Self = auto
Does a self-driving car have a self?
Is there a ‘ghost’, ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’, or even a god driving the car?
Obviously the self-drive car (or smartphone) is guided by a clever set of rules (i.e. software) = algorithm, and is, therefore an automaton?
Following the insights of the Upanishads, the Buddha concluded that a living system (just like any autonomous vehicle) is self-driven by transient (rather than permanent (i.e. ‘abiding) conditions (nowadays called software).
In other words, the Buddha taught that the humans (and all other biological systems) operate as transient automatons. And that the automatons have no (are empty of) independent permanent driver (i.e. ‘soul’, ‘spirit’, ‘God’ and so on). They emerge spontaneously when conditions permit and then happen (evolve) as actual local applications of those ever changing and transient conditions.
The common folk and the bulk of the Buddha’s less enlightened followers, still seeking comfort from their belief in spirits, ghosts, gods, and after-life and so on, responded to the Buddha’s comfortless primary insight of the automatic nature of the world and its inhabitants with dismay, indeed horror. They could neither understand nor live with the fact that they were merely (self-less = soulless) transient automatons, the more so the Buddha did not explain the fundamental purpose (or functions) of those automatons. Nor did he ever define what he meant by ‘self’ ( Greek, auto)
The question ‘What drives a living system’ was first put in the ancient Indian Upanishads (approx. 800BC). The solution given was that all living systems are self-driven.
That meant that there is no God, spirit or soul driving/guiding a living system. Living systems arise due to a set of universal rules (or forces), and which they called the Brahman, and conditions arising from motion or turbulence upon which the rules work.
The highly abstract philosophers of the Upanishads called the universal rules (or forces, hence, as software having no form, thus nirguna, i.e. without traits) Brahman (to wit the SELF writ large) and the local applications thereof (hence with traits) atman (the self writ small). In short, the universe as we experience it is a self-originating and self –driven automaton as are all its applications, meaning the world of phenomena.
The ancient view was that the atman, i.e. the little self (as local driver) together with its local appendages that produced real form in time and space, such as, for instance, the human, happen as localised (hence dependent on local conditions) clones of the Brahman, therefore are in essence identical with it. Hence ‘Thou art that’ (i.e. tattvamasi).
Starting (wrongly) from the human experience of misery resulting from the struggle for life and the need for a comforting solution, the creators of the Upanishads eventually saw the need to personalise both the Brahman and the atman. This the Buddha did not do. He simply stated:
‘Whatever arises ceases’
‘Whatever arises does so subject to conditions. When the conditions cease, the arisen ceases.’
Arising happens due to turbulence (explained vaguely as ignorance = vana). Elimination or stilling of turbulence, thus shutting down the rules that regulate the turbulence, results in nir-vana.