Author Ben Dench certainly isn't the first person to claim that Buddhism teaches self-annihilation and nihilism but I wanted to touch on his article because there is still a lot of misinformation in the west in particular about Buddhism. For example, many Americans continue to think we Buddhists see Buddha as a Creator God to be worshiped. Dench insinuates that the Buddhist denial of the self is escapism and abandonment of life. Unfortunately Mr. Dench like many critics of Buddhism seems not to have studied the issue enough to understand what Buddhists mean by the denial of self.
He says, "In Buddhism, the existence of a self is denied and the goal of Buddhism is to snuff out the flame of consciousness and cease reincarnation." Wow, sounds pretty bad if that's was the truth. We don't seek to "snuff out the flame of consciousness" but rather the flame of desire. As I understand it, (to over simplify this) In Buddhism consciousness is simply awareness of being. In Buddhism our current state of being is limited by much suffering. So why would a person not want to be free of suffering one day? None of us wants to suffer and so at it's core Buddhism seeks to snuff out suffering--not happiness and a sense of meaning as Mr. Dench seems to insinuate.
Now, concerning the idea of denying the existence of a "self"--There are differences a bit on the view of the self between Theravada and Mahayana so I'll speak from the point of view of a Mahayanist. Buddhists deny a permanent self because upon closer inspection through meditation and contemplation it is seen that the idea of a self is a delusion. Thus if something is a delusion then why would we want to embrace it? The understanding of this idea of the "self" being a delusion hinges upon the Buddhist teaching of Dependent Arising, which says phenomena rise along side each other in an interdependent fabric of cause and effect. This is because of that--and that, and that. This computer exists because minerals exist, chemicals exist, engineering exists, designers exist, assemblers exist and so on. Without all of those existing in unison--there is no "computer" as such.
We think we are an individual but if that were the case then we'd have to have appeared in this life without the influence of parents--we'd be an anomaly. Instead we have the DNA of both our mother and father who have their DNA as a result of their mother and father. You have a name but it was given to you by your parents. You have interests but they were developed because of certain conditions and influences, which arose from the infinite pool of potentialities of life. You can not say for example that you'd be the same "permanent self," which you claim that you are now if you had been born under different circumstances. The human manifestation is ENTIRELY dependent upon innumerable factors.
It's not, "You are nothing--period, end of sentence." It's more like, "You are nothing because you are apart of EVERYTHING." That said, however, the word "nothing" carries too much negative meaning. So instead how about saying, "You have no permanent self not because you're a bad person or a loser but because that "self" is LIMITING your enjoyment, peace and meaning. It's holding you back instead of allowing you freedom." When you realize that you are BOTH "you" AND everything else--How can you NOT see the "self" as limiting and imprisonment??? I like the analogy used by many that "I" am a wave:
D.T. Suzuki has the analogy of a wave on the ocean as symbolic of man’s sense of self. A wave arises on the ocean and looks down and sees the ocean all around. It says, “ I know that I am because I am not the ocean nor am I all the other individual waves, I exist separate from them”. It has separated itself from the ocean to know itself as an individual wave. This separation actually creates the ‘self’; it is both an act and a fact of this separation. Now it makes all its judgments as a separated self. In this act it is also separated from itself, it knows that it is but not who it really is. Now it tries to go outward to find itself but it cannot. When it goes inward it is also problematic, why, because the act of going inward is still the act of separating from the ocean to be able to go inward.JAMES: So we can quickly see that we are variations of the same essence repeating itself in beautiful, myriad ways in a timeless state. How can an individual wave feel that it has more meaning as just a wave then as a wave AND the entire, beautiful, amazingly diverse ocean!! Thus, Buddhism doesn't say, "You have no self (you're not an individual wave)...Thus you're worthless." If Buddhist teachings stopped there as Ben Dench seems to be implying then yeah, that would be pretty miserable. If that's what someone thought Buddhism to be then I can see why someone like Mr. Dench would say it's masochistic and leads to feelings of meaninglessness. However, you just read in the wave story--that's not the end. I think some people hear, "You have no self..." along with words like "emptiness" and that's all they hear. That would indeed lead to wondering why in the hell anyone would want to follow Buddhism!!
So this wave is alienated from itself, it’s surroundings and the ocean. But the fact of the matter is, who is the wave fundamentally? Is it the individual wave? No, there’s really no such thing. So who is looking for this awakening? The fact is that the wave is really just a manifestation of the ocean; it never was separated in reality but only knew itself as separated. It has to stop the ego process, the act of separating, in the hope that the ocean can rise up to see itself as both the wave and the ocean. It is one hundred percent wave and one hundred percent ocean, not at any point ever separated. The wave seeking the ocean/enlightenment/nirvana is the ocean seeking the wave. When the breakthrough occurs it is not new or just starting but a realization of what always really was. This is a non-dual duality. Both itself as wave and ocean.
As the wonderful Neil deGrasse Tyson says, the same iron in meteors is the same iron that pulses through our veins--that's what Buddhist's are talking about when they deny the reality of the "self." It's the idea that we are larger than our individual "selves"--we are interdependent upon each other, which gives most people a tremendous sense of well being and meaning. Does that sound like nihilism to you?
Individualism is much more limiting and alienating than Buddhism as individualism's answer for all life's problems is extreme self-indulgence, which doesn't bring peace and lasting happiness. When self-indulgence doesn't work we deny everything and become angry, bitter and nihilistic. Buddha taught to avoid EITHER extreme of eternalism or nihilism. After trying to live both extremes himself he came upon the idea of walking the middle-path of neither extreme and finally he found peace. So when it's understood in this light it, no self actually gives a person GREATER meaning in life--not less. This is the context that is missing in the Dench article but I realize that in English the terms no-self and emptiness sound like annilation, pessimism, fatalism and nihilism.