How can there be no-self when there seems to be a self?

I think you may be confusing self and individual. Or maybe, to put it more precisely, you are not confusing it but are rather using unfortunate terminology. Even computers or more primitive devices are able to tell what is part of their individual instance of their operating system and what is not. Another possible explanation could be the use of something like checksums or certificates in informatics, individual signatures confirming the integrity and origin of a part of the system. Besides, in software systems certain objects are frequently treated as consisting of one part, ‘as a whole’, whereas in reality each and every line of code and virtual ‘object’ can be traced back to a huge series of 1’s and zeroes, so that any such object may be regarded as a descriptive convention used for practical purposes. The same is true for tables and other physical macro-objects: I and, I assume, you almost never think about them as consisting of atoms but rather treat them as individual things. If this tendency to treat what we know for sure to be a descriptive convention as a really existent solid something is so deeply rooted in us, how much stronger should it be when we think about our dear self, the epicentre and constant topic of our experience!

Among other things, one can say that the idea of difference between ‘you’ and ‘me’ is often overcome in deep mystical experiences when a meditator or mysticist becomes ‘One with the World’ or, like Meister Eckhart, sees “the still desert” of the Deity, from which the world is emanating and where there is nothing and nothing aprt from nothing.

Besides, in SN 49.10 the Buddha quite unambiguously explaines why He didn’t directly teach that there is no self:

“If, Ānanda, when I was asked by the wanderer Vacchagotta, ‘Is there a self?’ I had answered, ‘There is a self,’ would this have been consistent on my part with the arising of the knowledge that ‘all phenomena are nonself’?”

“No, venerable sir.”

“And if, when I was asked by him, ‘Is there no self?’ I had answered, ‘There is no self,’ the wanderer Vacchagotta, already confused, would have fallen into even greater confusion, thinking, ‘It seems that the self I formerly had does not exist now.’”

In plain English, He didn’t teach that there is a self because it would have been plainly wrong and contradicted one of the most basic principles of His teachings, and He didn’t teach that there is no self because he wanted to avoid the same questions as the ones asked by the OP (no offence @Shaun :slight_smile:): ‘Wait a minute, what does it mean there is no self? I feel like I have one!’

Let’s change self (atta) to individual or person (puggala) that we will define as similar to a specific instance of an operating system working as a whole but still being nothing but a mere sequence of two characters. In that case, I will totally agree to you 100% per cent. Files that were left on your hard drives or in the cloud storage, created on your previous OS, will still be there when you install a later or more sophisticated Linux version. The analogy is not perfect because the files are also available to hackers and remotely connected devices, but then the Buddha also had knowledge about the past lives of other people and, apparently was able to read the ‘digital signature’ of these files and determine whether they were created by a previous version of His OS or a completely unrelated OS running on the other end of the world.

And then the whole idea of autonomy from other beings… Don’t get me wrong, it’s not to be interpreted as the commonplace trope of the ‘interconnectedness of everything’ or ‘we are all One’ or any other similar theory, but MN1 says more or less straightforwardly:

He perceives beings as beings. Having perceived beings as beings, he conceives beings, he conceives himself in beings, he conceives himself apart from beings, he conceives beings to be ‘mine,’ he delights in beings. Why is that? Because he has not fully understood it, I say.

Correct. Two stones can different from each other, and the causes acting on them might be different from each other. This doesn’t mean that the stones have a Self. You are saying difference is the key factor- but it isn’t.

We are all able to imagine thing- this doesn’t mean those imaginations are real. We are able to remember incidents from this life- but research shows these ‘memories’ aren’t actually accurate- they are fabrications ie ‘new’ creations from the old information, which aren’t even accurate. However this doesn’t prevent us from thinking they are accurate …as they are all we know to be true. Now past life memories - the Buddha was asked about this and he told the Bhikkhu that they are fabrications (sankhara- sutta?)- we experience them now as a new fabrication. The mere fact of being able to bring up information from the past only means that there is a flow of what I would call information or data.

Even now, in the process of perception there are data filtered through the aggregates that arise one after the next, causally. When seeing arises at the eye and fades away, consciousness arises at the eye and fades away, contact arises at at the eye and fades away, feelings arise and fade away, perception arises and fades away, intentions arise and fade away. However the initial information of the vision that arose at the eye doesn’t fade but gets passed from one factor to the next. We identify with this process as ‘I am seeing’. No I or Seer was required for this process however. No agency is required- it is automatic. ie cause and effect.

Even now there is no lasting aggregate. Therefore how can there be self even in this life (much less in past life)?

with metta



OK, i don’t disagree with your remarks and i liked the analogies

or let’s say i try to redefine what self is :slight_smile:

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i remember something to this effect, would you be able to bring exact sutta reference?

Hi Shaun

I’m replying to the following, which perhaps should have been addressed in this thread?

I offered those two links because for me, they did, at least on the level of intellect and reasoning, answer the very good question you have posed here. In the end, whilst faith has a part to play, it is our own personal inner quest that will truly, deeply and usefully answer the question.

I’m glad you enjoyed reading them and hope you find the answers that you need.

With metta

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Quoting from mentioned in previous posts “Anattā & Rebirth” by Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu:

We can conclude by saying that if you understand anattā correctly and truly, then you will discover for yourself that there is no rebirth and no reincarnation.

Not that I disagree, the rebirth stuff always seemed unconvincing to me, but that seems to be contrary to a lot of material in the suttas. What about once returners, non returners? What about getting out of cycle of rebirths? There are either rebirths all over the place in the suttas, or the English (and probably other) translations are wrong and we don’t understand what the Pali says.

Thanks Kay

Tuvok, I once spoke with a very high-level scholar of Buddhism, who is also a Venerable and on this forum occasionally. He said, the key which opens all doors in Buddhism, or the key that makes Buddhism work is belief/faith in ‘rebirth.’ He went on to say how this can be major issues for people and monks have even disrobed because they didn’t believe in rebirth. If there is no rebirth (Theravada) or no reincarnation (Vajrayana) then that means that Buddha was lying about his remembering of past lives???

I suppose I even know who you are speaking of :wink:
I just quoted another Venerable, who has an opposite view on this subject, so here we are again, with two opposing views and no awakening - at least not for me, since I don’t know who is right.

As for my personal opinion on rebirth / reincarnation:

  • I haven’t seen a proof of it’s existence
  • I don’t need it to see a gain in practicing
    Freedom from suffering is a great goal in itself, breaking the cycle of rebirths is a non issue for me, since I don’t believe it.
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Hi Shaun

I have tried to explain how I see this in other posts on this forum.

Firstly I disagree with the translation of anattā as ‘not/non/no self’. For me, attā is the Pāli equivalent of Sanskrit atmā, which certainly means ‘soul’ and I think the Buddha would have used ‘anaham’ to mean ‘not self’, but I have not found it in the Pāli texts.

There is a place in the suttas,, where doubt about one’s existence is said to be an obstacle of progress. There doubting the existence of self – ahaṃ (‘Am I/Do I exist?’ - ‘ahaṃ nu khosmi?’ and ‘Am I not/Do I not exist’ - ‘No nu khosmi?’) is said to be unwise reflection and leads to various wrong views about soul – attā (‘Atthi me attā’ti’, or ‘Natthi me attā’ti’). Some may think that means one has to have faith that one does not really exist. I think it simply means, one has gone off track in the question ‘to be or not to be’.

I think the Buddha accepts the existence of the Five Aggregates, but they are conditioned and impermanent. I equate them with an impermanent self that everyone has. The goal, for me, is ending the Five Clinging Aggregates, (which I translate to one word as ‘ego’, not ‘self’), that is, suffering, and once they are eradicated one just has an impermanent self that one knows as such (as it really is).

It is not the Five Aggregates (an impermanent self) that one has to end, imo. But I understand that is assumed from the first part of the definition of suffering, that is, the First Noble Truth, because it speaks of birth, aging and death. These are taken to be physical, but there is evidence in the Pāli texts that the Buddha used them spiritually.

I follow the summary sentence of the First Noble Truth, ‘that is, in brief the five CLINGING aggregates are suffering’. For me that summarises what had been said before and points to not assuming what he had just been spoken of was the Five Aggregates (without clinging).

Secondly I disagree with the translations of the first of the three knowledges the Buddha said he developed on the night of his enlightenment. It is there that the ideas of ‘past lives’ comes in. That would be ‘pubbe-jīvam’ in Pāli, but that is also not found in the Pāli texts. In that paragraph the Buddha talks of many past births, not lives. For me each birth is the arising of ego (the five clinging aggregates) in this very life.

For me there is no RE-birth as that suggests there is something personal going from one birth to another. Since I understand each birth is the birth of (an) ego (identity) in this very life, each one is different. For example, at one time I identified with certain beliefs and called myself ‘Christian’ after some time, I (ego) stopped doing that (died as a Christian) and was born ‘a Buddhist’. Both involve clinging and are suffering, imo. Instead I could just recognise my belief as belief and not cling to it as the truth and try to label myself by it.

This is the only way I have found to understand the Buddha’s teaching so that it is relevant to ‘this very life’ that he is recorded to have said often.

best wishes


yes, Ven Brahmali is a very adamant proponent of the doctrine of rebirth

Buddha is known to have criticized his contemporaries who taught doctrines of a single life and didn’t recognize the law of kamma, which by inference means he held the opposite opinion, or in his case most likely firsthand knowledge

dismissing rebirth amounts to dismissing the veracity of the suttas content, because having dismissed veracity of one doctrine, which is rebirth, what reasons does one have to agree with other tenets and teachings? why should they be considered more reliable and trustworthy? what are the criteria to Dhamma cherry picking, personal preferences and preconceptions which certain teachings more easily fit into? this is the approach to the Dhamma the so called secular Buddhism is notorious for, but a puthujjana, an ignorant person, cannot distinguish between veracity and falsity, therefore their attempt at creating a personalized ‘playlist’ of Dhammic concepts is a futile endeavor with a questionable result

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Can you provide any quotations on the criticism of single life doctrines? Not on kamma - this has nothing to do with it, kamma can live happily in one-life interpretations. I have nothing against kamma teaching.

One would have exactly no reasons - but you put it backwards, opposite to reality. I didn’t sign up to the club, saying: from now on I’m Buddhist and I accept everything that a good Buddhist should believe in. Why would I accept anything on faith? I don’t. If I did, I would never look beyond Catholicism. I would have no need for that - this is life, that is heaven, if you want to get to heaven, live in such a way. End of the story, no need to look for anything more.

Buddha said, he has a way of practice to attain the end of suffering in this life. That is where it gets interesting. Do I want to be happy now? Of course, what a question!

Then I read what Buddhism is all about, what is the practice and the teaching. I put hypotheses and try them. I did, and Buddhism did prove to be good in many respects to me. The thing is that I still haven’t found the use for rebirth - it’s pointless to me.

I don’t say that there is no rebirth - maybe there is, I have no way of knowing - just like I don’t know if there is a God or if everyone has a soul, but that’s not the point. The point is I currently have no use for this concept. I would love to understand what suttas mean by rebirth, or what is it that gets reborn, then some of those suttas would probably be more meaningful - but just taking that and blindly believing it without understanding is out of the question for me.

the suttas also talk about various states of higher consciousness and supranormal powers one attains through jhana practice, neither them are verifiable by an ordinary person, do you dismiss them as well?

that’s the cherry picking part, Buddhism seems to be having in the West this air of rational teaching, where faith has no place and use which is attractive to people with analytical and logical mindset cultivated in the West and to whom faith is a purview and recourse of simple minded people, but faith/confidence/conviction (saddha) is a big part of practice, because the fetter of doubt is only abandoned by a sotapatti, so having faith is not only normal but encouraged and commended in the suttas, in particular the faith in the Gotama as the Buddha and in his teaching to wit

The Blessed One is an arahant, perfectly enlightened, accomplished in true knowledge and conduct, fortunate, knower of the world, unsurpassed trainer of persons to be tamed, teacher of devas and humans, the Enlightened One, the Blessed One.

The Dhamma is well expounded by the Blessed One, directly visible, immediate, inviting one to come and see, applicable, to be personally experienced by the wise.

AN 4.52

here’s an example of faith application exactly to the concept of rebirth

When this was said, Sīha the general said to the Blessed One: “Bhante, I do not go by faith in the Blessed One concerning those four directly visible fruits of giving declared by him. I know them, too. For I am a donor, a munificent giver, and I am dear and agreeable to many people. I am a donor, a munificent giver, and many good persons resort to me. I am a donor, a munificent giver, and I have acquired a good reputation as a donor, sponsor, and supporter of the Saṅgha. I am a donor, a munificent giver, and whatever assembly I approach—whether of khattiyas, brahmins, householders, or ascetics—I approach it confidently and composed. I do not go by faith in the Blessed One concerning these four directly visible fruits of giving declared by him. I know them, too. But when the Blessed One tells me: ‘Sīha, with the breakup of the body, after death, a donor, a munificent giver, is reborn in a good destination, in a heavenly world,’ I do not know this, and here I go by faith in the Blessed One.”

AN 5.34


So, there is nothing but dhammas in a stream of dependant origination or conditional arising.
In the ultimate sense, it seems that there is really no rebirth of a ‘self’ because the self doesn’t exist, but there is some kind of stream of dhammas that make up ‘you’ that go from one ‘life’ into the next. But is there really ‘life’? Our idea of life is based on the conventional way of seeing things as in trees, mountains etc. In the ultimate way of seeing things everything is just dhammas, including ‘life’. Its all just just dhammas in a stream of dependant origination or conditional arising. So rebirth is happening to ‘you’ right now. Right ??? :grinning::grin::laughing:

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Do you believe, that jhana’s are not verifiable by ordinary person? Because if I did believe that, I wouldn’t be here. To be free from suffering is to get Awakened, or to at least remove most of the suffering you need to get to Stream Entry. To do that, you need jhanas, at least according to the suttas. There are jhanas everywhere in there.

I did put a hypothesis there: yeah, maybe if I meditate long / correctly, I will get to some new states, that might be possible, let’s try. I tried, and I had some nice experiences - far from jhana, but for me a proof good enough to try and see if there’s more. So I’m not going on faith here, I stated a hypothesis, tested it, and came out with a promising result.

As for other supernormal attainments, so far I haven’t found use for them, so they might just be fairy tales to me.

No, that is experimentation. That is looking for what might be useful and trying it for yourself. That is the process Buddha himself went through, although being honest - he put incomparably more effort than I.

‘Sīha, with the breakup of the body, after death, a donor, a munificent giver, is reborn in a good destination, in a heavenly world,’ I do not know this, and here I go by faith in the Blessed One.”

That is completely different. Does this knowledge change anything? Was Sīha a donor before he was told that this gives a good rebirth or after? According to the text, it’s after - which doesn’t change anything in the situation. It’s like saying “Well I don’t know, but if you say so - that’s a nice bonus”, it’s not a view that Sīha will base his behaviour on, he would be a donor anyway. He didn’t base his behaviour on a belief.

Sure, and you probably don’t have much choice in the matter. But do you at least see how others can have a use for it?

Hi Brother-Joe,
Thanks for taking the time to give your explanation, it is much appreciated!

Brother-Joe > “Secondly I disagree with the translations of the first of the three knowledges the Buddha said he developed on the night of his enlightenment.”

Shaun > Your saying that this refers to ‘births’, not lives. How about the Jataka tales, these are memories of quite personal stories of ‘past lives.’ If it was just a birth that he should only be able to remember a being rather then stories, what are your thoughts?

Everything you are saying makes 100% sense to me, and I could fully believe in rebirth as a process in the way the Theravadans describe it. I guess the issue that messes everything up is the ability to ‘remember past lives or even past rebirths’. If it was a process, such as a candle or mango tree analogy then how is it possible to remember the details of previous rebirths or past lives? This of course also puts a crack in the non-self theory as well. As soon as one takes out the ability to remember past lives rebirth, everything makes perfect sense…

Hi Shaun

No problem at all. My pleasure. Thanks for your considered reply.

I follow the idea that ‘all conditioned things are impermanent’ and to me, this applies to the Buddhist texts (and the Buddhist religion - the Buddha sāsana is said to only last a certain period of time). They change (are changed) over time and so I take a historical approach to the study of them. That is, some texts or parts of texts are older, more authentic, less changed, than others.

I understand that the Jataka are all taken to be later texts by most scholars that take a historical approach and I think any similar stories found in the texts generally taken to be older, e.g. the first Four Nikayas, are to me, later additions. I have heard that the Jataka have material that is popular legend common to other Indian traditions. In short I don’t accept the Jataka as the teaching of the Buddha.

I do believe that the Dhamma is most likely unchanging and it is what all enlightened people of all time realise, but for me, that is very different from the Collection of Buddhist texts (Tipiṭaka) or the Buddhist religion/The Buddha’s teaching (Buddha-sāsana).

For me, ‘being’ conditions ‘birth’ (they are related but different) and it is the birth (aging and death of the ego) that is recalled and learnt from, such that wisdom and insight arises, in order not to do it again.

I believe, unlike commonly taught, that a suffering being or a happy being both have the same opportunity to understand suffering and free themselves from it. If they come to know what is wise reflection and if they have their basic physical needs met. We have schools of Buddhism based on the idea that one must take birth as a heavenly being to have the best (only real?) chance to realise true freedom.

Best wishes

Hi Brother-Joe,
Thanks again for the discussion. Am I correct in saying that you believe the Jataka Tales were ‘made up’ later on.

I said before, “I guess the issue that messes everything up is the ability to 'remember past lives or even past rebirths.”

You said: “In that paragraph the Buddha talks of many past births, not lives.”

I don’t quite understand what you mean in regards to the difference between, ‘past lives and past births.’

With Metta.