Monday, January 17, 2011

No-self: what did 'the Buddha' teach?

The more I study Buddhism the more confused I become. Not because I don't understand the teachings, but because the deeper I dig, the less consensus I find. Take anatman, for instance.

There are at least four different interpretations--that I can think of--of the Buddha's most radical teaching:

1.) There is no self. What we normally conceive of as a self or "I" is really a matrix of converging sense perceptions, volitional patterns, feelings, and habitual, pre-conscious responses to stimuli. It's like seeing a constellation in the sky. Sure there are stars, but the constellation itself is a mental creation as your mind plays connect the dots.

2.) There is no permanent self. The entire world is in flux, and if we study our mind states, body, feelings, etc., we find that they too are constantly changing.

3.) There is no separate, independent self. All phenomena are conditioned, which means they cannot exist on their own, or "from their own side." In other words, they lack a central essence or self. So everything in the universe is connected because they are all empty. I borrowed this almost word for word from Thich Nhat Hanh, except he would use words like "interbeing" rather than emptiness.

4.) The self is conventional but lacks inherent existence on an ultimate level. This means that on an empirical, day-to-day level, the self serves a utilitarian function--it allows us to negotiate our way through the world. Try telling your landlord that you shouldn't have to pay your rent because you aren't the same person who signed the lease! On an ultimate level though, the self is empty of inherent existence.

Obviously some of these overlap and are not mutually exclusive. Each, I think, reflects a different Buddhist perspective. For instance, #s 1 and 2 are more Theravadin and originate primarily from the Pali Canon; #3 is Zen or Mahayana, influenced by the Prajnaparamita and Tathagatagarba sutras; and #4 Madhyamika or Tibetan, influenced by thinkers like Nagarjuna and Tsong Khapa.

Contrary to what some may say, I don't think that these are all expressions of the same principle. Each emphasizes the teaching differently, resulting in unique practices, teachings, and cultural expressions. Nor do I think this is a subject that we can just write off as mere metaphysics, as the body of the Buddha's teachings rests on the principle of anatta. Sure, no-self can itself become an object of clinging for some people, but the Buddha did teach it for a reason--to relieve the root of all suffering, self-grasping.

I'm currently reading Selfless Persons by Steven Collins. The book is about the teaching of anatta in the Pali Canon, the primary literature of the Theravadin school. Collins constructs a pretty convincing argument that the historical Buddha taught that there is no self; that belief in a self is the source of grasping, and thus all suffering. I find that Western Buddhists, and Americans in particular, are extremely apologetic about no self. They tend to dismiss this teaching, not only because it doesn't sit well with our psychologically oriented culture, but because they don't think the Buddha would have taught that there is no self. The argument commonly levelled at this reading of anatta is that it is nihilistic. But is fair to call the teaching nihilistic if the self doesn't truly exist, like horns on a rabbit or the value we place on money?

As a Zen Buddhist, this confuses the hell out of me. Because modern scholarship has pretty much proven that the Buddha did not recite the Prajnaparamita and Tathagatagarba sutras, contrary to what the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions claim (which in no way invalidates them as legitimate expressions of the Buddhadharma). So, if Mahayana sutras are the ones stressing the interconnected aspect of annatta while the Buddha's own words from the Pali Canon don't, where does that leave me, a student trying to understand anatta?

In other words, what did the the Buddha--not later Buddhists--the Buddha himself, teach about the self? That's what I'm interested in.

Please share your thoughts, any titles you recommend, especially ones that deal with inter-Buddhist dialogues about the self.
Photo borrowed from Creaive Commons flickr user: vice1.


  1. As a Zen Buddhist you will be less confused if you teach yourself to watch your very very very real self-ego, deleting comments, rather than reading smart books.
    As for a title I would recommend Mūlamadhyamakakārikā by Nagarjuna. There are different translations and interpretations but it is just to make things more interesting.
    Good luck again and bye.

  2. You're right--smart books make for a confused Zen Buddhist. :)

  3. I don't know, it seems that these four perspectives are just branches on the tree of anatta and to embrace the concept, you've gotta hug the whole thing. Certainly different traditions grasp different aspects, but it's all the same buddhadharma.

    I find it mildly distasteful and tragic that Buddhism is viewed as nihilistic. While I can understand the misunderstanding, it's an unbalanced perspective in the harmony between the relative and the absolute. Like saying a solo guitar performance has no rhythm because it lacks a booming bass that you can feel in your bones. The meaning is there, it's just subtle.

    As to whether the historical Buddha taught what is taught today, what does it matter? His effort and teachings formed the foundation and his direct transmission to his successor and its chain down to today makes him inseparable from those that followed. It's all buddhadharma. Realized teachers say it makes sense so why question its truth as concept. That's the beauty of Zen, if you truly enter the boundless Dharma gates, everything is true.

    That being said, I've been diving into the Sandokai. It's a priceless gem that's lesson I think is often forgotten from what I've seen in the many blogs around. It's short so it can be reread often and its message is highly concentrated so you can hold on to a couple lines all day.

    Thanks for the post.

  4. Kevin, I just read your comment on my Absolute/Relative post. It's funny how we were both thinking of "Sandokai"! I agree that the stigma of Buddhism as nihilism stems from a misunderstanding of the Absolute and the Relative. I fall into that trap sometimes.

    Thanks for the read and comment.

  5. KATSAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!! your no Zen buddhist or you wouldn't be asking such dumb questions.

  6. Reblogged.Thanks for this. Love the humble, open hearted honesty of your writing. Kind Regards, d

  7. P.S. - (re. the first comment above) Sometimes we have to exhaust the intellect by feeding it until it has nothing left to eat, and then it's easy to see how it just wants to eat and eat more and more words and concepts. So my experience has been that - read until reading was exhausted. Finally, the intellect was worn out, and then it's easy to see what it's doing. - d


  9. Hi Zen and Back Again,

    Your 3) is actually compatible with Pali cannon sutta. Interdependent Origination is something that is taught again and again in the Pali Suttas... so it is obvious that nothing has some kind of independent existence of itself.

    But not only that, dependent origination itself negates the notion of 'existence' totally.

    In the Pali Sutta Kaccayanagotta Sutta, the Buddha teaches "By & large, Kaccayana, this world is supported by (takes as its object) a polarity, that of existence & non-existence. But when one sees the origination of the world as it actually is with right discernment, 'non-existence' with reference to the world does not occur to one. When one sees the cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment, 'existence' with reference to the world does not occur to one."

    Furthermore, in the Pali Canon Phena Sutta, it describes how all phenomena are empty and illusory:

    "Form is like a glob of foam; feeling, a bubble; perception, a mirage; fabrications, a banana tree; consciousness, a magic trick — this has been taught by the Kinsman of the Sun. However you observe them, appropriately examine them, they're empty, void to whoever sees them appropriately."

    Therefore the fact that Theravadins may not realize the emptiness of phenomena is not reflective of the Buddha's teachings. Sure, the Buddha emphasized more about the emptiness of a subjective self than the emptiness of phenomena in the Pali suttas, but there are no lack of suttas that describe the emptiness of phenomena either (much more than what I have quoted so far).

    In the Mahayana tradition, it was taught that Arhants only needed to realize the emptiness of a subjective self (which explains the Buddha's emphasis on this aspect of emptiness due to his particular audience), while the first bhumi bodhisattva realizes both the emptiness of persons (subjective self, soul, etc) and the emptiness of phenomena.

    As a Buddhist glossary explains,

    "Two emptinesses (二空) include (1) emptiness of self, the ātman, the soul, in a person composed of the five aggregates, constantly changing with causes and conditions; and (2) emptiness of selves in all dharmas—each of the five aggregates, each of the twelve fields, and each of the eighteen spheres, as well as everything else with no independent existence. No-self in any dharma implies no-self in a person, but the latter is separated out in the first category. Realization of the emptiness of self in a person will lead to attainment of Arhatship or Pratyekabuddhahood. Bodhisattvas who have realized both emptinesses ascend to the First Ground on their Way to Buddhahood."

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  11. The Prajnaparamita Sutras were sort of a (necessary) reaction to Abhidhamma (which are latter commentaries by unknown authors or arhats and not as some might have you believe are 'taught by Buddha in the 33 gods heaven') substantializing phenomena to have some kind of 'atomic' or 'elemental' existence. Yet what they teach are arguably just an elaboration of the Pali Suttas like Kaccayanagotta Sutta and Phena Sutta (and many other similar ones), and therefore are far from 'new inventions' but simply stress certain points overlooked by the Hinayana school commentators.

    And as Loppon Namdrol explains, "the primary difference between Buddhist schools was in how far down they were willing to extend that analysis. The non-Mahāyāna schools stopped at paramanus i.e. "atoms"; the Mahāyāna Yogacara school stopped at consciousness. Madhyamaka extended its analysis all the way and came up with emptiness as the basis of reality i.e. that in the end, reality has no objective basis whatsoever")."

    And yet this does not mean the Prajnaparamita or Madhyamaka are in any way incompatible or not to be found in the original Pali suttas.

    Next, with regards to your point 4): in the Pali sutta, the Buddha is taught to speak of self as a convention - in other words, the Buddha is perfectly aware of, and makes use of conventions (worldly parlance) in his conversations with others. Yet ultimately there is indeed no self, being, Tathagata, etc.

    For example in the Pali scriptures:
    "No knots exist for one with conceit cast off;
    For him all knots of conceit are consumed.
    When the wise one has transcended the conceived
    He might still say 'I speak,'
    And he might say 'They speak to me.'
    Skillful, knowing the world's parlance,
    He uses such terms as mere expressions." (KS I, 21-22; SN 1:25)"

    However, I must add that Tsongkhapa's teaching of Madhyamika are different from all the other schools' understanding. For example, all other schools teach that (and this is also my understanding) conventional truths are only conceived by ignorant sentient beings, but not when one attains wisdom (realized emptiness) and abides in meditative equipoise. A Bodhisattva switches between equipoise and non-equipoise, while a Buddha no longer leaves equipoise and only perceives non-conceptual wisdom 24/7. Tsongkhapa however, tells us that conventional truths are valid and true on that level and enlightened beings cognizes conventional and ultimate truth simultaneously. However, even Nagarjuna rejects the two truths - "Since the Jina proclaims that nirvana alone is true, what wise person would not reject the rest as false?" Anyway shall digress and isn't really a very important topic imo (but if curious, more info in and ), but what I wanted to say is that apart from Tsongkhapa's interpretation, none of the schools actually admit 'conventional self or objects' as really true - conventional truth are not in fact true at all, they are just sentient beings' deluded cognitions. There is only one truth and not two.

  12. p.s. there is an experiential description of the realization of twofold emptiness in Stage 5 and 6 of

    p.p.s. more Pali suttas on emptiness of phenomena: Kalaka Sutta -

    "Whatever in the cosmos — with its devas, Maras, & Brahmas, its generations with their contemplatives & priests, their royalty & common people — is seen, heard, sensed, cognized, attained, sought after, pondered by the intellect: That I directly know. That has been realized by the Tathagata, but in the Tathagata[1] it has not been established.[2]"


    "When cognizing what is to be cognized, he doesn't construe an [object as] cognized. He doesn't construe an uncognized. He doesn't construe an [object] to-be-cognized. He doesn't construe a cognizer.

    Thus, monks, the Tathagata — being the same with regard to all phenomena that can be seen, heard, sensed, & cognized — is 'Such.' And I tell you: There's no other 'Such' higher or more sublime."

    Dharmapada 13.170 –

    The World : See it as a bubble, see it as a mirage: one who regards the world this way the King of Death doesn't see.

    Mogharaja's Question

    View the world, Mogharaja,
    as empty —
    always mindful
    to have removed any view
    about self.

    This way one is above & beyond death.
    This is how one views the world
    so as not to be seen
    by Death's king.

  13. In summary:

    Emptiness of phenomena does not contradict emptiness of subjective self/emptiness of persons. It is just the extension of the same deconstruction on the 'person/soul/subjective self' taken much further to every single dharma or phenomena.

    There is no self, and also no objects. It is not 'there is a self which is dependent', there truly isn't a self. It is not 'there is a self which is merely conventional' but truly, the conventionally imputed self is delusional, there is no self.

    Theravada stress the firstfold emptiness, Mahayana stresses two levels of deconstruction, i.e. twofold emptiness.

    Also, the Tathagatagarbha notion must be understood properly otherwise it will be misinterpreted or confused with non-Buddhist eternalism.