MN 2, why is "no self exists for me" a wrong view?

There’s been a lot of lively debate lately on the Buddhism subreddit about anatta and to what extent the Buddha taught it or not.

In light of that I’ve been trying to find suttas on wrong view, and I came accross MN 2:

“When he attends unwisely in this way, one of six views arises in him. The view ‘self exists for me’ arises in him as true and established; or the view ‘no self exists for me’ arises in him as true and established

It is my understanding that the Buddha taught that everything is not-self, but I want to be a bit careful here, I don’t want to get lost in the wilderness of views.

There are suttas such at SN 35.85 where the Buddha says that the world is empty of self. The six sense spheres and five aggregates are numerous times said to be “not me, not mine, not a self”.

What is the difference between this and the view “no self exists for me”?

Hi Erik,

I think it’s worth thinking about it in context in MN 2:

  1. “This is how he attends unwisely: ‘Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what did I become in the past? Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what shall I become in the future?’ Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the present thus: ‘Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where will it go?’
  1. “When he attends unwisely in this way, one of six views arises in him. The view ‘self exists for me’ arises in him as true and established; or the view ‘no self exists for me’ arises in him as true and established; or the view ‘I perceive self with self’ arises in him as true and established; or the view ‘I perceive not-self with self’ arises in him as true and established; or the view ‘I perceive self with not-self’ arises in him as true and established; or else he has some such view as this: ‘It is this self of mine that speaks and feels and experiences here and there the result of good and bad actions; but this self of mine is permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and it will endure as long as eternity.’ This speculative view, bhikkhus, is called the thicket of views, the wilderness of views, the contortion of views, the vacillation of views, the fetter of views. Fettered by the fetter of views, the untaught ordinary person is not freed from birth, ageing, and death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair; he is not freed from suffering, I say.

The first paragraph is a common pericope about speculation to do with self views. Bhikkhu Bodhi notes that the second contains six possible self views:

Of these six views, the first two represent the simple antinomy of eternalism and annihilationism; the view that “no self exists for me” is not the non-self doctrine of the Buddha, but the materialist view that identifies the individual with the body and thus holds that there is no personal continuity beyond death. The next three views may be understood to arise out of the philosophically more sophisticated observation that experience has a built-in reflexive structure that allows for self-consciousness, the capacity of the mind to become cognizant of itself, its contents, and the body with which it is inter-connected. Engaged in a search for his “true nature,” the untaught ordinary person will identify self either with both aspects of the experience (view 3), or with the observer alone (view 4), or with the observed alone (view 5). The last view is a full-blown version of eternalism in which all reservations have been discarded.

Perhaps the clue is that it reads: “no self exists for me” (hopefully someone can comment in detail on the Pali…). This, is, perhaps related to:

… “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.’”

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I’m not aware of that line

anywhere else, actually; I think this must be a unique way of phrasing the issue, unsuitable for supporting any large argumentative edifice.

SN 22.59 puts things very plainly, and this sort of thing is quite common. In fact, on one occasion the Buddha dealt with this issue directly:

“It is possible, bhikkhus, that some senseless man here, obtuse and ignorant, with his mind dominated by craving, might think that he can outstrip the Teacher’s Teaching thus: ‘So it seems that form is nonself … consciousness is nonself. What self, then, will deeds done by what is nonself affect?’

I think one of the problems is the term “exists”.

See also:

Where it also seems that “existence” and “non-existence” has to do with views of eternalism and annihilationism, not about “whether rocks exist”.

I just recently listened to Ajahn Brahm discussing this sutta:
http://www.dhammaloka.org.au/downloads/item/1088-mn02-sabbasava-sutta-all-the-taints.html

He translated ‘exists’ as ‘persists’ and explained the word here isn’t anata, and that his preferred translation was something along the lines of ‘no self persists for me’.

@daverupa @mikenz66 @michellekoen

From your replies it seems to me that there are two possible cases.

  1. The wrong views refer to eternalism and annihilationism: “my self will endure forever” and “my self will be destroyed at some point.”
  2. Views like “no self exists for me” are in fact a way to “approach, grasp, and commit to the notion of ‘my self’” (see Ven. Sujato’s essay).

Like @mikenz66 pointed out, it doesn’t really make sense to say “no self exists for me” because who can be the owner of that lack of self?

But we don’t know if that is reflected in the Pali, and to me it doesn’t feel like the Buddha’s teaching style to use a grammatical gotcha’ like that.

In support of 1 so far there’s really just ‘because Bhikkhu Bodhi and Ajahn Brahm said so’ - I’d love to hear the arguments for their interpretations.

In support 2, well I don’t really know.

Thoughts?

It’s probably important to notice that MN 2 is discussing methods for addressing various asavas; it is not a listing of all asavas, just some ways that the three basic asavas find expression.

There are many sorts of views that can be taken up, and this phrase you’re focused on is just one example. But this in fact only occurs that way here, as an example of asavas which arise through wrong attention.

Given this context, we might say “soul” as a better way get at this idea: the annihilationist will say that no identity of any kind endures beyond the death of this empirically individuated being which they are, and hence there is “no soul for me”.

This is an overreach because the underlying premise of the view is based on ignorance & conceit; an identifying-with-aggregates & conclusions based on that. The Middle Way is engaged with as a function of careful attention which remains yoked to the Four Truths without such diversions.

This seems to happen every now and then. Mostly there are confusions about atta; the English Self/soul doesn’t really grab the word in its contexts, and I think a lot of folk have either Vacchagotta’s confusion, or else subtle soul-ideas from prevailing monotheisms. Have a look:

http://www.dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?t=24760

This speculative view, bhikkhus, is called the thicket of views, the wilderness of views, the contortion of views, the vacillation of views, the fetter of views. Fettered by the fetter of views, the untaught ordinary person is not freed from birth, ageing, and death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair; he is not freed from suffering, I say.

This second bit of the paragraph seems to point to persistence of self/non-self being the problem. i.e. that it’s fixed unchanging etc. i.e. nihilism and externalism

DN15 goes into some detail on the non-description of self and it’s changeability. Maybe this will help.

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I don’t think that “no self exist for me” refers to a certain annihilationist teaching. It’s all about having a view about the self, which is wrong either way you think that it exist or not. You can empirically verify that the body is aging and going to be sick and die, and therefore you can conclude that the body isn’t me and that there is no “I” in the body. But how can you say anything about the self? Tell me where the self is and I can say something about it. But we can’t. It’s like saying that the world is infinite or not. Which mind can even encompass infinity? Lord Buddhans mind couldn’t for sure. The only thing we can point to when searching for a self is form, feelings, perceptions, volitions and conciousness, and all of those are impermanent and not-self. That is the true way of using the concept of anatta.

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For those who’ve asked for the Pali of “no self exists for me”, here it is from MN 2 -

Tassa evaṃ ayoniso manasikaroto channaṃ diṭṭhīnaṃ aññatarā diṭṭhi uppajjati. ‘Atthi me attā’ti vā assa saccato thetato diṭṭhi uppajjati; ‘natthi me attā’ti vā assa saccato thetato diṭṭhi uppajjati;

When he attends unwisely in this way, one of six views arises in him. The view ‘self exists for me’ arises in him as true and established; or the view ‘no self exists for me’ arises in him as true and established;

Natthi = there is not/there does not exist
me = genitive singular of amha/I = mine
attā = Self

As me is enclitic, in Pali it is never placed at the beginning of a sentence. But, if translated precisely into ugly Buddhist Hybrid English, that proposition will read “For me, Self does not exist”.

And of course “Self does not exist” is that annihilationist proposition mentioned in SN 44.10 -

And if, when I was asked by him, ‘Is there no self?’ I had answered, ‘There is no self,’ (natthattā) this would have been siding with those ascetics and brahmins who are annihilationists.

And if, when I was asked by him, ‘Is there no self?’ I had answered, ‘There is no self,’ (natthattā ) 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.

natthattā = natthi attā, where the i would elided from the junction between i and a.

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Hi Erik

I think the usage of atthi here shows some looseness as to its temporal import. If SN 44.10 is anything to go by, even the present tense natthi could refer to the future destruction of a Self.

Hi Sylvester,

Thanks for explaining the Pali.

I guess it also matters what sort of self Vacchagotta has in mind in SN 44.10.

If he is thinking about a cosmic, eternal self - then I can see how “no self (cosmic, eternal) exists” could be a shorthand for “the self isn’t cosmic, eternal; it’s destroyed at death”.

Sort of like if someone told me “there is no soul” - I’d be like “yeah, I agree” but I would still have the delusion of a personal existence within the five aggregates.

And I guess if the Buddha didn’t spell it out each time with the five aggregates or six sense bases I would be like “Yeah the Buddha is refuting the (for me Christian, for them Upanishadic) notion of the soul” and I’d just think my personal existence was destroyed at death with the five khandas (annihilationism).

Still, only way to know for sure is to become a stream-winner. Which I guess is sort of the point anyway.

Buddha teaching is preventing that view of self. That’s why we translate it as non-self. It’s not declaring that there is no soul. That’s the later debates of Buddhism vs Hinduism. Buddha trying to make your first realize that nothing belongs to you. Way to stay away from wrong view. Do not see this teaching as declaring no soul. It more about making your accept the reality in the beginning training and then in higher training you should also let go of that teaching.

Monks, I will teach you Dhamma —the Parable of the Raft—for crossing over, not for retaining. Listen to it, pay careful attention, and I will speak.”

“Yes, Lord,” these monks answered the Lord in assent.

“Monks, as a man going along a highway might see a great stretch of water, the hither bank dangerous and frightening, the further bank secure, not frightening, but if there were not a boat for crossing by or a bridge across for going from the not-beyond to the beyond, this might occur to him:

‘This is a great stretch of water, the hither bank dangerous and frightening, the further bank secure and not frightening, but there is not a boat for crossing by or a bridge across for going from the not-beyond to the beyond. Suppose that I, having collected grass, sticks, branches and foliage, and having tied a raft, depending on that raft, and striving with hands and feet, should cross over safely to the beyond?’

Then, monks, that man, having collected grass, sticks, branches and foliage, having tied a raft, depending on that raft and striving with his hands and feet, might cross over safely to the beyond. To him, crossed over, gone beyond, this might occur:

‘Now, this raft has been very useful to me. I, depending on this raft, and striving with my hands and feet, crossed over safely to the beyond. Suppose now that I, having put this raft on my head, or having lifted it on to my shoulder, should proceed as I desire?’

What do you think about this, monks? If that man does this, is he doing what should be done with that raft?”

“No, Lord.”

“What should that man do, monks, in order to do what should be done with that raft? In this case, monks, it might occur to that man who has crossed over, gone beyond:

‘Now, this raft has been very useful to me. Depending on this raft and striving with my hands and feet, I have crossed over safely to the beyond. Suppose now that I, having beached this raft on dry ground or having submerged it under the water, should proceed as I desire?’

In doing this, monks, that man would be doing what should be done with that raft. Even so, monks, is the Parable of the Raft Dhamma taught by me for crossing over, not for retaining. You, monks, by understanding the Parable of the Raft, should get rid even of (right) mental objects, all the more of wrong ones.

Raft

I don’t know how far you are in training but after awhile your mind itself will accept the truth that nothing is yours as fact. It seems that means you reached nirvana, but of course not. But there seems a acceptance of the fact that things are like Buddha said. That’s when his teaching of non-self is automatic to your mind. Then we need training in others factors to reach the end result.