The Avatar Movie and Anatta of Buddhism

Avatar Movie

Avatar is a science fiction film written and directed by James Cameron and release in 2009 in 3D and regular versions. The story is about how in distant future, humans have severely depleted Earth’s natural resources. A expedition group consisting of scientists and soldiers go to Pandora, a densely forested habitable moon orbiting the gas giant in the Alpha Centauri star system. Pandora, whose atmosphere is poisonous to humans, is inhabited by the Na’vi, 10-foot tall, blue-skinned, sapient humanoids who live in harmony with nature and worship a mother goddess called Eywa.

In order to interact with the natives and to understand their land, the scientists develop a few hybrid Na’vi bodies. These bodies are made by “accelerated growth” and once fully developed, each of the body is “remotely occupied” and operated by the compatible human. during this time, the human’s actual body is inert, and all perceptions happen only through their Avatar body.

At end of the movie, the main character Jake is permanently transferred to the Na’vi body with the help of the “tree of souls”.

What exactly is transferred.

The big question, what’s transferred from Jake’s original body to the new body ? Or what’s Jake essentially? Who or what is the “self” ?

Not the physical body

Most of us are in agreement that the body is not the essential part of self. Think about it, the nail and hair that was once part of “you”, once it’s been cut and thrown in the garbage, it’s no longer you. How about the more “live” parts, the live tissues and the blood? The tissues and the blood are in constant change. It is said that after seven years, not even one atom remains of our current live parts of the body, the whole thing is replaced by new material. It’s like the river, as in the saying that you cannot step into the same river twice. Yet when we think of self we think of it as something that remains the same over the years.

The five aggregates of Buddhism

According to the Buddha, the five aggregates or “bodies” produces the illusion of the self. The five are as follows, starting with the gross and going on to the more and more subtle.

“form” or “matter”: External and internal matter. Externally the physical world and Internally it includes the material body and the physical sense organs. (rupa)

“sensation” or “feeling”: Sensing an object as either pleasant or unpleasant or neutral.(vedanā)

“perception”, “conception”, “apperception”, “cognition”, or “discrimination” : registers whether an object is recognized or not, for instance, the sound of a bell or the shape of a tree. (samjñā)

“mental formations”, “impulses”, “volition”, or “compositional factors” : all types of mental habits, thoughts, ideas, opinions, prejudices, compulsions, and decisions triggered by an object.(samskhāra)

“consciousness” or “discernment”: The base that supports all experience, that which discerns. A series of rapidly changing interconnected discrete acts of cognizance.(vijñāna)

The dependent existence

When we observe carefully, we can see that each of the five aggregate depends on the previous one, they cannot exist independent of that. There can’t be a sensation without the matter that is sensed and the organ that senses it. So the sensation is an aggregate of matter or essentially material. Without the sensory inputs there won’t be any perception. Without perceptions there can’t be mental habits or mind patterns. Without the mental formations, there is no discernment.

Nature of aggregates.

In the emptiness teaching of Buddhism, the example of a horse cart is used. Lets use a modern example, take a bike. If a bike is dissembled, taken apart, and studied for “bike nature” what do we get. The wheels don’t have a bike nature in itself, nor does the frame have a bike nature, nor does the handle bar, nor the seat. The bike nature is only in the assembly and does not exist independent of the parts. The “essential bike” does not exist if the parts are taken away.

We have seen the the body is not the self. Matter is devoid of essential self nature. Then can the other dependent aggregates have any essential self nature? Can the mind exist without the memories, of the perceptions, of the sensations, of physical phenomena. Can there be wisdom or understanding without the mind. So what remains of the self after the parts are taken away.

Back to the question, so whats transferred to the avatar ?

The transfer, or transmigration of “self” to other bodies is a popular notion in science fiction. It’s even more popular in religion. It’s so popular; that’s why Buddhism couldn’t spread very much in places where  strong belief systems were already present. That’s why it was uprooted from India, where it started and didn’t easily spread to middle east and west for a long time.

Imagine if in future we are to develop the technology to transfer “self” as in the Avatar movie, what would we need to transfer. After discarding the physical body, which is where we are planning to transfer from, the next is sensations and perceptions. The sensations and perceptions are too fleeting, they don’t have any abiding reality except in memory. What remains would be the memory patterns, mental processes and habits and tendencies. That’s what an Avatar would need.

How about the spirit, the soul?

This is the essence of the whole question, what is self. What are the attributes of the self, and where  is the boundary. Is it material? Is it physical phenomena? There is no indication, no proof that there is any physical phenomena that is the self, and the opposite is also true, there is no self in any physical phenomena. If that’s the case, what’s there to transfer?

How about the life energy?

There seems to be a momentum and energy, even in a single cell organism to stay alive, to maintain the life processes, and to perpetuate them by procreation. Isn’t this important to be transferred? Well, life energy is needed in the new Avatar, but there is no requirement that it should come from the “original”. Energy is energy, it doesn’t belong to a specific self. The energy in a plant of or an animal, could end up being the energy in another in a matter of hours. So really, there is no indication of “a life energy” that’s specific to a person or an organism.

How about the ultimate awareness? (Pragna)

Like the previous questions, what are the attributes of the ultimate awareness? Can any of it be transferred , or need to be transferred? Is there any limit or boundary for the consciousness? Is it a physical phenomena? So what is essentially the concept of the person?

Who am I?

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