Scholia on an Implicit Person
Explorations in Thomism, Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism
Scott Randall Paine, University of Brasilia
Is it a person, a place or a thing? It is not difficult to imagine this question passing through the mind of any one of us, anywhere in the world and at any time. It is one of the shortest lists of categories we use. But without a doubt, the pivotal notion in this tripartite list is the first: person. It belongs to the most spontaneous and self-evident of our ideas, and without it we would be hard-pressed to navigate through our day-to-day or make even minimal sense of our experience. However, as is the case with all of our primitive notions – those that enjoy a familiarity and spontaneity that is empirically instinctive – the notion of person presents itself as one of the most profound and yet most enigmatical of all. To paraphrase what Augustine famously said about time – “if you do not ask me what it is, I know what it is – but if you do ask me what it is, I no longer know” – we can also say about personhood.
Most attempts to define it end up reaching for mere synonyms: We say a person is a “subject,” a “fellow,” a “guy,” a “dude,” a “gal,” a “someone.” As we will see, there are indeed serious definitions and revealing philosophical and theological approaches on the nature of personhood – as there are too, after all, regarding the nature of time – but among the religions of the world, there exists a considerable and conspicuous divergence of emphasis regarding its role and importance. We shall focus here only on Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism.
One feature that characterizes the Abrahamic religions is that the supreme and ultimate realities – as to both the agents and the recipients of greatest importance in their vision of the world and in any discussion at all of liberation or salvation – are always, and irreducibly, persons. They are not seen to be mere forces, objects, levels of being, principles, states of consciousness, or even worlds, but persons. The Godhead Itself is regarded, in these traditions, as intimately and ultimately, and not just instrumentally, personal. Human beings and even angels are similarly understood to belong to this variety of being. And personal reality, in these Semitic faiths, is further characterized as the true homeland of another central notion, the notion of spirit. Persons are spiritual in the sense that they manifest a reality that is endowed with intellect and will, or in other words, as beings supplied with some form of self-knowledge and self-determination, and with a capacity for self-transcendence through a web of relations unavailable to impersonal beings.
The drama through which persons pass constitutes an integral part of Biblical revelation for Jews and Christians, and similarly, though perhaps less emphatically, in Koranic revelation. These dramas are not just allegorical teaching tools regarding some transcendent and more preeminent reality, but are linked inseparably to the very content and articulation of revelation. Impersonal “forces,” “dimensions” or “layers of consciousness” never occupy an ontological status superior to that occupied by persons. Thus, persons are seen in these religions as incomparably superior to all other components of reality. The cosmos itself exists, to a significant degree, only as an ambience, even a “stage,” for the lives and narratives of these conscious and free beings. Should this appear absurd in view of the expanded universe now disclosed to us through the James Webb Telescope, one would do well to familiarize oneself with the cenoscopy/idioscopy distinction of Charles Sanders Peirce and John Deely.
When we turn, however, to the world beyond the Indus we find a cosmovision apparently at variance with this emphasis on the personal. We find this both in Hinduism and in Buddhism, although the reasons are different, and ostensibly even opposed, as we shall see. Despite this, the history of these religious traditions and the numerous and prolific mythologies they generated are full of personal gods and goddesses, heroes, arhats, sadhus, lohans, avatars, buddhas, bodhisattvas, and so on. But this is simply because in the East, as anywhere else, it is not possible to undertake any discussion of reality without at least commencing our investigation from the point of view of our own personal situation and perspective, and therefore with the conspicuous presence of our apparent individual identity. Even if we come to deny this identity, we would still have to face up to the fact that we would be the ones who were doing the denying. At the very least, when we speak in soteriological, and especially in eschatological terms, the Christian and Indian traditions view the nature and destiny of persons in ways not always easily translatable from East to West, or West to East.
We will first take a look at the development of the Western notion of the person, from classical antiquity to modernity, with special attention to medieval insights. Afterwards, equipped with this historically informed understanding of personhood in the West, we will take a brief conceptual journey to the East.
1. Evolution of the Notion of Person in the West
The Dramaturgical Person
As in all areas of philosophy, the technical vocabulary we use today – in this case, in philosophical anthropology and metaphysics – finds its etymological roots in everyday terms and practices of our pre-philosophical experience. Long before we speak about the human subject as holder of rights, agent of moral responsibility and possessor of a special ontological status, we encounter a phenomenon quite familiar in the world of sensation. It is something that manifests a virtually universal cultural instinct among humans throughout the world – from Halloween and Marti Gras to Amerindian and African ritual: namely, the custom of making and using masks.
One of the richest, most suggestive and at times most menacing of our experiences is when we come, literally face-to-face, with another human countenance. Together with the voice that emerges from the face, and the use of our own voice in the encounter with that other human (usually assigning them a name, and thus invoking them), the face itself is the most profound, mysterious and intriguing reality which the world around us presents to our senses.
One of the deepest thinkers – but also quite neglected – of the past century was the philosopher Max Picard (1888-1965). Trained as a physician, he abandoned medicine due to what he found to be the inhuman nature of much of modern medicine, with persons being treated like machines to be fixed. For this reason, he retreated to a village of Tessin in Switzerland and passed the rest of his life writing books in defense of the signal hallmark of human dignity, the most personal and noble dimension of the body (and, finally, also of the soul), namely: the face. (Picard, 1929)
His studies of “physiognomy,” analyzing a large number of historical faces (in portraits and photos), together with essays on silence, language and technology, make of Picard a contemporary witness to the supreme importance of the human face in history, philosophy, religion and art. And what faces us in the human face is, quite simply, the person.
We see, therefore, that our ancient tongues already seeded what we will call the future notions of the forensic, moral and metaphysical person, and that they did this in the modest soil of the cultural artefact of the mask. The Greek word, prosopon (translated as persona in Latin), arises first as a name for the face, the countenance, and in tragic and comedic drama for the large masks used in the spacious amphitheaters of antiquity. Although the acoustic construction of those venues was quite sophisticated, the actors nonetheless needed some artifice to project visually the characteristic facial features of their protagonists, and orally, their voices. In this way, their small visages and weak vocalizations could be made accessible to those sitting high in the more distant seats of the theater. A cone placed in the mask projected the voice, and the outsized display of the mask projected the face.
In the semantic development of words throughout history, new usages are generated by new associations, suggestions and implications, transcending the original referent (usually coming from adjustments demanded by practice); still, there tends to remain, as a rule, at least an allusion to the original meaning. The richer the associations and suggestions, the more differentiated will be the evolution of the word. In the case of prosopon, the transition from the meaning of face, and of the physical and dramatic artefact of the mask, to the role played by the actor and represented by the mask followed a rapid and logical trajectory. And from there, a further transference of meaning from the dramaturgical role played to the very actor who played the role was likewise a natural development.
The meaning’s first appearance is: mask, face, countenance; and then it moves to: role, character, protagonist; and finally, the very underlying subject who possesses the face, plays the role and uses the mask. And as Latin progressively took over from Greek, so it was that the term persona entered into our Western tongues – not only in the Romance languages through direct derivation, but also in the Germanic tongues (as in English: person and German: die Person). In coming centuries the notion began to unfold and display its multiple aspects, having waited so long, in the multiple tragedies and comedies of ancient theater, beneath the surface of the mask.
The Forensic Person
In Rome, due to the more practical and juridical mentality of its citizens, the Latin language followed a more forensic path in the evolution of the word’s meaning. Suggesting (although perhaps not deriving) its sense from the idea of the “sound” that passes through the cone of the mask (per-sonare, “sound through”), the mother tongue of our Romance languages – not yet informed by the sophistication of Greek philosophy – gave preference to a cleaner and more abstract significance of words. Thus arose the tendency to attribute personhood to human beings as such – at least to those considered fully human, which would exclude slaves, and even leave women and children in a subordinate ranking. Accordingly, we find the term in Roman Law referring no longer just to the actors in dramatical presentations, but also to the civic “actors” in the dramas of the Roman Republic, and then later of the Empire.
The persona becomes the human being seen as subject of rights and duties, according to the role he is expected to play in the civic order of society. Although only free men fully enjoyed such privileges, they already far outnumbered the dramatis personae of the ancient theater. The idea of persona was expanding the circle of its referents.
This was a significant step in the new semantic framework, ultimately surpassing functional definitions in order to designate, in terms both abstract and universal, potentially all beings possessed of a human nature, full stop. Without this advance in law and jurisprudence, we would not have seen, at least not in such a swift and logical evolution, the further unfolding of the notion.
The Moral Person
With the Greek translation of the Old Testament (starting in the third century BC), followed by its Latin translation (completed by St. Jerome at the turn of the fifth century), together with the dissemination of the New Testament (first in Greek, then in Latin), Jewish and Cristian scholars began to negotiate the exegetical challenges of the first chapters of Genesis (original sin, temptation). The latter also pondered the Christian theology of sin and the liberty to which men are called according to the Epistles of St. Paul (“it was for liberty that Christ freed us,” Gal. 5,1). A vision of the human individual as bearer of dignity and rights, and such as are no longer linked exclusively to one’s role in society, but rather to one’s nature – independently of sex, ethnicity or social status – brought a more comprehensive understanding of the human subject. That subject now not only carried civic and juridical incumbencies (defined in written law and founded on an ever-growing articulation of “natural law”), but on a far deeper and inalienable level, was endowed with a freedom deriving from their nature, and a corresponding moral responsibility.
Although Augustine originally demurred on the matter of full female dignity and rights, he later would clearly affirm it, and do so explicitly on the authority of the Biblical narrative (De Trin., c.7). Nonetheless, a mature development of a philosophical and theological anthropology of the person still remained in the shadows of a parallel discourse, more prominent in the first centuries (and in no small way due to Augustine himself), namely: the question of the soul and the defense of its immortality and spirituality. Even so, one of the most crucial advances in this question will be the growing acknowledgment that the intellectual and free soul is indeed inherently, and nonnegotiably personal.
The Theological Turning Point
The idea of personhood begins to assume metaphysical relevance and centrality only in the fourth and fifth centuries. It follows naturally from efforts to forge more exact formulations, in the Greek language, of the key mysteries of Christian theology. Theology, as philosophy, deals predominantly with distinctions. The new metaphysical profile of personhood emerges first in the midst of theological discussions regarding the conceptual identification of certain distinctions (in terms of “relations”) within the Divinity itself. Although Greek philosophy will be invited indeed to offer its services, this tricky matter of inner-divine discriminations is held to be occasioned, not by abiding too long in the pages of Plato or Aristotle, but, and unavoidably, through the manifest words of Biblical testimony.
Scripture appears, at the very least, to presuppose an ontological trinity, clearly exhibiting divine prerogatives not only in the Old Testament Father, but also in the Jesus of the Gospel and in the Spirit of the Acts and the Epistles. But this three-ness is one that suggests a non-mathematical triad, a metaphysical triangulation of “hypostases” – of what will become known as divine “Persons.” At the same time, and within the selfsame logic of the Trinitarian Absolute, the challenge of speaking of a “Man-God” – likewise prompted by the Gospel – led to an identification, within the figure of Jesus, of a single subject, but one existing in two distinct natures.
As was the case with the origin of the first notion of prosopon/persona in Greek and Latin – at least a millennium earlier – here too the morphological resources of these two great Indo-European languages would step forth to articulate ideas that had never been spoken before by human tongues. The first four ecumenical councils of Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451) would consecrate Greek terms of unmistakable philosophical pedigree as points of obligatory reference for the remaining history of Christian theology: for the nature (essence) of both God and man, the words physis or ousia (in Latin, natura or essentia), which attend to the question “What is it?”; and for the subject, that is, the one who possesses that nature, responding to the question “Who is it?”, the words hypostasis or prosopon (in Latin, suppositum/subsistentia or persona).
Consequently, in this updated theological language, God is three prosopa or hypostases in only one physis or ousia; and Christ, in turn, is one prosopon, or hypostasis in two ousie or physes. The doctrine of the Trinity and of the Incarnation of the Word find, at long last, their canonical articulations. We should recall, of course, that all such definitions, together with the authority they hold for the Church, do not “explain” the mysteries, but only outline the bounds within which they can conceived of, or pointed to without falling into confusion or error. The definitions are like the curbs in the road that leads to final truth, laid down in order to keep us on that trajectory, and to avoid falling into the mental mud on either side of the path. As theologians will point out, such dogmas are not the end-stations of thought, but rather the launching pads.
Although this new vocabulary slowly gains consensus among theologians, it still remained onerous for the human intellect to grasp the full meaning of the conciliar determinations, and especially to promulgate them among those who simply, and quite understandably, disagreed (like Arians, Nestorians and Monophysites). The first careful theological treatments came with St. Athanasius’s De incarnatione Verbi Dei (fourth century) on the Incarnation, and St. Augustine’s De trinitate (fifth century) on the Trinity. It was in particular Augustine who further enriched the notion of person by introducing an Aristotelian category into the discussion, namely pros ti (in Latin, relatio), that is, allowing a distinction of the Persons of the Trinity through what he will call “distinctions based on relation.” Much later, Thomas Aquinas would point out what he seems to have held to be the reason for the counterintuitive character of the Trinity, but also what would keep us shy of tritheism. It is the fact that relations, which form the weakest of the categories in Aristotle (called by Thomas himself: ens minimum, the least of beings), paradoxically provide us with the best conceptual approach to what the Divine Persons actually are, namely, “subsistent relations.”
The lower we go in the hierarchy of being, the looser and more tenuous the relations that hold things together become. We know today, better than ever, that the entire cosmos lies in a web of complex relations – Newton’s understanding of gravity is just the most famous example – but that all the relations are folded into ceaseless motions and changes. At perhaps the most basic level, a great physicist discovered the electron, over a century ago, and called it a particle, but then his own son, 30 years later, discovered the electron was also a wave (J.J. and George Thomson). Both received Nobel prizes. Neils Bohr will famously say that the opposite of a correct statement may be a false statement, but the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.
Interrelations, motion, change, finitude and contingency – all are hallmarks of our material world. But the relations themselves, often only communicable in mathematics, seem like thin, barely substantive latticework. Relations among humans are more mysterious yet, but somehow also more laden with density, meaning and consequence. If we dared to peek into the world of the angels, we would find relations grown even more powerful and connective, the immaterial world showing itself to be arguably the true homeland of relation. So it is that in God, the fragile relations of the universe are reverse-reflected in the intimate, eternally subsistent relations that are Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The feeble little category of “relation” enters the big time. Here too, the last became the first. Our idea of person – so inseparable from a profound and intricate understanding of relation – was already on the way to its destined rendezvous with metaphysics.
All of the first Church councils were held geographically in the Byzantine world and linguistically in the Greek language. It would take centuries for these declarations to achieve full and coherent metaphysical exposition in Latin. The pragmatic and yet poetic tongue of the Romans gained philosophical profundity only after centuries of submission to Greek ideas and the circumspect translations of its terms (through intermediaries such as Cicero and later Tertullian). But the social implications of all this theorizing did not take long to drip down into the population at large. In moral terms, it would no longer be theologically sustainable to doubt that behind all the differences of sex, age, skin color and vocation lies a subject, an agent endowed with reflexive consciousness and free will, and which bore the greatest responsibility imaginable: that of deciding for or against God. This growing consciousness would provoke the first careful arguments known to history in favor of the abolition of slavery (fourth century Gregory of Nyssa already comments that no one but God can own a human being), and the improvement of the social condition of women. The gradual transition of slavery to serfdom in the Middle Ages, together with ever greater appreciation of the special dignity of women (notably advanced by the cult of Mary), would flow seamlessly from this slow resolution of the full meaning of personhood.
In summary, beyond the dramaturgical person we met in Aeschylus and Sophocles, and the person as bearer of rights and obligations we found in Roman Law, the moral person appears as the real maker and shaker of a history turned Christian. Its general characterization and metaphysical flowering now began to expand, first in theory and then ever more in practice, seen increasingly as the only true realization of a human nature where “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.” (Gal. 3,28)
The Metaphysical Person
In modern thought, ever since the introduction of the Cartesian cogito, philosophical attention has gravitated strongly to the person as subject of consciousness and of cognitive and volitional acts. Such acts even came to be seen, more and more, as constituents not only of our knowledge, but even more fatefully as determinant dimensions of the very world that surrounds us (as in German Idealism). Without dismissing the conquests regarding the fiscal and moral subject – and to some degree even touching upon the dramaturgical masks (since modern philosophy, to a great extent, presumes to unmask human subjectivity) – modern philosophy has tended to leap-frog over the great theoretical advances attained during the medieval period. Since we usually pay for our forgetfulness, it has only been in the twentieth century – the bloodiest century of human history, with communist and fascist collectivisms resulting in the sacrifices of tens of millions of people in gulags, ethnic cleansings, eugenic projects and concentration camps – that intellectuals began to appreciate the need for greater clarity in our ways of thinking about human dignity and human rights. To many it became clear that what was truly needed was to find the means of establishing these truths above and beyond the ever-shifting ideologies of modernity.
The considerable contributions of the medieval centuries to artistic, scientific, philosophical and theological culture began to be studied and appreciated already in the 19th century. A benchmark of this in the 20th century was the invitation of one of the world’s foremost Thomists, Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), to take part in the elaboration of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, promulgated in 1948. The growing appropriation of the metaphysical dimensions of the human person would likewise lead to more nuanced and better-grounded framing of moral, juridical and political questions too. (see Wojtyla, 2011; Walsh, 2016). As always, St. Augustine had pointed the way. But it was in the 13th century that those dimensions were first brought fully and explicitly to the attention of philosophers and theologians.
2. Personhood in the Metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas
Let us hasten directly to Aquinas’s most compact affirmation regarding the status of personhood: “A person is that which is most perfect in all of nature (perfectissimum in tota natura).” (Summa Theol. I, 29, a. 3) Before we suspect that Thomas may be stating this for confessional, religious reasons, or worse yet, sentimental motives, we should emphasize that despite the undeniable influence of the definitions and clarifications of the councils from Nicaea to Chalcedon, that which clearly led Thomas to make this pointed declaration were arguments of a purely metaphysical nature. Even though he treats amply of God, of angel and of man (the three modalities of personhood in the Christian universe), identifying each one as irreducibly personal, the strongly analogical nature of the notion – with realizations profoundly different although obviously kindred – some questions are still left unresolved, especially in the exceptional case of the human person, with its amphibious existence in two worlds: spiritual and material.
Some scholars have labored long over this issue, and a first synthesis of Thomas’s understanding of the analogical notion of person has been advanced. I refer especially to the works of Norris Clarke (Clarke, 1995), Karl Wojtyla (1979) and, most recently, of Mark K. Spencer (Spencer, 2022), to mention only three of many, and – particularly in what regards comparisons which we will address presently regarding related notions in the East – by Richard De Smet (De Smet, 2010; 2013). The works of these four philosophers offer a new and promising outline of what Aquinas might have written about the human person, had he enjoyed a few more years of life and been able to join his multiple reflections – spread out through many of his works – into a single treatise or quaestio.
The first matter to which we should draw our attention is that Thomas considers the person not, in the first instance, to be a psychological subject, to which today we might associate the term “personality.” For him, the cogito of Descartes would be at best a derivative finding, and not a primitive intuition. True, Descartes also arrives at this principle, but he finally grants it a kind of sovereignty over all else we know that is quite alien to Thomas’s view that the touchstone of truth will always be out there, in tota natura. Accordingly, the person is considered, first and foremost, a kind of being, a mode of existence, and one which demonstrably exhibits and lays claim to three salient characteristics: 1. “incommunicability” in its act of being (Summa, q. 29, 3 ad 4); 2. reflexivity and autonomy in its characteristic operations (ib. q. 79; 82-3); and 3. self-transcendence in the depth and scope of its relations (ib.). We shall present each of these properties as following from the definition which Tomas inherits – and ends up significantly editing – from Boethius, namely: “an individual substance of a rational nature (rationalis naturae individua substantia)”. Thomas tends to honor traditional definitions and, if he judges them incomplete or misleading in some respect, will usually present his emended version as a sort of polite commentary, or a mere iteration “in other words.”
In the case of this definition, there is an obvious effort to keep the analogical amplitude of the notion sufficiently open so as to be applicable not only to humans, but also to God and the angels. The notion of an “individual substance” is not totally erroneous when applied to God, for what could be more substantial and more “individual” – in the rigorous sense of these words – than God; still, “substance” as a philosophical notion is commonly paired with a correlative notion, that of accident. Since God, however, is subject to no accident, Thomas chooses the nominal verb “subsistent” (subsistens in Latin, perhaps best rendered as “a subsistent being”) to replace substance, thus preserving the reality and entity in the meaning, but without the implication of subjection to accidents.
Beyond this adjustment, Thomas found the adjective “rational” similarly open to equivocation, for like the angels, God is not, in the precise sense of the term, rational (discursive, inferential), but rather intellectual. Rationality as such is proper only to humans and is due to our bond with matter and thus our need to think along a temporal axis, and accordingly produce discourse – from principles to applications, from premises to conclusions, from one thing to another. Only in this way can a human mind secure most of its objects of knowledge.
It is not like this with beings that are fully immaterial because their spirituality allows, or better, requires the mode of intuitive access to all they know. Thus, “rational” in Boethius’s definition is substituted by “intellectual.” Of course even human knowledge possesses a certain dimension of intellectual, intuitive knowledge, but it is restricted principally to what we call first principles. And there are precious few of these. Therefore, the Thomist iteration of the Boethian definition becomes simpler and more exact: “a subsistent being of an intellectual nature.”
“Incommunicability” – having little or nothing, by the way, to do with communication in its colloquial sense – means that a person is a complete totality unto itself, an ontologically focused individual, unrepeatable and insusceptible of duplication – today we would have to add: not even “cloneable”; biology recognizes that even if we were to succeed in cloning a human being, the result would not be an carbon copy, as it were, of the selfsame person, but merely a sort of identical twin (although, rather bizarrely, of differing age). Personhood in its very being cannot be “communicated to,” or shared with anything or anyone else. It is self-possessed in the most intimate way possible. It is its own nontransferable “property,” one might say. We can certainly generate children and communicate to them our human nature, but it would be quite another matter to communicate our personal identity, making out of a “you” a “me.” A person is quite simply, and from its inception, a being of such density, particularity and individuality that there can exist only one of them.
Probably the most common way of referring to a beloved spouse or lover is to bear witness to this singularity. How often do we hear in romantic exchanges, or in love songs, the phrase “only you”? As usual, the poets get the message before the philosophers. This metaphysical incommunicability, in truth, is the very condition of possibility for persons to exercise another, supremely important form of communication. It enables them to be able to communicate themselves indeed, but here not ontologically, but in will, making a gift of themselves in the act of love. After all, you can only give what you have, and persons, in the order of being, possess themselves in the most perfect way possible; consequently, in the order of free acts, they can give what they have to the beloved: their very selves. Love – whether family affection, erotic love, friendship or the love that Christ taught – produces not a fusion of being (a melting of two into one), but rather a communion of wills, a gift of bodies (in simple corporeal presence or in sexual intimacy) and finally a union of lives. Even in the most intimate of acts of love, involving an embrace, the lovers remain two; they do not fuse into a four-legged creature. The special nature of all these personal acts that build upon our ontological uniqueness leads us to our second attribute.
Operational reflexivity means that the acts proper to persons as persons – namely, their intellectual and volitional acts – are theirs in a form so intimate that, in great measure, the agent and the recipient of the act tend to coincide in the order of intention. Persons are designed to have such complete dominion over their acts, and act so perfectly by and through themselves, that they also end up acting upon themselves. This is the famous reditio completa (“complete return”), an expression Thomas borrows from the Neo-Platonists (as in his commentary of the Liber de causis), integrating this idea with his Aristotelian psychology and metaphysics. Only persons dispose of these perfectly “reflexive” acts, that is to say, acts that emerge from the subject but also return to it and abide within it; or, in other words, these are not transient acts, that only act upon some exterior object, but immanent operations, that remain within the subject and change it – and, if performed within the moral order, perfect it.
We can formulate this characteristic in the following way: both in the cognitive field and in the appetitive field, a person produces operations that, in a certain sense, are “retroactive,” and end up transforming the subject as much as, or even more, than whatever object might be involved. The whole Aristotelian-Thomistic theory of hexis (habit, disposition) and areté (virtue, excellence), developed to such sophistication in the Secunda Pars of the Summa, it became the dimension of Thomist philosophy that exhibits the most multifaceted fecundity. Virtues (and vices) take up most of the hundreds of pages of the text. This is why the second part of his opus magnum grows into such a monster, finally being divided into two. Personal knowledge does not only regard exterior objects, but also the person itself and its complex relations with the world around it. Objects indeed are known in such cases, but in knowing them, a person also matures in its knowledge of itself. And the order of the appetites similarly exhibits a spiritual and intellectual summit, likewise acting upon the agent of the free acts: for the will necessarily wills its own good, thereby loving itself, which is the curious condition of possibility for loving others (“love your neighbor as you love yourself”).
The properties of this triad are interdependent among themselves. When segregated from each other, they are quickly corrupted. The dense individuality of the person in its incommunicability in being could, when orphaned from the other properties, create existential isolation, with the person morphing into a sort of padlocked monad, where its God-created uniqueness becomes a jail cell of weirdness. But this is only if it retreats from the open windows provided by the reflexive operations, and in sequence, from the resulting deep webs of relations that makes true self-transcendence possible. In like manner, reflection on its own existence in self-consciousness, and the tendency to affirm its own good (that is, happiness) in self-determination, could culminate in a closed cycle of narcissism. But this would be our fate if there did not exist a personal dynamism directly outwardly. The senses have already opened the soul to a world of visions, sounds, smells, tastes and the most varied sensorial impressions. The intellect and the will, rooted in the unique individuality of the person, are designed to follow the senses and open themselves to a virtual infinity of relations. Transcendence is, so to speak, the very language of human ontology.
There are three great transcendences in our experience. The first is the one created by our senses, which display a material world that stretches far beyond our body, a function of the celebrated In-der-Welt-Sein (the radical “in-the-worldness” of our experience) of Heidegger. Thereafter, when this world has already activated the intellect through its manifestation of the truth of things (their intelligibility), and the will through the disclosure of the goodness of things (their “appetability,” “interest,” “importance”), the mind itself will respond by its own transcendence – this time, a transcendence beyond the very material world itself. The mind discovers essences, properties, structures and principles that surpass the material order (the mathematical order of truths – within, but also somehow beyond the physical cosmos – gives witness to this). The third transcendence arises when the dynamism of the spirit finally identifies an absolute “beyond,” to which the name of God will be given. Nothing in the world hitherto encountered will ultimately make sense without this mysterious reality “that we call God” (in the words of Aquinas in his famous Five Ways – his extremely understated way of referring to God insofar as philosophically knowable, for it points merely to an existence, the essence of which we know next to nothing; but of which we can indeed know that it is there).
The density of personal being and the intensity of its operations makes it profoundly itself, possessed of the purest form of “identity” that exists, but it is an ID that is programmatically open and interrelated to others, and potentially to everything and everyone (capax universi, able to be face-to-face with everything, in the expression of Aquinas). There is a kind of intentionality (a “being-about-something-elseness”) that is not only true of our reflexive acts of cognition and appetition, but of our very being. Persons do not just exist, but they are also about something greater than themselves. You might have a book and know a lot about the book, but not know what the book is about. A human person – so incommunicable, reflective and self-transcendent – is already a remarkable creature. But it is also a question, for it is about something more than what it is. We persons are ourselves, but we are not about ourselves.
3. Atman and Brahman in the Vedanta: personal or impersonal?
The religions and philosophies of India are innumerable. After long and serious debates about the fittingness of the singular noun “Hinduism” as a name for so diverse a multitude of religious manifestations in art, wisdom and cult, the consensus of specialists tends to honor the pragmatic need to keep the term in the singular, so long as we bear in mind the profound heterogeneity of the subject matter at hand. Beneath the anfractuous boundary lines between the schools and cults we call Hindu, there is a relatively uncontentious unifying formula linking the majority of manifestations of Indian religiosity, and even of its several (one usually counts six) “schools” of philosophy. And even though some would deem the formula to imply a usurpation of a point of view salient in only one of those scholastic formulations (one of the six darshanas), namely, the Vedanta – entailing a possible marginalization of other, comparably influential schools – it is hard to dispute that, at the very least, the Hindu view of reality of greatest projection in the West does indeed carry the stamp of this formula’s manner of conceiving of the world, of man and of God.
This core Weltanschauung represents an interpretation of the Vedas and Upanishads that had considerable impact also beyond the members of a specific school, even if at times more implicitly than explicitly. It is the formula extracted from the Chandogya Upanishad (6,8.7), commented upon in all the schools of Vedanta, but in the most familiar and radical form in the Advaita (“non-dualist”) Vedanta. The familiar expression is: tat tvam asi (“that thou art”), affirming the identity between what you, as a human being, truly are, and that which the world, in its totality and in its fundamental reality, truly is. At a certain level, it denotes an ultimate fusion between subject and object. The formulations of this fusion are, however, extraordinarily subtle, and – rehearsing what Augustine had said about knowing God (if you think it is God you understand, it is not) – if you think you understand the tat tvam asi¸ you probably do not.
This mahavakya (“grand declaration”) from a canonical text of Indian metaphysics serves for many as a kind of leitmotif, in one form or another, of the many-splendored array of Indian philosophies and religions, at least to the extent that they point to our end and final consummation. That end is sought by all, whether through philosophical thought, in the postures and respirations of yoga, by virtue of the sacrifices and ritual exercises of bhakti (“devotion”), or by one’s understanding of the slow justice of transmigration (whatever form it may take). These, and other lineages of meditation and Hindu practice, even if they do not display a manifest recognition of this metaphysical “bottom line,” nonetheless can be seen to implicitly acknowledge it as a common denominator. Most of the diverse aspects of Indian culture contain a soteriological outlook – that is, they keep the final realization of human being always in mind – and, if asked about the nature of this final emancipation so ardently coveted, will often respond with some speculative or performative variation on the tat tvam asi.
Even the language of Sanskrit inserts itself into this soteriological context and, in principle, is learned and studied not solely as a means of communication, but rather as one more instrument of liberation (mocsa). Still, one great matter of contestation in the whole Indian tradition (whether Hindu, Buddhist or even Jain), and one which particularly perplexes Western commentators, concerns what it is, or even more precisely, who it is, that will inherit, experience or be in some way the recipient or “proprietor” of this freedom. Can mocsa be freedom if there is no one, or no thing to enjoy it?
There exists a standard Hindu word for the world inasmuch as it is bereft of ways, directions and intrinsic destinations. As such, this “lost world” constitutes our prison. There is a vast literature that attempts to describe this non-teleological ambience called samsara (which could be translated as simply “that which goes and goes, but goes nowhere”). It is precisely from samsara that the Hindu typically seeks liberation, but descriptions of the final state in the interest of which such liberation exists, does not enjoy, so to speak, a fully developed phenomenology.
On the one hand, it can be said that silence prevails in this matter simply because no description is possible, the state being inherently ineffable (the New Testament says much the same thing about heaven, 1 Cor., 2,9). However, a prior question that presupposes some measure of stability does inevitably hover over any discourse regarding liberation: again, who, or what is the subject of such liberation? Again, freedom can hardly be a reality without the existence of some possible recipient or beneficiary, who would in fact be freed. Who, or what would that be? Our rather spontaneous response, without a doubt, would be: well…. persons. But do we have the right to respond in this way in a samsaric universe? The answer is not simple.
It stands to reason that there will be words in all languages – including Sanskrit, and despite what the philosophers or religious pundits may say – that designate, more or less approximately, what we mean in Western tongues by “person.” As already mentioned, English exhibits a whole menu of terms like subject, individual, yourself, agent, guy, self, dude, etc.; similarly Sanskrit has pudgala (“person” or maybe “persona”), jiva (“individual”), atman (the “yourself” or “soul”), purusha (“spirit,” “subject”), deha (“embodied person), tanu (another possible word for “person” in general). All these words point, in various ways, to this idiosyncratic creature that we are. The tat tvam asi, however, and in particular a comparable mahavakya – namely: ahm Brahmasmi (“I am Brahman,” repeated in some Upanishads) – present a personal destiny that seems to involve either an outright metamorphosis, or, even more radically, a complete cessation of human existence as such and the inauguration of an absolute and divine existence in its place.
An image comes to mind – much used in the East and in more mystical, though marginal modes of expression even in the West – of the drop of water that falls into the sea. Under the sway of such a metaphor, the distinction between creature and God, so crucial for Semitic theologies, would appear, at the very least, to be in danger of losing its force, and even its relevance. Accusations of pantheism, or monism, have been made more than once by Occidental commentators, dismayed by what seems to be a strident violation of the claims of exclusivity made for God in the Abrahamic traditions. We recall the Shema Yisrael of the Hebrews (“Thou shalt have no other God besides me!”), and of the fundamental commandment in Christianity to love God above all things and not pretend to be him (or in the paraphrase of Chesterton “…we are commanded to love God and not to be God”). Moreover, it would appear to exemplify, with sacrilegious bravado, the most egregious of sins in the Muslim world, namely: shirk, the imputing to a creature of attributes that belong solely to God.
But a couple of considerations might help to quiet these misgivings. To begin with, there already exists in Christianity – although admittedly more conspicuous in its Eastern domains – a reference to what Western Catholics and Protestants might prefer to call “sanctification,” but which others in the Christian tradition openly, and with some Scriptural and Patristic cachet, call theosis (deificatio in Latin: “deification” or “divinization”). No less an authority than the pillar of doctrinal orthodoxy himself, St. Athanasius, dares to utter the following in his De incarnatione (54,3): “the Son of God became man so that we might become God.”
Nonetheless, emphatic reservations, or at least qualifications, are not hard to come by, especially by appealing to a famous Platonic term, used also in the New Testament. It provides another approach to expressing this change. The word is methexis (“participation”). Scripture indeed calls us to be “participants in the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1,4) Even if the Western Church prefers to underplay expressions as stark as “divinization,” it is undeniable that the term is a part of Biblical and Patristic tradition, even in Latin theology (particularly evident in the fourteenth century German theologian, Meister Eckhardt). The potential, and probably inevitable polemic lying within the mystery of our ultimate union with God will return again and again in theological discussion. The silver, intelligible lining around mysteries may grow thicker with time, but the dark core will probably only begin to shine in eternity.
It is the second consideration, however, which is most relevant to the matter of personal being. It regards, especially in Thomas Aquinas, the discernment both of theosis in Orthodox theology and, potentially, the tat tvam asi in the Vedanta. When Thomas develops his philosophical anthropology (most pointedly in the last quaestiones of the Prima Pars of the Summa), he highlights a famous mahavakya of Aristotle – oh yes, we have those in the West too! – formulated in a declaration not less surprising that tat tvam asi. It would be no exaggeration to even consider it a kind of Greek translation of the famous upanishadic claim. The great Macedonian philosopher affirms that, due to its intellectual nature, the human soul is, in a certain way, all existing things (De anima, III, 8, 431b 20-21).
Just as the hand is the “tool of tools” inasmuch as it lacks the form of any of the tools it will take to itself, and due to this very lack is able to invite any of them into its grasp, the Scholastics will say that the soul is similarly the “form of forms” in the world of intellectual knowledge. It can “become” all things precisely because it is not any one of them. To put the paradox in the boldest form possible: it can become all precisely because, in a certain sense, it is nothing. We might add the image of clay, which similarly can “become all things” because it does not possess a proper form. How much more so can the soul become all things, for being immaterial, it possesses a pure and complete openness and receptivity for everything else, far more than clay.
Now, if it is a fundamental openness and the absence of a fixed “identity” which the most Western of thinkers (Aristotle and Aquinas) attribute to intellectual souls, and – something which amounts to the same thing, since every intellectual soul is personal – to persons, and that it is this deficit of attributes which is essential for the making of a true person; and beyond this, if the person is perfectissimum in tota natura, it appears not only possible, but necessary that the very Godhead be personal.
This is already stock-in-trade in the Abrahamic traditions, but the tendency in Advaita Vedanta – and in particular, in its most influential articulation, that of Shankara of the ninth century – is to attribute “personal” properties to God (or Brahman) only insofar as that ultimate reality is turned towards us, donning those qualities (gunas) that make it approachable to a limited mind and merely as accommodations to our cognitive needs (thus, saguna, “with attributes”). In this case, Brahman in itself – according to this reading of Vedanta – in absolute terms, would possess no attribute at all, and, a rigueur, would not therefore be personal. But is this the only reading true to the Upanishads and even to the intentions of Shankara? If we understand personal being outside of the context of modern philosophy, and instead according to the medieval tradition presented earlier in this essay, we might find that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and indeed of the New Testament, would be also, and necessarily “without attributes,” and yet, at the same time and under the same metaphysical necessity, be the supreme instance, even the exemplar, of true personhood.
The Scholastics continue to follow Aristotle in affirming that in intellectual knowledge, we become, in a certain way, that which we know. Naturally, this “in a certain way” (in Aristotle, pôs, translated into Latin as quadammodo) must be taken on board as we negotiate the radical nature of the statement. But the New Testament itself offers its own commentary (1 Cor. 13, 12 and 1 John 3,2), when it says: “…we will see [God] face to face…and I will know as I am known,” and “…we will resemble him, for we will see him as he is.” And of course we have Psalm 82, sung all over the Christian world: “I said: You are Gods.” (Ps. 82, 6) And before we write it off as Hebrew hyperbole, we must then ask why, if it was such a potentially misleading phrase, would St. John put the offending quote on the Savior’s lips? (John 10, 34) The difficulty in accommodating the paradox and in making coherent sense of any complete creaturely union with God is quite simply because the reality of this union is – for Christian as much as for Hindu – a mystery. “Behold we have offered you a mystery … we shall all be changed.” (1 Cor. 15, 51)
Of course, so much more could be written about his, but what we have outlined above should be enough – to use a Jain metaphor – to find a few fords in the Indus River.
4. Anatman in Buddhism: What is being negated?
When we turn to Buddhism in the attempt to find common ground between notions of personal identity in Thomism and the East, we come before a challenge that is, in effect, the inverse of what accosts us in Hinduism. In Buddhist philosophy, it will not be so much the “ontological” tendency of fusing or confusing creature with God – after all, God hardly figures in most expositions of the Buddhist dharma – but instead an “epistemological” constraint in the use of our conceptual and linguistic resources in formulating the problem. In other words, in lieu of a metaphysical offensive, Buddhism will make an issue out of our use of language and our cognitive claims, and – of interest to us here – of our very efforts to affirm something positive about the nature, or even the existence of the human person. Instead of threatening to make the person vanish like a drop of water in the Indian Ocean, it will preempt the menace before it can even threaten us. In a vanguard maneuver, the Buddhist will typically deconstruct our very possibility of thinking or speaking coherently about an abiding personal identity. In its most familiar articulations, this will take the form of a bold negation of the very existence of the atman. Buddhism can even be characterized as The Tradition of Anatman (or in Páli, anatta, “non-self” or “non-substantiality).”
The abundance of reflections and the intensity of debates over this notion during the long and complex history of the multiple Buddhist “vehicles” (formulations, traditions), and the often divergent and at times even contradictory answers to the question as to what the precise target of negation is, need not be detailed for the present purposes of this essay. We need only highlight the reigning consensus that anatman plays a central and indispensable role in the teachings of the Buddha. Within the limits of comparative philosophy – matching and contrasting, as we are doing here, the Thomist, Vedantin and Buddhist takes on personhood – it makes sense to isolate the question and seek clarification of the possible meanings of this so crucial term.
Of the three characteristics the Buddha identifies as inherent in all that we encounter in our experience – the so-called trilakshana (“three marks”): anitya (impermanence), dukkha (suffering, dissatisfaction), and anatman (the absence of substantiality, of “selfhood” within all things, including human reality) – the anatman seems to be the most original and fundamental property. It would be the very lack of enduring substantiality, after all, which would give rise to impermanence to begin with; and suffering too would find its roots here, since lack of stable entity implies that nothing – nothing at all – can offer a fixed point of support and abiding satisfaction. The question to be asked is simply the following: Is it the case that this negation of substantiality, the repudiation of atman, logically requires a categorically metaphysical interpretation in order that it constitute an integral and coherent part of the Buddha’s teaching?
Cannot anatman’s negation of atman also be interpreted – and be coherently interpreted – in ways that are 1) epistemological, 2) soteriological, 3) anthropological, and 4) moral, without treading on metaphysical turf? Such explanations would not be entirely new, it is true, but in the wake of a flood of recent Buddhalogical studies of a tradition that is nothing if not complex – especially in the last 50 years or so – we do find intelligent voices that endorse such a non-metaphysical reading. They may be in the minority, but they are well-argued and hard to ignore (e.g., Pérez-Remón, 1980; Hamilton, 2000; Gombrich, 2009). A small number of respected Buddhist gurus, such as A.P. Buddhadatta (1887-1962) and Thanissaro Bhikkhu (*1949), along with non-Buddhist Hindu scholars, such as Sarvepalli Rhadakrishnan (1988-1975) and A.K. Coomaraswamy (1877-1947), have likewise endorsed this approach as in full harmony with the Buddha’s sutras.
In one of the first of these sayings attributed to Buddha, one of his disciples famously asks if the world is eternal or temporal, infinite or finite, and if the soul and the body are the same thing or two different things, and if an enlightened person continues to exist after death, or not. The master promptly replies with the parable of the poisoned arrow. He judges any disciple who concerns himself with these questions to be like someone struck by a such an arrow, but who wants to know all about the origin and proprietor of the projectile, its length and composition, the type of bow that dispatched it and the intentions of the shooter, and yet fails to address the only essential question at hand: how to get the arrow out of his flesh.
In this and other sutras, the Buddha insists on the futility of metaphysical, theoretical questions and the contrasting urgency of obtaining efficacious means of awakening and enlightening the mind. When he does respond a bit more affirmatively to the question regarding the atman, if it exists eternally or will finally cease to be, he still gives a neatly ambiguous answer, stating that it neither will exist nor cease to exist. This aversion to metaphysics, at least in the earliest articulations of the tradition, seems clearly to extend itself not only to ontological affirmations (such as “God exists” or “the soul exists”), but equally to ontological negations (“God does not exist” or “there is no soul”). This makes sense, since by negating God or the soul, the philosopher is also laying claim to metaphysical knowledge. He presumes to be able to know that such realities cannot or do not exist. Whether affirming or negating, you would be falling into futile metaphysics. Such would seem to be the Buddha’s position. After all, you would have to know a lot about water not only to make sense of the ocean, but also to make sense of a desert.
Accordingly, it would seem to be more in sync with the skeptical, or better, agnostic tenor of the Buddha’s instructions to interpret the meaning of the negation of atman not in positive, ontological, but rather in more subjective, circumstantial terms, such as the following:
- Epistemologically: Here the Buddha would agree with Dionysius the (Pseudo)Areopagite and with the whole Christian apophatic tradition (even with certain statements of Thomas Aquinas) that all use of language to speak affirmatively about God, or Brahman, is in the end to no avail and misleading, and that it would be more coherent to hold our peace and, with Wittgenstein, remain silent regarding things about which we cannot speak. Christian theologians will of course accept that beyond the few metaphysical statements one can make without the aid of supernatural revelation – as in the Five Ways, about “the one we call God” – there are also new dimensions that have been made known to us precisely through revelation, and especially through the life, words and Paschal Mystery of Christ. But short of this, they will also recognize the truth of that apophatic emphasis (or “negative theology”) they share with Buddhists. Therefore, through this optic, a Christian reading of anatman could simply agree that yes, there is no intrinsic reality (especially of the soul or of God) to which we have direct cognitive access. This would mean merely that it does not exist as knowable. This form of agnosticism we find, ceteris paribus, even in Aquinas, who once stated that “the highest knowledge that we can have of God is to know that we do not know him.” (…illud est ultimum cognitionis humanae de Deo quod sciat se Deum nescire, De pot., 7,5, ad 14). In his essence he remains wholly unknown (penitus manet ignotum, Summa c.G., 3, 49). And again, we recall how Augustine chides our supposed knowledge of God, declaring: Si comprehendus, non est Deus (which we can render as: “If you think you have understand [God], it is not God you have understood,” Sermon 67).
- Soteriologically: In terms of liberation or enlightenment, the Buddhist will tend to view all speculation about atman – its nature, its whereabouts, its origin, etc. – to be of no profit at all, even counterproductive, a kind of sterile distraction. Accordingly, we can also understand anatman as saying that in terms of attaining nirvana, there is no atman, the knowledge of which would serve our liberation. One is reminded of a celebrated Christian saying of Thomas a Kempis, in his Imitatio Christi, that he “would prefer to feel repentance than to define it.” Nonetheless, later Buddhism (of Mahayana vintage) will generate libraries of theory and seem to ignore these warnings about overheated cogitation. But no tradition is exempt from occasional mutinies. Still, the Buddhist tradition which, outside of the Tibetan, has most currency in the West, is certainly Zen. And the two major Zen currents, each in a different way, underscore the Buddhist veto of enlightenment through erudition: one current focusses on “just sitting” (that is, patient self-emptying meditation), and the other feeds its adepts koans. These little rational puzzles are designed, without pretense, to break the habit of relying on rational explanation. Why? Because reason does not save, and persons (in the West we are wont to call them rational animals) are wed to reason.
- Anthropologically: In the common Buddhist theory regarding the constitution of human nature – Buddhists seem to theorize much more than we give them credit for! – one is taught that we humans are made up of five skandhas (aggregates) – body, sentiments, perceptions, intentions and consciousness (one possible translation) – and that atman is conspicuously not counted among them, not even as their composite. Therefore, in this way too the Buddhist can affirm that there is no atman, for they insist that there exists no dimension of human reality that is atman. It’s not there.
- Morally: For a Buddhist, affirmations of our permanence, our stability, even of our supposed eternity, will only impair our growth in detachment, and such growth is the great moral goal of Buddhist practice. This practice, in turn, constitutes an essential dimension of the fourth Noble Truth. Thus, in the interest of moral progress, holding that there is no atman can be seen as virtuous. Anatman becomes a moral practice, a conviction that has power to better us.
Thus we can identify a broad spectrum of possible understandings of the Buddhist negation of atman (also applicable to Brahman) whereby it retains its power and function, without however sinning against the proscription of metaphysical assertions (whether affirmative or negative). The emphasis on negation in the dharma need not logically require, therefore, that the target of negation be the very existence of an abiding personal and substantial core, a self. There are so many aspects of the human complex that, in the process of detachment and Buddhist enlightenment, would have to be deconstructed, one after the other. There is plenty to negate without negating one’s very self into the bargain. But in this the Buddhist is not entirely dissimilar to the Christian in his own via purgativa. Just read a bit of St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avila. However, the Christian will always come back to the very kataphatic (affirmative) reality of the Incarnate Word, always in rich interplay with the apapathic recesses of the Godhead.
With so much conciliation on offer in this essay, it should be emphasized that we are not addressing something else. There is a quite distinct and crucial matter in the way of perfection in these two traditions, namely, the goal of detachment, or the ultimate reason why one should wish to negate anything to begin with. Here Christianity and Buddhism are far more difficult to harmonize, and the discussion of the divergences would take us too far. It is enough if the present argument has sufficed to show that there need be no requirement, in Buddhism and its body of sutras, of directly negating the profound reality of human nature and of a metaphysical personal self. Something or someone, in the last analysis, will have to be the proprietor and the subject of genuine purification and maturation, and not merely of negation and annihilation. It may well be that many, maybe most Buddhists will be unable to read their tradition in this light, but it should be a welcome discovery to know that Christians do have means of understanding the Buddhist way that can be harmonized with many of their own beliefs. As for those ultimate ends, however, we must leave that for another essay.
The Colombian philosopher Nicolás Gomez Dávila (1913-94) left us his major philosophical legacy in the form of a text that, counterintuitively, is not really a text at all: Escolios a un texto implicito (Scholia on an Implicit Text). The book – of some 1,400 pages – presents itself as scholia, or glossas, in the form of thousands upon thousands of succinct aphorisms, all of them orbiting around a central text that does not explicitly exist. But all these rapid rays and short utterances of wisdom point, unmistakably, to a rich and marvelous implicit text, more present perhaps by its absence than it would be by its presence. One of these proverbs reads: “Solo la alusión evoca presencias concretas” (Only allusion evokes concrete presences). This literary strategy offers perhaps the best metaphor to evoke the ultimate meaning of anatman in the great Buddhist tradition. All the sutras – of whatever lineage of Buddhism – and all the upayas (“useful means”) that help us attain enlightenment, and even the multiple buddhas and bodhisattvas presented especially in the Mahayana and Pure Land traditions, may be no more than carefully enumerated scholia to an implicit atman – an atman ineffably present, inevitably presupposed, but for reasons known only to the wise, strategically silenced.
If we are successful in transcending the more superficial layers of the human person, all that we call “personality” – that is, the “mask” of our exterior appearance, the public subject that possesses civil rights in the external forum, the moral agent that acts well or badly in the ethical sphere, and the fugitive and capricious focus of our psychological consciousness – perhaps we can also identify what medieval philosophy discovered and arrive at its metaphysical fountainhead. If we recognize the proper identity of our personhood as, in the final analysis, that of a being that subsists in a way that is totally sui generis – with ontological incommunicability, operational reflexivity and self-transcendence in its countless relations with the world around it – we might be able to engage fruitfully with the philosophies otherwise so often impenetrable from India and the Far East. This singular reality, “most perfect in all of nature,” is simultaneously of a density and intensity without equal and of an openness so hospitable that, to a considerable extent, it can assume a face of total transparency: so limpid, it may appear that it is not even there – like a perfect pane of glass, or a lake of crystalline water, revealing all that lies within it and reflecting all that lies beyond it. A perfected person would in a real sense both be there and not be there, perfectly selfless because it has become a perfect self.
Accordingly, we shall close our meditation with a concept we will borrow from the Mahayana tradition (which is, statistically, by far the largest portion of the Buddhist world). In contrast to the Theravada lineage from Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, this Buddhism “of the North” (in China, Korea, Japan and also Tibet) was subjected to strong currents of cross-pollination and hybridization from traditions already well-established in these regions (Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto and Bön). This makes them more complex, to be sure, but even in the array of their buddhas, pagodas and rituals, an idea arises that betrays that subtle simplicity so germane to the Buddha’s dharma.
There is no concept more central to these varied currents than that of shunyata (“emptiness”). This brings us back not only to the world of Vedanta and of the Hindu Absolute “without attributes” (nirguna), but also to the Biblical world of a Christianity that calls on us to follow an Anointed One who “emptied himself” (Phil. 2, 7), and to the reflections of Aristotle and Aquinas on the spiritual soul that can become all things precisely because devoid of a proper form. Such emptiness would be – for Christian, Hindu and Buddhist alike – a necessary house cleaning for any soul whose destiny is to be “full of all the plenitude of God.” (Eph. 3, 19)
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