Misperception: The Buddha Taught ‘No Self’

Stone Buddha, Scarborough
If the Buddha taught that there is no self then who is it that is experiencing the fruits of kamma and wandering endlessly in samsara? If there is no self then what is the point of meditation and why bother to lead a spiritual life? Questions like these are frequently asked by the Buddha’s critics and by those who are new to the dhamma…

 

 


Misperception: The Buddha taught ‘no self’

If the Buddha taught that there is no self then who is it that is experiencing the fruits of kamma and wandering endlessly in samsara? If there is no self then what is the point of meditation and why bother to lead a spiritual life? Questions like these are frequently asked by the Buddha’s critics and by those who are new to the dhamma.

Yet, according to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, nowhere in the Pali Cannon does the Buddha address these questions.  We are told of one occasion when the Buddha was asked point-blank if there was a self or not and he declined to give an answer. Later he explained his silence, saying anyone who maintains that there is a self or that there is no self is not on the Middle Path but has fallen into extreme wrong view. [1]

Whether or not the self actually exists is a question that should be put aside by those who wish to attain freedom from suffering. The Buddha offered an alternative to the suffering implicit in such questions, a practice which avoids dividing reality experiences into ‘self’ and ‘other’ or conflating reality experiences into ‘oneness’ –

If you develop the path of virtue, concentration, and discernment to a state of calm well-being and use that calm state to look at experience in terms of the Noble Truths, the questions that occur to the mind are not “Is there a self? What is my self?” but rather “Am I suffering stress because I’m holding onto this particular phenomenon? Is it really me, myself, or mine? If it’s stressful but not really me or mine, why hold on?” These last questions merit straightforward answers, as they then help you to comprehend stress and to chip away at the attachment and clinging — the residual sense of self-identification — that cause it, until ultimately all traces of self-identification are gone and all that’s left is limitless freedom… At that point, questions of self, no-self, and not-self fall aside. Once there’s the experience of such total freedom, where would there be any concern about what’s experiencing it, or whether or not it’s a self” [2]

 

Stone Buddha, Scarborough

 

We may therefore conclude that the Buddha’s teaching of anatta is not a doctrine of ‘no self’, rather it is a ‘not-self’ strategy for transcending the anguish or stress that arises whenever physical and mental phenomena are craved or loathed or misperceived. [3]

In other words, suffering ceases when reality experiences are correctly perceived as impermanent (anicca), unsatisfactory or stressful (dukkha), not ‘I’ or ‘me’ or ‘mine’ (anatta), and thus not worthy of lust or hatred.  The Buddha taught the Noble Eightfold Path or Middle Way as a means to nibbana or freedom from suffering through the realisation of anicca, dukkha, anatta –

“This is peace, this is exquisite — the resolution of all fabrications, the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the ending of craving; dispassion; cessation; Nibbana.” – AN 3.32 [4]

 

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Notes

[1] “No-self or Not-self?” by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 24 November 2013
<http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/notself2.html>

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Nibbana: nibbana”, edited by Access to Insight. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013
<http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/sacca/sacca3/nibbana.html>

 

Additional Reading

“Attakārī Sutta: The Self-Doer” (AN 6.38), translated from the Pali by K. Nizamis. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 2 November 2013.
<http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an06/an06.038.niza.html>

“Selves & Not-self: The Buddhist Teaching on Anatta”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.
<http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/selvesnotself.html >

 

Image Credit: Stone Buddha, Scarborough by PJL 2014


 


One thought on “Misperception: The Buddha Taught ‘No Self’

  1. In the notes to the Attakārī Sutta I cited as additional reading, K. Nizamis states: ‘the Buddha taught that there is no permanent, eternal, immutable, independently-existing core “self” (attā), he also taught that there is “action” or “doing”, and that it is therefore meaningful to speak of one who intends, initiates, sustains and completes actions and deeds, and who is therefore an ethically responsible and culpable being.’ But as Thanissaro Bhikkhu makes clear, the question of ‘self’ or ‘no self’ is misguided and best put aside.

    The Buddha taught that suffering (dukkha) is rooted in clinging to/identifying with the five khandas: material form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness. Yes, there are conditional situations where a healthy or wholesome sense of ‘self’ is useful. (Identifying loosely with a ‘self’ who is confident in the Buddha’s advice and resolute in developing morality, concentration and wisdom strikes me as an obvious example). On the other hand, clearly there are less useful, ‘selves’ that inspire ignorant, greedy, hateful acts (kamma) and one would be wise to recognise and let go these unwholesome examples of clinging.

    Moreover, there are many times in life when employing the ‘not-self’ strategy is advantageous (for example, when experiencing physical pain or harbouring violent thoughts towards another). Seeing impermanent phenomena as ‘not-self’ doesn’t make one anti-social – on the contrary, it helps in breaking through the mental constructions (etiquettes, labels, stereotypes, etc.) that inhibit empathy and compassionate action.

    Personally speaking, I’ve found the more fruitful and satisfying way to be one of questioning all of my beliefs and attitudes and not identifying too strongly with any of them. The point of this post is not to uphold a particular view on ‘self’ or ‘no self’, but merely to counter the commonplace assumption that ‘no self’ is what the Buddha taught…

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