The Confusion over the Self in Modern Buddhism

Introduction

These days, you will see Buddhists nearly everywhere proclaiming, “There is no Self” as if the Buddha performed this amazing revelation of existence from up high.  Even well respected teachers of the modern Buddhist world teach as if this is a fact.

But when we actually go back to the source – the Sutras/Suttas (the recorded words of the Buddha himself) we see a different story.  If we look at what the Buddha actually said about it, we will see that the view that “There is no Self” is not the teaching of the Buddha – it is the teaching of Annihilationism.

What the Buddha actually taught was anatta (not-self) – how to look at the things we have normally assumed to be our “self” to see whether or not they are fit to be really regarded as the “real” me.

How Not-self was originally taught

It is in the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta where the Buddha gives us his teaching on not-self.

Here, the Buddha uses what’s called a via negativa methodology (i.e., what something is “not”) to point out that these 5 aspects of this body/mind complex of ours – is not the real us.  So don’t mistake your body, your thoughts, feelings, emotional habits to be you – they aren’t the real you – they are just impermanent, changing conditions that we’ve mistaken to be us.  He goes through each one:

  • The body is not self
  • Feelings are not self
  • Perceptions are not self
  • Habits are not self and
  • Thinking consciousness is not self.

The Buddha did NOT say “There is no self”.  He only said that these 5 aspects are not self – they are not the real us.

This is similar to saying:

  • The body of the car is not the driver
  • The petrol in the car is not the driver
  • The movement of the car is not the driver
  • The electricity in the car is not the driver
  • The air conditioning in the car is not the driver

It does NOT mean that there is no driver.  It just means that these 5 things are not the driver.

I make this comparison explicitly clear because a heck of a lot of confusion can be wrought by modern Buddhists who keep insisting that the Buddha said, “There is no self” – he never did.  You will not find 1 place in the Sutras where the Buddha proclaims, “There is no self” and yet experienced, high ranking teachers these days keep teaching anatta (not-self) as the Buddha’s statement about existence – no self!

The Problems with teaching the doctrine “There is No Self”
1.  Causing Untold Confusion

Now think of the confusion this has caused the entire Buddhist world over the years, when a beginner Buddhist hears from their teacher saying “Oh, the Buddha said that there’s no self – it doesn’t exist.”

They’ll think, “Huh?  Do I really not exist?!” – and they’ll accept it because they believe that to be the word of the Buddha (which it isn’t).

But still, in the back of their mind, they’ll be thinking, “If I don’t really exist, then who is this sitting here, experiencing all these different things?  Is there really nothing there?!” – they’ll still have this niggling doubt in the back of their minds gnawing at them.

2.  It doesn’t make sense

Why would the Buddha be encourage us to hold ourselves to higher moral standards, cultivate peace of mind and aspire to greater wisdom… when all that awaits us at the end of our long journey of cultivating these practices is… nothing.

If there really is nothing at the end of it all, you might as well do whatever you want – in order to try to get the maximum pleasure out of life without any need for consideration of others (as there will be no consequences) and at the end, you’ll get still get the same result.  At the end of it all when you die – it will all end and there will be nothing.

3.  It doesn’t fit in with his other teachings like karma and rebirth

If there really is no self, then:

  • Who is that receives the results of good and bad karma?
  • And who is it that gets reborn?
  • Why is it that the karma from 1 person sticks with that same person throughout many lifetimes until it fruitions?
4.  It misrepresents the Buddha as an Annihilationist

Do you know what the Buddha called the teaching of “There is no self?”  He called it Annihilationism – not the word of the Buddha:

If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, that would be conforming with those brahmans & contemplatives who are exponents of annihilationism [the view that death is the annihilation of consciousness].”

– Source:  http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn44/sn44.010.than.html

So unbeknownst to even many of the teachers who teach “no self” (as they’re just repeating what they’ve learnt without questioning it or investigating further), much of what we read, hear and learn about Buddhism today is actually nihilism, disguised as Buddhism.

The Buddha’s Clarification on his Not-self Teaching

Even the Buddha perceived this confusion and cleared it up in no uncertain terms.  In the Mahayana Maha Parinirvana Sutra, just before his physical body was about to pass away and he enters Nirvana, the Buddha scolds those who make this mistake:

“When I have taught non-self, fools uphold the teaching that ‘There is no Self’.”

Source:  Tibetan Version http://www.nirvanasutra.net/selectedextracts1d.htm

Summary

So there you have it:

  • The Buddha’s teaching of Anatta isn’t “No self” – it is “Not-self”.  1 letter difference in spelling, HUGE difference in meaning.
  • Anatta was taught not as a doctrinal proclamation about existence – but as a reflection to let go of things – so that we no longer identify what’s not really us, for being us.
  • It is the 5 mental/physical factors that make up our ordinary body and mind – it is these that are not-self – so these things that we’ve taken for granted to be us are not the real us.
  • The Buddha never said “There was no self”.
  • “No self” is the view of annihilation – NOT the Buddha’s view, because not only does this misrepresent the Buddha, it can cause a world of confusion in the Buddhist community – and this confusion will be propagated on for years to come if we don’t stop it right now and clarify it all with the Buddha’s original teachings.
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15 thoughts on “The Confusion over the Self in Modern Buddhism

  1. Great! I’m glad that it has helped ;).

    Also check out this section of the Khandha Samyutta (where the Buddha explains the 5 skandhas) from Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation when the Buddha is teaching Radha that “you should abandon desire for whatever is non-self”. In other words, whatever is not the Self – not who you really are – abandon it because that’s just externals, alien, unessential to you, subject to destruction.

    So Buddhists these days are frequently being told to “Seek the state of anatta – seek the state of no self” as if no self is some transcendent state. But this is incorrect. Rather, the Buddha advised to abandon whatever is anatta. Abandon whatever is not your True Self!

    It’s at the bottom right hand paragraph of this page:
    Source: http://librarum.org/book/18876/497

  2. Thank you for posting this. In the past, I’ve met a few persons who were confused about the Anatta teaching and subsequently leaned towards annihilationism. When I tried to explain the Buddha nature using a line from the Shurangama Sutra to him, he did not accept it.

    Furthermore, this post also reminded me of my favorite gathas from the Diamond Sutra:

    凡所有相 , 皆是虛妄
    應無所住,而生其心

    All Concepts and Appearances Are False and Illusory
    To Respond But Abide Only in the Buddha Nature

    What this means is that our Buddha Nature (i.e. Non Abiding Cessation) is found when we let go of our attachment to the arbitrary concepts and illusory forms. So even Arhats need to let go of their abidance to emptiness and those who wish to achieve Bodhi must also let go of the concept of Bodhi. I think this is the beauty of the Diamond Sutra, it explains the meaning of Non Abidance in a way that we can understand.

  3. My experience matches exactly the confusion which the author explains naturally arises from the belief that there is no self. What a silly idea. Many modern Buddhists argue that because we cannot find the self, there therefore is no self, to which my response is, “No kidding you can’t find the self: the self is the one looking!” If you did find the self, then that “self” couldn’t possibly be you. The experience cannot be the experienced. So remember folks: if you can experience it, it ain’t you!

    Aaaaand, for those interested, here’s my YouTube video on non-self in which I argue the same thing as the author here:

    http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=2KTVVD6gqBw

  4. I meant to say, “The experienceR (that is, the experiencer, or the one having the experience) cannot possibly be the experienced.” There is an ontological separation there.

    • Excellently put! Simple, isn’t it? The perceiver can not possibly be in the perceived, because then it too would become a perception and not the perceiver. Similarly, our body with it’s thoughts and emotions (i.e., the 5 skandhas) – they are perceptions too, aren’t they?

      • Indeed! However, if we are the perceiver, or consciousness, then this means we are ourselves one of the five aggregates, as consciousness is one of the five aggregates, and to my knowledge, Buddha doesn’t seem to say that we are consciousness or that this particular aggregate is more basic to our identity than the other four aggregates are, which we do, in fact, experience. What are your thoughts?

        Also, what are your thoughts about the historicity of the Maha Parinirvana Sutra? I have to admit that I’ve never heard of it before.

      • What you are referring to “consciousness as 1 of the 5 aggregates – “vinnana” in the Pali usually refers to sensory consciousness – which arises and ceases when a sense object “touches” the sense organ – vinnana/consciousness arises as a result. So consciousness as 1 of the 5 skandhas refers to the 6 senses.

        For example:

        – A physical object touches our body – sensation arises as a result – and this sensation goes . When nothing touches our body, no sensation arises.

        – Air vibrations reach our ears – signals go to the brain and sound consciousness arises because we “hear” sound.

        Same goes for all the other senses – sense object + functioning sense organ -> on contact of these 2 – sensory consciousness arises.

        Usually, we know the world only through our senses. Our senses have to contact the sensory objects of the world for us to know it. This is a dependent type of consciousness – that can only function if a sensory object is there and if our sense organs aren’t damaged. For example, a deaf person doesn’t hear sound because the air vibrations hit the ear drum but it doesn’t register in the brain as normal.

        An example of how the Buddha defined this type of consciousness can be found here in teh Vinanna Sutta http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn25/sn25.003.than.html

        But, this is not the only type of consciousness that the Buddha talks about, despite the fact that it is the usual one found in the Pali Suttas.

        Going further with the example of hearing:

        – Ring a bell – we hear a sound
        – The bells stops hearing – we hear no sound (so now, sensory consciousness has ceased)
        BUT when there is no sound, do you still hear?

        Yes.

        You hear the silence.

        Your mind knows when there is sound AND it knows when there is silence. So you still “hear” the silence.

        Sound and silence are dualistic phenomena that are both recognized by the mind. If we only heard when there is sound, then we wouldn’t be able to hear the silence.

        Take another example:
        – Open our eyes when there is light – and we say we can see (visual consciousness).
        – Close our eyes or blindfold them – we say we can’t see (so visual consciousness ceases as no light is hitting the retina)

        BUT has your seeing consciousness actually stopped? No. Why? Because when you close your eyes, you are still “seeing” the darkness – you still know that darkness is present.

        Light and dark are dualistic phenomena that you perceive. But you “see” both. Your seeing does not really lapse for an instant whether there is light or not. Nor does your hearing lapse for at all whether there is sound or not. So this is a more fundamental type of consciousness than your standard vinanna.

        Now back to your question of whether or not we are the perceiver. In the Shurangama Sutra, the Buddha called Nirvana the “Essence of Consciousness”.

        Remember, the mantra Buddho or the word Buddha – what does that mean? The One who knows, the knower – that which is aware.

      • The reason you haven’t heard of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra is that it is not very well known in the west – there is only 1 complete translation out that I know of – the Yamamoto translation and Professor Mark Blum has only released the first part of it. Stephen Hodge has also done a translation as well but most of this is unavailable too.

        You’ll get people knocking the Mahaparinirvana Sutra for being a fake Sutra (just because it doesn’t fit their views) but if you do your homework – the great Chinese Masters often liked to recite this Sutra and explain its principles. It is as highly respected as Sutras like the Lotus Sutra, the Shurangama Sutra and the Avatamsaka Sutra – the most prized Sutras of the Mahayana.

        For example, in the Sixth Patriarch’s Sutra, you’ll hear of monks reciting it in the time of the 6th Chan Patriarch and asking him to explain its principles:

        http://www.thezensite.com/ZenTeachings/Translations/PlatformSutra_DharmaJewel.pdf

        Also, Dr Tony Page has written a peer reviewed paper on the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, published by Bangkok University:

        http://www.bu.ac.th/knowledgecenter/epaper/jan_june2010/pdf/Page_47.pdf

        People have tried to discredit Dr Tony Page – like trying to make out that he translated the Sutra himself in a biased fashion – but if you do your research:
        1. Dr Page says the same thing as what’s in the most recent translation by Professor Mark Blum.
        2. The respected Chinese Masters say the same thing.
        3. The Yamamoto, Hodge and Patton translations say the same thing as Dr Page.
        4. If you read the Mountain Doctrine by Dolpopa – his Tibetan version of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra say the same thing too.
        5. Buddhist translator, Stephen Hodge explains the same principles as Dr Page as well.
        6. Professor Michael Zimmerman, PhD, an expert in the Tathagatagarbha Sutra also explains the same principles.

        So:

        – You’ve got legitimate scholars all saying the same thing about the Mahaparinirvana Sutra
        – Respected Buddhist Masters from Tibetan and Chinese Mahayana in accord with those scholars
        – Moreover, the Tibetan versions and Chinese versions of the Sutra teach the same principles.
        – The Tathagatagarbha class of Sutras also elucidate the same principles.

        In short, the Mahaparinirvana Sutra is a legitimate Sutra.

        In fact, even though you’ll get people saying that the Mahaparinirvana Sutra is a provision Sutra, it calls itself an Uttaratantra – an Ultimate teaching.

        It is one of the most important for the simple reason that it is the final words of the Buddha on the day before he entered Nirvana (so of course he’s not going to go through provisional teachings just from a timing perspective) – so he wanted to leave the final, most ultimate teachings.

  5. Wow! What great responses! Thank you so much for not only responding but for responding with such detail. How nice. 🙂

    In regard to your first comment, I totally agree. There is an interesting philosophical point there that occurred to me after reading your comment: the understanding of consciousness you’ve given is still consistent with the Poli notion of consciousness. Indeed, given the Poli understanding of consciousness in which its existence is predicated on an object of experience, then perhaps one could still call silence an object of experience, though this might be conceptualizing the nonconceptual, like trying to turn “nothing” into a concept. In either event, consciousness is, by its definition, awareness of something, you know? No phenomena, no consciousness. So, in some sense, while awareness is ontologically separate from its phenomena, its existence is still predicated on that phenomena. But this is “ok” since there always has and always will exist phenomena. While things are constantly changing, reality itself never goes away, which means consciousness never goes away either. So, this is a long way of saying that, yes, I agree with you, and that also that it’s possible that my original question about consciousness was misguided, that the understanding of consciousness which you and I have is still compatible with the poli notion. What do you think?

    And I’ll check out that sutta for sure, as well as the links you included. Thanks so much for all the info!

  6. When you say, “consciousness by its definition is awareness of something” – then in this definition the awareness grasps at an object – so there is grasping occurring which cognizes an object of consciousness. So this is one definition – the usual way it’s thought of. It is not the be all and end all of how to think about consciousness – it is like a provisional teaching in Buddhism. This is similar to a radar and then, when planes flying into it’s field of reception – you get a bleep when it detects an object.

    But my question to you is – if there are no planes flying within the radar’s field – is the radar still functioning? Of course it is. In the way, you can think of the radar as still has the ability to detect – it’s just that there are no objects around to detect. Similarly – your consciousness does not cease to exist when no sensory objects are there for it to be conscious of.

    This is awareness BEFORE it lands on an object to grasp.

    The Buddha explains this special type of consciousness in the Atthi Raga Sutta:

    “Just as if there were a roofed house or a roofed hall having windows on the north, the south, or the east. When the sun rises, and a ray has entered by way of the window, where does it land?”

    “On the western wall, lord.”

    “And if there is no western wall, where does it land?”

    “On the ground, lord.”

    “And if there is no ground, where does it land?”

    “On the water, lord.”

    “And if there is no water, where does it land?”

    “It does not land, lord.”

    “In the same way, where there is no passion for the nutriment of physical food… contact… intellectual intention… consciousness, where there is no delight, no craving, then consciousness does not land there or increase. Where consciousness does not land or increase, there is no alighting of name-&-form. Where there is no alighting of name-&-form, there is no growth of fabrications. Where there is no growth of fabrications, there is no production of renewed becoming in the future. Where there is no production of renewed becoming in the future, there is no future birth, aging, & death. That, I tell you, has no sorrow, affliction, or despair.”
    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn12/sn12.064.than.html

  7. Even now more so do not mistake your perception for your “true self”.
    What you perceive is a reflection of your self fabrication.
    How?
    Your “opinion” FORMS intention based off previous impressed memories. So you “disagree”, “dislike”,
    and “disassociate”/ “agree”, “like”,
    “associate”.
    All this is just baggage, that you call,
    “Self”.
    Your Eye falls on a Thing. But that Thing is not what you call it.
    What you call it or think of it is just a fabrication of the illusory mind; “Becoming”,
    Not the Buddha Mind.
    No thing is permanent except Nirvana. That is Buddha Dharma.

    “Where consciousness does not land or increase, there is no alighting of name-&-form. Where there is no alighting of name-&-form, there is no growth of fabrications. Where there is no growth of fabrications, there is no production of renewed becoming in the future”.

    “…As myriad things are without an abiding self, there is no delusion, no realization, no buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death………

    “if you examine myriad things with a confused body and mind you might suppose that your mind and nature are permanent. When you practice intimately and return to where you are, it will be clear that nothing at all has unchanging self”.
    “…..If you say that you do not need to fan yourself because the nature of wind is permanent and you can have wind without fanning, you will understand neither permanence nor the nature of wind. The nature of wind is permanent”.
    Dogan

    http://www.thezensite.com/ZenTeachings/Dogen_Teachings/GenjoKoan8.htm

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