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].”
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
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.