The Buddha’s teaching of not-self, or anatta, is as enigmatic a doctrine as can be found in the Pali Canon, with the possible exception of his announcement of nibbana, described in terms such as the unborn, unconditioned and deathless. In these two central concepts of the suttas, we see the Buddha’s inclination to express the deepest truth through negation rather than affirmation. This style has the great strength of not uttering that which is untrue, but it can also leave us as practitioners groping in the dark for understanding.
On first hearing, the doctrine of not-self probably ought to sound absurd. The existence of a person or self seems as demonstrable as the existence of a tree or a star. If the truth is otherwise, why is it so hard to understand? While the insight into nibbana must come from personal experience, it seems to me that the truth of not-self should be realizable through a clear, logical analysis. One such approach might lie in three steps:
1) a validation of the conventional notion of self,
2) an understanding of the assumptions implicit in the erroneous notion of self, and
3) an examination of the contradictions that arise from the false assumptions.
In the normal terminology of the world, it is perfectly valid to speak of human beings as individuals, each with a unique blend of physical characteristics and psychological attributes. Just as a rose is different from a peony, each of us manifests a one-of-a-kind expression of being that is rare and precious.
Sometimes when people hear the teaching of not-self, they conclude that this conventional view is wrong and that the Buddha was pointing to an experience of cosmic unity as the ultimate truth. I had a long argument once with someone who was convinced that the truth of not-self means that “All is One,” that there is only one Being, which includes everything. In this view, any real meaning of individual existence is negated. But the Buddha never suggested any such belief and in fact seems to have criticized it as one of twenty-two kinds of mistaken identity (Majjhima Nikaya 1).
Sometimes I hear not-self described as meaning that “there is no separate self,” but I find this statement confusing because it tells only half the truth. We are separate beings in some very significant ways. Each person consists of a separate body and a mind-stream that carries its own volitional formations and consciousness. As we often hear it said, the Buddha’s enlightenment solved his problem, but it didn’t solve ours. The unfolding of our path rests upon our own individual effort, not so much on those of our companions or the sangha as a whole. The fruits of our karma ripen in us, not someone else.
At the same time, we are deeply interconnected. From the Hwa Yen school of Buddhism comes the image of the Jeweled Net of Indra, in which a vast cosmic net contains a jewel at each intersection of strands. Every jewel holds a tiny image of the universe and so reflects every other jewel in the entire net. As sentient beings, we each contain a universe that includes all other sentient beings: when we meet, you are part of my experience as I am part of yours. We interpenetrate one another’s being in a way that defies a thoroughgoing separation.
Yet the truths of individuality and interconnectedness are not contradictory. The Jeweled Net image actually affirms the separate and individual existence of each gem on the net, and hence of each sentient being in the universe. It is because of the appropriateness of this conventional view of individual existence that even arhats may use the term “I” without falling into error, and the Buddha could refer to himself as Tathagata, One Thus Gone.
If we use the term “self” here as a synonym for “sentient being,” then it points to something that we conventionally and usefully designate as an existent entity in the world. (This usage is uncommon in Theravada teachings, but the second-century Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna uses it in this way in his key text Mulamadhyamakakarika (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way).) So speaking in the conventional way, one can truly say that I do exist as an individual self. Of course, in Buddhism the conventional view is never the whole story.
When we first encounter the Buddhadharma as “uninstructed worldlings” (a description found often in the suttas), most of us have never questioned the conventional view of selfhood. Unfortunately, when we take the conventional view of self as the final word, we fall into error and hence into suffering. As the Buddha said, “In whatever way they conceive [of self], the fact is ever other than that” (Majjhima Nikaya 113:21). The problem, I think, is that we usually don’t understand what is being negated in the teaching of not-self.
In fact, what is being denied is nothing more nor less than our erroneous assumptions about the self. We fall into a trap by imputing to the self several key characteristics that aren’t actually there. Because the imputations happen unconsciously, we don’t see the false beliefs that have crept in. By making the assumptions explicit, we may more readily apprehend the true meaning of not-self.
The first false belief that accompanies the concept of self is that of continuity through time. The notion of “I” carries with it the belief that the self is unchanging through a multitude of life experiences, permanent in some way from birth at least until death. We feel that the person reading this journal is in some fundamental way the same one who went through third grade at that old primary school. This belief gives rise to the fear of death. When we contemplate the end of something dear that we take as continuous and unchanging, we are shaken. We may also touch this misunderstanding when someone close to us dies. A few years ago my older sister, to whom I was quite close, died unexpectedly. I fell into a period of confusion because I couldn’t understand what had become of her. She had been so real and seemed so solid only days before; now she was simply gone. This mystery provoked in me an ongoing contemplation of what a person is. I found that the assumption of continuity was at the root of my misunderstanding of my sister’s life and my own. Conventionally, of course, there is continuity, but ultimately, because of the impermanent nature of things, there is not.
The second false belief about the self is that of an independent center within experience. We believe that the “I” sits at the center of all sense impressions as an entity distinct from them and in some way receives or experiences them. This “I” sees sights, hears sounds and feels sensations and emotions, but is apart from them. We think that the “I” is independent of what it experiences. That is, the same “I” can experience happiness or sadness, bodily pain or pleasure. This gives rise to the sense of an observer within us watching everything that happens inside and outside the body. As Westerners, we often feel that this “I” is located in the head, usually just behind the eyes. Even after vipassana practice has convinced us that every sense impression is impermanent and not really “me,” we may still feel an unshaken identification with this observer; the difficulty in actually pinning him or her down may not greatly diminish our faith in this creature.
The third is that the “I” implies some measure of control. The Buddha was once challenged in debate by Saccaka, a Jain who vowed to refute the teaching of not-self. In reply, the Buddha asked Saccaka if his form was under his control: “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?’” (Majjhima Nikaya 35). When Saccaka would not answer, a thunderbolt-wielding spirit appeared above him, ready to split the Jain’s head in two. Under duress, Saccaka finally agreed that he could not thus command his body and so could not actually regard it as self. We can discover this same lack of control any time we feel embarrassed about our body. How often have we felt ashamed that we weren’t better looking or taller or finer boned? Yet all these characteristics are beyond our choice or control. That we take responsibility for them means that we have fallen under the false belief of controllability. This element of control also explains why for many people, the hardest place to accept the truth of not-self is in the area of volition or decision-making. Surely if control is being exerted, there must be a controlling agent or entity.
The fourth imputed characteristic of a self is that it is unitary, a single thing, not plural or manifold. Generally speaking, each of us feels that she or he is one person, not two. Those who sincerely believe otherwise are generally medicated as quickly as possible, but in fact they may be on to something: the unitary self is unable to be found.
When the Buddha spoke of not-self, his point was that these four attributes are not true of any entity that can be discovered. A primary emphasis in an analytic meditation practice like vipassana is the examination of our experience (as the six classes of sense contact or as the five aggregates) to verify for ourselves the absence of such an entity. We can summarize what is being denied in the teaching of not-self as follows: among the components of a conventional self, there is
1) no abiding entity,
2) no independent center within experience,
3) no ongoing control, and
4) no unitary core.
We can now look at the common ways in which we attempt to locate a self and the contradictions that arise from positing such an entity. We find the seeming sense of self in every category of our experience. The Buddha identified twenty ways of constructing self based on four modes with each of the five aggregates (Majjhima Nikaya 109:10). Put more simply,
1) we may identify with the body or the objects of the mind, such as thoughts or emotions, or
2) as the owner of either;
3) we may consider the self to consist of all of the above; or
4) we may identify the self as consciousness.
Am I the body, or mind objects, or their owner?
To get a sense of the confusion that we carry around with this concept of self, ask yourself two questions: How old am I? And what color are my eyes? I could answer, “I am fifty-three years old, and I have brown eyes.” The absurdity of “I” shines through in these responses. When I say that I am fifty-three, the actual meaning is that this body is fifty-three. The mind doesn’t seem to be that old; these thoughts and this mood haven’t been around for fifty-three years. So here the “I” is taken as synonymous with the body.
But when I say, “I have brown eyes,” here the “I” is being identified as the owner of the body. These are “my” eyes. Which is it? Am I the body? Or am I the owner of the body? We can’t be both. To be credible, the self should be unitary and not plural. We find the same problem in relation to the mind. Sometimes we say, “I am happy,” equating the “I” with the mind. Other times we talk about “my grief,” identifying the “I” as the owner of the mind. We are in contradiction. In fact, most of us live in this contradiction without ever bothering to worry about it or resolve it.
Am I all of the above?
We may try to get around the confusion by identifying the self as the sum of the aggregates, the combination of bodily and mental phenomena. We might also throw in the owner for good measure. No wonder we get tired! Nagarjuna has an elegant refutation of this view in one verse: “Were mind and matter me, I would come and go like them.” He then swings to a defense of the conventional view of self by adding, “If I were something else, they would say nothing about me” (Verses from the Center, p. 114).
In conventional terms, the body and mind do define a person. But in ultimate terms, it is not accurate to say that body and mind are “me.” Body and mind are always changing, and one assumed characteristic of a self is that it is continuous. In fact, if we experienced all the mental and physical components as “I” in their momentary arising and passing, we would feel ourselves dying and being reborn in each moment. Then perhaps our final, physical death would not be experienced as a moment fundamentally different from our present situation. Maybe this is what the Sixteenth Karmapa meant when he reassured his students who were concerned about his imminent death by saying, “Don’t worry. Nothing happens.”
Am I the observer?
Perhaps the last bastion where the pretender self takes refuge, after the demolition of its hiding places in body and mind objects, is in the sense of the observer. Surely, even if I am not the momentary appearances of body and mind, I must be the onlooker, the watcher, the witness: consciousness itself. This observer seems to satisfy the criteria of continuity, independence and singleness: it’s always there when I turn to it, and it feels like a unitary presence that holds the diversity of all arising phenomena. It’s a little weak on the control side, but three out of four isn’t bad.
But there are three problems with the identification of self as the observer. The first is that in the Buddha’s analysis of the five aggregates, consciousness is simply another impermanent phenomenon, arising and passing moment by moment with its contents. Moreover, it is not unitary. There are six discrete types of consciousness for phenomena at the six sense doors.
The second problem comes when we notice that the sense of observer arises in relation to sense impressions. When a bluejay calls, we may think, “I hear a bluejay.” When the bird flies out of the pine tree, we might think, “Now I see the bluejay.” These thoughts of “I” are expressions of the assumption of the self as an independent observer or center within sense experience. The Buddha cautioned Bahiya about this when he said, “In the seeing, let there be just the seen. In the hearing, let there be just the heard. . . . This, just this, is the end of suffering” (Udana 1:10). An interesting inquiry is to look closely into our experience to see if the sense of “I” or “my” ever exists by itself, or if it arises only in relation to an experience at one of the six sense doors. This kind of investigation helps break down our belief in an ongoing center. We see from our own experience that the sense of self is constantly arising and passing in relation to other phenomena, betraying both its continuity and its independence.
The third problem is that when we look closely, the observer has no individuality. Personality comes from the uniqueness of our physical being and the varying natures of our karmic formations (thoughts, emotions and behavior). Pure consciousness, or the observer, cannot be identified with any of these since they can all be seen as temporary phenomena arising, passing and being known by consciousness. Consciousness itself is a completely impersonal factor that cannot carry the unique qualities of individual selfhood.
According to the Buddha, seeing through these misunderstandings is the key to liberation. There is a poignant passage in the Anguttara Nikaya where the Buddha seems almost to lament to a chief disciple, “O Sariputta, whether I teach the Dhamma in brief or at length or both, those who understand are hard to find.” Sariputta replies, “Then, O Blessed One, this is the time for the Blessed One to teach the Dhamma both in brief and at length. There will be those who will understand!” The Buddha continues, “Well then, Sariputta, thus should training be done. Concerning this body with its consciousness, there should be no conceited imaginings of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ and no such bias. Nor should there be such conceited imaginings or bias of ‘mine’ with regard to any external objects. We shall thus abide in the attainment of the heart’s liberation and the liberation by wisdom” (Anguttara Nikaya III.32).
Although we turn in many directions to establish the self, each attempt falls short. We cannot in the end satisfy all four of the imputed criteria for true selfhood. As we see this more clearly, we give up more and more of the repeated attempts to cling to self. Fundamentally, all clinging is self-clinging; grasping is the establishing of “I” either as body, mind, owner or observer. As we cease grasping, the insight into not-self opens into the understanding of emptiness, for the world, as the Buddha said, “is empty because it is empty of self or of what belongs to self” (Samyutta Nikaya 35:85). The understanding of not-self then becomes a doorway to the end of suffering, nibbana, the peaceful, the highest happiness.
The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya, translated by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Publications, Boston, 1995.
Verses from the Center: A Buddhist Vision of the Sublime, Stephen Batchelor, Riverhead Books, New York, 2000. (This book is a poetic translation of Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way).)
Udana, translation by the author.
Anguttara Nikaya: An Anthology, Part I, translated by Nyanaponika Thera, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka, 1981.
The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Publications, Boston, 2000.