Two stories: Self as subject (anatta)

Not quotes but two stories or metaphors that I came across in AK Ramanujan’s Folktales from India, the first I take to be a metaphor about looking for freedom from suffering in a wrong but convenient place :

In a South Indian folktale, also told elsewhere, one dark night an old woman was searching intently for something in the street. A passer-by asked her,
“Have you lost something?”
She answered, “Yes, I’ve lost my keys. I’ve been looking for them all evening.”
“Where did you lose them?”
“I don’t know. Maybe inside the house.”
“Then why are you looking for them here?”
“Because it’s dark in there. I don’t have oil in my lamps. I can see much better here under the streetlights.”

and the second about anattā :slight_smile: :

In a story told about Aristotle in Europe, and about an Indian philosopher in India, the philosopher meets a village carpenter who has a beautiful old knife and asks him, “How long have you had this knife?” The carpenter answers, “Oh, the knife has been in our family for generations. We have changed the handle a few times and the blade a few times, but it is the same knife.”


The danger of starting to see things as not me, not mine, not my self is, i believe, that one takes this literally. Then one tends to become enstranged from the world, from other beings, from the khandha’s.

Like one withdraws within. But doing that ones sense of self does not grow less. It grows stronger. It grows because of the withdrawing movement the mind makes. Becoming distant. More a passive observer, quit enstranged from all. This must be avoided, i feel.

I feel that movement it not oke and it might be good to talk about this danger?

This not the Path. One will only develop an extremely strong sense of self on the island onto which one has withdrawn oneself. This is not the island Buddha talks about. There is nothing more painful then living like this. There is never an end to suffering when one becomes an observer.

This is only for beginner’s attempt at doing this that there is danger. One should cultivate the whole of the noble 8fold path and understand properly what is not self to do proper vipassana.

The danger lies in aversion reaction, denial, cultivating aversion mind, or indifferent mind instead of equanimity, not recognizing the role of conventional self in morality and everyday usage.

As the enlightened ones can see no-self, this teaching to not regard anything as self is correct, but to apply is not so straightforward without proper training. One should have a teacher to guide and if one goes over to one side of nihilism, one should know that something’s not right with the way to see no self. The right outcome should be of relief from suffering, less suffering.

One possibility of why beginners (even one who has been learning for decades) can make a mistake is a strong identification of the 5 aggregates as self, thus when told to see no self, they might reject the 5 aggregates (with aversion) instead of just trying not to appropriate them as self. To be able to see the difference one has to develop mental stability and right understanding.

This not rejecting 5 aggregates with aversion is a tool, it doesn’t support the notion that the 5 unclung to aggregates are not suffering. They still are.

How about making it more concrete? Like Vision, the robot from Marvel cinematic universe. Break vision apart bit by bit, replace it with spares, reconstruct it piece by piece at location B, and we eventually have 2 visions, one replaced bit by bit from the original and second one is made of the same material as the original.

Applied to humans, say for the materialists, brain cells. Replace the neutrons in the brain bit by bit with computer chips or cloned brain cells, and reconstruct it on the other side with another cloned body (without brain). Which person is the original person? The gradually replaced one or the one which is gradually build up? I think I read in philosophy books that the Buddhist solution is to say the concept of person doesn’t apply, it’s a mistaken notion. Thus, we have no need to solve a question which is based on ill-formed concept.

Rebirth wise, I dunno if the original person would survive such an operation, and there’s little reason to think that the person would be reborn into the gradually reconstructed person, but another being might be able to possess the body, by with from the differences in mind, we can see that it’s a different person. Anyway, very unethical (could involve killing) to try, so don’t try. So with rebirth put into the mix, we can still point to the mind as a definition of a conventional person.

I think I see your point now, the stream of consciousness flowing from life to life, can be said to be the same stream even when all 5 aggregates are changed throughout countless life, countless times, because at the ending of rebirth, it’s that stream which ends as opposed to someone else’s stream. Yet it’s all not a self.

I think most people just see that self= permanent something, show them that body and mind changes, thus impermanent, cannot be said to be self. Notion of same=permanent. That’s the common unstated principle on most people’s mind.

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I see what you see and agree for the most. I hope you are still willing to see what i have to say.
Maybe it looks like lecturing, sorry for that. I do not mean to disrespect. It is more that my heart run over.

In my opinion the point is that people can lack an intuitive understanding of that domain that is already, here and now, not seen arising and ceasing and changing. And is also not a feeling nor a perception.

If there is one reason why vinnana is called a magician, i believe, it is that it is able to blind us for this dimension, this element or aspect in our lifes that is not seen arising and ceasing.

Vinnana is like noise, and so noisy that one will not notice silence anymore, the stilling, what is not part of vedana and perception. Vinnana is always claiming the room, as it were. The coming and going of sounds, smells, ideas, emotions, tactile sensations etc…that comes with the arising and ceasing of vinnana’s,… totally blinds us for the presence of non-movement, for what is not seen coming and going and is no vinnana and is also untouchable.

That is my anaylses. It is not really about who has the strongest sense of self but more about …those who see the deceptive nature of vinnana or those who do not. It is a magician. Vinanna is able to make us believe there is only movement, only arising and ceasing formations and this is our lifes.

In others words, vinnana’s while arising and ceasing, are able to hijack all our attention and make us unwise, blind, until a point we really believe there are only those arising and ceasing formations, which the EBT surely does not teach.

I believe this is what divides buddhist.

An sich is vinnana not a blinding factor but the coming and going of eye vinnana’s, smell vinnana’s, ear vinnana’s, mental vinnana’s etc. grasp all our attention and then it becomes blinding.
Because we loose the awareness of what does not come and go and is asankhata.

Without avijja this all does not happen. Vinnana’s keep arising but are seen for what they are, merely arising perceptions or formations.

By the way, i do not say that one must develop ideas that what is not seen arising and ceasing is me, mine, myself. It is just a natural development that when the allure of vinnana decreases one becomes more grounded.

Love the reference to vision :joy: FWIW, this conundrum also goes by the Ship of Theseus. :pray:

I believe almost all people in the world experience a stable sense of self. The moment one awakens nobody experiences that you suddenly awaken as a different person, with a different sense of self. It is like you awaken as the same self again and again, right?

Maybe this a taboe to admit, apparantly, but it is still true. But this is very hard to discuss in an open way.

While all people have this sense of sameness of self miljons of them do not believe in a soul, in atta, in eternal life, in heaven and see death as mere cessation. So this sense of same self has nothing to do with being an eternalist, believing in a soul, believing in the atta that joins with God etc. Nothing to do with that. Also a materialist who sees the mental life as secundairy and believes the notion of self just ceases when the brain function collapes, experiences a stable sense of self.

There is huge gap between the experience of a same self and belief in a permanent self.

So now we must try to understand what this sense of same self relies upon. Immediately jumping to conclusion is not wise, i believe. So what is here going on? Why do we all feel this same sense of self from day tot day and moment to moment while awake?


In general i think the analytical mind makes a mess of life because it introduces false ideas that reality can be split up in seperate time frames as if reality would be not one big organic thing and boundaries are real. For example the body. The analytical mind introduces a body on t1 and on t2, as if there is no body in between. Compares these two timeframes of the body and says…not the sam body. Tja… It is a artificial conclusion. It introduces a world that exist only in a conceived way, in time frames that do not exist. It is not real.

I can’t speak for everyone else, but as for myself I’m mystified why you keep bringing this up. I can’t verify it either way - that the sense of self I have over time is the same nor can I verify it is different - as it seems a very ill-defined idea. Not only is it ill-defined to me, but even were it well-defined I don’t see the import of this. Like, what is the practical application?

Let’s say that others granted your wish and everyone everywhere attested that you are right, we all experience the very same stable sense of self and this very same stable sense of self does not change. Now that others have granted your wish, what is the practical import? I don’t get it. I’m mystified as to what you are trying to point out here and I suspect that others might also be so mystified. It could be the case that the reason no one has admitted what you so wish for them to admit is that they are as mystified as myself over what you’re trying to express.

My best guess is you’re trying to express something from dzogchen or the third turning of the wheel of dharma about the truth body of a Buddha or something being that stable sense of self, but then I don’t get the practical import of that as well. I remain mystified. I’m happy to admit that it is probably my own ignorance that prevents me from understanding you, but it still is the case that you seem to be speaking a foreign language that in some cases sounds vaguely familiar but in other cases sounds completely alien or similar to Jain thought or Vedanta rather than the Buddha’s dhamma to my ignorant ears.

In any case, I don’t see anything at all taboo about what you’re saying. It just sounds foreign or alien and the practical import seems completely hidden and obscure. I almost think that you’re trying to imply that this very stable - unchanging - sense of self is inner nibbana or something? If that is what you’re saying, then it would not strike me as taboo. Rather, I’d say it seems wrong to the ordinary sense of the world and in any case is completely void, hollow, and insubstantial and not worth clinging to.

However, if you’ve found peace in this idea, then I would not want to rob you of this peace. On the other hand, you seem quite eager verging on the obsessive for others to validate and confirm this idea and so it doesn’t sound very peaceful to my ignorant ears.


If you look into a large mirror, suppose, and you do not see your body as usual…what would happen to you, do you think?

I’m pretty sure I would think the mirror is broken, I have had a stroke, someone laced my food with a hallucinogen, or I have had a mental break. I’m pretty sure my first thoughts would be that the mirror was a trick or broken somehow though.

I remain mystified at what you at the point you are trying to make.


Yes, I like this one, it is a good tale. Here is a nice article about it. It gets used very broadly too, not just to talk about freedom from suffering.

Yeshe mentioned this already, but this idea is quite an old one too, and it has inspired a lot of discussion. The basic idea is often referred to by the metonymy The Ship of Theseus.

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Although it has been said by others that the Ship of Theseus has no bearing on the doctrine of anatta I don’t see it like that. For me, thought experiments like the Ship of Theseus have been very important for my feeble understanding.

One thing I like to do is consider precisely which set of atoms when taken together constitute me. That is, what are the necessary and sufficient set of atoms that constitute Yeshe Tenley such that if you took even one atom away it would no longer constitute me. I can’t fathom any such well-defined set of atoms. This has been beneficial to my mind.


No problem. I am not gonna use more words.

If you awaken tomorrow do you really experience that anything has changed in your inner sense of self?
Does it feel like you have internally awakened with a totally different sense of me?
Just a yes or no please.

The above question i asked sounds foreign or alien to you?

I have explained this before to you. But you did not react. I said that for me it was helpful to see, to really experience, that the one who knows does not cease when formations cease. And we all experience this.
If anger ceases, it is not that you ceases as the one who knows that now anger is gone. If thoughts do not cease you do not cease. For me this was helpful because stilling was in the beginning for me threatening.

I noticed that mind works as a mirror. The following scheme is happening in the mind:

  • “there are formations, feelings, perceptions, will, emotions etc…so I exist”…and also…“I exist because i notice all these formations”.

This mirroring proces is happening.

It is like looking in a mirror, seeing the body, and being confirmed…I exist.
Maybe people are not aware, but this happens.

The same is happening in the mind, internally. The mind uses feelings, will, perception, sensations, bodily formations …or just in general formations…as a kind of assurance…i exist. It build upon it a sense of me, i exist.

Here is something very strange going on. Because is it really true that the existence of the one who knows depends on the presence of emotions, will, desires, thoughts, feelings?

One thing is sure…there is no person in the world that has direct knowledge of the cessation of the mind…that is 100% sure…but there are people who say that they have direct knowledge of an awareness (not one of the 6 vinnana’s) that has not a sense object as object but itself.

It is like the mirror or eye meets itself. I know this is all disputed. I do not.

In the same way you can also analyse…suppose i become blind and the mind produces no eye-vinnanas anymore. You see nothing…am i gone now, ceased? Do those eye vinnana constitute me?

Now you go a step further…suppose i am not only blind, but i also loose all ear-vinnana’s and i become deaf. Am i now gone, ceased? Now you can go a step further and your mind also does not produce smell vinnana and taste vinnana…are you now gone, ceasesd Have all these vinnana’s constituted You?

Now yoy go still a step further and tactile vinnana’s do not arise anymore, you do not experience a body. Are you now gone. Now you go even a step further and you even loose the coming and going of mental vinanana’s. Those moment that we perceive a plan has arisen, or a idea, or thoughts, or emotion etc.

Are you gone? If so, is there any point in which you are gone?

When I awaken from morning to morning I do really experience that my self has changed as well as my sense of self. I have clear memories of my self in the past as well as my sense of self and I know these have changed over time.

I’ve detected a pattern though that makes me believe that you are not likely to accept this answer. Why? Because I’ve seen others answer in the same way. When they’ve done so I’ve noticed one of two things happens:

  1. You insist that what has been answered is not what you are asking because the person providing the answer has not located the true inner sense of self you are referring to.
  2. You believe the answer is not honest and has been purposefully made in order to frustrate you.

In this case, I remain more than willing to admit that #1 might be correct and so I am mystified - once again - to what it is you are pointing to. I’m being honest with my answer, but I have no way of convincing you of that.

Yes. Though “totally” is quite a loaded term and you could get me to say “No” depending upon how you define it.

Yes. For the reasons stated.

It sounds like you’ve identified this “one who knows” as an atta or as you describe a “oneself” and I just have not found this nor do I understand why you think identification with this “one who knows” is helpful. I have not in fact experienced this. You’ve stated that this is helpful, but I don’t think you’ve described why this is helpful or at least I have not understood if you have so described.

I can relate if you’ve found it helpful to know that anger is not a self and that thinking of anger as somehow intrinsic to oneself is not helpful. However, I cannot relate in how focusing on “the one who knows” is in any way helpful.

This sounds like you are focusing on the mind as this “oneself who knows and is not changing” but I do not see how this is helpful. I do not see how identifying the mind as “oneself” or focusing on this is helpful at all.

On the other hand, I can see how getting attached to this idea of the mind as “oneself” and the mind as a pure mirror could act as the condition for the further arising of suffering. Why? Because in my experience clinging to ideas of self acts as a condition for the arising of suffering. It can act as a condition for getting obsessive about this idea and seeking confirmation in others of this same idea and not finding it growing suspicious, distrustful, and resentful.


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In the cessation of the identification of “I” or “myself” then it could truly be said that a self has ceased. It is my hypothesis that this cessation is possible. Another way of saying it that might be helpful: when selfish identifications cease in a continuum, then a self has ceased.

To perhaps put it into terms more amenable to you, imagine the pure mirror of a mind completely ceases the habit of focusing on “the one who knows” and gives up this habit completely. All selfish formations and self cherishing attitudes cease and are no longer reflected; in such a case couldn’t it blamelessly be said that a self has ceased?


Oke, then i am 100% sure that we do not speak about the same sense of self.

Indeed, i cannot understand that people really feel not the same from day to day and moment to moment. I do not notice any change in my sense of self.
This sense of self has nothing to do with looking at the body in the mirror and thinking…i have become old and grey…because ofcouse i see such changes. And has nothing to do with knowing that my views and also behaviour have really changed over time. These changes happen but surely i am not changed at all. I do not have that inner experience of change.

You might feel this is a mistake, but i believe it is a mistake to identify with whatever is seen arising and ceasing. Only that can make you believe you change. If there is no conceiving and thinking, no constructing views and thoughts about yourself, do you still feel you change?

I do not agree that when someone has some feeling or intuition for what is not seen arising, ceasing and changing in the meantime, he expresses his attachment to a doctrine of atta.
Atta and asankhata are very different things.

Suppose you do not see space arising and ceasing and changing in the meantime while awake. But you see clouds, plants, houses, beings arise and decay. Have you now treated space as an atta? Ofcourse not. I only use this as simile ofcourse.

The teachings on asankhata are not about atta and vice versa. One cannot say that seeing not change is alway about atta. Not?

The one who knows is an expression i lend from Maha Boowa. He used it. Althought he used this personal way of expressing things, suggesting that it is something personal, almost atta like that knows, he only used this wording because we experience it like this. We experience knowing as one who knows. For example, if pain is felt, it is immediately felt by me. The one who knows the pain.
There is not a mere knowing. There is more going on. In his wording, the one who knows, he simply refers to something we can immediately relate to. One must not take this words literally, like knowing is really done by an atta.

So, it does not imply that Maha Boowa did not know and see that knowing is a a bare awareness and not really someone. I am not that far. I have at best some feeling for what he teaches in line with EBT.

The one who knows does clearly not depend on what it knows. This shows in practice. The one who knows does not depend on formations that are liable to arise and cease. That is also why one can abide in jhana, fully aware and descent into emptiness fully aware (MN121).

This is not theory. This is true. There is not something like blackout or absence in any progressive stilling of formations. Loss of awareness, black out, absence, can happen but then one is not in jhana anymore but fallen asleep or become absent.

I have tried to explain the import. More i cannot do.

I would suggest ; let us abandon the focus on arising and ceasing formations, the desire for, the obsession with, the identification with all that comes and goes, and turn the mind towards what is allready stilled, empty, open, no formation, desireless, signless here and now. That what is not seen arising like anger, greed, hate, thoughts, emotions, habitual formations etc.

Do also not grasp the desireless, uninclined, signless as me, mine, myself. But also do not ignore, judge, theorize, reject this element what is not seen arising, ceasing and changing in your life.

Thinking about our lifes as merely formations is like thinking about the sea as merely waves.
If you or others feel this is all irrational mystifying esoteric nonsense, i am sorry.

For me, Dhamma starts here. It all starts with some first taste, some first recgonition, some first understanding that the stilled, peaceful, uninclined, dispassionate, burdnfree, unworldy, is really never absent. It does not have to be created at all. It is unmade. Its presence never depends on our effort and is fully, 100% for free.

To project it as something that will arise in the future…i believe this is not right noble view.

That sounds like this mil 3.1.1

“If I keep arising the belief in self, then there must have been some self.”

No because there was never any self.

Hm, it actually does: general belief in self VS subscription to soul theory. Those two are the same, and I think the Buddha sometimes used careful language to express how it actually is simultaneously both: someone believes that something IS a metaphysical soul. That’s one aspect of the delusion of self where it does involve assigning it to something.

No one knows the complete first cause of this delusion. The Buddha wouldn’t even say. He would say what contributes more or less to it in daily life AN 10.61, but it really doesn’t matter where it came from originally because it is a root cause.

“I exist because I notice these” is a mental formation. You don’t go beyond the processes and cycles of conditioning by saying “Wow, I exist.” You were entirely conditioned to say this in a trained reaction to the mirror.

Or is it just light and sights and forms that you were conditioned to call “I”.

Irrational question, “I” was never there to begin with.

One mistakes something to be a permanent self, so it kinda is, but it’s not just about that. This is something you can try to prove with logic, and in theory logic will add up to a certain degree, but it’s not about that. These statements regarding anatta usually refer to deep seeings of things that go beyond logic… So enter this sutta with carefulness: SN 22.59.

“Mendicants, form is not-self.

For if form were self, it wouldn’t lead to affliction.
And you could compel form: ‘May my form be like this! May it not be like that!’

But because form is not-self, it leads to affliction.
And you can’t compel form: ‘May my form be like this! May it not be like that!’

“But if [form] is impermanent, suffering, and perishable, is it fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, I am this, this is my self’?” “No, sir.”

I will also recommend MN1, but it is not the easiest one to understand.

False equivalence. Even then, suppose that you really do “exist” as both the waves and the entire water. If it were true, it would still not imply anything about self. You are calling the non-wave non-moving water of the ocean self, right? There is nothing beyond those waves in reality, and even then, why would nothing/stillness be self? How is that you? If nothing is self, that’s bordering on just saying not-self, but it’s still mistaking something to be self.

Nothing says this “gap” between mental formations is self. How could it be?

Nothing says whatever is past the aggregates is self. How could it be?

It’s like if the waves splashed up and then pointed down at the rest of the non-wave ocean and said “this is me!”… how? You’re just interconnected water, waves, and nothingness…

Besides, the rest of the ocean changes as well. Even if it seems to be still, it can eventually turn into waves. In fact, all the oceans on earth will one day be completely dried up. Hard to imagine, but it’s the truth.

But even then, let’s suppose it never moves: it’s still not-self. Ultimate things like truth, laws, or reality still couldn’t be self. Nothing says they are and they aren’t a part of what you could rightly call your existence anyway. You never truly interface with them and they literally don’t exist. Even if you truly completely understand them, nothing says they are self besides your own mental processes saying they are. Even if your mental processes have totally ceased into complete cessation, nothing says you have entered self including your own mental processes which have ceased.

And you can’t compel such ultimate reality how you want. And you can’t hold on to it forever. And it’s not just about impermanence implying not-self, one knows it is not-self because one explores it and understands it deeply into mental spaces that are hard to describe, so you will just have to give up with words at some point.

On this I can totally relate and confirm what you’re saying and agree! It is a mistake to identify with whatever is seen arising and ceasing. At least that has been my experience as well. The previous post where you said it was disadvantageous to identify with anger is a case in point - and a wonderful one at that - to my mind in particular. Why? Because I used to so identify! I have clear memories of believing my anger was intrinsic to who I am and that I could not part with it even if I tried or thought to. I believed that my anger was a core part of what made me me. My sense of self was wrapped up in identifying with this anger.

That is no longer the case. I no longer identify anger as intrinsic to who I am. I no longer believe that I cannot let go of my anger or that it is somehow a core part of what makes me me.

It is precisely this example which makes me quite confident that my own sense of self has changed.

That is a paradox to my mind. There can be no answer. If there is no constructing views and thoughts about yourself, then how can the thought, “do I feel I change or not?” arise? In the absence of constructing views and thoughts about yourself I can’t see how the thought, “do I feel I change or not?” could possibly arise.

But crucially - and this really seems to be where I think you err - in the absence of constructing views and thoughts about yourself the answer to the thought, “do I feel I change or not?” also does not arise! How could it? If the question does not arise, then how could the answer to the question arise?

This seems very suspect to me. Pain is felt, but the question “Who is the one feeling this pain?” and the subsequent answer, “It must be the one who knows that is feeling this pain” do not necessarily arise upon the feeling of pain. Moreover, identifying with this question is not necessary or beneficial. This question and answer pair can also be seen as not-self just like anger in our previous example. It is possible to let go of the habit and identification with this question/answer pair in just the same way as it is possible to let go of anger. Moreover, letting go of this question/answer pair is conducive to our long term benefit and happiness and the long term benefit and happiness of all sentient beings. Not letting go of this question/answer pair and instead identifying with and giving more energy to this question/answer pair is not conducive to our long term happiness and benefit and is not conducive to the long term happiness and benefit of all sentient beings.

This is not my experience. The one who knows can only be understood as the answer to a question arising. That question arising is dependent upon a habit of attaching to and clinging after the answer. It is an utterly dependent and conditioned phenomena. This question/answer pair arises and ceases due to habits, conditions, dependencies. The question/answer pair is not always present. It arises and ceases. Which brings us full circle to what you said in the beginning:

Just so.