(English is not my mother tongue, sorry in advance if I make mistakes)
I invite you to read them at least in part before reacting as they are rich in arguments and answers to the first objections that might come to mind.
Nevertheless, I quote TB’s summary of his thesis and the objections he encountered:
These reflections were sparked recently by reading a critique of an article I wrote in 1993, called “The Not-self Strategy.” The thesis of that article (available in the essay collection Noble & True)—which I revised in 2013 both to tighten and to expand the presentation—was that the Buddha intended his teaching on not-self (anattā), not as an answer to the metaphysical/ontological question, “Is there a self?” but as a strategy for cutting through clinging to the five aggregates and so to put an end to suffering. The main argument I presented in support of this thesis in both versions of the article was that the one time the Buddha was asked point-blank, “Is there a self?”… “Is there no self?” he remained silent (SN 44.10). Similarly, in MN 2, he stated that such questions as “Do I exist?” “Do I not exist?” and “What am I?” are not worthy of attention because they lead to conclusions that fetter a person in a “thicket of views” and a “fetter of views,” including the views that “I have a self” and “I have no self.” In other words, any attempt to answer these questions constituted a side road away from the path of right practice.
The critique—“Anattā as Strategy and Ontology,” written by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi—was brought to my attention just over a month ago, even though it has apparently been around for some time. It takes issue both with the thesis and with the argument of my article, but in doing so it displays the scholarly bias mentioned above: that the practice of the Buddha’s teachings is primarily a process of leading the meditator to give full assent to the accuracy of those teachings as a description of reality, and that this assent is what frees the mind from suffering. Because this bias is not only the bias of the critique, but of so much thought in the Buddhist world, I thought it might be useful to explore how both the thesis of the critique and the arguments used in support of that thesis display this bias, so that it can be recognized for what it is not only in this case but also in other Buddhist writings.
I’d like to hear your views on the arguments on both sides. Anatta: only a strategy for realization or a real “ontological” position?
Among the trilakkhanas, anatta is really the one I have the most trouble with. I can’t understand it. And the more I learn about it, the more I realize that Buddhists don’t seem to understand it either, given all the disagreements on the subject. Even within Theravada, many ajahn of the Thai Forest Tradition seem to reintroduce a form of self by talking about the “mind that does not disappear, immutable and indestructible reality” (which clearly resembles the Hindu atman / purusha). Ajahn Maha Bua, considered by his peers to be an arhat, stated that he “observes the essential enduring truth of the sentient being as constituted of the indestructible reality of the citta (heart/mind), which is characterized by the attribute of Awareness or Knowingness. This citta, which is intrinsically bright, clear, and Aware, gets superficially tangled up in samsara but ultimately cannot be destroyed by any samsaric phenomenon.”.
Absolutely all these concepts seem to me to be reinsertions through the window of the self thrown out the door. They all affirm, in one form or another, an ultimate reality, which they call “awareness” or “mind”, a state of bliss… wich literally corresponds to the Hindu definition of the supreme self.
Yet the Buddha seems to speak explicitly of this state and describe it as just a step towards the summit:
Furthermore, a mendicant—ignoring the perception of earth and the perception of the dimension of infinite space—focuses on the oneness dependent on the perception of the dimension of infinite consciousness. (…)
Even vacuity (sūnyatā) does not seem to be the destination, the infinite nothingness being only a penultimate stage of the jhanas.
What should we think about all this? At the end of the day, it seems to me that the subject can be summed up in one question:
It is often said that the Buddha would have affirmed that all phenomena are without self:
sabbe dhamma anatta
Then the question arises as to whether Nibbana is a phenomenon (dhamma) or not. If this is not the case, as some people maintain, it is logical to consider that the supreme reality, being neither impermanent nor dukkha, does not possess the third seal of the no(t)-self either, and to start talking about this supreme mind, awareness, etc., which is not a dhamma, but a permanent and blissful source of all impermanent and unsatisfactory phenomena - by the way, how better to define the phenomenon than as what appears in consciousness? -; in this case, the border with the Hindu atman-brahman becomes extremely thin, not to say non-existent. If, on the contrary, Nibbana is also a phenomenon (dhamma), having no self, the difference with Hindu thought remains but then, what about the other two seals of all phenomena: anicca and dukkha? How to apply them to Nibbana?
Maybe, like dukkha and anicca, anatta must be abandoned once the destination is reached.