This is a revised version of a talk given during the course on Background to Breath Meditation taught by the author at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in February, 1993.
Books on Buddhism often state that one of the Buddha’s most basic tenets is that there is no soul or self. Of course, different books qualify this tenet in different ways. Some say that, no, there is no self, but yes there is the moral principle of karma operating beyond death; others say, no, there is no separate self, but yes there is an underlying oneness or identity with the interdependent dance of all things. Whatever the qualifications, though, anyone who reads these books has to assume that somewhere or other, the Buddha must have said that there is no self.
But if you search the discourses in the Pali Canon—the earliest extant record of the Buddha’s teachings—you won’t find a single passage where the Buddha or any of his disciples make such a statement. In fact, in the one passage (S XLIV 10) where the Buddha is asked point-blank whether or not there is a self, he refuses to answer. In another passage (M 2), he lists the view ‘I have no self’ together with the view ‘I have a self’ as a ‘fetter of views’ that a person aiming at release from suffering would do well to avoid. In addition, he states that the questions ‘Do I exist?’ and ‘Do I not exist?’ are a form of inappropriate contemplation that do not even occur to a person who approaches experience in the proper way.
If you look at the early Jain sutras—our best source for learning how the early Buddhists were viewed by their contemporaries—we find that when the Jains discuss the doctrines of rival systems, they mention the view that there is no self only in connection with the Lokayata, or Hedonist school of thought. The Hedonists advanced the view of there being no self as part of their justification for making sensual pleasure the highest aim in life. As for the Buddhists, the Jains complain that it is impossible to get a straight answer from ‘these fools’ on the question of what the self is and whether or not it exists.
So what does the anatta or not-self doctrine mean? Let’s take a look at the original sources, for only then can we find what place the Buddha meant for the doctrine to have in the general scheme of his teachings.
The first step in doing this is to make note of a few of the Buddha’s own comments on the nature of his teachings.
- He stated that although he learned many, many things in the course of his Awakening, he taught only what would be useful in helping his listeners attain total freedom from suffering and stress (S LVI 31). Thus we must view all of his teachings—the not-self doctrine included—primarily in light of how they function in liberating the mind, and not just as simple descriptions of reality.
- The Buddha said further that he always spoke the truth. The idea that a statement could be false and yet conducive to attaining the goal did not even occur to him (M 58). Thus the not-self doctrine cannot rank as a ‘convenient fiction,’ as some people would have us believe.
- The Buddha also said that two types of people misrepresent him: (a) those who do not draw inferences from teachings that should have inferences drawn from them; and (b) those who do draw inferences from teachings that shouldn’t (A II 25). Since the Buddha himself never drew the implication that ‘there is no self’ from the not-self doctrine, anyone who does infer such a view is misrepresenting him. This means we have to look at the not-self doctrine as it is stated and in its context as a means for liberating the mind without trying to infer things that go beyond that context.
- Finally, the Buddha said that there are four types of questions: those that deserve a categorical (yes or no) answer, those that deserve a counter question, those that deserve to be put aside and not answered, and those that deserve an analytical or qualified answer (A IV 43). Typical explanations of the not-self doctrine tell us that the Buddha would have given the question, ‘Is there a self?’ a qualified answer—’No, but….’—yet, as mentioned above, the one time he was asked the question, he remained silent. This shows that the question deserves to be put aside. When Ananda, his attendant, asked him why, the Buddha gave four reasons for his silence:
‘Ananda, if I were to answer that there is a self, that would be conforming with those priests and contemplatives who are exponents of eternalism [i.e., the view that there is an eternal soul]. And if I were to answer that there is no self, that would be conforming with those priests and contemplatives who are exponents of annihilationism [i.e., that death is the annihilation of experience]. If I were to answer that there is a self, would that be in keeping with the arising of the knowledge that all phenomena are not-self?
‘No, Lord. ‘
‘And if I… were to answer that there is no self the bewildered Vacchagotta (the person who asked the question) would become even more bewildered: “Does the self that I used to have now not exist? ” (S XLIV 10)
Let’s take the Buddha’s four reasons for not answering the question one by one, although since the third reason is the most complex, we can save it for the last.
1. The Buddha did not want to side with the eternalists because, as he says at many other points in the Canon, belief in a permanent self leads to a sense of attachment that makes it impossible to gain liberation from suffering. Some people have advanced the idea that the Buddha’s rejection of the view ‘there is a self’ applies only to the sense of self separate from the rest of the cosmos, and not to views that identify the self with the changing cosmos as a whole. However, in one passage (D 15) the Buddha discusses four types of self view, only to reject all four: views that the self is (a) finite and possessed of form; (b) finite and formless; (c) infinite and possessed of form; and (d) infinite and formless. Since views that identify the self with an animating force suffusing the cosmos would come under (d), and views that recommend identifying with the cosmos as a whole would come under (c), the Buddha would reject them as well. In another passage (S XXXV 90), he says that the act of identifying with the All is a conceit that would not even occur to an Awakened person. Thus the term ‘self’ here would cover any sense of identifying or finding oneness with anything at all, because the act of identifying is a form of clinging, and thus a cause of suffering.
2. The Buddha did not want to side with the annihilationists (those who believed that death is the annihilation of everything except the physical elements) because such a view makes it impossible to devote oneself to the practice leading to the mind’s liberation, for it leaves no incentive to do so. Those who maintain that the Buddha taught there is no self try to temper the view—either through elaborate metaphysics or through paradox—in such a way that it would allow one to take up the practice, but we should note here that the Buddha himself is saying that such a thing is impossible: to say that there is no self is, in and of itself, to side with the annihilationists, and that closes off the path.
3. As for the Buddha’s third reason: notice carefully how he words it. He says that to say there is a self would not be in keeping with the arising of the knowledge that all phenomena are not-self. He is not saying simply that it would contradict the tenet that all phenomena are not-self. The difference, though subtle, is strategically important. He states elsewhere that the arising of this knowledge can have a liberating effect on the mind. He doesn’t say, though, that it should be held on to as the final outcome of practice.
4. As for the Buddha’s fourth reason: those who argue that he took a position one way or another on the question of whether or not there is a self tend to focus on this reason for his silence here, saying that if someone more spiritually advanced than Vacchagotta had asked the question, the Buddha would have revealed his true position. This argument, though, ignores the Buddha’s first two reasons for remaining silent, which would hold true no matter who asked the question. We may also note, though, that the Buddha elsewhere (S XII 21) states that the question wouldn’t even occur to anyone well-advanced on the path, for such a person would be more involved in observing phenomena as they occur than in engaging in such speculations. So what the Buddha is saying here is that to draw a metaphysical conclusion from the not-self doctrine would simply further confuse people who are still so confused as to view the world in terms of metaphysical questions in the first place.
This is not to say that the Buddha does not ascribe truth status to this knowledge. In fact, it is a truth innate to the nature of phenomena.
Whether or not there is the arising of Tathagatas (Buddhas), this property stands, this steadfastness of phenomena, this regularity of phenomena: ‘All phenomena are not-self.’
(A III 134)
However, in the Buddha’s teachings, the knowledge of this truth functions as part of the path—as a means for loosening attachments—rather than the goal at the end.
‘All phenomena are not-self’ when one sees with discernment and grows disenchanted with stress, this is the path to purity. (Dh 279)
Once one has reached the end of the path, one must let go even of the truths that have served one well along the path if one is to gain liberation.
This the Tathagata discerns. And he discerns that these standpoints, thus seized, thus held to, lead to such and such a destination, to such and such a state in the world beyond. And he discerns what surpasses this. And yet he does not hold to that act of discerning. And as he is not holding to it, Unbinding is experienced right within… (and) through lack of clinging—he is released. (D1)
In letting go in this way, one abandons all phenomena and any possible statement that could be made about them. Once the meditator has done this, no words—not even the perceptions of being, not being, self or not-self—can apply.
Upasiva: “One who has reached the end: does he not exist, or is he for eternity free from afflication? Please, sage, declare this to me as this phenomenon has been known by you.”
The Buddha: “One who has reached the end has no criterion by which anyone would say that—it does not exist for. When all phenomena are put aside all means of speaking are put aside as well.” (SN V 6)
What all this points to, therefore, is that the not-self doctrine is essentially not a metaphysical position but a strategy—a way of looking at an aspect of phenomena as they actually occur—so that one can abandon any sense of identification or attachment to them. Once one goes fully beyond attachment, beyond all phenomena, one goes beyond the realm of what can be described. And as the Buddha says (see A IV 173 & S XXXV 117), it is precisely the realm beyond description that is truly worth knowing.
The Buddha’s teachings take as their departure not a philosophical standpoint, but an experience: the Buddha’s own realization of liberation and how it comes about. From this point of view, the question of whether or not there is a self is irrelevant. The important question is how we can go about attaining that same liberation. The Buddha says that if you develop discernment through virtue and concentration and then focus it on the ‘not-selfness’ of things as they occur, you will get this result: unconditioned happiness. Once you attain that happiness, it doesn’t matter what you call it. This is not an abstract theory; it’s a challenge.
Can you prove him wrong?