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.
Okay, well that may well be correct, I am recalling an essay I read many years ago. I’d like to see some contexts, though, I’ll see if I can find them.
We start developing a sense of self/ego at the age of 18 months to two years as result of our interaction with the world. The primary function of the ego is to influence how others perceive us. It is an always-changing-construction that we constantly build and defend against others believing we will be stronger if we have a strong ego. Interestingly the more the ego is diminished the stronger we become and we navigate much more smoothly in the world. I should remember that as a child I had no ego and that I was functioning very well. Why did I built an ego then? Because I was starting to crave for … whatever and was not getting it.
Self-preservation is an Anusaya. (latent factors).
Any being has an ego whether small or large even if we are unconscious.
Arahants are conscious but they have eliminated the self-identification.
Thank you for this pearl of wisdom Bhante, this helps very much with the questions I asked you the other day regarding consciousness. Furthermore, I have discovered your youtube videos and am working my way through them, very informative and enjoyable.
Hi piotr and all,
The anattā teachings are, I think, clearly a refutation of the variety of attā ideas. Take the texts where the Buddha says (paraphrased): “Wanderers of other sects belief this and that to be a self, but I don’t belief this and that to be a self”. (SN44.7 - 8) We can take this at face value; there is no need to see it as a strategy. In DN1, MN102, etc, we see that the wanderers of other sects were not teaching “self strategies”, but were making claims to truth, just as essentially all religions still do now, and have always done before. And so the anattā teachings, being a direct response to those views, are claims to truth too.
I was quite surprised to see people are on the fence about this. It’s not that the suttas are unclear about it, in my opinion. So here’s a few things I think are incorrect in the essay The Limits of Description: Not-self Revisited. I’ll only address its main points.
On the Buddha not answering:
In SN44.10 the Buddha remained silent when Vaccha asked, “does the self not exist?” (The Pali is n’atth’attā?, usually translated “is there no self?”.) The essay argues the Buddha refused to answer because “questions related to the […] non-existence of the self aren’t worth paying attention to”. (p7) But the Buddha’s own explanation is: “If I would have replied ‘the self doesn’t exist’ (n’atth’attā), that would have confused Vaccha even more, making him think the self he had was no longer there.” So according to the Buddha it’s simply a pragmatic decision to stay silent—one clearly based on the belief that ‘the self’ in fact doesn’t exist, since otherwise he could have said whatever else he believed and Vaccha would not have been so confused. So in light of his own explanation, the Buddha must have been silent because he actually believed there was no self.
On the same sutta, on p9: “If, in SN 44.10 he had wanted to state such an analytical position [“there is no self”] to Ven. Ānanda, who was present at the conversation and who surely would have understood him, he would have. But he didn’t.” He did, though. He said that his knowledge (knowledge, not strategy—I’ll get back to this) was sabbe dhammā anattā, “everything is without a self”. This is just how the Buddha preferred to say, in effect, “there is no self”. The Pali n’atth’attā sort of assumes “the self” implicitly and also has the connotation “the self won’t exist”, so can be mistaken as an annihilist statement. But sabbe dhammā anattā doesn’t have those problems, and is also more pragmatic, because it forces you to consider sabbe dhammā, ‘every thing’. So that’s what the Buddha used.
We can wonder why the Buddha didn’t answer Vaccha in another way, but it will never be more than guessing. My own humble guess is that it’s because Vaccha asks these kinds of questions again and again throughout the suttas. The Samyutta Nikāya even contains a specific section on Vacchagotta (assuming it’s the same guy) asking such questions, which alone makes for 55 suttas. (SN33) And then there’s MN72 and such, as well. So that’s why the Buddha anticipated his reaction, and didn’t try to teach anattā to him yet again. I think this guess is much more reasonable than all that the essay infers from mere silence. This unique sutta should be interpreted in light of others, not taken as the “main argument” (p3) for things it doesn’t say, in my humble opinion.
On wrong views:
- Contrary to what the essay makes me belief on p3, p9 and elsewhere, MN2 does not say “there is no self” is a wrong view or a wrong reflection. The closest the sutta gets to that, is “I have no self”. But what is wrong here, is not the “no self” part, but the “I have” part: it is the thought/conceit “I” or “mine”. All wrong ideas in MN2 come down to some sort of view of “I”, “mine”, or self. But the view “there is no self” is never said to be wrong—not just in MN2, but in the entire Canon—which goes to show it is actually quite alright. (“I have no self” is exactly the kind of wrong view Vocchagotta would have ended up having in SN44.10.)
On “existence or non-existence”:
SN12.15 is about dependent arising & cessation, “the truth (dhamma) that lies in the middle” between an eternal self (“it will exist”) and the annihilation of a self (“it won’t exist”). Dependent arising/cessation is an explanation of how life works. It is not a “mental state” “where there are no thoughts of ‘existence’ or ‘non-existence’” (p1&11). It is not “an advanced stage of right view” (p11) either, but the standard right view of all the noble ones: “One who sees dependent arising sees the truth (dhamma).” (MN28) It’s the right view where you “don’t assume to have a self.” (SN12.15)
P8: “[I]f you assumed that there was no self […] you’d fall into either of the two extremes listed in Iti 49”. The extremes in Iti49 are actually both views of self: “devas and humans delight in existence”, which implies an eternal self, and “this self […] at death, is annihilated and destroyed”, clearly the annihilation of a self. Neither of these is “there is no self”. They are the opposite.
On the arahant after death:
SN22.86 explains that the Buddha did not take any of the four positions on what happens to an Tathāgata after death (he still exists, no longer exists, both, or neither), because there is no self, no essence that is the Tathāgata even before death. It’s not that (p8) “you can’t even define [a Tathāgata] in the present life”, that there is a Tathāgata who is beyond the limits of language—it’s that “Tathāgata” is just an empty name, a label, it’s nothing real. So you can not say that it lives on or that it ceases to be. It’s like asking, “where does the wind go when it stops blowing?” or “where does a flame go when it goes out?” (“Just as you can not point at a flame which disappears, blown out by a gust of wind, so you can not point at ‘a sage’, liberated from body and mind, who disappears.” — Snp5.7.)
On p7: “When [the Buddha was] presented with the fourfold question […] he refused to agree to any of the alternatives. If he held the unspoken assumption that there really is no self, then he wouldn’t have had to take such pains to avoid taking a stand on the issue.” The reason the Buddha himself gave for his refusal is the exact opposite of this. In SN44.8, when explicitly asked why he didn’t take any of the four positions, he responded it was because he saw no self in, among, outside, or as the owner of the five aggregates. (Cf. SN22.79.) Again, the problem with all four statements is that they all assume the Tathāgata, i.e., a self. It’s not about something existing beyond the limits of description.
There are also some issues with translation:
According to the PTS dictionary yathābhūta means “in reality, in truth, really, definitely, absolutely; as ought to be, truthfully, in its real essence”, but p12 translates it as “in the course of actually happening”. That this is wrong is evident from SN22.55, for example, which says: “According to reality (yathābhūta) he understands that consciousness will cease to be.” You obviously can’t understand that consciousness is going to cease one day “in the course of actually happening”. Other things to be understood, not as they happen, but according to reality, are birth and death, what is wholesome and what is not, what the eightfold path is, the fact of impermanence, et cetera. This wrong translation skews the interpretation of the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta (SN22.59) quite a bit. (p7) (In old translations Venerable Thanissaro had yathābhūta correctly as “as it actually is”. The new translations—three different ones in the essay, p7,11,12—are all incorrect.)
SN22.55 also says: “According to reality he understands consciousness, which has no self, to have no self.” This is not a perception to lessen suffering “as it is happening”, but an actual understanding, an insight into reality. As you may have noticed, it says, “he understands” (pajānāti). Similarly, you often find yathābhūta and anattā together with words like pañña (understanding or wisdom), ñāna (knowledge), vijjā (“true knowledge”, the opposite of avijjā, “ignorance/delusion”), and such. Understanding and insight: that’s what the Buddha had, not mere techniques. I’m pointing this out because the word “discernment” (p7) has many connotations that the Pali pañña doesn’t. Pañña means actually understanding something.
Part of the essay discusses the suttas where anattā is said to be practiced as a perception. These suttas do not refute the standard interpretation of anattā, but are complementary to it, as Bhikkhu Bodhi has pointed out at length. To put it briefly: the truth of anattā is not just to be taken as truth, as a simple fact, but also to be realized, to be practiced towards. This requires changing deeply ingrained wrong perceptions into perceptions that accord with the truth, so we can get to see according to reality (yathābhūta). So the perception of anattā is a strategy of sorts indeed. But anattā itself is not.
So is there a self? Sure, it’s a “metaphysical/ontological question” (p3). But not one that is beyond answering, and certainly not beyond the Buddha’s reach, or anybody’s reach. It’s not impossible to see the aggregates/six senses can stop and infer from that that there isn’t a self.
When, friend, a bhikkhu understands as they really are the origin and the passing away of the six bases for contact, in this way his vision is well purified. (SN35.245)
This is an inference. Obviously whoever said this still had six senses. But he knew that they will forever cease in the future, probably also that particularly the mind arises and cease all the time, (like day and night - SN12.61) and that they therefore aren’t self.
And to know whether there is a self or not is not just a metaphysical question. If we are to fully understand rebirth, karma, and samsara it’s actually very pragmatic. It’s actually just a start in understanding these things. (That’s why it constitutes stream entry, not arahantship.)
“The world is empty of a self.” – SN35.85
My two cents !
Thanks for reading.
I wouldn’t have gone to these lengths if Bhikkhu Bodhi hasn’t gone to much greater. Apparently the ideas that anatta is a strategy is not as marginal as I thought. Sorry if I misrepresented the idea.
Thanks so much, Sunyo, that was well put.
One passage that I would add here is that of Mogharaja at Snp 5.16. Thanissaro contrasts this with the questions of Vacchagotta, saying that the Buddha answered Mogharaja’s questions, whereas he didn’t answer Vacchagotta. The difference must be that Mogharaja asked about a strategy:
How should I view the world so that the king of death does not see me?
But if you look at the text, rather than just the immediate passage quoted by Thanissaro, it begins with Mogharaja saying this:
Dvāhaṃ sakkaṃ apucchissaṃ
I have asked the Sakyan twice,
Na me byākāsi cakkhumā
and the seer has not answered me.
Vacchagotta, of course, just asked once and left. So if he had been as patient as Mogharaja, perhaps we would have been spared all this!
According to the commentary, the reason the Buddha delayed answering had nothing to do with whether it was strategic on ontological, but because when he first asked, Mogharaja was not ready. But as he sat patiently with his friends, and listened to the various questions and answers, his wisdom matured, so the Buddha answered when the time was right.
Obviously we can’t rely on this as a historical source, but it is not unreasonable. And it is basically the same reason the Buddha gave for not answering Vacchagotta: because the questioner would not have understood properly.
In addition, there is also the problem that “existence” implied “eternal existence”, which I have previously discussed in a couple of posts:
I learned something interesting on this by listening to Bhikkhu Bohdi’s audio course on Pali, Lesson 3, last night. He was covering the reading number 1 on page 29 of the book A New Course in Reading Pali. And there the reading is from the Questions of King Milinda. And the king asks Nagasena “Is there anyone who transmigrates from one body to another?” Nasasena says “Certainaly not.” And the king says “But if nobody transmigrates from one body to another then everyone is free from evil karma!” And Nagasena says “If there were no relinking, then everyone would be free from evil karma, but because there is relinking everyone is not free from evil karma.” And the king says like “So then there can be relinking without transmigration?” And Nagasena says “There can be relinking without transmigration.”
Whereas the online translation easy to find says “rebirth” Bhikkhu Bohdi and the text book also show the term has a notion of reunion, hence Bhikkhu Bohdi suggested relinking as a translation. Now Bikkhu Bohdi for his part towed the line of Theravada orthodoxy in saying what is opposed here is a soul, and he said what is being asserted is a mind-stream etc etc as is usual. But, the translation relinking, and transmigration being set against relinking is interesting because to me it shows that the issue is not one of teaching soul vs no soul, but of corporeal soul vs extra-corporeal soul. In other words, what is opposed is the notion that the soul literally lives in the body, literally exits the body at death, literally enters a new body, VERSUS the idea that the soul is outside the body (presumably also outside the world, or transcendent) and only loses a link to one body at death and establishes a new link to a new body without actually entering that body (i.e. creates a vinnana and puts it in the body on its behalf, per dependent origination, where it is said that where there is ignorance then there is sankhara (formation/creation) then vinnana then namarupa, etc., i.e. where this extracorporal transcendent soul is still ignorant it creates a consciousness to emanate forth and sit in the body on its behalf).
Thanssaro B. does, at one point, mention that dhamma is not uniformly used in the sutta-s. On the one hand (1) is the “sabbe dhamma anatta” usage. On the other hand there’s a passage stating (2) that all dhamma-s are dukkha.
I forget at the moment exactly where to find this discussion, but do recall that he mentions the inconsistency in a footnote to the passage giving the second (2) usage.
(“Inconsistency” may not yield the correct connotation. Rather that there’s a range of usages in a range of contexts.)
But is Thanissaro’s point that while the Buddha rejected all of those, he did not however propose the view that there is no self? And, what do you think about that?
Yes. But would you not agree that some of those Hindu doctrines do have the capacity to help one awaken? There seem to have been may great Hindu saints. And remember the famous book ‘I Am That’, of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj’s teachings. I would assume that he was at the very least a stream enterer, if not an arahant. And Ramana Maharishi also. Even if they proposed self doctrines which may be refuted by Buddhist doctrine.
If I can only read one or two texts on the subject, which do you most recommend? Many thanks!
I don’t have a source that really satisfies me, but in his classic study Joshi at least showed the diversity of the concept of atman in the vedas and upanisads:
Joshi (1965): Evolution of the concepts of Atman and Moksa in the different systems of indian philosophy
Thanks Gabriel. I found a place to download that in 18 separate pdf files here:
But, I just put them all into one pdf, and ran OCR on it. So here is the resultant file:
Joshi (1965) Evolution of the concepts of Atman and Moksa in the different systems of indian philosophy.pdf (24.3 MB)
In one talk I heard recently by Thanissaro Bhikkhu where he described Ajahn Maha Boowa I believe, responding to claims by a quasi-Buddhist cult in Northern Thailand that claimed “Nibbana is the true self”. On repeated asking of him whether this was true (“Is nibbana the true self?”), he rebuffed most inquiries. Finally his answer, when he did speak on it, was “Nibbana is nibbana”.
That helped me clarify what TB teaches on it, and the distinction between that line of thinking and what some people claim (imprecisely, I believe) is the eternalist position of some Thai Forest Tradition teachers.
The Shodhganga page is a collection of many Indian dissertations, and the version they have is Joshi’s original dissertation of 1953 I think. The book from 1965 should be the same with only small differences in the format I guess. Thanks for putting it together!
Ah, @Gabriel if you have a better version, and a link to it, maybe share it here? Otherwise, the other one should suffice
Because, Thanissaro Bhikkhu is obviously still under the shadow of those partial eternalists.
Because ignorance is still there.
As far as you have ignorance you have the self view.
Studdy MN1 carefully.
Let alone self, Buddha warned against objectifying Nibbana as well.
If you objectify Nibbana then you still have the self view.
Which means you take Nibbana as the self.
I find the self/no self thing interesting.
The Buddha refuted the Brahmanical atta. How close does the Advaita ‘Self’ conform to the Brahmanican atta? Is there much significant difference?
I see Ramana Maharishi and Nisargadatta Maharaj as probably arahants. And yet they talked of a Self. So I expect that while the Buddhist view is very skilful, the Advaita view also seems to be very skilful. Even teachers like Papaji of Lucknow (H. W. L. Poonja) seemed to fairly clearly be stream enterers, and he had a good ability of guiding people to stream entry, even if he seemed to be limited to that and unable to guide people further on the path (due to his own limited awakening).
Due to this, I cannot readily believe that someone must have the view that there is no ‘self’. After all, these are just words, and our view depends on the subtleties of how we hold such views - how they effect our minds. Whether they cause clinging or not. They are after all only linguistic concepts when written down, so it is very clearly not merely the words that matter. And it would seem that the way the words have been formed in Advaita, in combination with their practices, is such that it can enable the same process of awakening as the Buddhist words and practices.
I sometimes wonder whether there is much difference between the view of Nibbana as a transcendent reality, and the view of Atman/Brahma as a transcendent reality, given that they both appear to describe something beyond or beneath the personal.