The Nonsense of No-Self

If you’ve spent any time around Buddhists you’ll surely have heard someone declare that there is no ’I,’ that the self is an illusion, and that the way to nirvāṇa is to realize the deep and hidden truth of egolessness. Does this mean that Buddhists don’t exist, or that they’re trying to not exist?

The Buddha Gotama certainly used the term anattā (not-self) but to be fair, this is a naive interpretation.

Here is a more sophisticated one, from Wikipedia:

‘…not-self (anattā) characterises all dhammas [things], meaning there is no ‘I’ or ‘mine’ in the conditioned as well as the unconditioned (i.e. nirvāṇa).’   [Wikipedia]

This impressive statement has presumably been reviewed by other Buddhist scholars and found acceptable. It is subtle and authoritative, but don’t be intimidated by the tone; it’s a mass of contradictions and a magical claim. For a start, Gotama’s prime tenet is that all things (dhammas) are conditioned—period. That means they’re formed by causes and conditions that come together temporarily and then fall apart: they’re contingent. Since nirvāṇa (which means literally, ‘blown out’) is not a thing, it may well be unconditioned, but to call it the unconditioned is presumptuous. There’s no definite article (‘the’) in Pali or in Sanskrit. This claim makes nirvāṇa sound suspiciously like Heaven.

Those who present nirvāṇa as an escape from suffering are mistaking the Buddha’s instructions for a metaphysical statement

If nirvāṇa is unconditioned how could it be achieved? It stands beyond time, beyond cause and effect, out of reach, impossible to experience. There’s nothing you, I or God Almighty can do to get there or to make it be. Even if it were possible, it would be pointless.

Besides which I am sitting here typing on my computer, so whoever tells me, ‘there is no “I” or “mine,”’ is not making sense. He or she is toying with the basic rules of grammar which, imperfect as they are, are all we have to think with.

A man called Vacchagotta asked the Buddha straight out, ‘is there or is there not a self?’ The Buddha remained silent. What’s the point, he explained later to his younger cousin Ānanda, of getting into metaphysical speculations that can be neither proven nor refuted? The real question is, why did the Buddha raise the idea of anatta (not-self) in the first place? Here’s what he said:

“…any form, feeling, perception, inclination or consciousness whatever should be seen with complete understanding as it occurs: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’”   [Saṃyutta Nikāya 22:59]

He’s not describing the ultimate nature of reality; he’s giving meditation instruction: don’t identify with experience. Earlier in the same discourse he points to the common fantasy that as individuals we can take charge of experience. If that were so, he says, we could dictate our lives.

‘If consciousness were the self, this consciousness would not lend itself to disease. It would be possible [to say] with regard to consciousness, ‘Let my consciousness be thus. Let my consciousness not be thus.’   [ibid.]

We know that’s absurd, not because we’re great philosophers but because it’s our common experience. When I’m sad, I can’t decide to be happy instead. I have to go through it. We all hate it, but it’s true. Dukkha—usually translated as ‘suffering’—is far more pervasive than just suffering. It’s not only what we feel; it’s the inescapable way that things are.

Those who present nirvāṇa as an escape from suffering are mistaking the Buddha’s instructions for a metaphysical statement, and we know what he thought of those. There is no escape. What is ‘blown-out’ when he speaks of nirvāṇa is not suffering but reactivity. Sadness and other feelings are an integral part of the human experience. People who don’t feel are sociopaths (not to be confused with people who don’t know what they’re feeling).

the way to nirvāṇa is through self-reliance which, it goes without saying, takes self-confidence

However, we don’t need to hate sadness. If we create a mindful gap between stimulus and response we can let go of such knee-jerk reactivity. With active attention —‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self’—we can stop resisting bad feelings and instead respond properly to them. Such mindful reflection is true morality, as opposed to simply following rules made up by someone else—even the Buddha. This is your path; not someone else’s. It makes you a stream-entrant (sotāpanna).


“have gone beyond doubt, become free from perplexity, gained intrepidity and have become independent of others in the teaching.”   [Majjhima Nikāya. 73, i. 491]

In other words, the way to nirvāṇa is through self-reliance which, it goes without saying, takes self-confidence. Stream-entrants don’t hesitate to question others’ interpretations and come to their own conclusions. Far from having no self, they have a robust self, even though it’s just a thing (dhamma), as contingent and impermanent as any other.

Nirvāṇa is stopping. It’s a non-act; neither a thing, a place nor an achievement. It simply reveals peace and freedom. In a moment of mindful reflection we can choose to not be driven by blind automaticity. The ‘path’ is your way of cultivating that non-reactivity.

This down-to-Earth nirvāna may sound less majestic than the End of Suffering proclaimed by devout Buddhists, but it’s infinitely more substantial, and realistic. How could I inhabit this body and live on this planet without suffering? It makes no sense. It is beyond my experience and my imagination. I cannot believe it.

To end reactivity is to stop thrashing around in futile attempts to make things turn out the way I want. It’s huge. Imagine letting go of the baggage that distracts you from being exquisitely alive and conscious, no matter whether it suits you or not.

I ask nothing more of life than to learn and grow my self, until I can no longer.


Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

17 thoughts on “The Nonsense of No-Self”

  1. Okay, that makes much more sense. Gotama was a practical scientist, not a theoretical one. Thus his comments are to be looked at in the context of actual instructions of what to do.

    Great post!

  2. We get caught up in a hagiography and glorification of what The Buddha might have said etc, when he also said — figure out your life for yourself, as you have suggested. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that the self we loose is in our hearts, the identity we don’t need for meditation, as you suggest. We need to emphasize this because it is possible. The simple personal pronouns are trivial in our ordinary language, what is important is to purify our knowledge and expand our interconnected heart to such a scale that it dwarfs our pedestrian I-ness.

  3. I liked the article and I hope my following comment is not seen as a distraction. There is non-self in birth and in death and in most experiences that happen in between such as hunger, aging, sickness, procreation, etc.; the list goes on. On the other hand there is a self in terms of self-will or ego in other matters of existence. The Buddha was correct: there is neither a self or a non-self. It is just very important not to confuse the two.

  4. Very good review; in substance quite similar to the views espoused by S. Batchelor. I understand that although the aggregates are present in every person, the determinants from which they arose and their interrelations with each other, relative predominance and activity seem to constitute an ‘individual’, which, perceived from inside the mind, is a ‘self’. The aggregates dissolve and the individual is also dissolved. So many ways of expressing it.
    WikiP seems lost when it states «…ultimate freedom is realized by deeply penetrating the nature of all aggregates as intrinsically empty of independent existence.» When these psychological principles are restated by quoting the highly technical catchphrases invented by previous (maybe ancient) translators, instead of using modern common language, nothing is gained, learned or even understood. But then, to state them clearly in modern common language, the translator must have confidence that s/he understands the principle. With understanding it can be expressed more simply (without using vocabulary that must itself be defined), so that teaching can take place, and others might understand.

  5. I think you have started a useful train of thought here but not adopted nearly enough of the independence of perspective that you say you value. Instead you’re still porting unnecessary baggage from the Buddhist tradition. You recognise the importance of avoiding metaphysical speculations, but then continue with your own speculations about what nirvana is and is not. Why this fixation on an ultimate state, when it’s irrelevant to understanding the process, and anything you say about it immediately takes you off the Middle Way? You also recognise that anatta implies neither self nor not-self, but don’t follow through with any exploration of what it might mean to have beliefs such as those about what your self is or is not (or indeed anything else) provisionally rather than metaphysically.

    1. It’s difficult to let go of Buddhist preconceptions.

      Although I suggested above that nirvana is simply “stopping” and a “non-act”, you presume I’m referring to an “ultimate state.” And although my speculations are entirely mundane and subjective, you presume they’re “metaphysical.” As for what my self is: it’s me. To talk about “the” self, or ask what my self “is or is not” makes language unintelligible. “I,” “you,” “them” and “self,” are just designations.

      My interest is to assume that someone called Gotama existed and that he meant something by these terms. I try to figure out from my own experience what he was pointing to. I strongly believe that speculation based on experience has more chance of leading somewhere than speculation based on ideas; I reckon Gotama did too.

  6. how about, as Lance Armstrong put it: ‘pain is inevitable, suffering is optional’ ? … pain is inescapable, part of being alive, human, etc., whereas suffering is the extra bit I bring to the table … “how unfair this is… when will it stop…I wish it was different…”. So, maybe we can (largely) do away with suffering

    1. That may be possible if there’s sufficient space in your life, but try telling it to the victims of Boko Haram or ISIS, to the serfs of feudal Russia to the millions who suffered and died from AIDS and other plagues; in short, to untold millions in human history who can’t even imagine the freedom to meditate. We live in a bubble. It’s not inevitable and its not permanent. We’re just lucky.

      1. I very much appreciate your recognition of those who are suffering, those who could not even imagine having the freedom to meditate. I also think that recognizing the luckiness of those who do have the opportunity to meditate is a valuable perspective. I was born in a place where there was relatively little physical violence and I still have managed to make war with myself for most of my life. I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to find some level of inner peace having experienced higher levels of regular violence. I experience the protection of the bubble every day, yet I still am very capable of helping myself to feel miserable. I am grateful to have found your blog where it seems there is a respectful group of people exchanging ideas. lucky!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *