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.