On not-self, existence, and ontological strategies

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But how about Kamma vaipaka and rebirth?


IMO anattā still has to be squared with dependent origination (DO). In the suttas, this kammic thread of continuity or DO process across lives does seem to exist, e.g. the Buddha with his divine eye can point to the particular plane where the consciousness of someone who has just died has been reestablished. This DO thread of kamma does seem to be a thing.

It’s also about as close to a self (attā) as we can get. However, it fails several key characteristics that it seems attā was expected to have. It had no permanent core, it was dukkha and had no control over the aggregates that made it up (so was rather like a leaf being blown about by the wind).

The existence of a DO process wasn’t an issue (counter to nonself) because that itself was anattā (like everything else). And, anyway, in an arahant, the DO process itself had ceased and evaporated, which I guess was why (s)he was traceless even in this very life.

So IMO DO and nonself are compatible as long as one doesn’t over-zealously go to the extent of saying that even this kammic DO thread doesn’t exist (therefore, conflicting with dependent origination).


Dear all,
After reading these important points of view, some questions arose that requires some enlightenment.
If Anatta is to be seen not as strategy but as an ontology, how does this position relate to Sabbasava Suttam? How should we have to understand the following sentence:

…"(2) Or, ‘There is not for me a self.’—the view arises to him as though it were true, as though it were real. (3) Or, ‘Simply by self am I aware of self.’—the view arises to him as though it were true, as though it were real. (4) Or, ‘Simply by self am I aware of not-self.’—the view arises to him as though it were true, as though it were real. (5) Or, ‘Simply by not-self am I aware of self’—the view arises to him as though it were true, as though it were real." …

The sutta seems to imply that all kind of presumptions held either confirming or denying a Self is considered wrong view. So the understanding of Antatta can only be valid if it is obtained through seeing the impermance (thus arising and passing away) of consciousness through a meditative state. Furtheremore, the consequence of it to the outer world would be that the non substantiality of the external world can only be realized through meditative contemplation of external realities.

Is it not so that trying to understand reality through yet unpurified consciousness will only lead to holding on to Views, because the mind is used to see reality through concepts and not by ultimate reality. Thus one would be inclined to rationalize in speculative philosophy instead of understanding by direct experience? How far does this apply to persons that have not yet arrived at a direct experience of impermanence but do hold unto to the view of Anatta due to tradition, scientifical inquiry or speculative reasoning with a still unpurified mind? At the end of the Karaniya Metta chanting it is said that those who do not hold onto views are free from rebirth.

Looking forward for some enlightenment in this matter.


Fascinating discussion. These are questions I have struggled with for a long time.


We must take into consideration not just the Sabbasava sutta. The Buddha through his discourses could take a person into the stream suggests the ability of the Buddha and also meditation is not the only way to see no self. (SuttaCentral)

Also no self is seen in science where the lack of sustained consciousness in the brain makes the existence of a everlasting Self impossible.

Understand no self isn’t the same as entering the Stream. A greater depth of impermanence, dukkha, no self and causality in terms the five aggregates, sense doors must be explored and understood for it.


No-one is saying this. It is Thanissaro, not me, who sets up the cleavage between ontology and strategy. What I am saying is that our response to the world must be based on how the world is.

Furthermore, while the affirmation of anattā has ontological implications (in the sense that it concerns what exists), it is not an ontology per se: it is not a philosophical claim about the nature of existence. It is simply the rejection of Thanissaro’s highly eccentric idea that the doctrine of anattā tells us nothing about what the world is like.


What we construct is a sense of self, not an actual self. If anything occupies such a “vague intermediate position” it would be this sense of self. So there is no actual “entity being constructed”, but rather an illusory perception.


Well, what about something like a republic, or a state? Do you think the state exists? It sort of does. By building institutions and patterns of behavior that have a real impact in the world, and within which people take socially sanctioned actions that are regarded as actions on behalf of, or in the name of the state, our behavior gives the mere idea of the state a more substantial, socially embodied reality. The state can do things. On the other hand there is something not quite fully substantial about this constructed reality, because its ongoing existence seems to depend in some way on people continuing to believe in its existence, and giving it life through their behavior. It can be dismantled rapidly under the right social circumstances.

I think we can regard ourselves in a similar way. We have a vague and illusory primitive sense of some inner actor or watcher. And we ascribe all sorts of things to that inner agent, and these ascription inform our behaviors, and the way we think about the world, and how separate it into what pertains to ourselves and what doesn’t. Others make the same distinction with regard to how they relate to us. And these these behaviors become frozen into habitual and institutionalized patterns. All of this conditioned mental activity and behavior gives a kind of inescapable reality to the self. For example, it would be absurd, if you were arrested for robbing a store, for someone to say, “Brahmali doesn’t even exist exist, so you’ve got the wrong entity.” But the self doesn’t exist in the way a diamond exists. Its evanescent reality depends its being thought of it certain ways, and being constructed as the subject of behavior in certain ways, and so it can be dismantled.


They are man-made boundaries.
Status of the state change all the time.
Look at the history of how countries are created and disappeared and new counries emerged.


Yes, it exists in the same way that a person exists. But it does not exists as a permanent and fixed entity in the sense of an hypothesised self. Just as with a nation state, the person has a degree of continuity, but lacks an essential core.


It is a product of attachement, aversion and ignorance.


That’s all I mean. That’s what I meant by saying it has a “vague intermediate status.”


This is the doubt due to ignorance.


Anatta as a strategy is the inappropriate attention.


Buddha and Arahants do not have boundaries. He is unbounded. Perhaps he may have physical boundaries. But definitely, s/he does not have mental boundaries.
Only non - Ariya has both mental and physical boundaries.
Only the Arahant will comprehend the true nature of Anatta.


I am wondering if a person is a self or not? If not, can we say the person is selfless?


Bhante, would you please elaborate on this? For me (not english native speaker), “there is no self” is associated with:

  1. There is no soul
  2. There is no will
  3. Communism
  4. Interconnectedness of all beings

Reading Why There Is No Self: A Buddhist Perspective for the West » IAI TV by Jay Garfield, self is associated with “that subject of experience and agent of action” and “independent metaphysically real entities”.


Yes indeed, so long as we have clear definition of a self as a permanent essence.


Interesting is that according to Weber (acclaimed as father of modern sociology) a state only exist as a concepts of conduct in human social interaction. It did not exist when the first humans emerged as homosapiens. Only when humans were relying heavily on manufacturing the state came to existence as a common regulator for the social condtions needed to sustain manufacturing and proper consumption. But to state that a State is a reality in it’s own, possessing it’s own volition, interest and force is a “reification error”, because in the ultimate sense it is only a conglomeration of different political groups/factors that compete to establish a regulation that will be represented to the public as formal guide line for the public within the society.

As such are the qualifications attributed to “social structure”; “church”; “Police Force” even “society” etc. are just denominations of entirely different functions; components ; elements; down to the paticular groupings of individuals. These last mentioned are in the last instance the features that represent the correct identification of reality and not the denominations.

If we compare this to our notion of Sammuti Sacca and Paramtha Sacca, I think the parallels are striking. Specially on the level of conceiving concepts and realities.

As to my recollection, to return to the Anatta discussion, in fact my “I” awareness has been absent with me from birth to -say - 2 to 3 years. Starting with the ability to group experiences of likings and dislikings and to connect it to “my name” to make the surrounding audience aware of my interests, a sense of “I” gained in importance. This correspond to my earliest memories of childhood. Later on during adolesence several types of “I” were updated according to the social position, authority and respect gained. But the "I"was also updated with defence strategies and mechanism during times of crisess. In this case the “I” was only a denominator of the actual needs related to the physical and emotional needs that ignated the plannings and actions. The later were the real driving force that needed to be satisfied. But since the mind has already produced the “I” , I could not escape thinking, cognizingg and feeling from the view point of “I”. Only by training (purpose of praticing meditation) was it possible to Iescape identifying myself from my bodies sense sontact and awareness. The “I” had become a reality even when it did not exist before. Like Picasso’s Guernica exists now while it did not exist before. So now I have the notion of “this is me writing” while I know that the “I” notion did not exist before, has changed several times, and will again disapear in many futures.

It is probably safe to say that both way of seeing Anatta as strategy (probably yogi’s way of seeing) or as ontological (Philosophers way of seeing) are in a sense both valid depending from which point of view we are approaching the matter. As we still think, cognize and understand with a mind that is conditioned and stems from ignorance, it will be impossible to escape the reality as it is presented to us in the condtionality of the here and now. Viññana is parented by Ignorance, and it is only with Viññana that we can perceive and cognize.


A meditator may be more inclined to realise anatta through the meditation itself. Though Buddhist truths aren’t limited only to the time on the cushion. If realised through meditation it should be valid when not meditating as well as ‘near, far, past, present, future,…’ must all fall in line to this truth.

The issue with the label ‘conventional truth’ is that it is true that it is conventional but not, that it is true! Suttas seems to call it ignorance, distortion (vipallasa) or not true (opposite of sacca).