Not self and no self

“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?’

“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.“

I often here that the Buddha taught that there is no Self. but my understanding from the above is that the view “there is no self” is explicitly repudiated as a kind of personality view. As I understand it the Buddha taught the giving up of personality views, views that affirm a self, views that deny a self, views that both assert and deny a self, views that neither assert nor deny a self. That is what it means to give up personality views, it is to give up ALL such views, positive and negative. It seems similar to me to the other questions that the Buddha refused to answer, the infinitude or finitude of the cosmos, the question as to whether the body and the mind are the same or different, the Buddha was opposed to taking up views about such things because they led to intractable entanglement and dispute, but also, I think, because they all make metaphysical commitments that run counter to conditionality or dependence or whatever you want to call it. Would be curious to hear what people think, and also would love to get examples or quotes of Buddhist writers who make statements to the effect that the buddhas position was that there is no self, in contradiction to the above quote, and if any of them address the above directly.



Isn’t this just another view? Don’t you have to give up this view about what the Buddha taught about the self? :stuck_out_tongue:

(Edit: That is, “you should give up your views about the self” is itself another view, no?)

On a more serious note, I think the view that you’re proposing is hard to reconcile with all the suttas where the Buddha explicitly says something like “such and such thing should be seen at is truly is: this is not me, this not mine, this is not my self”.

Like, the things that make sense to take as a self, like the body or mind, the Buddha says is not self.

However, we can always say “my true self is a green crystal that lies deep in a cave on Io, the innermost moon of Jupiter”. Claims like these can never be proved to be false. If someone goes to Io to check, we can always say “actually it teleports to different moons at different times”. There’s no limit to the sort of unfalsifiable claims we can make.

The Buddha never said the true self wasn’t a moon crystal, how can we know that’s not what he was pointing to all along? They say the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself… :slight_smile:

Edit: I guess what I’m saying is, IMO, maybe the Buddha is saying something like that all the things we care about are not-self, but feel free to ignore the endless metaphysical debates about things that can’t be tested in experience.

Do you notice that there’s one more possibility that is not included in the 3 above?

I perceive not self with not self.

It’s very easy to see no self is the core by:

All phenomena are not self. Dhammapada 279 SuttaCentral

Should be seen in terms of annihilation view. That is there could be a denial that even the 5 aggregates don’t exist, and thus denying of kamma, rebirth, morality, etc.

On the not self vs no self language, my opinion that different people have different preferences for the english grammar usage, based on their inclinations. It could be seen differently for the inclinations.

Say for those who are inclined towards eternalism, they need the assurance of no self. Or else, just tell them not-self is merely a strategy and refuse to categorically say that there’s no self, they might construct a hypothetical true self which is outside of the 5 aggregates, outside of the 6 sense bases and cling to that as the true self. So those inclined towards eternalism prefer to say: no self.

Those inclined towards annihilationism thinking, they need the assurance of not self. To them, no self sounds very much like there’s originally a self that is now denied, which is negated. Or that the 5 aggregates don’t exist, this is due to the delusion of self is so strong, still identifying with the 5 aggregates as self, denying self, means denying the 5 aggregates as well. The notion of not self is their middle way of thinking to preserve the conventional truth teachings, instead of going into annhilationism. So this camp prefers not self.

Each camp sees the other as going too much into the other extreme. The no self camp sees the not self camp as in danger of eternalism thinking and vice versa.

Note: when I said 5 aggregates exist, they don’t exist eternally, they too are subject to impermanent, suffering and are not-self. To emphasize this, sometimes, you might hear some other teachers say even 5 aggregates don’t exist!

I see it as similar to the emptiness vs Buddha-nature language in Mahayana. Emptiness language is closer to no self, annihilationism and is preferred by those with eternalism inclination to guard against their inclination. Buddha-nature language is closer to not self, eternalism, and is preferred by those with an inclination towards annihilationism to guard against that.


I think that is right tho Erik, I do, eventually, have to give up the view that “you should give up views about the self”, because the dhamma is like a raft, and after the flood of craving is crossed, the raft is no longer needed. However, I am not sure what you mean by me “proposing” something, I am quoting something, that is the buddha saying, in the second sutta of the middle length discourses, that the view “there is no self” is WRONG, and leads to suffering. I guess I am proposing that this contradicts the idea that the buddha taught that there is no self, but i don’t see how it contradicts the buddha saying that any given phenomena is not to be taken as self, and i am not proposing that the buddha taught that there was a self, green crystal or otherwise, but that he DID teach, at least if the sutta is to be believed, that BOTH of the views; “there is a self"and there is NO self” are mistaken views that lead to suffering.

Just from reading online, this jives well with what I perceive as some people reading the Buddha’s teaching on not self as “all these things are not self [and therefore, what is left after ruling all this out is the true self]”.

The problem, which you put well here, is that what is left after ruling out the body and mind is outside experience. What is outside experience can be anything: exotic consciousness, green crystals, the god of the old Christian testament.

My impression is that the Buddha was very careful about not making any claims that went outside what is possible to experience.

Edit: because it is impossible to have an opinion about what lies outside experience.

Edit 2: Like, try to imagine something outside experience, it’s a thought. Speaking about things outside the 6 senses is, as far as I can tell, inherently contradictory.

First, I hope I am able to communicate a friendly tone. I try to do that with smilies :slight_smile: Anyway, I’m just saying that you are proposing a certain reading of the text. We are all interpreters of the EBTs and trying to figure out what the Buddha meant when he said those things.

I guess my question is then “what does it mean to say that the Buddha didn’t or did teach that there is no self?”

If the Buddha says the body is not self, that sounds like a view. It’s odd if he says “there is no self” is wrong view, but then he also says a bunch of things are not self, don’t you agree? :slight_smile:

Edit: If you are right, how do you reconcile what (on the face of it) seems contradictory?

1 Like

thank you for your reply, as to your first point, I agree, the 4th option not listed is odd, even suggestive, but why is it never stated as “right view”? that is the Buddha never says (as far as I can recall) that not self is what perceives not self, or that there is definitively no self, it is always couched in terms of particular or collective phenomena not being self, rather than the seemingly simpler and more direct “there is no such thing as a self” which as I say as far as I can tell is never said in the suttas. So my thought is that what is implied is that outright denial of a self would amount to materialism, or annihliationism, just as outright assertion of one would amount to idealism or eternalism and these are precisely the commitments the Buddha wants to avoid as being intractable metaphysical positions that are incompatible with liberation.

Do you agree that if the Buddha said “there is no such thing as a self” that would mean that the Buddha is also saying that there aren’t crystal caves on Io where our true selves are embedded in crystal form?

Edit: I’m not claiming to have the answers here, I think it’s an interesting question to explore.

yes I agree with that, although I am not sure how it relates to anything I have been saying? I am not suggesting that I think that because the Buddha said that “there is no self” is wrong view that the implication is that there IS a self, on Io or elsewhere, in fact “there is a self” is listed in the same sutta i quoted immediately before “there is no self” and both are said to be wrong views, so maybe you think that I am motivated to qoute the sutta selectively because I have Io crystal sympathies? but that is not what I am trying to open a door for, rather I am connecting this sutta to others where the buddha remains silent on certain questions because to take up ANY position on them leads to intractable argument and suffering.

and yes, i see the irony of attempting to start an argument about the meaning of the dhamma here, my excuse is that I am hoping to deepen my understanding so ultimately it is an argument in the service of peace :slight_smile:

1 Like

I guess I am just saying that maybe “there is no self” is wrong view because it is a statement that goes outside experience. That is, maybe “there is no self (anywhere)” says two things:

  1. All phenomena are not self
  2. Everything else that isn’t phenomena is not self too

Only 1) is meaningful. 2) is like saying “green clouds dream furiously”, it’s a sentence that can’t mean anything. The Buddha says things like 1. all the time in the suttas.

I’m only bringing up the ALLEGED crystal caves of Io as an example of nonsensical claims that can’t be debunked by anyone who takes non-experience seriously. There are logical problems with generalizing beyond experience, and maybe the Buddha knew that?

Like, maybe only a confused person, caught in a thicket of views, would speak about non-experience as if it were meaningful?

The same with whether the universe is infinite or finite. How can you know the length of existence except by existing for as long as possible, and even then, there’s always the chance that the universe will end next week!

But when people say that the Buddha taught that ‘there is no self’, do you think that they are saying that “the Buddha taught that no phenomena are self” or that “the Buddha taught there’s nothing inside our beyond experience that is self?”

1 Like

I hope they are saying the first thing, but i suspect they are often saying the second.

Anyway, i think that now we are in furious agreement :slight_smile:

1 Like

For me, the Buddha came to this kind of understanding and realisation that without active defilements in the mind, everything, as well as the conditioned as the uncondioned, is what it is. It is a mirror like mind. It just reflects things perfectly.

In this mirror-like mind rupa is just rupa, vedana is just vedana, sanna is just sanna, sankhara’s are just sankhara’s, vinnana’s are just vinnana’s, Nibbana is just Nibbana, and nothing is considered and experienced as Me, mine, and my self. The mirror is completely cleansed that’s why there is no Me and mine-making anymore of reflections.

The challenge is to see things as they actually are. That is wisdom.

That we do not do yet. If anger arises, for example, do we see only anger arising? Or do we feel 'this anger is mine, graps it and become redfaced. If pain arises, does not there arise much more than pain?

In a practical sense anatta means that one just sees everything as it actually is, i.e. not Me, not mine, not my self. It is a mirror-like mind.

1 Like

There is a difference between being stuck in a thicket and passing through with the knowledge of what lies on the other side. In practice the question of self cannot be simply dispelled, it must be worked through. The Buddha spoke of different levels of self:

“It would be better for the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person to hold to the body composed of the four great elements, rather than the mind, as the self.”—SN 12.61

Lay practitioners must investigate how the self is a component in spinning conventional reality with its polarities, and consequently developing the provisional self:

‘That’s how it is when living together in the world. That’s how it is when gaining a personal identity.[1] When there is living in the world, when there is the gaining of a personal identity, these eight worldly conditions spin after the world, and the world spins after these eight worldly conditions: gain, loss, status, disgrace, censure, praise, pleasure, & pain.’—AN 4.192

The provisional self:

“An arahant monk,
one who is done,
effluent-free, bearing his last body:

Would he say, ‘I speak’?
Would he say, ‘They speak to me’?”

“An arahant monk,
one who is done,
effluent-free, bearing his last body:

He would say, ‘I speak’;
would say, ‘They speak to me.’

knowing harmonious gnosis
with regard to the world,

he uses expressions
just as expressions.”—SN 1.25


There is a really good transcript of Dhamma talk on this topic in this website.


I think your quote of SN 12.61 is misleading, the rest of the sutta explains that it is precisely because it is easier to become revolted by and dispassionate towards the material body that it is a healthier conception of the self for the uninstructed. the sutta ends by saying

Blockquote “Seeing thus, bhikkhus, the instructed noble disciple experiences revulsion towards form, revulsion towards feeling, revulsion towards perception, revulsion towards volitional formations, revulsion towards consciousness. Experiencing revulsion, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion his mind is liberated. When it is liberated there comes the knowledge: ‘It’s liberated.’ He understands: ‘Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of being.’”

So it hardly appears to be recommending taking the body as a self. It is just saying that taking the mind as a self is even worse.

I guess i am just not really clear on what you are saying, the AN 4.192 qoute seems to be simply saying that living in the world is a condition for having a personal identity, and personal identity leads to having suffering like loss, disgrace and pain, the implication being that one should give up ‘living in the world’ and ‘personal identity’. the last quote, given without a source just seems to be talking about how one who ended suffering can still talk to people but they are not confused into reifying the things they say into metaphysics, as in the phrase “it’s just an expression”.

Hello Joseph,

He never said that. It’s a subtle difference, but the actual words in the sutta you quoted are “No self exists for me”, or, as I like to translate it, “I have no self”.

The problem with this reflection is not the “no self” part: it is the “for me” or “I have” part. Having the idea “I no self” still involves a sense of self in the “I”, so it’s still wrong. Notice, though, that the idea “there is no self” is NOT mentioned to be wrong. In fact, there are various suttas that clearly indicate that this “there is no self” is exactly the right view. A clear one is MN22, which states among other things that “those who mourn the loss of the self they mistakenly thought they had, mourn the loss of something that never existed in them in the first place”, or Dhammapada 62 which says “atta (attano) na atthi”, “there is no self (for him)”.

For some connected ideas see here: Bodhi vs Ṭhānissaro debate - #89 by Sunyo


Yes, it must be worked through. Nicely said. It is not an intelletual play.

It is easy to see that the sutta’s are right when they describe that if one is identified with body and mind, and something changes, for example, the body becomes ill, one gets a troubled mind. It is easy to see this is true but it is not easy to work through this in a manner one does not become troubled when the body changes in a manner one does not want. But is will happen sooner or later that the body becomes ill and maybe cannot be cured anymore. It is easy to see the processes which burden (anusaya) but not to really abandon them because the heart is full of longings.

Furthermore, it is easy to see that there is a perception of an inner entity “I am” who has more than only physical needs, such as being seen, heard, respected, in controll, safe, who has a need for status, for pleasure, who does not want pain, who wants to be honered etc. It is easy to see how this burdens the mind. Especially when those needs are strong and unfilfilled. Baby’s can even die when the need of affection is not fulfilled. But to work this through in manner that the burden is abandoned is not easy.

What this means is that at any level of conditioned existence there must be a self. The noble eightfold path is conditioned, so skillful use of a self is the only option to use in the struggle for gaining emancipation.

“Is the noble eightfold path fabricated or unfabricated?”
“The noble eightfold path is fabricated.”—MN 44

As pointed out by @Myspace, the skillful use of self on the conditioned path is explained here:

Thank you for your answer!

That’s correct, but as it was mentioned in this discussion this approach apparently disqualifies concepts of atta that are not experiential. This might be pragmatically valid but doesn’t hold up to scrutiny for a sceptic.

Indian philosophy/spirituality has a long tradition of grappling with the question of ‘what is a legitimate source of knowledge?’. If we disqualify anything that is not experience we don’t come very far, because, for example, I haven’t experienced the Buddha, and the Dhamma is only words that come and go. Arguably, liberation also lies outside of experience. Math btw as well.

So obviously, inference must be a valid source too. Which brings its own dilemma: what is correct inference, and which is incorrect? And then we’re in a whole epistemological mess with no solution in sight.

Which forces the teacher into a pragmatic position: I am liberated, this is my liberating teaching. Grasp the basics, stop overthinking, and practice the liberating practice.

Problem is that at some point most teachers say that - the spiritual marketplace…