Buddhism has what is known as the ‘no-self’ doctrine which, applied to all phenomena, becomes the doctrine of emptiness (of which there are a number of kinds!) It’s easy for all this to become very heady – which some Buddhists can be very prone to – but the basic idea is that our sense of who we are is not fixed and enduring. As astrologers we’re on familiar territory here, because we regularly observe ourselves and others changing in times of major transits. But we only believe it partially: if we feel criticised, for example, we tend to want to defend ourselves, to protect our sense of who we are, instead of looking at the criticism with equanimity, and taking it on or discarding it as we feel appropriate.
So this is the reason for the ‘no-self’ doctrine: as human beings we treat what is a working construct – the self or ego – as something permanent, something that gives us a sense of security in an uncertain universe.
And this easily translates into the interplay between Saturn and Neptune. We do need a sense of self, a sense of ourselves as a centre of experience, but we need to get it right. Too much Neptune, and you’ve got someone who isn’t very present, who is too dreamy, lacks a strong sense of what they think and feel, and cannot achieve practical results; they find it hard to take responsibility for their lives, and may become parasitic and manipulative. Too much Saturn and you have someone who certainly knows what they think and believe, but their self is rigid, it is like a great wall around them, and it tends to be based mainly on their ability to earn money and recognition and respectability, along with a sense of superiority to others who are less ‘successful’. OK, I admit it, I’ve just had an encounter with someone like this, who has Sun-Saturn-Jupiter conjunct in Capricorn, and it was bruising!
So while we’re here on this planet we need an ego, a sense of self. There may be other realities before or after death where we don’t need a sense of self, but I wouldn’t know about that. If consciousness continues after death, it’s quite possible that Saturn as embodiment disappears, and we are just left with Neptune, in which we do not experience ourselves as being at the centre of things, and there is no protective barrier between ourselves and reality. That is the Buddhist view, along with the idea that we cannot handle it, and we flee back to embodied existence. That is where I part company with e.g. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, because I don’t believe that I was born just because I couldn’t handle Reality. I’m on this earth because it’s a beautiful place to be, and I want to fully appreciate that before I die. Nor do I believe I have a ‘purpose’ being here: that seems to me to be a bit of an abstraction, it takes me away from my experience, which is that I do what I do, and I feel very happy about quite a lot of it.
So whether or not anything continues after death, what I do know is that I’m here, and that I need a strong yet flexible sense of myself. I need Saturn in order to feel I’ve arrived, that I’m real, and that I am building and creating myself; but I also need Neptune to let go of all that, not to take it too seriously (“It’s only money,” as I said last night to someone who had lost some), to allow in new experiences and perspectives, and to remember that others, with equal validity, are also centres of experience.
And it’s not just an intellectual exercise in having the right attitude. In a society based on a one-sided Saturn, I think that generous actions, doing stuff for other people purely because you want to (NOT ‘ought to’ – that’s Saturn) helps get the balance right. Because practically speaking, the best way to understand the no-self doctrine is to be unselfish, but not in a self-sacrificing way.
I think a good image for a balanced Saturn-Neptune, and a balanced self, is a cell membrane. It’s tough, it lasts for years, it contains, yet it is flexible and delicate and porous.