Bodhi vs Ṭhānissaro debate

You’re not understanding Ven. T’s position. What he says is the Buddha was really careful about how he answered questions about self existing or not.

In the EBT, the Buddha said he only teaches dukkha and its cessation, and when people try to get a specific concrete answer about self existing or not, the closest he comes is saying only 5 aggregates arise and cease. If he were to say the self ceased, instead of 5 aggregates, then people can still fall into confused wrong views about their self, which formerly existed, now is getting annihilated.

So as I understand it, Thanissaro talking about a “not self strategy” is just his way of commentary on the EBT source above.


Well, I think it is kind of a popular activity for those monks doing extensive translations - don’t you?

One of the great traditions of our time. They have produced some very notable Arahats. Strange how these fellows start getting corrupted with “true self” views when they become Arahats isn’t it? Think they might be onto something? I feel that when people label them as having eternalist views that it is because the way they talk about their experience is not the same as someone’s conceptual understanding of what awakening should be like. Maybe it is worth listening to them.

Thanissaro’s argument is summed up in the last paragraph of the article linked in the OP (my emphasis):

when dealing with all lessons of the Dhamma, including the lessons of not-self—it’s important to view the language of perceptions and thought-fabrications as performative and to use it strategically: to get the mind to what lies beyond perceptions and thought-fabrications, and not to develop a scholarly fixation on perceptions and thought-fabrications as expressions of truth in and of themselves. Otherwise, we risk wasting our time trying to catch in the net of language something that no words can catch.

Than. B is not saying there is a self nor is he saying there is not one rather his argument is that such views are not skilful.

And I my friend would say if you strongly hold a view about whether a self exists or not you misunderstand some key parts of the EBT’s. In any case, Bhikkhu Bodhi does not appear to agree with you. Thanissaro:

“The critique admits that the Buddha never assented to the statement “There is no self,”.

Secondly, Thanissaro is not claiming the Buddha had no opinion on this – just the opposite – he is saying that the Buddha saw such claims (one way or the other) as a waste of time.

The teaching that I see throughout the suttas is that the aggregates should be regarded as not self and I have no reason to believe that these statements regarding not self should be understood in any way different from how this teaching is developed in a step by step fashion in SN 22.59. Specifically: the aggregates should be regarded as not self because we have no control over them. If ever there was a time to categorically say there is no self – that sutta would be it.


In case anyone’s interested, this is not true.

What is true is that after I completed my first meditation retreat as a layman, staying in Wat Ram Poeng, a Mahasi monastery in northern Thailand, I wanted to read some Dhamma books. I asked the lay teacher for some recommendations. He suggested some of the then standard Theravada books (by Khantipalo, and one by the western monks of the Ajahn Chah tradition). I read them, and was like, okay, well that’s alright, I guess. “But,” I asked the lay teacher, “where’s the good stuff? What are these ‘suttas’ that people refer to?” He then pointed, somewhat unenthusiastically, to Nyanamoli’s translation of the Majjhima, which became the start of my passion for the suttas.

When I arrived at Wat Nanachat, reading the suttas was not particularly popular. But it wasn’t discouraged, and in fact Ajahn Pasanno and Ajahan Jayasaro led us in sutta readings and discussions. This was, however, unusual, and it is rare to find sutta study in Thailand beyond some basic texts.


That is only if we read just 1-2 suttas taken out of context. The nikayas have thousands of pages, they discuss everything in great detail and spit in on many sides to make sure the teachings are not misinterpreted. Buddha biggest concern was being very careful so that his teachings do not get misinterpreted, knowing such teachings are subtle and can easily get misunderstood by some people that only know small parts of them and don’t know them in full.

Buddha claims there never was a self to begin with. Same as there is the metal, the plastic, the software, etc. in a computer - but it is empty of a self - in the same way there are these 5 aggregates that make up a being but no self is there to be found. It is just as selfless as a computer. Understanding this can only be done through contemplating higher dhamma, not through undertanding lower dhamma or through other methods. This higher dhamma is chapter 2, chapter 3 and half of chapter 4 from SN.

It is only natural for people not to understand it by default, otherwise there would have been no need for the Buddha to discover the dhamma and spread it to the world. Most people read just 4-5 suttas out of these 1500 pages of higher dhamma and of course understand nothing. That is like taking 5 pages out of an airplane manual and of course understand nothing about how an airplane works.

Because of understanding nothing but believing that you should have understood it through simply reading a sutta saying there is no self, people start making all kinds of funky ideas in their head like “there is a self - but it is actually not-self” - simply changing the name they use for a self into not-self, Nanavira style. Or, they come up with ideas like “there was a self that will be no more” or “buddha didn’t say that there is no self in this only first half of a sutta that I’ve read out of these 1500 pages of higher dhamma - therefore it is an unanswerable question” - etc.

The problem here is simply not reading the nikayas but just reading scattered pages taken out of context from it. The reason Buddha answered like that was precisely because the person would have twisted the teaching and claim that there was a self, but now that self is no more.

There are countless suttas about not-self, countless, countless angles through which this problem is presented. The method through which the person should understand Buddha opinion here is called “inference” - a method difficult to understand to some ultra-literalist people. Therefore, they go around slandering the Buddha every chance they get:

> “Monks, these two slander the Tathagata. Which two? He who explains a discourse whose meaning needs to be inferred as one whose meaning has already been fully drawn out. And he who explains a discourse whose meaning has already been fully drawn out as one whose meaning needs to be inferred…”

AN 2.25

I propose all who believe a self exist or that a self might exist a challange: Let’s do something super unique, something that has never been done on a buddhist forum. It is done countless times in the suttas, but it has yet to be done on a buddhist forum:

Let’s debated the problem itself, not weather Buddha had this opinion or that opinion about it. Let’s just debate the problem itself. Where is this self that you believe might exist hiding ? Is the body yourself ? Nope, cause it is changing. It was in one way when you were little. It didn’t even exist before. The body that you have now is different than the one that existed when you were a baby.

Most people can easily see their body is not their self because of this. They then go to believe “it is a self that is observing all of this. The self is the thing observing it all”. When questioned even further, they either believe consciousness is the self or that the aggregates as a whole somehow make a self. These are the 2 main ideas that the mind will jump towards next.

If anyone believs there might be a self hinding somewhere, that the human is not as selfless as a computer, etc. - then present your arguments. Say what is on your mind. We see this happening all the time in the suttas, it’s the natural thing to do when hearing about these no-self teachings. And yet, to my knowledge, it has never been done on a buddhist forum in so many years.

I started a new topic: An unique experiment - First time on a buddhist forum

We went through this in How can there be no-self when there seems to be a self?

We could find a flat out denial of atta only in Sbv I 158 (Pali) and MA 6, MA 62 (Chinese). Yes, there are 100s of suttas saying ‘x is anatta’, ‘y is anatta’, but I’d like to see more examples of ‘There is no atta - full stop’, if you have them.

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You’ll never find such things, because such a statement could get misinterpreted. You need to use the difficult (sarcastic) art of infering.

Let me give you an example: “My hearth had turned to stone in that moment”.

You use inference all the time in day-to-day life. You’re not set by default to have an ultra-literalist understanding of things. Humans are capable of complex thinking that is required for infering.

Based on the thousands of pages dealing with the problem in the suttas, you can have a clear opinion made based on infering. The Buddha was very carefull to not let his subtle teaching get misunderstood, he even states this innumerable times. That why he never said “there is no self” in the first place.

There are countless, countless discussions about the topic in the suttas from all possible angles. It’s hard to miss the inference.

I understand this argument when the Buddha speaks to normal lay people or secterian atta-ists. I don’t understand this argument at all when he talks to very advanced monastics. Sorry, but it’s in the nature of language that everything can be misinterpreted. In the 1000s of suttas there must have been someone ‘with little dust in their eyes’ - and there were. And they also would misinterpret?

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He said many times that there is no self to be found neither within the aggregates neither anywhere else in the world. He always used “there is no self to be found”, he never used “there is no self”. That would not only be subject to misinterpretation but it would also be semantically incorrect.

I think Brhamajala Sutta gives the answer to this question.


The quotes would help in this case, don’t you think?

Again, a quote would help if you mean a specific passage. It’s a long sutta…

The quotes would help in this case, don’t you think?

There is even such a thing as deliverance through voidness…

And what, friend, is the deliverance of mind through
voidness? Here a bhikkhu, gone to the forest or to the root of a
tree or to an empty hut, reflects thus: ‘This is void of a self or of
what belongs to a self.’ [298] This is called the deliverance of
mind through voidness.

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I try to avoid using the word “subject” in such cases. As i understand it, in Buddhism (and in science, or at least I think it should be in science!) all “principles” or “natural laws” are mere descriptions (upādāya paññatti). Thus they are generalizations inferred from experience, but they do not “exist” in any sense, and hence have no power to “subject” anything.

So the better way to phrase it would be, “Is it appropriate to describe Nibbana in such terms?”

To which the answer is, sure, why not? Nibbana is described as not-self in the late canonical Parivara, which shows that the early Theravada tradition, at least, had no problem using it in that way. I don’t think it’s philosophically problematic: clearly, Nibbana doesn’t fulfill the normal requirements for something to be a “self”.

I think it’s more just a matter of context; these specific phrases were dealing with a different topic (insight meditation), so it’s not a good idea to use them to support an argument on the nature of Nibbana.


Discussions around self and no-self are pointless as they are assuming there are objects in this universe.
I believe the Buddha as I am was interested in processes not in objects.
Processes start, evolve and then cease due to causes and conditions, there is nothing solid, no essence about them.
Seeing everything, including ourselves, as processes brings a very deep understanding of the dhamma.


Indeed, that is true, but one of the most important processes to understand is the one through which self-view arised. This opinion that there is a self did not appear because of nothing, it appeared because of something, it appeared through a specific process.

It is not enough to just leave it like that. The “higher dhamma” regarding dependent origination, how the aggregates work, no self, etc. is all about explaining in detail how it all works. Only by seeing in detail the processes that are behind it can we fully understand it.

The kind of inferring you seem to be referring to is known today as induction. While inference in general can be misapplied, induction seem particularly prone to misuse. I think it’s certainly difficult, in a non-sarcastic way.

It’s clear to me these pitfalls were well known by the Buddha. A general teaching on problems of inference is found in the Cūlahatthipadopama Sutta (MN 27).

But we also find the particular issue of induction in DN 1:

Here, monks, a certain ascetic or Brahmin has by means of effort, extortion, application, earnestness and right attention attained to such a state of mental concentration that he thereby recalls past existences – one birth, two births, … ten births, a hundred births, a thousand births […] Thus he remembers various past lives, their conditions and details. And he says “the self and the world are eternal, barren like a mountain-peal, set firmly as a post. There beings rush round, circulate, pass away and re-arise, but this remains eternally. Why so? I have by means of effort, extortion, attained to such a state of mental concentration that I have thereby recalled various past existences…That is how I know the self and the world are eternal”

…while the Buddha appears talking about the “origin of the world” in rather differently manner (SN 22.100):

Bhikkhus, this saṃsara is without discoverable beginning. A first point is not discerned of beings roaming and wandering on hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving….

That is, while the induction is reproved in the former quote (particularly, in the case of the world), it is carefully absent in the latter.

I think the same care can be seen in MN 22:

Bhikkhus, you may well cling to that doctrine of self that would not arouse sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair in one who clings to it. But do you see any such doctrine of self, bhikkhus?”—“No, venerable sir.”—“Good, bhikkhus. I too do not see any doctrine of self that would not arouse sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair in one who clings to it.

So, in the absence of an explicit assertion, It seems prudent to take to heart the advice the Buddha gave to Mālunkyāputta (MN 63):

Therefore, Mālunkyāputta, remember what I have left undeclared as undeclared, and remember what I have declared as declared.

Not only prudent, but probably the safest route to preserve his words as they were handed down.

Finally, we read the Buddha saying the following of the Noble Disciple (SN 12.20):

When, bhikkhus, a noble disciple has clearly seen with correct wisdom as it really is this dependent origination and these dependently arisen phenomena, […] he will now be inwardly confused about the present thus: ‘Do I exist? Do I not exist? What am I? How am I? This being—where has it come from, and where will it go?’

At the same time, he praised investigating the teachings:

‘How is this? What is the meaning of this?’ They make open what isn’t open, make plain what isn’t plain, dispel doubt on its various doubtful points.

So, I think there’s value in discussing how the suttas should be interpreted and how the dhamma should be practiced. But, if following the example of a Noble Disciple is of value, discussing whether there’s a self or not, apart from the texts…perhaps it’s not something valuable – maybe, the opposite.


I am not sure this is still within the same context, but here a quote from the Venerable Dhammanando over from Dhammawheel:

The writer you quote seems to be treating the Dhammapada Commentary’s interpretation (which he approves of) as if it were the sole and normative definition of dhammā in this context. But in fact it’s unique and exceptional. Everywhere else the commentaries support the view that the writer rejects, the usual gloss being:

‘Sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā’ ti sabbe tebhūmakasaṅkhārā aniccā.
‘Sabbe dhammā anattā’ ti sabbe catubhūmakadhammā anattā.

‘All saṅkhāras are impermanent’ means that all saṅkhāras belonging to the three planes are impermanent.
‘All dhammas are not self’ means that all dhammas belonging to the four planes are not self.
(SA.ii.318; )

The three planes are those of sense-desires, refined-form and formlessness. The four planes are the same with the addition of the supramundane. (Source:

Ven Ṭhānissaro doesn’t actually claim this, namely, that the Buddha was an eel-wriggler. The Buddha did not eel-wriggle in the sutta that you say that Ven Ṭhānissaro takes out of context. The Buddha remained silent as to not eel-wriggle. If we are thinking about the same sutta.


I have a feeling you too have only read the first half of that sutta just like Thanissaro. In the second half of that sutta, the Buddha explains why he answered like that.

His alternative was eel-wriggling, IMO, hence why he did not do it. Attempting to engage with Vacchagotta’s vexation in such a manner would lead down that path, if we together presume that there would be an attempt to avoid Vacchagotta believing that his self had been annihilated. One person can’t have a conversation between two people.

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