Am ‘I’ Thinking About ‘I Think, Therefore I Am’?

photo of man in white dress shirt and black framed eyeglasses holding a file thinking
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The fundamental delusion
is to mistaken the self
as the fundamental reality.

— Shilashanti

In ‘Meditations On First Philosophy’, René Descartes (1596 – 1650) postulated the possibility that there might be an evil ‘demon’ who can create the most elaborate illusions, one who ‘with utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me.’ These illusions might be complete to the extent, that ‘the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgment. I shall consider myself as not having hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as falsely believing that I have all these things.’ (Yes, ‘The Matrix’ might be ‘real’… though it is surely so, metaphorically speaking, as we are indeed trapped by delusions now.)

Upon pondering what is absolutely certain then, Descartes came to the conclusion that, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ (In Latin, ‘Cogito, ergo sum.’) The gist of this idea is that since all sensual experiences might be delusional, what left that is ‘undelusionally true’ is the very ‘thing’ that doubts what is sensed, that postulates the possibility of being deluded — the ‘I’ who thinks, who therefore ‘must’ exist. This would make ‘I’ the most fundamental foundation of ‘truth’, upon which other ‘truths’ can be built upon. While this might make some sense conventionally, this so-called ‘proof’ does not offer a rock-solid foundation. A common argument against the cogito dictum (first proposed by Pierre Gassendi) is that it assumes there is an ‘I’ who thinks.

Buddhism’s perspective would agree with Gassendi’s. Buddhists could extend the dictum to be, ‘I think, therefore I (assume there is an I who thinks) I am.’ All that Descartes could only prove with his line of thought is that there was ‘thinking’ — that’s about it. According to the Dharma, there is only continually changing processing, without any unchanging processor, be it in the world externally, or in one’self’ internally. With flowing biological processes, along with fluxing thoughts and emotions, even our bodies and minds have no constant or substantial entity, physically or mentally. This is the truth of non-self (anattā) that the Buddha realised… that Descartes missed with his lack of actual (spiritual) meditation skills.

Although often credited as being the ‘father of modern philosophy’, Descartes missed the universal truth above from the ‘founder of (realisable) ancient philosophy’ – the Buddha, who arose long before his time. Yet, with habitual attachment to the illusion of self being powerful and ‘fundamental’, it is surely understandable that Descartes fell into the same trap — like all of us. Descartes’ demon was but an imaginary being, used as a character for his thought experiment. While Descartes must have thought that he managed to ‘vanquish’ the demon’s deceptive ways to a fair extent, he did not exorcise his personal ‘demon’ of ‘self’. It was through deeper scrutiny of thinking itself, that the Buddha liberated him’self’!

When the illusion of self
is realised fully,
the reality of Buddha-nature
is realised fully.

— Shilashanti

Related Articles:

The ‘Inception’ of Reality or Illusion? 

Are You Plugging Into The Right ‘Machine’?

‘The Matrix’s Desert Of The Real Vs ‘Altered Carbon’s Garden Of The Virtual

Please Be Mindful Of Your Speech, Namo Amituofo!

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