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Illustration by Izah Sohail

Duality of Self and Collective Responsibility

Unveiling the intertwined nature of self and society to show how collective compassion can reshape the world.

Apr 1, 2024

Consider that you are asked to build a wall with a team of five members. The contractor pays five hundred dollars for the project, and you and your teammates pour in hours to complete the task. However, one of the teammates forgot to add the right composition of water to the concrete, so before the project was completed, cracks started appearing. The contractor was unhappy, so he decided to pay two hundred dollars instead; therefore, each person now receives a lesser share.
Self-perception plays an important role in determining how individuals in a group respond, and are impacted, by each other’s actions. Although it was the responsibility of a sole member, the entire group had to face the consequences. Conventionally, the “self” is understood as unique to an individual; however, I am attempting to delve into the duality in the meaning of self. I will elaborate on the ideas of selflessness as explained by Śāntideva (an eighth-century Mahayana Buddhist Scholar) and illustrate why he does not contradict the idea of prioritizing other people’s pain as pointed out by most critics. I will use the concept of dukkha, the result of ill actions, to illustrate the concept of individualistic self and collective self that helps refute the claim of an internal contradiction in Śāntideva’s ideas. Finally, I will highlight the necessity of being selfless for the progression of society because, in a world where people slaughter each other for dominance and influence, jurisdictional punishments will not eradicate suffering. I strongly believe selflessness is the only hope for salvation for this problem we have created.
To understand the idea of the duality of self, it might be important to first understand the ideas of dependent origination because it helps to understand why selflessness is necessary to sustain a society of minimum suffering. The Dalai Lama explains dependent origination on three levels. All events in the world occur because of a complex combination of conditions that are sometimes not in our control. The second level is that of mutual dependence, which explains the idea that every macroscopic element is a combination of microscopic elements. Consider the relationship between plants and animals. Plants photosynthesize and produce oxygen, which animals use for respiration. Carbon dioxide produced by animals gets used up by other plants. The existence of beings, therefore, is codependent. The third level is dependent origination, which explains that nothing in this world inherits an independent identity. Consider human lives. The identity, a characteristic or a combination of characteristics that uniquely describes an individual, relies not just on the name, race, gender, or sexuality, but rather on more subtle phenomena like psychological and social interactions, historical aspects like culture, and more. The Dalai Lama explains that there is no specificity to identity. This means that no being can be understood as a single entity. Each being has to be understood as part of a bigger system, the collective self. The Dalai Lama’s ideas of dependent origination hence strengthen the ideas of a collective self, which I believe resolves the contraction of Śāntideva’s ideas on selflessness.
However, when Śāntideva speaks about the idea of selflessness, it is often misinterpreted as a complete absence of a self, which in this scenario is an individual. This leads to a contradiction with the idea of prioritizing others' pain, because if no individual is identified as the “self”, there would be no entity to remove pain from this system. This is a logical fallacy as the Bodhisattva, who was a being (or self in this context), helped other beings understand and evade suffering by preaching the discourse of dhamma. It is crucial to understand that Śāntideva does not argue for the complete absence of a “self” because his ideas revolve around there being interconnectedness between individuals. In addition, the purpose of dependent origination was to encourage humans to practice empathy and compassion. Therefore, it is important to understand that Śāntideva does not disregard the existence of self.
However, Śāntideva’s idea of selflessness and prioritizing other people’s pain becomes clear when the duality in the definition of self is understood. According to this duality, one is identified as the individual that performs the actions, and the other self describes the single entity or system that experiences the results of the actions. To understand the second definition of self, it is important to understand that dukkha (suffering) is the result of ill actions. When you observe the world as a system of interdependent beings, dukkha is a form of bad energy that gets added to this system. Since dukkha is a result, it affects everyone in the system with the same intensity as it would affect one person, as illustrated in the wall example where everyone had to pay for a mistake one person committed.
When Śāntideva speaks about selflessness, he intends to explain that there is no single identity called self when we experience the results of the actions that each individual performs. Śāntideva explains that each organ of the body has to be safeguarded as a single entity, which means that all beings are interconnected in one big system such that all beings suffer together. Thus if a person attempts to cease suffering, he strives to cease suffering of the entire system, not just a single individual. It does not mean we ought to avoid the cessation of suffering because that would cause pain to remain within the system, so beings in that system continue to suffer. By claiming that the self does not exist, Śāntideva tries to explain that suffering does not “belong to” or is experienced only by one single individual but by the whole population. Therefore, the absence of a self does not mean that there is no one to help, but rather provides a reason to be compassionate and empathetic, because our ill actions could cause suffering to everyone in the system.
In conclusion, Śāntideva creates no contradiction in explaining the ideas of being selfless and prioritizing other people’s pain because he does not disregard the existence of the individual self. By explaining ideas of selflessness, he illustrates the concept of the “collective self”, which is different from the “individual self” used in describing the ownership of actions. This duality is a valid interpretation as it explains the idea of how Gautama Buddha was able to cease the suffering of all beings and how dukkha, the result of actions caused by individual selves, affects the whole collective. This also highlights why Śāntideva was right in claiming that there is no difference in prioritizing our pain over other people’s pain: regardless of the person who performed the ill action, everyone experiences an equal share of dukkha. Thus, beings must always aim to cease the suffering of the system by not prioritizing themselves. If everyone tries to make the slightest effort to do so, I believe the collective effect would be large enough to tackle today’s problems of hunger, poverty, and genocide. Every being can contribute to reaching the goal of creating a society of ease and minimum suffering from wherever they are, just by extending compassion to others.
Hiyath Pieris is a Contributing Writer. Email them at
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