The Greening of the No-Self

sandy background with a sheaf of grass

I participated in a conference a few weeks ago on Sustainable Peace, and during discussion on my presentation: “Thinking Sustainability, Thinking Peace,” many of the questions were about “the greening of the self” – a phrase that I used in my presentation. The phrase is not mine; it has its origins with a chapter by Joanna Macy, a Buddhist scholar from the book: True Peace Work.[1] Macy’s book consists of a wonderful collection of pieces by renowned Buddhist scholars such as Thich Nhat Hahn, Dalai Lama, and others.

Since then, I have been pondering “the greening of the self”. I now think it would be more appropriate to be talking about the greening of the no-self. I visualize the greening of the no-self as a valuable way to go forward in our world, but also as a way to understand our place within the environment. For too many years (in fact, centuries), Western thought and the prominence given to the pursuit of some form of progress  has contributed to an understanding of our relationship with the environment as being anthropocentric, yet as we see the climate crisis deepen it is not unreasonable to conclude that this conceptual separation of humans from the environment has been our downfall. Our use (and abuse) of the environment primarily for our own utility and benefit has dominated our existence. I strongly  believe that if we are really serious in wanting to address the climate crisis then two things have to shift: our individual actions, and the global economic order.

For this short piece, I am only concerned with our individual actions, and this is where I see the value of the greening of the no-self. I come to this as a philosopher; therefore, I want to highlight the significance and value of Buddhist principles not as a way to promote Buddhism as a religion, but from a philosophical perspective that promotes Buddhist ethics from the Eastern part of our world; just as someone can promote Western ethical theories such as utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, or feminist ethics of care. I think that we, in the West, can gain much from the teachings of such Eastern traditions.

I therefore assert that the greening of the no-self is important for two reasons: first, it encourages us to think about our place in the environment as part of a much bigger whole, and not as entities separate from the environment. Second, it also expands the notion of self to one of no-self. Let me say more about each of these.

How we think about our place in the environment will influence how we care for (or harm) the environment. If one understands one’s existence as being interdependent and interconnected with other living and non-living beings on this planet, then the illusion of self as an individual and isolated entity is undermined. If one understands that one’s actions can negatively impact the ecosystem in some way, and one also realizes that in the current climate crisis our actions need to be more careful and measured, then this  can only help in mitigating the harms we have inflicted and continue to inflict on our earth. Macy refers to this as “the eco-self, co-extensive with other beings and the life of our planet.”[2] For Macy, the greening of the self, “involves a combining of the mystical with the practical and the pragmatic, transcending separateness, alienation, and fragmentation.”[3] She also believes that a recognition of the deep interconnectedness with all beings enables one to suffer with the world, thus leading to compassion.

In Buddhism, the notion of suffering transcends the individual; the concern is the suffering of all, which leads to the concept of no-self. In Buddhism, the concept of self is an illusion. This way of thinking about self was not limited to the East, however. David Hume, a Scottish philosopher during the Enlightenment Period also argued that the concept of self was a fiction. He said, “But setting aside some metaphysicians of this kind, I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity and are in perpetual flux and movement.”[4] The idea that the self is a fiction does not mean that you and I do not exist. It is the self-subsistent self that does not exist. This brings to mind John Donne’s famous poem: “No Man is an Island…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”[5]

For those of us living in the West, the notion of no-self can appear counterintuitive within a society that thrives on a self to the extent of a quasi-obsession with self, as is manifest through self-help books and groups, prioritizing self-care, self-interests, etc. There is a strong attachment to self, yet that is a notion that Buddhism tries to eliminate with the Four Noble Truths of which non-attachment is a component. The greening of the no-self not only leads to a distinct understanding of our place within the environment, but it also requires non-attachment, especially to a fictional self. Attachment to self brings attachment to desires, thoughts and beliefs. Being non-attached will still bring forth those desires, thoughts, etc., but a sense of non-attachment will sway those desires and thoughts and make it possible to let them go. Being non-attached does not mean not being able to have close and loving relationships; it means that these relationships are not clingy or possessive. Developing non-attachment of self and others also cultivates genuine compassion: a  concern for the suffering of others, even one’s enemies.

According to the Dalai Lama, “A genuine sense of compassion generates a spontaneous sense of responsibility to work for the benefit of others, encouraging us to take this responsibility upon ourselves.”[6] This concept is something I think is essential if we as a society are serious in generating social change. To have genuine compassion for others presupposes an inner peace; this in itself is not so easy to achieve and is often an ongoing process. As Graham Priest says, “It would also be wrong to think of inner peace as a simple sensation. It is a state of mind: it certainly has affective elements; but in human beings at least it is hard to see how these cannot but presuppose cognitive elements as well. At the very least, it requires a certain kind of understanding of oneself, the greater order of things, and one’s place in it.”[7]

Inner peace does not happen easily; one has to work at it – but it is not impossible. It demands constant introspection, observation, reflection and understanding of our place in the world and ultimately results in the greening of the no-self.

By Anna Malavisi, Ph.D.

Vice President

Center for Values in International Development

Photo credit NATALIA KHIMICH


[1] True Peace Work: Essential Writings on Engaged Buddhism, 2nd edition, Parallax Press: Berkeley, 2019

[2] Joanna Macy, The Greening of Self in True Peace Work: Essential Writings on Engaged Buddhism, 2nd edition, Parallax Press: Berkeley, 2019 p. 207.

[3] Ibid, 209

[4] David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, I,IV, 6

[5] John Donne, No Man is an Island, edited by Keith Fallon, Random House, 1970.

[6] Dalai Lama, Genuine Compassion, in True Peace Work: Essential Writings on Engaged Buddhism, 2nd edition, Parallax Press: Berkeley, 2019, p. 153.

[7] Graham Priest, One, Oxford University Press, 2014, pg. 215