We all have an innate sense of self or self-grasping – a sense of autonomy or independence from others. We feel that we can do without others, and hold on to a sense of ourselves as separate from them. Yet if we consider carefully the actual reality and ask whether or not there truly exists any such self-sufficient or autonomous self, we see that what we are mainly taking as a basis for this label ‘me’ is our body. This physical form that we can perceive serves as the primary point of reference for our sense of an independent self or ‘me’, yet our body is very clearly not something independent. On the contrary, it depended on our parents to bring it into existence, and, in a more subtle
We also need to sustain that body. If we do not have clothes, food and the many other additional resources we need to stay alive, this body becomes nothing but a corpse. Where do the food and clothing our body depends upon come from? These too come from others. Particularly now in this context of globalisation, much of what we use comes from far away. We eat fruit grown in another country, and wear clothes manufactured in distant parts of the globe. We might live in a developed country, dressed in garments produced by people in an underdeveloped country or impoverished area. We do not see the people who make our clothes, or know them, yet we are wearing clothes that they worked to produce.
There is wisdom in this quote. However, like much of current Buddhist philosophy, it attempts to overcompensate for the Western propensity toward excess individualism with excess denial of the individual. The truth lies somewhere between the views of a Cartesian view of Self as a detached observer and the Buddhist view of no-self.
We are each born into a world, thrown into it as Heidegger said. We remain embedded in that world. We do not and cannot exist completely separate from our world. We are never not in the world and we are never not dependent on others as Gyalwang Karmapa says. He misses something important though. Interdependence does not means lack of individuation. Yes, what sustains an individual comes from others, but it is still an individual who is sustained.
Gyalwang Karmapa gives a wonderful description of this constellation of connections we each have with others in the world. But does that mean we are not autonomous? No, unless you adopt an extreme definition of autonomy as complete isolation from all. Not even god could fit such a definition. If instead we take a more sensible definition of autonomy that it means a self-directed being within a world, then we can understand how humans exist and act between the extremes of the Cartesian Self and the Buddhist no-self.
I am me. You are you. I wrote these words. You are reading these words. We are connected in this way. We each need food, clothing, and other things that we acquire in dealings with others. We are dependent on others for these things. But I am still me and you are still you and the others are still who they are. I write autonomously, expressing myself. You read these words autonomously and think and feel about these words autonomously and distinctively as yourself. The world limits our options, but we choose what we eat and what we wear and where and how we acquire these things that sustain us. But my actions sustain me and your actions sustain you. We are each autonomous beings embedded in a world.
Indeed, it is only because we are all individuals that we can truly help and love one another. Thus, we must see ourselves as autonomous beings, because we can only fulfill our moral obligations to others by acting as autonomous beings.