Spin-Off from Bhante Sujato’s Essay: Self, no self, not-self…


Sorry, I just can’t get to this right now, but I think ya’ll missed a critical sukta in the Rgveda - unless I didn’t see it mentioned in my skim, if so, gomen ne. And that would be the Keśin RV X. 136

“Carrying within oneself fire and poison, heaven and earth, ranging from enthusiasm and creativity to depression and agony, from the heights of spiritual bliss to the heaviness of earth-bound labor. This is true of man in general and the [Vedic] Keśin in particular, but the latter has mastered and transformed these contrary forces and is a visible embodiment of accomplished spirituality. He is said to be light and enlightenment itself. The Keśin does not live a normal life of convention. His hair and beard grow longer, he spends long periods of time in absorption, musing and meditating and therefore he is called “sage” (muni). They wear clothes made of yellow rags fluttering in the wind, or perhaps more likely, they go naked, clad only in the yellow dust of the Indian soil. But their personalities are not bound to earth, for they follow the path of the mysterious wind when the gods enter them. He is someone lost in thoughts: he is miles away.”

~ Werner, Karel (1977) “Yoga and the Ṛg Veda: An Interpretation of the Keśin Hymn,” Religious Studies 13 (3): 289–302.

Oh, and here, I think this is from J&B (roughly, who knows I may have tinkered)

The long-haired one bears fire, the long-haired one poison, the long-haired one the two world-halves.
The long-haired one (bears) the sun for all to see. The long-haired one is called this light here.
The wind-girt ascetics wear tawny rags. They follow the swooping of the wind when the gods have entered (them).

Roused up to ecstasy by our asceticism, we have mounted the winds. You mortals see only our bodies.

He flies through the mid-space, gazing down on all forms. The ascetic has been established as the comrade of every god for good action.
The horse of the wind, the comrade of Vāyu — so sped by god, the ascetic presides over both seas, the eastern and the western.
Ranging in the range of the Apsarases and the Gandharvas, of the wild birds, the long-haired one is their sweet, most exhilarating comrade, who knows their will.
Vāyu churned it for him, Kunannamā kept crushing it — when the long-haired one drank of the poison with his cup, together with Rudra.

X.136 (962) Muni [the Kesíns “Long-Haired Ones”]

Hi Bhante, very nice essay!

In philosophy of science, instrumentalism refers to a viewpoint about scientfic theories. Namely: scientific theories only predict what will be the outcomes observed when we make measurements with instruments. No further ontological commitments are made.

So contrast this with the normal Newtonian picture. In Newtonian mechanics, you have some trajectory that describes the motion of a ball or particle through space. You can predict where the ball will land. But there is also the ontological idea that the ball really is “out there” going through space according to the trajectory predicted by the equations of motion.

This may seem sort of a strange viewpoint, but it is more persuasive in the context of quantum mechanics. It is pretty hard to say exactly just what is happening in between (quantum) measurements. The wave function really only describes the probabilities of measurements. The Copenahagen interpretation posits that the wave function is ontologically real and that measurements “collapse” it. Instrumentalism just refuses to even ask the question.

I think in general the term instrumentalism might be used more broadly about ideas in general, but the above viewpoint is how I originally learned about it in coursework.


Yes, this is how I learned of the term as well. An instrumentalist is interested in functional knowledge that describes direct sense experience. If I set my instruments up in this way and perform this experiment, then this is what I observe as a result. No further metaphysical speculation is necessary nor interesting.

An instrumentalist is parsimonious with regard to what they deem actual knowledge. It is a conservative view that believes we should focus on what we actually grok and not fool ourselves thinking we know something through metaphysical speculation.


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That’s fine, I have Christian friends who are extremely confident that God exist. But:

Suppose a man were to say: ‘I am in love with the most beautiful girl in this country.’ Then they would ask him: ‘Good man, that most beautiful girl in this country with whom you are in love—do you know whether she is from the noble class or the brahmin class or the merchant class or the worker class?’ and he would reply: ‘No.’ Then they would ask him: ‘Good man, that most beautiful girl in this country with whom you are in love—do you know her name and clan?…Whether she is tall or short or of middle height?…Whether she is dark or brown or golden-skinned? …What village or town or city she lives in?’ and he would reply: ‘No.’ And then they would ask him: ‘Good man, do you then love a girl you have never known or seen?’ MN 79

I hope we both agree that to love such girl is rather contradictory affair.

But than, Bhante, you say that you are certain that God doesn’t exist. But what do you mean by “God”?
Is it not the case that first you have to create certain images of God, in your mind, and after that, next step is to say: such God doesn’t exist?

But because you created in your mind certain image of God, in fact at least in this sense your negation turns out to be affirmation of God. Wouldn’t be preferable to keep mind free and void?

But your description or definition of God is your personal one. “God” is merely graphic symbol, here and now visible on my screen, for me it is absolutely meaningless symbol, my mind sees nothing which I could affirm or deny.

But I must be careful saying to my Christian friend: your God isn’t real, it is only certain image, or certain description, which is false, however strong your faith in it is.

I must be careful, since he may answer: well, I have no slightest idea about attributes of my God, apart one description which seems to me valid, namely, God is infinite, you aren’t able to see His beginning, His end, neither you aren’t able to see the change in Him, while he is present.

Here, in fact I think for one who has a respect for Dhamma, name given “God” isn’t important, important is not to contradict Suttas saying that there is no changelles element.

Yes. He wasn’t interested in answering question: is Dhamma theistic or atheistic, but rather in question where is the place of theism and atheism in Brahmajala?

Discussions like this one remind me of something that Ajahn Dune said:


"The paths, fruitions, and nibbana are personal: You can truly see them only for yourself. Those who practice to that level will see them for themselves, will be clear about them for themselves, will totally end all their doubts about the Buddha’s teaching. If you haven’t reached that level, all you can do is keep on guessing. No matter how profoundly someone else may explain them to you, your knowledge about them will be guesswork. Whatever is guesswork will have to be uncertain.

"It’s like the turtle and the fish. The turtle lives in two worlds: the world on land and the world in the water. As for the fish, it lives only in one world, the water. If it were to get on land, it would die.

"One day, when a turtle came down into the water, it told a group of fish about how much fun it was to be on land: The lights and colors were pretty, and there were none of the difficulties that came from being in the water.

"The fish were intrigued, and wanted to see what it was like on land, so they asked the turtle, ‘Is it very deep on land?’

"The turtle answered, ‘What would be deep about it? It’s land.’

"The fish: ‘Are there lots of waves on land?’

"The turtle: ‘What would be wavy about it? It’s land.’

"The fish: ‘Is it murky with mud?’

"The turtle: ‘What would be murky about it? It’s land.’

"Notice the questions asked by the fish. They simply take their experience of water to ask the turtle, and the turtle can do nothing but say no.

“The mind of a run-of-the-mill person guessing about the paths, fruitions, and nibbana is no different from the fish.”

That said, with regard to the Heart Ajahn Tate says in The Flavour of Dhamma:

That single source was the heart of the Lord Buddha, which was cleansed, until pure, by the practice of MAGGA (the right path). In that moment of purity, the four ARIYASACCA became evident, and that was the starting point of the Buddhist religion.

Each one of us has only one heart – not many. When we say we have many hearts, we are referring to the outward expressions of the heart, which are not the heart itself. For someone who is not yet trained in purifying these outward expressions of the heart, so that there is only one left, SACCADHAMMA (the truth) will not appear at all. Such people will only see the heart’s projections, i.e. the KILESA (defilements, greed, hatred, delusion).

When Lord Buddha trained as an ascetic for six years, He undertook the principles of those subjects that He studied, testing them and searching for the truth, but enlightenment did
not result. They only made His heart agitated, puffed up with pride and restless. Even the completion of that way of asceticism did not result in renunciation and freedom, and so was not able to guide the Lord to enlightenment.

When the Lord Buddha allowed Himself to proceed along the lines of JHĀNASAMĀDHI – which He had experienced by accident (having no teacher) whilst a child – His Citta became calm and could enter Jhāna. In this way, He attained BODHIÑANA(Enlightenment) and became a SAMMĀSAMBUDDHA (One Enlightened by Himself). This demonstrates that the practice of Jhāna Samādhi Magga is the means to cleanse away the Kilesa ĀRAMMANA, the things which defile the Citta, thus leaving the Citta pure, radiant and solitary. When radiance and clarity are normal to the Citta, other things apart from the Citta (i.e., the
Kilesa and all Dhamma) that arise in the present will be seen clearly, at a single point. This knowledge has the purpose of cleansing and purifying the heart, so that it receives the pure and genuine Dhamma. This then conforms with the Buddhist saying:

In general terms, it can be said that all Dhamma arise and
appear at the heart and are known only because of the heart
(PACCATAṀ). Therefore, the heart is more precious than
anything else because the heart is the one that brings success
to all deeds.

It can be seen from this quote that, like his peers, he described enlightenment as cleansing the Heart of foreign invaders, the defilements. He did not speak about it as merely cessation of defilement because, as he wrote in the above, after cessation is accomplished, the Citta is pure, radiant and solitary.

As a footnote, he also said that this pure, radiant and solitary Citta is ANATTA! There is no “self” associated with it. It belongs to no-one.

Ajahn Maha Boowa said, “The Citta itself is never born and never dies.”

I will add that one point that I am yet to see in any of these threads is the Knowing nature of the Citta can have no External Object. In other words, this Citta is not the Citta of the six senses (which define the word Vinnana). In this case, the Citta simply knows itself - its knowing nature turns back on itself. Deep Samadhi gives the meditator a glimpse of this but even that glimpse is infiltrated by Moha and so is not the insight that gives rise to Maggasamangi.

In my opinion the EBT, real life, practice, shows that there are really factors that limit the mind. The sutta’s describe them as anusaya, asava, tanha, kilesa. I think we all can be able to recognise these factors in our own mind. And we are able to see and understand that they actually limit our understanding, compassion, love when they arise and start to dominate our thinking, speaking and acting.

For one who wants to be a light for him/herself, for others, for the world, an island, a friend, Buddha-like, he/she will naturally incline to seek methods, wisdom, skillful means to abandon those limiting factors like greed, obsessions, drift, blind will, hate, ill will, ego conceit etc.
This will be a daily routine and is a heartfelt wish. It is not really important that one fails from time to time. Important is to continue.

Nothing substantial, nothing of great worth, nothing really me, mine, my self will get lost. Only such things as becoming unfriendly, alieniation, depersonalisation, partiallity, immoralilty, judging and measuring, becoming insensitive, inner conflict, violent tendencies etc. will get lost. Nothing of worth.

It is not really difficult to understand that all what limits the mind is never me, mine, my self (AN1.51)
It is just bagage collected over many lifes and/or picked up in this life. Loosing bagage is not loosing oneself but loosing the things that weight upon oneself.

But it is also very clear that we humans are identified with the weight. And this is the challenge to progress. To be a truly Dhamma practioner one cannot, i feel, hold on to those causes and conditions that cause of weight upon oneself. That is not easy. I have struggled with this for long in ups and downs.
It might sound totally irrational but still it is not easy to give up suffering and its causes because it also gives meaning to our lifes, a sense of identity, grip.

It is, ofcourse, very clear that the EBT teach that when mind is released from its limiting factors it is taught as unbound, free, pliant, stable, without limits, the fire has ceased, it is cool.
That coolness is it happiness, its burdenfree-ness. It is like fire not agitated anymore.

Ofcourse mind was always cool, is always cool, and will be always cool, and only incoming defilements make it look not-cool.
People believe that this mind without limits only is present (or even …arises) after a very long time of cleansing. But it is not like that. It is not that when water is cleansed from adventitious defilements that the pure water arises. It was always there, and defilements have always been adventitious to water, otherwise they cannot be removed.

Likewise the mind.

Hi Darrow,

I have learned a lot from various teachers and commentators, including Ven Thanissaro. Generally, I prefer teachers to simply teach what their interpretation or approach is and not spend a lot of time explaining how others have it wrong and I tend to switch off when they do.

Ven Thanissaro has not only expressed his opinion on the issues discussed in this thread (and other issues). He has frequently argued quite strongly that others have interpreted these issues incorrectly. Given that, having a detailed critique of his arguments is useful for those of us who do not have the time or expertise to evaluate those arguments ourselves. Of course, in the end, the conclusion that we take away from the different points of view is our own.

Bhante, the point is that you are trying to convince us that there is no Self. I have no slightest idea what this “self” is which you say it is non-existent.

All I know there is such phenomen as attāvada which is connected with sakkayaditthi. And I am certain that this is our task as Buddha followers: abandon sakkayaditthi and attavada.

So while it is good idea to agree upon definition of “metaphysical” for the purpose of this discussion even
better idea is to define what we mean by “attā”. And to reaped by attā I mean certain subjective experience which is present in every puthujjana experience and which is associated with perception of permanence and mastery over things which puthujjana describes as “my self” and in the Buddha Teaching is known as attavadupadana and sakkayaditthi.

In common sense language there is such thing like ego and self, so this is a problem since because of it people are egoistic and selfish. And here is difference between your stance and the Buddha since while there is no single Sutta which deny in direct way “self” sometimes Lord Buddha speaks to outsiders about the states of being in the terms of self alluding to nibbana cessation of being.

“There are these three types of acquisition of self: the gross, the mind-constituted, and the formless…. The first has (material) form, consists of the four great entities and consumes physical food. The second has form and is constituted by mind with all the limbs and lacking no faculty. The third is formless and consists in perception…. I teach the Dhamma for the abandoning of acquisitions of self in order that in you, who put the teaching into practice, defiling qualities may be abandoned and cleansing qualities increased, and that you may, by realisation yourselves here and now with direct knowledge, enter upon and abide in the fullness of understanding’s perfection…. If it is thought that to do that is a painful abiding, that is not so; on the contrary, by doing that there is gladness, happiness, tranquillity, mindfulness, full awareness, and a pleasant abiding.”

The Buddha went on to say that from one rebirth to another any one of these three kinds of acquisition of self can succeed another. That being so, it cannot be successfully argued that only one of them is true and the others wrong; one can only say that the term for any one does not fit the other two; just as, with milk from a cow, curd from milk, butter from curd, ghee from butter, and fine-extract of ghee from ghee, the term of each fits only that and none of the others, yet they are not disconnected. The Buddha concluded:

“These are worldly usages, worldly language, worldly terms of communication, worldly descriptions, by which a Perfect One communicates without misapprehending them.”
D N. 9 (condensed)

So Bhante, please clarify this point, what is this self which you say that it doesn’t exist. Because as I understand Dhamma, self and conceit “I am” are things which can be classified as delusion or ignorance and as such they have to be removed from experience. And it should be quite obvious that what has to be removed in certain sense must exist. And this is precisely reason why in Dhamma there is no place for affirmation nor negation of self.

Or perhaps do you mean there is no such thing as “my self” in the case of sotāpanna?

“This world, Kaccāna, is for the most part shackled by engagement, clinging, and adherence.31 But this one [with right view] does not become engaged and cling through that engagement and clinging, mental standpoint, adherence, underlying tendency; he does not take a stand about ‘my self.’32 He has no perplexity or doubt that what arises is only suffering arising, what ceases is only suffering ceasing. His knowledge about this is independent of others. It is in this way, Kaccāna, that there is right view.
SN 12: 15

This passage above seems to say that notion “my self” is the state of dhukkha. The dhukkha which is not understood by the puthujjana.

Dhukkha has to be understood. What are liberatering qualities of view “there is no self”? How such view can help to abandon self-identification with things if one insist that there is no such thing with which other things are identified? or how can one see the body as a self? You seem to say that it is impossible, since there is no such thing as self. Or perhaps you mean some Hindu Self?

But than, what it has in common with the doctrine of anatta which is directed to Buddhist puthujjana in order to help him to abandon sakkayaditthi?

I hope Bhante that you will not see these questions as a kind of disrespect, I just want to clarify certain very important point out of respect for Dhamma, not out of disrespect for you.:smiling_face:


How about this proposed definition? For the purposes of this thread could we define it as a self that can be found in the parts/aggregates as existing:

“… ontologically fundamental, irreducible to any simpler components, and existing independently of other phenomena”

I don’t know if this is Venerable’s proposed definition for this thread, but I find it a useful workable definition. Maybe more can be said, but this is a good starting point to my mind.

NOTE: this definition does not rule out the self merely existing as a label given upon a valid basis when the parts are present; it does not rule out the mere existence of the self from a mundane or functional point of view. What it does call into question is whether a self, conceptually existing as described above can be found in the parts. If it can’t be found, then this rules out a self existing in the way described, right? Maybe more can be ruled out, but this is a start isn’t it?


The point is that notion self while it is associated with perception of permanence, in reality doesn’t exist independently of other openomena, contrary, it is dependently arisen upon ignorance. But perhaps it is not wrong to say that for puthujjana it may seem to exist independently.

In the arahat 's reflexion what appears reflexively is only pañcakkhandhā , which he calls ‘myself’ simply for want of any other term. But in the puthujjana 's reflexion what appears reflexively is pañc’upādānakkhandhā , or sakkāya ; and sakkāya (q.v.), when it appears reflexively, appears (in one way or another) as being and belonging to an extra-temporal changeless ‘self’ (i.e. a soul).

For example phrase: “my body”, points out to exactly the self who owns it. If someone believes himself to understand Dhamma because his view is “there is no self” let him reflect on his own experience, really there is no any thing considered by him as mine?

I have said i before but one cannot say that worldling have a perception of a permanent self.
But they have a perception of a stable self. Very different. Many peope with a stable sense of self, are materialist and do not believe at all that the self is permanent or survives death in any way.

One must distinguish stable sense of self from permanent self.

So, what provides every living being with a stable sense of self? What provides us with a stable sense of self that we never experience that we awaken as different persons from day to day?

It’s called the binding problem. I suspect you’ll find suggested answers by investigating manasikara.

Later buddhist have worked this all out. They simply teach that we have a distorted perception and wrong understandingo f the nature of the mind. This is caused by defilements.

Once defilements are all uprooted we develop a correct understanding of what mind really is. But people do not believe this, i notice. They do not seem to be open for the fact that they do not yet understand the nature of mind.

It is completely normal, i feel, that the texts sometimes speak about the mind in a way that aligns with are wrong understanding of mind, as conditioned, as a stream of vinnana, local, humane etc. Sometimes they do not.

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Not self can be seen in different ways.

Not self as in terms of existence.
In SN44.10, Buddha say if there is a self, he will side with the eternalist. Which means where is a permanent, unchanging existence of self. If he said there is no self, then he will side the annihilationists. Which means all existence ends.

Not self shows there is an existence which is not permanent and continues on the cycle of birth and death as long as kamma does not end.

Not Self in terms of powerless.
When you say thus: ‘Material form is my self,’ do you exercise any such power over that material form as to say: ‘Let my form be thus; let my form not be thus’?”

MN 141
19. “And what, friends, is ‘not to obtain what one wants is suffering’? To beings subject to birth there comes the wish: ‘Oh, that we were not subject to birth! That birth would not come to us!’ But this is not to be obtained by wishing, and not to obtain what one wants is suffering. To beings subject to ageing…subject to sickness…subject to death…subject to sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair, there comes the wish: ‘Oh, that we were not subject to sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair! That sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair would not come to us!’ But this is not to be obtained by wishing, and not to obtain what one wants is suffering.

Dispeller of Delusion (Abhidhamma commentary)
233. But it is no-self (anattã) in the sense of powerlessness. Or because there is no exercise of power in these three instances [namely,] “this being arisen, let it not reach presence; having reached presence, let it not grow old; having grown old, let it not break up”; and it is void of this quality of having power exercised over it (vasavattana). Therefore it is no-self for these four reasons [namely.] because it is void, because it has no owner, because of not behaving as desired (akamakariya) [and] because of exclusion of self.

In other words, if there is a self, one can don’t age, sick and die. One can be forever young and healthy and not die as one has power over existence.

Not self as stated categorically by Buddha
(3) “Bhikkhus, whether Tathagatas arise or not, there persists that law, that stableness of the Dhamma, that fixed course of the Dhamma: ‘All phenomena are non-self.’ A Tathagata awakens to this and breaks through to it, and then he explains it, teaches it, proclaims it, establishes it, discloses it, analyzes it, and elucidates it thus: ‘All phenomena are non-self.’”(phenomena here is the translation of dhamma)

Dhammapada Verse 279: “All phenomena (sankhara) are without Self”; when one sees this with Insight-wisdom, one becomes weary of dukkha (i.e., the khandhas). This is the Path to Purity.

These shows that dhamma is by nature not self. There is not a self to be found. It also indicates that not self is a not negation of a self. Rather it is wrong view that cause a view that there is a self in dhammas. And it is ignorance that blinds us for not seeing that the nature of dhammas which is not self.

Maybe wrong understanding of the working of the mind both causes and is caused by afflictions. Probably the psychological self is the real – hm – atavistic condition. I do believe Buddha makes clear that his is new knowledge on this, so no wonder (some) people sob a lot when they begin to get a handle on the ramifications of his teachings.

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Like the EBT teach…one must know sankhata and asankhata. Here on the forum almost all attention goes to sankhata. To what is seen arsing and ceasing and changing. All is always about formations seen coming and going…

Any talk about something stable (the EBT do mention it), something that is not seen arising, ceasing and changing, not desintegrating… seems taboe or immediately related to the concept of atta. But atta and asankhata are very different concepts.

In my opinion it is also ignorance to denie, not accept, reject asankhata, or turn it into something that is also arising and ceasing.

I believe sankhata as well as asankhata are not some atta, but EBT teach for a reason that the Buddha taught a Path to the unconditioned, to the stable, the not-desintegrating, the deathless etc.

I think the problem is that we want to grasp all intellectually, rationally.

What is a atavistic condition?

The suttas are daunting. Many people are still getting a handle on how to approach them even, so. In my experience, spending time on the Unconditioned leads to via negativa, mysticism and concepts of void … and burnt crepe, because I am busy paying attention to this instead of it :neutral_face:

Recently, I have been looking at the Upanisasutta SN12.23. Myself I replaced the term vital condition with proximate cause, revised SN12.21 to this

When this exists, that is (iti imasmiṁ sati idaṁ hoti); when this has arisen, that arises (imassuppādā idaṁ uppajjati). When this does not exist that is not (imasmiṁ asati idaṁ na hoti); when this has ceased, that ceases (imassa nirodhā idaṁ nirujjhati).

and am eyeballing the two side by side.

Definitely a problem with Westerners - obviously this was rejected by the post-structuralist opposition to grand narratives, including and probably especially Reason - but well, the dialectic there has become the rational and irrational - I got big doses of that in my spanking hot avant garde MA. Total headache.

I don’t suppose I could have written anal.