Ken Ward's Thoughts on Buddhism

Main Page: Thoughts on Buddhism

Not-Self

This page does not delve deeply or completely into the mysteries of the emptiness of the self. It suggests we note anything we think of a self as being not who we truly are. And avoid thinking there is no self. It mentions using not-self language in meditation and thinking. It also suggests that while the question, "What is the self" is pointless, the question, "Which self?" is useful to increase understanding. Finally, there is a short meditation on the self not being the aggregates.

This is not meant to be philosophy. The Buddha, Gotama, taught non-self in order to reduce suffering. The purpose of non-self in Buddhism is not to excite the mind philosophically, but to reduce suffering. It is worth keeping this in mind.

As usual, conventional "truths" are sometimes used for example, "annoying circumstances". While this is something we all understand, ultimately, it is false − circumstances are not the cause of suffering.

On this page:

  1. A Story: The Cloakroom
  2. Not self
  3. Problems with Self
  4. Wrong Views about the Self
  5. Not Me and Not Mine
  6. The Eye Cannot See Itself
  7. Verbally Not-Self
  8. Which Self
  9. We are not the Five Aggregates (Analytical Meditation)
  10. The self is limiting

See also: Non Self in Western Philosophy

A Story: The Cloakroom

Most of us have had an illusion that something or someone is there when nothing is there.

Some years ago, one night I was sitting alone in a house, when I noticed through a half-open door what appeared to be a person. I knew there was no one, except me, in the house but I saw a man, his hat, his coat, his shoes, and the illusion was so pressing I had to get up and look clearly in the room, a cloakroom, even though I knew I was alone.

In this room were a pair of shoes on the floor, a coat hanging from a peg and a hat on a peg. In the room, nothing seemed strange nothing looked like a person but when viewed through the half-open door, the shoes, coat, hat combined in my mind to produce the illusory person or self. That is, it appeared there was ONE (whole) person, but, really, there were only three separate, unrelated things, which my mind combined to produce the image of a self.

I do not deny that I saw a self or a person (an illusion): I deny that a single, whole and independent self existed in the cloakroom. By seeing several parts, suitably positioned, my mind created the illusion, not of several parts, but of a whole, of a self.

I returned to my former position and looked again. Sure enough the illusion appeared, and I saw a person, even though I was not just sceptical, I knew that no person or self was there.

This experience illustrates how we see several or many parts and (our minds) form the illusion of unitary, independent existing things, selves and persons.

Not self

What is this idea of "No self" or "Non self"? Is it a Buddhist theory that there is no self? Or did Gotama claim that there is no theory of self that does not result in suffering?

This page is about the latter: Gotama's claim that there is no theory of self that does not involve suffering. This probably means that any theory of self we might conceive is wrong, and leads to suffering. It does not mean, in the widest sense that there is no self, no person, nor does it mean there is one. In whatever way the unenlightened mind conceives of a self, it falls into error and increases suffering. This is true also of the belief that there is no self. However, there is early Buddhist literature on this that deals with the Buddha nature. Nonetheless, in the early stages of practice, at least, we can think that whatever appears to be our self, isn't our self. It is an error. To emphasise, it also does not mean there is no self (nor that there is a self).

Thanissaro Bikkhu says:

"In fact, it [the Pali canon] never quotes him [Gotama] as trying to define what a person is at all. Instead, it quotes him as saying that to define yourself in any way is to limit yourself, and that the question, "What am I?" is best ignored."

That is, Buddhism does not have a theory of the self, derived from Gotama. Also, any theory of self is limiting.

Take an example of a certain woman. She is a medical doctor, but not only a medical doctor. She is a grandmother, but not only a grandmother. She is a Buddhist nun, but not only a Buddhist nun. She is a teacher, but not only a teacher. She is none of these (and other) identities or selves − saying she is one of them, limits who she is (being a grandmother might suggest she is not a nun)  − and she isn't all of them (certainly not at the same time!)

No one can be accurately assigned one identity, and no one is all possible identities (at the same time), so any attribution of the self is misleading and false. 

Problems with Self

There are psychological and spiritual problems with the self.

Psychological

I might feel upset when I think, "I am ugly." But if there is no self   no I that they could be referring to, then the statement becomes meaningless and not upsetting. If someone say, "You are a pig!" It cannot be upsetting if I do not believe there is anything they are referring to that could be me. If I feel worried that someday I will die, then this means I believe I am a body. If I do not believe I am my body, then how can this thought upset me? If there are just events, then there is no person found in them, and such a belief avoids many causes of suffering.

If I think there is no self, then I may think that life is pointless and depressing. I might turn to seeking pleasure as the expense of reducing suffering and increasing wisdom. But in Buddhism, it is equally wrong to say that there is no self. Clearly there are conventional selves. It is just that whatever we think is a self, isn't a self on analysis.

Spiritual

There are spiritual problems. If I believe I am a permanent self then I might see no reason to avoid causing suffering to others. Whatever happens, I am still me. And there is no reason to practice, because I am an unchanging, permanent self. Someone holding such a belief may see no problem with cruelty, selfishness, dishonesty and so on. Because these things do not affect any person, because the self is permanent and unchanging. There would be no point in reducing suffering.

Similarly, if a person believes there is no self (or the self is the body), then, as before, there is no person to harm, and no person to benefit. On death, the saint and the sinner are the same, both dead − a collection of atoms, returned to nature. And death is the end of suffering. Nothing has changed. The good and the evil have become nothing. There is no pressing reason to avoid unwise actions and to do wise actions. No reason to practice the wise path.

Gotama denied both these claims about the self. He took the Middle Way: it is false that there is a permanent, everlasting self, and it is equally false that there isn't a self.

Wrong Views about the Self

The self is neither the same as one, or more, or all of the five aggregates, nor different or apart from them. It is not contained in them, nor does it contain them. The self is not owned by one or more of the five aggregates, nor does it own them.

“Friend Visakha, that clinging [view being discussed, personality view] is neither the same as these five aggregates affected by clinging nor is clinging something apart from the five aggregates affected by clinging." MN 44 (6)

"... [the wise person] does not regard material form as self, or self as possessed of material form, or material form as in self, or self as in material form... [And similarly for feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness]" MN 44 (8) 
Sister Dhammadinna

The following are wrong views about the self:

  1. the belief to be identical with, or apart from, material form, feeling, perception, mental formations or consciousness; (6-10)
  2. to contain or be contained in them; (11-15)
  3. to be the owner of or owned by them (MN. 44).

Of any and all of the skandhas, I can think: "This is not me, I am not this. I am not in this. This is not in me. This is not mine. It does not own me."

Not Me and Not Mine

“Is what is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’?” - “No, ...”(15)
"....Any kind of [khandha] whatever … all [khandhas] should be seen as [they actually are] with proper wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’" (16)
 Gotama MN109

If something is 'mine', I can do what I like with it: keep it, throw it away, put it where I like. I might say, "I have a pain", implying it is my pain. But this pain did not arise because I told it to. And it does not go when I tell it to go. I cannot throw it away. Pain is not mine.

Of course, the trained person can handle pains and the skandhas generally. The untrained person thinks they own phenomenon − that they are theirs, that they are permanent. The trained person knows they don't own them. They aren't theirs. So they know unpleasant feelings change by themselves (they aren't permanent). And you can throw unwanted things out, even if you don't own them. In any case, an unpleasant feeling, such as a pain, isn't mine.

Similarly, my body changes. Because it is impermanent changes whatever I say or do then it is not something I can keep. The body I had as a child has gone, and day by day, my present body changes. It does this whatever I say and do. I cannot keep yesterday's body. So my body is not mine. I don't own it. It is more like something rented, than owned.

Again, with feeling. Feelings arise, pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. They are not my feelings. I can't keep them, or send them away. I don't control them. So feelings, too, are not mine. And so on, for all the skandhas − that is, for body, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness.

Gotama taught we should think of them like this: "This isn't mine, I am not it. This is not me."

See ownership for an analysis of the word 'own'.

The Eye Cannot See Itself

The following argument is widely accepted (in India and elsewhere). It is called the Anti-Reflexivity Principle. It is based on the claim that the subject cannot operate on the object. Hence the eye can see things, but not see itself. And a screwdriver can undo any fitting screw but not those holding its handle on.

A possible counter-example makes this clear. I can wash myself. However, this isn't a counter-example, because what I call "I" is not one thing, but various things. For example, the right hand can wash most things, but it requires something else to wash it. In this case, it is a system, with various bits doing the washing. Another example, is a hospital that treats people day and night throughout the year. However, at different times, different doctors and nurses do the treating. And if a doctor is injured, she might need to go to the hospital for treatment. The hospital is a system, where different parts do the treating at different times. It is not one, undivided single self.

What this means is that anything you can point to as you is not you. The knower and the known are two different things. A pain is not you and not in you, and it isn't your pain because the knower or experiencer, you, cannot be the thing experienced.

Verbally Not-Self

In early practice, during meditation, or when thinking, it appears to be advantageous to avoid self words, such as I, me, my and corresponding words for other persons, such as he or she, or you. So avoid thinking, "I am angry", by thinking, "Anger has arisen", or some not-self expression.

However ... in some meditations, the student thinks, for example, "I think this is a (pleasant, unpleasant or neither pleasant nor unpleasnt) feeling." The student does this to understand how the I, the self, is essential in experiencing feeling. And to realise that: if there were no self to experience feelings, there could be no suffering. The student does this as a preparation for analytical meditation on the self.

Later, we simply see the emptiness of thoughts and feelings, but for now, we use language to guide us, even though we may drop it later.

Which Self?

I ask, "Is there a self?"

Wisely, you might ask, "Which self do you mean?"

I answer, "The angry self."

When I am angry, and the angry self arises, then I am the angry self. That is, because of some feeling I form a different self, the angry self. As the angry self, I say and do things that I wouldn't normally do. Now, this self is empty. It is not one (it has parts) and it is not self-contained (it was caused). And it is not permanent (we calm down after a bit). We can show this by asking the emptiness questions:

  1. Is it one thing? No, there is 
    • the waving of the arms,
    • the harsh speech,
    • the boiling feeling,
    • etc. It is divisible.
  2. There are many parts. So it isn't one thing. It is a whole list of things (parts). If it is made of parts, it isn't a self there is only one self.

  3. Is it independent? No, it appears when the circumstances are annoying. It does not exist in and of itself, but is caused. If it isn't independent, it isn't a self.
  4. Is it permanent? No, it goes away after a bit, and I return to my normal self. So, if I were that self, I would not exist most of the time.

The angry self is empty, and not who I truly am.

This is true of any self we can imagine.

What about the normal self? Is that who I really am?

Let's check:

  1. Is it indivisible? Well, no. There is the going to work self. The disappointed self. The concentrating self. There are probably thousands 'selves' in this process (None of them a unitary, independent, permanent self).
  2. Is it independent? No. The going-to-work self never appears at the weekend. It depends on circumstances. As do all the other selves.
  3. Is it permanent. When I am sad, the sad self arises. Then I think about sad things, and imagine sad scenarios. I have no interest in things that interest me when I am happy or when I am concentrating on something. Or when I am (or think I am) any one of the many other selves. The normal self isn't permanent.

The normal self is empty, just like any other self I could imagine.

In Buddhism, events and experiences are a sequence of waves, coming into existent and disappearing every moment. Any self you could imagine can be divided into parts, and the parts can also be divided (like atomic particles, subatomic particles and so on, but never finding a basic particle.)

We are not the Five Aggregates (Analytical Meditation)

Gotama said we are not the five aggregates, nor are we different. If we truly know this, see this, then we are arahants (High level spiritual practitioners). The five aggregates are:

  1. material form, or the physical world
  2. feeling or sensations
  3. perception
  4. mental formations, and
  5. consciousness

What following is a brief intellectual (analytical) meditation, but a meditation nonetheless. Our claim is that we are not the five skandhas and we are not different from them.

To start at the end first, if we were different from the five skandhas, we would not be able to find ourselves. In Buddhism, the five skandhas are the most we can be aware of. So, if we cannot feel, perceive, be conscious of this self, or form valid ideas about it (because it is not part of the skandhas), then we have no way to be aware of this self. Therefore, we have no reason to believe it exists. It would be like claiming you were wearing a hat when you weren't, by saying that you are wearing an invisible hat.

But are we the same as the five skandhas? We proceed by examining if we are one or other of the skandhas because if we are not even one of them, we cannot be them all.

Being the body is the best of the bunch of options, because it changes less. But we are not our bodies, not material form, because the body does change -- even if we are not aware of it on a day by day basis -- so the body cannot be our permanent self. In the long run, we are aware of the changes in our body. I am not the same as the baby, Ken, and the Baby Ken isn't the same as me. Because every cell in the body changes every seven years, if we were the body, we would be a new person every seven years. Actually, the body changes second by second, but this is less noticeable. And if we were the current body, we would have been someone else when we were a child, which is absurd.

Even if it is false idea, believing you are a body is believing you are more permanent than believing you are one of the other skandhas. Being one of the remaining skandhas would make our existence even more fleeting. But we are not the body, because it changes, it is made of parts and it is dependent (being me is dependent on my being a baby).

We are not feeling or sensation. If we were, we would be pleasurable, un-pleasurable, or neutral, because that is what feelings are. I could not be a feeling of me, because that is a perception (recognition). Also it is impermanent, composed of parts and subject to causes.

But could I be perception. Sometimes we perceive ourselves as an image, one that can go elsewhere, but this image cannot be me. If this image goes off to live in a fantasy world, I am still in my chair. Because I do not always have this image, it isn't permanent. So it isn't really me.

But what about that idea, "I am me". This is a perception. It can be the "I am" desire, which is a mental formation. Or the "I am obsession", or the "I am conceit". These are all mental formations. But if I were perception, when I perceive something else, then I would no longer be the former me. I would change whenever perception changed, which might be thousands of times in one lifetime! These selves are one, and so they aren't me.

Now perhaps I am a mental formation. If so, if I decide to make some toast, a karmically neutral mental formation, then I would be that mental formation (mental formation of toast maker). And when I did something else on purpose, then I would be that. So, as before I would fall into being lots and lots of different selves, none of which is me.

Could I be consciousness? That which is conscious of things. It sounds good, but then how could I know things and recognise them? If I were consciousness and perception, say, then I would not be one thing, but two. If I were just consciousness, then I would change in kind, visual, auditory...body-feeling, every time I was conscious of something, making me thousands of different selves.

It seems then, that I am not the Five Skandhas, nor even one of them. Nor am I different. Also, I cannot conclude there is no self, because then I would be left wondering what ghostly hand wrote this page. Joking apart, I conclude no self has been found. Whatever I can think of as me, isn't. I resist drawing conclusion like I am an unperceivable, untouchable. etc being, because I have no evidence for it. It is like the emperor claiming he is wearing clothes of such a delicate nature they are invisible to all but the superior beings, when really he is naked.

The self is limiting

Believing you are a self limits and restricts you. Believing another is a self limits and restricts them.

"If one stays obsessed with form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and/or consciousness, that's what one is measured by/limited by. Whatever one is measured by/limited by, that's how one is classified." Gotama based on SN 22.36