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Is the Sense of Self an Illusion?


Question & Answer

Q: By John
Would you comment from your Christian perspective on the Buddhist assertion that we have no separate self or separate existence because we cannot understand who we are without understanding who we aren’t, and our separate existence is known only because of everything we are? Is the sense of self an illusion?

A: By Brian McLaren
Dear John,

First, I should say that although I have studied some dimensions of Buddhism, I am not deeply enough conversant with Buddhist understandings of self to offer a cogent counterpoint of Christian and Buddhist views. I wrote a book on Christian identity in a multi-faith world Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?), and as I explain there, I tend to agree with John Cobb, who says that different religions are “incommensurable.” In other words, different religions are not saying different things about the same thing, or the same thing about the same thing. Rather, having developed in different contexts, they’re different research projects, so to speak, saying different things about different things.

They each have their own unique backstory and are addressing problems and challenges unique to their own contexts. That doesn’t mean they have nothing to say to one another, but it does suggest that it’s best to try to approach religion as its own language or its own world, and to try to enter it and understand it from the inside, rather than thinking that one can understand one religion fully when operating within the mind and assumptions of another religion.

Having said that, I do recall a story told about the Buddha that relates directly to your question. I found the story here ( When Vacchagotta the wanderer asked him point-blank whether or not there is a self, the Buddha remained silent, which means that the question has no helpful answer. As he later explained to Ananda, to respond either yes or no to this question would be to side with opposite extremes of wrong view (Samyutta Nikaya 44.10).

Some have argued that the Buddha didn’t answer with “no” because Vacchagotta wouldn’t have understood the answer. But there’s another passage where the Buddha advises all the monks to avoid getting involved in questions such as “What am I?” “Do I exist?” “Do I not exist?” because they lead to answers like “I have a self” and “I have no self,” both of which are a “thicket of views, a writhing of views, a contortion of views” that get in the way of awakening I take the Buddha’s guidance to heart. Rather than speculate about whether a separate self exists, I would say that if a self exists, in a truly Christian understanding, it cannot be separate. That’s because every person, along with every other creature and reality, lives within the love and attention and presence of God. In God and in God’s love, each thing is connected to all other things. This, I think, is what Paul is pointing to in Romans 14:7 where he says no person lives to himself or herself alone, and no person dies to himself or herself alone.

This, I think, comes close to the concept of inter-being that many Buddhist teachers explain. The self-ness of a sentient being doesn’t require it to be separate. The selfness of one can inter-be with the selfness of another. This is what love, communion, and unity are about. Howard Thurman spoke of this when he said: Now if I hear the sound of the genuine in me, and if you hear the sound of the genuine in you, it is possible for me to go down in me and come up in you. So that when I look at myself through your eyes having made that pilgrimage, I see in me what you see in me and the wall that separates and divides will disappear and we will become one because the sound of the genuine makes the same music.

Here, I think, the Christian teaching of the Trinity also can be helpful. I don’t bring in the Trinity as an exclusive and coercive dogma, but as a healing teaching in the Christian tradition that suggests that in the One-ness of God, there is harmonious otherness. There is a Fatherness, we might say, that includes but doesn’t absorb and eradicate Son-ness, and a Son-ness that includes but doesn’t absorb or eradicate Spiritness, and so on. The threeness of the Trinity is diversity-in-unity or unity-in-diversity. In other words, in God, there is not oneness that opposes otherness, nor is there otherness that violates one-ness. Rather, in God there is infinite one-anotherness. Dynamic relational harmony is what God is, or as John puts it, “God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). In this sense, Paul can quote (Acts 17:28) an ancient poet, “In God we live and move and have our being.” Our self can exist within God, without separation, and yet without a hostile takeover or absorption.

In short then, we might say that in a Christian framework (I say “a” rather than “the,” because there are many viewpoints in Christian communities), the separate self is an illusion, or better put, a delusion. We often promote this delusion because it gives us permission to be selfish, arrogant, bigoted, egotistical, even narcissistic. The Christian self is a relational self, a self that seeks to love one’s neighbor as oneself, because God loves both myself and my neighbor’s self without discrimination.

When this insight goes beyond a notion that one sees and actually becomes the way one sees, that, I believe, is at the heart of the Christian mystical experience. There is no separation, no condemnation, no male or female, slave or free, Jew or Greek, no clean or unclean, but God becomes all in all. God is all because I see all in love, and God is in all, because the love and presence of God fill without obliterating. We might say the fullness of God doesn’t replace, but rather fulfills the self. The self, whatever it is, is a bush that burns with the fire of God but is not consumed.

Thank you for your question.

~ Brian McLaren

About the Author
Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. A former college English teacher and pastor, he is a passionate advocate for “a new kind of Christianity” – just, generous, and working with people of all faiths for the common good. He is an Auburn Senior Fellow and a leader in the Convergence Network, through which he is developing an innovative training/mentoring program for pastors, church planters, and lay leaders called Convergence Leadership Project. He works closely with the Center for Progressive Renewal/Convergence, the Wild Goose Festival and the Fair Food Program‘s Faith Working Group. His most recent joint project is an illustrated children’s book (for all ages) called Cory and the Seventh Story. Other recent books include: The Great Spiritual MigrationWe Make the Road by Walking, and Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? (Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World).

Brian has been active in networking and mentoring church planters and pastors since the mid 1980’s, and has assisted in the development of several new churches. He is a popular conference speaker and a frequent guest lecturer for denominational and ecumenical leadership gatherings – across the US and Canada, Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. He has written for or contributed interviews to many periodicals, including Leadership, Sojourners, Tikkun, Worship Leader, and Conversations.

A frequent guest on television, radio, and news media programs, he has appeared on All Things Considered, Larry King Live, Nightline, On Being, and Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. His work has also been covered in Time, New York Times, Christianity Today, Christian Century, the Washington Post, Huffington Post,, and many other print and online media.

Brian is married to Grace, and they have four adult children and five grandchildren. His personal interests include wildlife and ecology, fly fishing and kayaking, music and songwriting, and literature.

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