How Buddhist 'No-Self' Can Solve Social Problems

The different levels of self

What if the self was a sliding scale? What if YOU solved some problems, the FAMILY solved others, and the COMMUNITY and NATION did their part? Different 'selves' for different solutions. Today (white) people treat everything as a personal problem and this obviously doesn't work.

Take these three examples:

  1. The pandemic, in the West, has been defined as a personal responsibility (just wear a mask and get vaccinated!). This obviously doesn't work. Meanwhile countries that followed public health measures (like China) have stopped it dead. The countries that made it a matter of private responsibility (and profit) are just dying.
  2. Weight (gain) is treated as a personal failing which you must willpower yourself out of, but this again obviously doesn't work. People can only eat what's culturally available and are only able to move as much as their cities allow. Individual guilt is again good for private profit, but it doesn't do shit about this problem. Also please note, your body isn't even a problem like that, you look great!
  3. Mental health is obviously in your individual brain... but is it? Humans are social animals and sometimes our situations are just fucked up and unhealthy. A lot of 'mental health' issues and addictions are actually rational reactions to that. Why do homeless people talk to themselves and do drugs? Well, if everyone ignores you, why not talk to yourself*? If you're denied other pleasures, why not take drugs?

To take the homelessness example, many (possibly 50% of) homeless people were foster children. They had it rough from the start. These hurt children are supposed to suddenly shoulder all this responsibility because they have adult bodies? They're supposed to self-medicate their way out of medical issues that wouldn't have gotten so bad with some early help? We fucked up, and then we blame it on them. The self is simply the wrong level of analysis for homelessness and so many other existential problems.

So what is the right level of analysis? Well, first I want to introduce the ideas of 'levels' at all. The Western Enlightment was all about the individual and the self, whereas the OG Enlightenment was actually about the concent of no-self at all. Anattā. That's what I'll discuss here.


You're not going to understand this concept by me talking about it. I grew up Buddhisty and didn't understand anything until I meditated. I'll include some Dhamma here, but you don't need to understand. Just treat it as a thought experiment and see where it takes you.

The Buddha said,

Who has no attachment whatsoever to Name and Form and who does not grieve over what there is not, he is indeed called a monk.

We of course are not monks, we are monkeys. Our mind is always grasping, most desperately to the idea of self. The act of meditation is often referred to as taming the 'monkey mind'.

This is of course ironic because monkeys are probably closer to 'oneness' than us 'bored apes', but I digress. Note that the Buddha isn't saying that Names and Forms don't exist. He was Siddhartha and he had a body. The point he was making is about attachment, which just leads to suffering.

As the Enlightened One said:

Having known that this body is comparable to foam and understanding that it is of the nature of a mirage, let him go behond the sight of death, having broken off the flowery arrows of Māra.

Māra here refers to the world of illusion, essentially the Matrix we all live in. Unlike the Matrix, however, there is no solitary self (or soul) waiting to be unplugged. To become Neo is to become one with the Matrix itself, and also nothing. This is how you escape death. What does not exist cannot die.

Again, I won't get into it that much here. For a starter I'd recommend Mindfulness In Plain English by Bhanthe Gunaratna or the Dhammapada translation by E.W. Adikaram (which is impossible to find). And just know that I read about Buddhism for years and didn't understand until Amma dragged me to a meditation retreat and then I saw. If you stare at the back of your eyelids long enough you realize that there's simply nothing there.

For our purposes here just take it as a thought experiment. What if the self (your Name and Form) are just a convenient social label, like Manchester United, or Latvians, or a marriage. It has a very real social utility but if you try to grasp it, to isolate it, it disappears like foam on the waves.

And Us

So what can the concept of anattā do for us? Well, if you're not attached to the self as being responsible for everything, you can start to analyze problems on different levels. If the self isn't real and is just a social label, maybe use different labels for different problems.

So for a pandemic, maybe don't analyze it based on individual consumer choices. Maybe you have to analyze that at the town level (ie, briefly locking down to test and and trace everyone), then the national and international as necessary. For example, behold how China tests people at the group level, not the individual.

"But my freeeedommm!" scream people dying by the millions while being forced to go back to work. They're just looking at things on the wrong 'selfish' level, and end up losing all forms of existence to death.

Then for weight, maybe analyze it based on social choices. Do we provide cheap, healthy food even at convenience stores, or have we subsidized fast-food and corn syrup? Do we provide 'walkable' cities (including for disabled people) or does everything require sitting down in a car? Doesn't this 'level' kinda make more sense?

Then for mental health, ask whether we make it possible for parents to spend lots of time with babies, when it makes the most difference. Ask whether mothers and children have nutrition (and men can do 'mothering' too). Ask whether there are social safety nets for people without (or with shitty) parents, and ask whether those safety nets are comfortable. Really, we should be judging a society's wealth based on the quality of its orphanages and public shelters. Then and only then ask whether there is something that needs tuning in the person's brain.

Breaking Down The Problem

As you can see, we can break down the problem differently instead of just having individual breakdowns. Personal responsibility obviously doesn't work for social problems, and I haven't even gotten to the big one (climate collapse). We obviously need new (old) philosophy here, because the old, white Enlightenment has run out of steam.

I'm not saying that there aren't many good ideas from the Enlightenment. I'm not denying the social utility of the individual self. I'm simply saying that it's not the only level of analysis, and its utility is limited. We simply cannot solve many big problems this way because we're asking the questions wrong. Hence I draw your monkey mind to the original Enlightenment. The idea that there is no-self at all opens the way to different ways to see.

*I'm not saying that schizophrenia is caused by homelessness, but whatever the underlying conditions are for it certainly go untreated and get worse. There have also been different cultural ways that people processed voices in their heads.

I'll continue this one. Maybe. Shruthi (my wife) said this piece was ending as it was beginning, but there's a lot to unpack.