A 21st Century Pudgalavādin? Evan Thompson and the Enactive Self


A Review of Evan Thompson, Waking, Dreaming, Being, Columbia University Press, 2015.

Evan Thompson is a philosopher working at the University of British Columbia. I am not sure if he calls himself a Buddhist, but he is a meditator and long-time participant in the Mind and Life series of dialogues between the Dalai Lama and western scientists and philosophers. He is involved with science too, especially through his work with Francisco Varela.[i] He has brought together this set of interests – philosophy of mind, neuroscience and Buddhist meditation – in his recent book, Waking, Dreaming, Being, which ranges over a number of philosophical topics in a way that is accessible to non-specialists, presenting the basic arguments without underplaying the difficulties. He explores the nature of consciousness, the significance of dreaming, the nature of lucid dreaming (he is a keen lucid dreamer), the explanation of out-of-body and near-death experiences, and finally the reality of the self. Each chapter (there are ten) is self-contained, like a series of connected essays, which works well for such a wide-ranging book.

I don’t want to try to review or even summarise most of this book, but I would like to express my whole-hearted approval for his nicely balanced approach. I can give two examples. In his discussion of lucid dreaming in ch.6, he not only draws on his own experience to bring the topic alive, but he draws expertly on some neuroscientific research to highlight the extraordinary nature of how our minds construct their reality. But in doing this he avoids two extremes. Firstly, he denies that lucid dreams are hallucinations, or hallucinatory perceptions. Hallucinations, by definition, are false perceptions, but in a lucid dream the dreamer is aware that she is dreaming. Rather, he says, they are spontaneous mental simulations of sensory perceptions, ways in which the dreamer imagines a world. They are marvellous reminders of human imagination. This kind of conceptual clarity is refreshing. Second, he denies that lucid dreams are spiritually superior to non-lucid ones. (This is relief to me, as I never lucidly dream and don’t feel very inclined to try). He refers to the Tibetan tradition of sleep yoga, in which the yogi cultivates lucid dreaming as a way to become aware of the true nature of perception as fabricated. Thompson’s view is that, while lucid dreaming is fascinating, so is non-lucid dreaming, and we can become aware of the fabricated nature of perception without lucid dreams.

Similarly, in his discussion of near-death experiences in ch.9, he presents the evidence for the persistence of consciousness after the ceasing of neural activity with great enthusiasm, endeavouring to find some objective evidence for the possibility of the kind of post-mortem experiences of lights, journeys, divine beings, etc., described in the Bardo Thodöl. But after all this he subjects the best-documented cases of near-death experiences to scrutiny as to the evidence they provide for the claims made about them. And he concludes that, without exception, there is not the slightest piece of convincing evidence that the subjectively reported experience occur in the absence of objectively observed neural activity. And, further, he rightly concludes that this does not imply that consciousness depends on the brain, only that there is as yet no evidence that it doesn’t.

But here I want to present the argument of ch.10, the longest of the book, which explores the question of whether the self is an illusion. This chapter begins from the well-known Buddhist denial that there is a permanent self existing independently of the changing constituents of experience. This denial itself is, of course, difficult to put precisely into words, and even more difficult to fully understand, because of what appears to be the deep-rooted human tendency to appropriate experience in terms of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’. He then makes the point that Buddhists do not thereby deny that there is a self, which would be the wrong view known as ‘annihilationism’. But some contemporary philosophers of neuroscience have come to the conclusion that the self is an illusion, that there is no self.[ii] Thompson calls this view ‘neuro-nihilism’, and describes it as a contemporary version of annihilationism, amounting really to no more than the view that there is an absence of a real existing self in the brain, so that its appearance is an illusion. He then sets out to show how the self is real but dependently-arisen, which is the Mādhyamika view within Buddhism, and to show this in a way that is consistent with contemporary science.

He does this through his own theory of the self as ‘enactive’: the self enacts its own existence as a process. The smallest units of life, cells, do this by specifying boundaries between themselves and what is not the cell, in this way implicitly defining itself as a ‘self’ in the activity of maintaining itself. Leaping to the human organism, we explicitly define ourselves through thought and action in the very enacting of thoughts and deeds along with the natural self-designating of this activity as our selves. Hence we are the subjects of experience and the agents of deeds. This can be directly experienced in sensorimotor activity, such as reading these words, when efferent nerve signals leading to action stimulate re-afferent nerve signals sensing that action, making sensory experience a self-specifying process, one’s self directly experiencing itself as, for instance, reading. Thompson presents more layers of such directly-experienced self-making processes, within the body and in a social world.

His argument now turns to an analysis of the self from the Yogācāra tradition of Buddhism. This tradition of thought relies on the distinction of three layers of mental activity, alongside the five sense spheres. There is a mental awareness (mano-vijñāna) which is aware of sense experience as well as its own states. There is a preattentive kind of awareness (manas or the kliṣṭa-manas or defiled mind). And there is a repository of tendencies called the store-consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna). When we experience something like aversion in relation to a sense experience, we are aware of a mental state afflicted with aversion by means of the preattentive mind, which however mistakenly identifies the store consciousness (where the tendency to aversion was ‘stored’ as a ‘seed’) as a self, a substantial ego, experiencing the store consciousness as an ‘I’ that owns its tendencies as ‘mine’ and experiences its states as ‘me’. But really this substantial self is superimposed on the stream of experiences, including the manifesting contents of the store consciousness, such that ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’ are all mental constructed.

This view, says Thompson, though sophisticated, is rather like annihilationism and neuro-nihilism in that it concludes that the self is a cognitive error or illusion foisted upon an impersonal stream of experience. Thompson argues that this conclusion is unwarranted and unnecessary by running through an argument put forward by Candrakīrti, a 6th c. Indian Mādhyamika.[iii] According to Candrakīrti, we should rather say that the self appears in experience, for instance as averse or as the person who has the thought ‘I hate this’. While we do not attend wisely to the nature of this self as an appearance, we mistake the appearance for the manifestation of a self who exists in the way he or she appears, such that we impute existence to ourselves as someone enduring through time, and prone to such thoughts as ‘I hate this’. However, this is to mistakenly suppose the self exists as it appears, whereas in fact its appearance is dependently arisen, as a concept naturally belonging to experience. It is like an image in a mirror. According to this way of thinking, the self is not an illusion or a cognitive error, but rather it is the mistaken imputing of existence to what appears, for instance, as the thought ‘I hate this’, and the awareness of being that kind of person.

The upshot of Candrakīrti’s argument is that there is no Self, no permanent substantial underlying substance of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’, but there is a self or person who exists conventionally as the dependently-arisen ‘I’ or subject of experience and agent of action, and who experiences the mere appearance of ‘me’ and ‘mine’. Thompson puts together Candrakīrti’s extremely elegant argument with his own view of an enactive self to produce what I propose to call a 21st c. form of pudgalavāda – the view that the self or person is conventionally real. The Pudgalavādins of Buddhist India were able to explain the persistence of personality without appealing to ideas like the store-consciousness. Instead, they argued that it is the person, who is neither the same as or different to the constituents of experience, who is the locus of identity. Likewise, Thompson believes that the self is the subject of experience and agent of action who enacts his or her identity in the dependently-arisen processes of living, the self appearing as independent of those processes as a mental construction based on the enactions themselves. Since the bases of the enactive self are the biological and neural processes underlying conscious experience, Thompson does seem implicitly to argue that the self, as it appears based on the activity of the brain, has a real basis.

I find this an appealing argument, and a satisfying basis for a 21st c. interpretation of Buddhist teachings. The appearance of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’ are the natural arisings of a complex self-specifying enactive organism, and the unconscious tendencies of an unawakened person are preserved through time in the neural system, rather than in such supposed entities as the store-consciousness with its ‘seeds’. Maybe we should call it Pudgalavāda 2.0. I’m certainly feeling clearer for this particular update.

[i] As a young man he co-wrote The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, with Francisco Varela and Eleanor Rosch (MIT Press 1991).

[ii] He mentions Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel, Basic Books, New York, 2009, p.6: ‘There is no such thing as a self’. One could also mention Bruce Hood, The Self Illusion: Why there is no ‘you’ inside your head, Constable, London, 2012, which definitely argues for annihilationism as Thompson defines it.

[iii] A very good article laying out Candrakīrti’s argument in full is by James Duerlinger, ‘Candrakīrti’s Denial of the Self’, Philosophy East and West, 34:3 (1984) pp.261–72.


9 thoughts on “A 21st Century Pudgalavādin? Evan Thompson and the Enactive Self

  1. Thanks – nice review which makes me want to read the book. It occurred to me a while ago that the sense of self may well originate in the behaviour of a cell – a part of the world that defines itself in opposition to the rest of the world, by creating a boundary, attempting to control what crosses that boundary, attempting to maintain a stable internal environment, etc. This is not to imagine that a cell necessarily has any consciousness – but that in a living thing that’s made of cells and is also sophisticated enough to have a model of the world, that model’s likely to be organised around a me/not-me distinction. So I’m pleased to see someone who apparently knows what he’s talking about offering the same idea.

  2. Thanks for the interesting review, Dhivan. However, I can’t see what it is you find helpful about Pudgalavadin metaphysics. Your account of it seems to be contradictory and to repeat the problems of the ‘two truths’ doctrine.

    The contradictory bit seems to be “According to this way of thinking, the self is not an illusion or a cognitive error, but rather it is the mistaken imputing of existence to what appears, for instance, as the thought ‘I hate this’, and the awareness of being that kind of person.” Surely if someone mistakenly imputes ‘existence’ to something they experience, this is a cognitive error? What else do you mean by a cognitive error if it is not that? Perhaps you are trying to distinguish between failing to affirm the self and claiming that it does not exist, the two different sorts of ‘no’? I agree that this distinction is crucial (it’s the basis of the Middle Way), but both extremes avoided by the Middle Way surely involve cognitive errors? Some of those cognitive errors even have names in cognitive psychology, such as the introspection illusion.

    I also don’t see how saying that the self ‘conventionally exists’ helps us to find that subtle Middle Way position in each moment, or how it practically helps us to judge rightly when we are considering beliefs about ourselves. You seem to be associating it with the avoidance of denying the self (‘annihilationism’), but to avoid a negative absolute belief is not equivalent to adopting a metaphysical belief about what’s ‘conventionally’ true. Practically speaking, to say that something is ‘conventionally true’ doesn’t help us to make a judgement in relation to it, because it doesn’t tell us anything about when to accept that ‘conventional’ belief or when to reject it. It doesn’t give us any method. In my experience, Buddhists often seem to appeal to ‘conventional’ truths as a convenient cop-out when the ‘absolute’ ones are inconvenient, whereas the Middle Way should surely be challenging us to be pushing our beliefs in a more adequate direction in a more consistent fashion? If you say, instead, that you believe something about yourself in a *provisional* fashion, that makes the method far clearer: if a better (but still provisional) belief about yourself comes along with the support of experience, you are then justified in adopting that instead. You don’t have to say anything at all about the ‘existence’ of the self, which is irrelevant.

    Evan Thompson’s book has been lying on my desk unread for about a year. I still feel after reading your review that I ought to read it, but I still think I’m unlikely to give it top priority for the moment!

  3. Thanks Robert for your incisive comments. Obviously it would be a cognitive error to think of my inaccurate manner of presenting Candrakirti’s arguments, or Thompson’s arguments, for those arguments themselves… I mean, the contradiction you noticed may be due to my limited understanding rather than Thompson’s or Candrakirti’s. However, let me try to put the matter in such a way that the contradiction does not arise. The reason that the self is not an illusion or cognitive error according to Candrakirti is that it continues to appear as existing even when through insight the meditator understands its ultimate nature. However, although it continues to appear as existing this meditator is no longer subject to the belief that this appearance means more than it seems. (It strikes me that this may be related to what you mean by ‘failing to affirm’ the self).

    I am sure you will be unimpressed by this reasoning, but I am not really competent to do more than state my limited understanding of Candrakirti’s argument, which however I do not take to suffer from being contradictory in the way you suggest. Of course, Candrakirti does lean on the two truths, as do all the Mādhyamikas, though NB I have not at any stage cited the two truths doctrine in a way that sets it up as a metaphysical teaching.

    It’s not that I’m impressed by Pudgalavāda metaphysics particularly, it’s more that I found Thompson’s presentation of the enactive self to be a nice way to account for our experience, which at the same time seems like an alternative to other Buddhist metaphysical ideas about the continuity of subjective experience. Really I’m just being playful in calling Thompson’s ideas Pudgalavāda. We don’t have enough surviving texts from Indian Pudgalavāda, apparently, to know quite what they thought or why.

    On the topic of Thompson’s book, I get the impression he is mostly trying to open up lines of thought through his comparative approach, so you’d probably enjoy it as it isn’t committed to any particular metaphysical outlook, only a general positive disposition towards meditation and the mind’s capacity for awakening.

    • So ‘conventional existence’ means that we continue to experience the thing that ‘exists’, even though we also know simultaneously that it is a delusion? Presumably this is a way of talking about the provisional holding of alternative possibilities in mind at the same time, due to wider awareness? In that case, I still don’t see what ‘existence’ has to do with it. Moreover, if we only think in terms of conventional and absolute ‘existence’ of the self, we are unnecessarily limiting ourselves to two options, when there could be far more. In practice, I’m far more likely to work through multiple views of myself that gradually become more adequate as I synthesise them. None of those views of the self are ultimate, but none of them are entirely deluded either: they just need to be understood in the wider context of each other.

      • Hello Robert. What you’ve written is alas nothing like Candrakirti’s philosophy so I don’t think I can really say anything about it. I suggest you read the article by James Duerlinger I cite at the end of my blog post if you’re interested in learning more. I suspect part of the issue is that Indian Buddhist philosophising has a particular kind of context with various assumptions but probably you’re not really into it.

  4. I was exploring your explanation rather than Candrakirti himself. I was interested in trying to work out what you found to be useful about it rather than any scholarly position about what he may or may not have said, on the assumption that you have ultimately practical goals here. Is that the case?

  5. Hello Robert. If I understand you correctly, you’re asking me to step back from the content of Candrakirti’s argument, to say why I find it useful. If that’s the case, I might say that I find it useful in that it puts into the form of concepts and arguments an account of the realisation of the not-self characteristic of experience, which does not amount to a form of annihilationism.

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