The Self-less in Face Transplants and Buddhism

What do face transplantation, sex change (‘reassignment’) and mind uploading technology have in common with Buddhism?

The answer is the topic of this post, but first, and as a hint, let me get this out of my chest:

The most mind-boggling thought, to me, about our new millennium, is the possibility that Western capitalist  science and technology may end up being the system validating the Buddha’s conception of no-self (or selflessness).

The jaw-dropping technology of face transplantation (images below are shocking) presents us with the opportunity to test empirically, in a way never before possible, this conception of no-self, to explore and find answers to the question  What is the nature of the self? But that will happen only if we are interested in looking into it.

Organ transplantation generally should force us to confront questions about the nature of the self and about identity. [1]

That quote actually expresses the difference between technology and science: science asks what is the nature of it?,  technology only asks how do I do it and how much will I profit from it? In the technological field of face transplant (and in the ‘new science of mind uploading’) the human identity question, of the  nature of the ‘self’, has never been a priority or constraint (a point criticized in the article) despite having been there all along.

In 2001, hand transplant recipient Clint Hallam asked that his new hand be removed after failing to feel it was his own. [Idem]

They just ignore it. But this question of the nature of the self is a perennial one in philosophy, psychology and religion; is the question Trelkovsky (Roman Polanski) so painfully asked himself in the psychological thriller The Tenant:

At what precise moment does an individual stop being who he thinks he is? Cut off my arm. I say, ‘Me and my arm.’ You cut off my other arm. I say, ‘Me and my two arms.’ You take out my stomach, my kidneys, assuming that were possible… And I say, ‘Me and my intestines.’ And now, if you cut off my head… would I say, ‘Me and my head’ or ‘Me and my body’? What right has my head to call itself me? What right?

Unfortunately, that questions is an obstacle in the fields of medical and trans-human technologies. That’s why  I’m convinced that these are the times the Buddha was looking for; the time when all the conditions are in place for opening the discussing, at the scientific and public levels, about his conception of  no-self. The technology is opening the door for it, we just need to force it open a bit more; or let a different conception of selflessness, one lacking on ethics and based on profiteering, decide what to do with our minds and bodies in the near future.

The Old ‘Me’: Where did it go?

Up to now, humans thought that the self is contained in the body; in Christian faith, reincarnation means that, at death, you bring your old body with you to meet the Lord. Body and self are inseparable, in our human way of thinking. People even think that the physical material that forms the body, for example, the organs, is endowed with our personality and ‘self’, even the bodies of animals have this endowment, as seen in this example :

one person is quoted in a recent Swedish study as fearing he might start “grunting” if part of a pig was transplanted into him. [Idem]

But don’t you go on thinking that this is ‘ignorant’ people’s thinking. The tech giants (considered geniuses by many), who are spending theirs and our money on developing the technology of mind uploading, share the beliefs of that person in the example.

“In principle, once I replicate this piece of highly organized matter I should be able to get all the properties associated with it,” he said.” [2]

He was referring to copying ‘consciousness’ from a slice of a brain, literally. What follows are three more sophisticated expressions of the belief of body-self connection, by scientists:

As Dworkin20 has observed, not only do we “have bodies but … we are bodies”.

Faces help us understand who we are and where we come from. (Morris et al,6 p 333)

Our bodies and our persons are inextricably interconnected. [Justifying Surgery’s…]

I See My Self

But the experience of recipients of face transplants is telling a different story, which is that the self is not the body, that body and self are not so “inextricably interconnectedif any body (or face, in this case) will do as a container of the ‘self’.

Norris explained that the obliteration of a person’s social identity comes with the trauma that necessitated the transplant in the first place. After that, he said, any face that doesn’t provoke stares provides identity enough for a person to build on.

When he looks at his [new] face in the mirror, he said, “I see myself.[Idem]


You can watch him at You Tube. It’s actually good.

What they are telling us is that the cognitive process associates the body and face with the ‘self’; meaning that the ‘self’ projects itself into and then identifies with the body. Any face or body will do for that purpose.


He ‘sees’ himself in the new face. Is there a ‘self’ in that graft? What happened to the ‘self’ of the person who lived naturally with it before dying? Isn’t this idea of ‘self’ proven a fiction precisely by this technology?

And that is in accord with the Buddha’s Four Ways Of Conceiving, and his discussion of personality as “the Five Aggregates with Clinging”. In those two is the key to understanding the ‘self’ and ‘personality’. I will touch again on the Four Ways of Thinking, and apply it to the situation of face transplant recipients.

The Four Ways of Conceiving (Thinking)

Here, having perceived an object, let’s say ‘earth’ is the object, with his visual sense, he then conceives himself:

  1. As earth (identification with earth)
  2. In earth (inherence, himself in and as part of earth)
  3.  Apart from earth (contrast, not part, separated from earth)
  4. Earth as ‘to be mine‘ (appropriation)

These four ways of conceiving are the four ways a person relates to everything in life. You can test this yourself by observing yourself or others in any one particular moment, just for testing; catch yourself  reacting to an object or person and see how many of the four ways you used in the process of perceiving it instantly. It has to be like that because all experience is relational.

The new-face guy in this example used #1, #2, and #4 forms of relations: identification with the face, to adjust, to transplant, so-to-speak, his old ‘self’  to the new condition, himself as in the face, and the face as ‘his‘ face. Using the same quotes as above:

“I went from looking really, really disfigured to looking normal again. I was immediately connected to my face,” said Norris, now 41 and a student living in New Orleans with his girlfriend.

When he looks at his [new] face in the mirror, he said, “I see myself.” [Idem]

I discussed earlier the process of perception (cognition) in more detail.

Finally, I will paraphrase sutra 28 Simile of the Elephant Foot Print because it discusses the topic of ‘personality’ in an interesting way. It says:
1. material form with clinging
a) the four elements : earth, water, fire [heat] and air are all insentient, no-self. Our bodies are formed with all four, so, there is no self in the body. But we cling to it (to material form), attached to it by the three “obsessions” of personality: this is my self, this I am, this is mine.

When that material form changes and becomes otherwise (because that’s the nature of existence), a person’s consciousness becomes preoccupied with the change in the material form. From that arises mental states (cravings, greed for what was but is no more, etc.). This leads to anxiety and distress due to the material form not being able to sustain or carry the image of the self as it did before while he was clinging to it.


There’s a lot of controversy over the technology of face transplantation, mostly because those who have to look at the person with the new face are shaken, not only by the oddity of the face itself, but also by the question they are unable to  grasp at a conscious level: If I can’t see myself in my own old body, then who am I? Do I exist if my body changes so drastically that I  myself or others can’t recognize me?

I can’t opine about the choice those people have made; I’m not in their shoes and I consider I have no rights to question them. But I too get a bit of anxiety looking at them. The no-self conception is hard to swallow when confronted with something like that. We just grasp to anything and cling to anything to prevent losing ‘the self’. But the fear can be conquered and we can learn to live looking at things, including our ‘self’, as they really are.


We could learn a thing or two from their sense of identity.

Then there’s the question of the dead person donor. That one is a doozy.

Face transplant, sex change and trans-humanism are the three modern personal and social issues that will eventually push the discussion about the self to the forefront. If you are a Buddhist, this is the best time to brush off on the Buddha’s analysis of personality. Your help will be needed to stop these technocrats from distorting his conception of no-self. You can be sure they are studying it.

As always, I recommend reading directly from the Pali, particularly from The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya.


Justifying surgery’s last taboo: the ethics of face transplants
The Human Upgrade Thought process: Building an artificial brain

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