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

19 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!

  7. This analogy helped me untangle nibbana and anatta a lot:

    An eternalist believes that there’s water in the cup and right before the cup shatters into pieces it’s either poured into another cup or into the ocean. An annihilationist believes that when the cup shatters, the water spills everywhere and evaporates. Through mindfulness and concentration, the Buddhist sees that the cup is empty.

    There’s no “core” inside the five aggreagtes. It’s like they’re floating around in space. Space is unconditioned; it doesn’t depend on the objects that appear within it. it doesn’t come into existence with the cup or go out of existence when the cup shatters. Hence all the seemingly metaphysical “unborn’ “uncreated” and “undying” terms associated with Nirvana. Space isn’t created, it isn’t born, it doesn’t die. There’s no self within the skandhas that does either.

  8. Stephen,

    Thought I’d check out your blog and see what else you have going on. Thanks for opening up and sharing your experience. It’s all quite baffling isn’t it, experience.

    When I read your experience and thoughts about this topic the first thing I noticed was that you seem bitter. Sorry to put a name on it but damn dude, it kinda seethes out of your writing at times. People have and will misconstrue every and anything and we will all inevitably come in contact with peoples misconstrued ideas. We ourselves will misconstrue things and set ourselves up for suffering. It seems to me that you had a misconstrued idea of what the Buddha’s teaching was at first but than awoke to some degree as to what it is. Who’s fault is that and does it matter? You’ve entered the stream to whatever degree, you’ve discovered some wisdom. Awesome, congratulations to you, and once again thanks for sharing your experience with us.

    I see, or maybe I’m just hoping, that you’ve created this space to help people along in their path. Maybe you’ve created it out of ego or pride or necessity or boredom. I have no idea and I’m sure there’s a few things at play. Whatever the case here it is and Hopefully it’s helping you out in your path. Seemingly though it’s just thoughts on a page that you’ve solidified into your own personal truth, which seemingly does help one progress on the path. It seems like grasping.

    You claim that nirvana is beyond reach. Can you absolutely know this to be true? No, you simply can’t. You can think all you want about it but in the end there will always be uncertainty. Can an unconditioned experience exist? Maybe it’s beyond your scope of experience and so you assume that it’s beyond everyone’s, but that’s not necessarily true, nor could you know it to be. It’s essentially a problem of logical thinking and dualistic extremes. One guru says existence is infinite and that it never ends. Another says experience is finite and has an end. Of the first guru we can say that his knowledge is limited, it just hasn’t reached the end. Of the second guru we can say that his knowledge is also limited and he can’t see past a certain point. Neither are correct. This is similar to the self-not self logical problem. The Buddha didn’t hold to either of those extremes, he say as you quoted and I’m paraphrasing, experience in and of itself is not self. Doesn’t really answer the question of wether or not there is or isn’t self, if we can get beyond the conditioned experience or not. That’s because it’s been turned into a dualistic logical thought. The teaching is subtler than that. It’s so subtle the Buddha didn’t want to teach it because he thought it’d be hopelessly hard to understand. I can feel with the Buddha there, we are so caught up in our habitual thinking pattern so we miss it.

    Towards the end you question living on this earth without suffering. You seem to hold the position that it’s an impossible goal to obtain as things are going to continually happen to us as long as we are here. But the Buddha didn’t teach that you escape experiences and feelings but that you extinguish the flame of craving, of non acceptance. You can accept reality exactly as it is and experience a deep peace. I’m sure you’ve experienced that to some degree in your practice where the mind was truly unshakable. Where the peace was so deep that anything could happen and you wouldn’t suffer. Suffering is a product of our mind. It’s not something that happens to us, it’s something we create. And if we are fully open to reality, to the absolute subtlest level, and fully accept, who knows what that experience would be like. Maybe it is the unconditioned, the conditioned, or somewhere in the middle. Seemingly it’s in the middle, like all of the Buddha’s teaching.

    I don’t know, take everything I said with a grain of salt, after all I’m just a random ass just like you. But do realize that what’s unknown is unknown and it’s ok that it’s unknown. All we can do is continue to investigate for ourselves and have compassion for those of cling to absolutes and extremes, and try to be harmless to others investigating this path themselves. That doesn’t mean don’t question or doubt, after all the path is on of inquiry to the deepest reality of what is, but that means being supportive of others inquiry and not imposing absolutes onto them.

    As I say that I think as to how you, Stephen, seemingly don’t like the precepts. Of the 2 things I’ve read from you you seem fairly opposed and hold that a view that they are oppressive in their nature. Brought down onto the disciples from a perverted place. I don’t think this is the case. They are a tool. A convention, just like Buddhism to help one progress on the path. The nature of both the things are not perverse at all, they just are. If the tool is too heavy to use grab a lighter tool. The precepts start very light, very gross, and get to be “heavier” as you choose a monastic life. But there’s no one saying you have to live monastically to practice or progress. But what is the purpose of this tool? It gives us the opportunity to see that something has arisen within us calling us to act. We see that and if it’s an action against the precepts we restrain our action. The desire to act stays though, and that gives us an opportunity to observe what this desire is. To see that it arises and ceases. To understand reality as it is, anicca. Not only is it a direct and powerful opportunity to see the nature of ourselves it helps us in our pursuit to be harmless to all beings, by restraining our unskillful actions. I don’t really see how you can argue against the percepts at their grossest level. Non of us want to be murdered or robbed or raped. Non of us want to be tortured or harmed or stolen from. So we don’t do that to others and as we become more skilled in observing our impulses we can refine our actions to cause less and less harm, taking less impulsive action and choosing what benefits both others and ourselves instead.

    Thanks again for providing this place so we can all grow in our practice. Take care everyone!

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