— Just as the poetic word in Chinese culture can be read as an allusion (…) and in this way remains evasive in order to suggest the inifinity of the state of the soul (or, what is the same thing, an all-encompassing atmosphere), … —
(François Jullien, Detour and Access, p. 246)
This, the all-encompassing atmosphere is what in East-Asia is captured under the word “soul”.
We immediately are aware of the fact that soul East and West are different things. East feels compelled to rise up to this atmosphere, this soul, in order to completely blend in, thereby finally experiencing absolute harmony.
West considers soul to be an individual property of an individual being, born with the being, and dying with the being.
Self as a concept
Similarly the self East and West are concepts that have rather different backgrounds and connotations. An Egyptian intellectual once explained that in the Islamic sense of the word “self springs from the mind of Allah”. In this line of thought therefore, self is not an individual entity belonging to an individual being, but rather it is a emanation of Allah’s mind, and man is invited to live up to this lofty ideal.
Self in East-Asian thinking
Ven. Haeju is the writer of the texts in Volume 4 of the Korean Jogye Order’s manuscripts. This Volume 4 (Hwaom-1), translated by Richard D. McBride II, has a surprising view on the subject of self as postulated by Hwa’om Master Uisang (625–702). (The Korean Hwa’om is the Chinese Huayen or, translated, the Flower Garland, the title of the most voluminous canonical text of the Mahayana).
Ven Haeju explains in note 40, page 18, how “the basis of all conditions are the self”. Mr. McBride mistakenly translates “self” with the Indian word “atman“. But when we look up “self” in the Korean dictionary, we see that it never really is a stand-alone as it is in Western philosophy. We come accross a Korean self in “annihilation of self”, but it has to be understood as a physical process as in “I beat myself over the head”. Other lemmas in the English-Korean dictionary are, for instance, about “self-control”, confidence in oneself (given als “self-reliance”), self-discipline and so on.
Ven Haeju continues by saying that the basis of all dharmas (phenomena) is the mind. Or to give the complete passage: “the basis of all conditions are (is) the self, and the basis of all dharmas are (is) (the) mind….” Hence that which underlies our acting and thinking in the ordinary sense of sending emails and shopping for clothes is the psycho-physical complex, the self. And that which underlies all dharmas (phenomena) is Mind, an ultimate, and Mind is non-self or beyond self, or prior to self.
Self in South-Asian thinking
To turn to the south-Asian concept of the self: In Thai parlance the composite “win yan” is translated as “self”. On closer examination “win yan” is a process of introspection: that which is going on in one’s mind is “win yan“, and as Siamese philosophy is deeply rooted in Buddhism, “win yan” therefore is fleeting, therefore ungraspable and insubstantial. The Pali-word ajjhattarato is used. The post-canonical Dhammapada says that here is a monk who takes pleasure (rato) in introspection (ajjhatta).
The Thai and Buddhist win yan, respectively ajjhattarato is therefore the complete opposite of what the West considers to be the self. Western philosophy has it that “self” is a during, rather unmoving, unchanging and totally individual entity. South-Asia says that it changes as the person changes in moods and preferences. It therefore cannot be grasped, which explains how the Asian, Buddhist or otherwise, has hardly any difficulty with concepts such as non-self and the insubstantial, whereas the Westerner has to make an immense effort to unlearn the philosophical and psychological self-concept as being the only thing a person can truly rely on during his/her life in the here and now.