and and there’s nothing left – only conscious experience.


‘Early Buddhism conflates subject into object. Consciousness is something conditioned, arising only when certain conditions exist. The self is merely an illusion created by the interaction of the five aggregates. The self shrinks to nothing and there is only a void; but the Void is not a thing — it expresses the fact that there is absolutely nothing, no-thing at all, which can be identified as the self.

Advaita Vedanta conflates object into subject. There is nothing external to Brahman, the One without a second. Since Brahman is a non-dual, self-luminous consciousness, consciousness expands to encompass the entire universe, which is but the appearance of Brahman; everything is the Self.’ [Enlightenment in Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta: 
Are Nirvana and Moksha the Same? David Loy]

Photo: People Carrier (Songtaew) Chiang Mai

7 thoughts on “Constructedness

  1. Great post. I have meandered along both paths and arrived at the same place: “Take the words away and and there’s nothing left – only conscious experience.” Everything – subject, object and the perceiving thereof – is inseparable from this experience-ing-aware-ing-ness … and who can escape this immanence?
    Thank you. 🙂

    • Thanks for that, there’s a middle path in there. Much could be said about it, drawing inspiration from others more articulate, and that’s as far as I can go right now…

      • Really interesting post. I wonder whether there is a similarity between the approach of deconstruction mentioned in the post and the Advaitic approach of negation: “The physical body, composed of the seven dhatus, is not ‘I’. The five sense organs… and the five types of perception known through the senses… are not ‘I’. Etc.”

      • I agree with you, they are similar – but not the same. Sri Ramana Maharshi says ‘After negating all of the above as ‘not I, not I’, the knowledge that alone remains is itself ‘I’.’ The difference is that from the Theravadin point of view there is no ‘I’ remaining; deconstruction leaves nothing behind (’… no remainder’). Similar, yes, but the Buddha didn’t want us to speculate on possibilities?

      • Yes, that seems to be the main difference. There is no question of indicating some ultimate reality as being the true nature of the self in Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. There is only investigation into the nature of the self and causes and conditions.

        Interestingly, the part that I quoted was inserted by Sri Ramana’s disciple. Ramana himself did not seem to put much emphasis on the traditional advaitic approach of ‘not I, not I’.

      • I noticed the part about how something was inserted by his disciple. Possibly we were looking at the same document? Sri Ramana clarifies the point afterwards: ‘… the one who eliminates the ‘not I’ cannot eliminate the ‘I’’. Then he finishes by saying: ‘Find the source and then all these other ideas will vanish and the pure Self will remain.’ It’s completely necessary to be specific in this kind of situation. I like what you’re saying about, ‘There is only investigation …’

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