Let me preface this question by stating that I'm Jewish with a background in Zen Buddhism. Eastern philosophy was my first introduction to spirituality coming from an atheistic/materialistic worldview. However, I've been studying Judaism, and I'm currently reading Jewish Meditation by Aryeh Kaplan, but I'm confused about his description of the self in the chapter titled "nothingness." I've read Letters To a Buddhist Jew by Akiva Tatz as well, and unless I'm mistaken, they seem to disagree with each other, which is what brings me here.
Kaplan's definition of the self follows an argument similar to one I've encountered in Buddhism. He states that because one can think of the body, then the body alone cannot represent the self. The same goes for the mind and even the soul. I can conceive of the mind and the soul, so that which is observing those categories (the self) must be even more fundamental. Therefore, he states that the soul "cannot be the real me." He then argues that volition, or the capacity to bring forth action or thought, is still more fundamental than thought. He writes: "because I must will myself to think, the source of my will is beyond thought." In other words, "the source of my will" is the closest thing to this definition of "self" he's seeking, and since no mental category exists for the "source of my will," it's in the same category as contemplating nothingness. He then provides the Hebrew word for אני which spells אין or nothing after being rearranged as an example illustrating this.
The chapter continues by introducing Kabbalistic teachings that speak of God as that which is beyond all categories. So in the same way that "the source of my will" is beyond mental categories and akin to nothingness, so is G-d. However, the self is not G-d, and Kaplan is clearly not arguing that. I'm not sure what he's trying to illustrate here, which takes me back to a major problem I encountered while studying Buddhism.
One of the most important teachings in Buddhism is that the self is an illusion. As such, enlightenment, or the cessation of all suffering, is attained when one fully realizes this "truth." The final conclusion of this line of reasoning is that one attains a state of consciousness where there is no longer any distinction between oneself and creation. There is no longer an inside or an outside or a "me" or "you." However, this is absolute insanity and implies that since G-d is everything, and enlightenment is a state where there is no longer any distinction between one and the universe, one is or can become G-d. In fact, if you study abnormal psychology, you'll find that many people believe they're G-d while in a psychotic state.
After reading Letters to a Buddhist Jew and studying Kaballah, my current understanding is that although G-d is everything, and as part of that creation I, too, am part and parcel of everything, a fundamental separation still exists between the Creator and the vessel of creation. Therefore, attaining absolute oneness with G-d is never possible and claiming to do so is perhaps the worst form of blasphemy.
So if the vessel is the fundamental unit of creation then individual souls can be considered the fundamental units of man. The highest spiritual state I can strive for, then, is the full expression of my soul as opposed to my bodily inclinations. Therefore, I'm not sure what Kaplan is trying to illustrate in that chapter. As far as I can tell, the soul is, in fact, that fundamental unit of "self" he was trying to define despite stating that the "soul cannot be the real me."
Is Kaplan's definition of the self accurate? Perhaps my understanding of this chapter is off, but I feel like his description of the soul is misguided (or at least not Jewish).