I have been wondering lately if the Buddha, should the technology have been available, would have ever taken a selfie. I have a hard time imagining the slight man posing with his arm outstretched, Bodhi tree behind him, smiling to capture the moment of his enlightenment.
But would he have been immune to the fad? I’ve taken a selfie. I’ve taken loads of selfies. My friends have all taken selfies. Serious figures such as Obama and the pope have been featured in numerous selfies. We all know Kim Kardashian has taken a selfie or two in her day. James Franco, the “Selfie King,” says it is a way to communicate with the world and say “Hello. This is me.”
The selfie is a huge trend. So much so that much scholarship has been written on it, and it seems undoubtedly to say something about our generation. I can see why James Franco would say they are so revelatory of self. Unlike other forms of portraits, selfies require complete volition: An accidental selfie isn’t possible. The person taking the selfie has complete control in what the subject — he or she — is doing. This autonomy gives the subject, dare I say, creative power and also the power to decide what to share with the world.
In addition, the proximity to one’s face makes for a much more intimate portrait. The goal of a selfie is no longer just to capture a brief image of oneself — otherwise a third party could be asked to take a picture. Perhaps the trend has grown ironically, but a selfie has come to represent a certain intimate, personal experience to be immortalized and shared with the world.
Take a particularly hilarious celebratory selfie I once took. This picture featured me smiling looking pleased in a hot dog costume, some fauna displayed behind me. I later wondered if this was me communicating with my audience (that is the sole recipient: my dad) a profound image of myself. The answer, I think, is no. Should a stranger have seen it they would have just seen a girl, smiling, dressed as ballpark favorite. All that was presented was my physical form.
More context would have been needed to understand this picture was taken on Halloween. I had just declared my major and found personal amusement in my choice of outfit. Certainly no viewer would know anything else about me: all my prior experiences, emotions, anything about my consciousness, or my thoughts.
The picture was merely a facet of me, an incomplete portrait. That’s why I don’t think the Buddha would have taken a selfie. In line with the Buddhist doctrine of anatta, I don’t believe the Buddha would have attempted to capture any sort of image of himself. He would see the attempt to communicate with the world a larger idea of self as fruitless, vain because according to anatta there is not an essential self to communicate.
This doctrine of no-self holds that what we call out “self” is rather a compilation of aggregates: our form, consciousness, mental perceptions, sensations and perceptions. Together, they make what we call our self. But just as the screen of an iPhone is not an iPhone without the operating system, camera or Siri, neither is just one of these parts a full concept of self.
As each moment passes, every experience, thought, emotion changes us from the moment prior. In this way that we are an ever enduring, ungraspable “thing.” We are able to perhaps pin down one notion of self in a certain moment: see the selfie. But everyone can recognize that the selfie is innately incomplete. It is merely a 2-D representation of our physical form at one point in time. That physical being is no longer in existence, the emotional being who inhabited that body is no longer there — both have been subject to the passing of time. The physical form was captured, but that’s it. The Buddha would not try to take a selfie because he wouldn’t believe that communicating who or what he is would be possible.
Even after this meditation on what the Buddha himself would think, I am sure I will still attempt to capture selfies. Perhaps, unlike James Franco, I will not believe it to mean anything more than just a brief portrait of my outer physical form. In fact, with the knowledge of anatta, we really shouldn’t put too much weight on any one action, accomplishment, word, etc. — they’re all just small components of our entire, dynamic being.
With this in mind, perhaps we could, even in this technological age where things live on the internet “forever,” allow that the selfie is fleeting. We could allow the past self’s action to fall by the wayside. In this way, maybe the Buddha would be down for the occasional Snapchat. We may even rename selfie to “picture-of-the-physical-body-at-a-single-moment–of-the-person-identified-as-me-ie.”