Self and Not-Self

Vacchagotta, a wandering mendicant, visited the Buddha and asked him if there was such a thing as ”self.”  The Buddha didn’t answer him but just sat silently.  Vacchagotta then asked if there was ”no self.”  The Buddha was again silent, and Vacchagotta left with his curiosity unsatisfied.  Ananda, the Buddha’s personal attendant, was puzzled by the Buddha’s silence and asked him to explain. The Buddha replied:

“Ananda, if I…  were to answer that there is a self, that would be conforming with those priests and contemplatives who are exponents of eternalism.  If I … were to answer that there is no self, that would be conforming with those priests and contemplatives who are exponents of annihilationism.  If I … were to answer that there is a self, would that be in keeping with the arising of knowledge that all phenomena are not-self?”

“No, lord.”

“And if I…  were to answer that there is no self, the bewildered Vacchagotta would become even more bewildered: ‘Does the self I used to have now not exist?'”     — Ananda Sutta [ref] Samyutta Nikaya 44.10, translation by Thanissaro Bikkhu [/ref]

Anatta, or ”not-self”, is a frequently misunderstood Buddhist concept. Let’s clear up three common misconceptions about it right off the bat.  Buddhism doesn’t deny you exist, deny you have a personality, or imply you shouldn’t have an ”ego.” What Buddhism does deny is a false conception of the self:  a self that is separate-unto-itself and unchanging.

In its narrowest sense, anatta is a denial of the Vedic conception of atman, an unchanging soul which transmigrates and which, according to the ancient Vedic formula, shares an identity with Brahman, or the godhead.  More broadly, anatta is descriptive of all conditioned phenomena, not just the self, and corresponds to the Mahayana idea of ō›unyata or emptiness: nothing possesses an unchanging self-nature.

The self can be compared to a whirlpool in the ocean.  A whirlpool is a distinctive feature of the ocean: it’s visible, tangible, and measurable.  It’s real.  It exists.  On the other hand, at any given moment the water that makes up the whirlpool is different from the water that comprised it a moment before, and from the water that will comprise it a moment later.  The whirlpool is a pattern that retains a discernible identity while it continues to exist.  At any given time, there is no separation between the whirlpool and the ocean.  It makes no sense to say that the whirlpool is ”here” and the ocean is ”there.”  Whirlpooling is a feature of the ocean.

It’s the same with the self.  The self exists as a pattern: a pattern of behavioral response. But that pattern is always in some degree of flux.  While I am always, in some sense, the same person, I am different now than I was at age three, and different from the way I will be at age eighty.  My intellectual capacity and memory will decline as I age.  My tastes and opinions may change as well.  While we are a relatively enduring pattern, we are also constantly changing: learning, developing, maturing, declining.  We also change depending on the situation we find ourselves in.  We behave differently at work, at home, in the bar, and in the zendo.

We are also inseparable from the world around us.  Our skin connects us to the world, rather than separating us from it.  It excretes, transpires, absorbs. We are constantly taking in the environment as we breathe, drink, eat, listen, watch, and feel.  We are constantly returning parts of ourselves to the environment as we sweat, excrete, exhale, and communicate.  Our body is constantly shifting state in response to the environment: its temperature, brightness, noisiness, novelty, and complexity.  Our minds are also inseparable from the world.  They are made up of memes [ref] Minsky, M. (1988). The Society of Mind. Simon and Schuster: New York [/ref] and schemas [ref] Piaget, J. (1953). Origins of Intelligence in the Child, London: Routledge & Kegan [/ref] learned from parents, teachers, peers, opinion makers, and the media, and through our interaction with the world.  We are like the whirlpool and the ocean: there is no place where we stop and the world begins.  This is our self: changing and interconnected.

Synchronic and Diachronic Self Obervation

In meditation we observe the present moment.  This is what can be called synchronic observation, as opposed to diachronic observation where we study phenomena over time. In any given moment or succession of moments we can observe a flux of sensations, sounds, smells, thoughts, images, memories, but no self.  Meditation reveals a world of sense objects and a process of knowing, but nothing solid we can call a self.  The Scottish empiricist philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776), came to the same conclusion as the Buddhist meditators about this:

”For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception….  I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.”

When we observe human behavior (including mental behavior) over longer periods of time, however, a different picture emerges.  We can observe regularities in thought and behavior that recur over time and across situations that are typical for a given individual, at least over a circumscribed time period of months and years.  These regularities are what we mean when we talk about personality, character, and the nature of self. [ref] Over the centuries Buddhism itself came to recognize that the synchronic view of mental processes was insufficient, and the concept of the alaya-jijnana, or “storehouse conciousness,” developed to provide continuity over time.  See, for example, Waldron, W.S. (2003). The Buddhist Unconscious: The Alaya-Vijnana in the Context of Indian Buddhist Thought. Routledge: London.[/ref]

Jeffrey Rubin discussed the difference between synchronic and diachronic views of the self in ”Close Encounters of a New Kind: Toward an Integration of Psychoanalysis and Buddhism. [ref] Rubin, J. (2003). Close Encounters of a New Kind: Toward an Integration of Psychoanalysis and Buddhism.  In Segall, S. (2003). Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings. SUNY Press: Albany, NY. [/ref] Rubin compared synchronic observation to looking through a microscope, and diachronic observation to looking through a telescope.  He argued that neither method provided what he called ”immaculate perception:”

”The self (or anti/no-self) that they ”discover” is intimately related to how they investigate it. The telescopic approach to self-experience employed by many psychoanalysts yields a substantial self shaped by a particular history. Examining self-experience microscopically as Buddhist meditation does, reveals the fluid and unfolding nature of identity, the way we are shaped anew, moment-by-moment.  We need a bifocal conception of self that realizes that the self is both a substantial, embodied, historical, agent as psychoanalysis suggests, that perceives, chooses, and acts, and a fluid, uncongealed process that is created afresh by changing states of consciousness in the present.  Each conception of self is useful in particular circumstances.”

Why is any of this important?  Thanissaro Bikkhu has argued that the Buddha’s intention in discussing anatta was not to make an ontological or metaphysical point about the existence of the self, but to make a soteriological point about how to relieve suffering. How then does a belief in a skin-encapsulated, isolated, unchanging self lead to suffering? Here’s one answer from a (slightly altered)  book chapter [ref]On Being a Non-Buddhist Buddhist: A Dialogue With Myself in Segall, S. (2003). Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings. SUNY Press: Albany, NY. [/ref] I wrote a few years back:

”There are real existential and ethical consequences that flow from our erroneous view of selfhood.  On an existential level, the existence of this inner self separates us from the rest of creation; we believe we are different from stars, rocks, ferrets and daisies; we believe ourselves to be this free mental thing that stands outside of materiality and causality.  When we experience ourselves as a process that is one with the universe, however, our sense of existential loneliness and estrangement drops away. Our sense of existential estrangement underlies some of our most destructive behavior.  When we harm the environment or another being we feel we are harming something other than ourselves.  When we wake up to our existential continuity with Being, we realize that when we harm others we are harming ourselves….

We are always worrying about the status of this self as if it was a currency whose value was floating in a free market:  ”What’s the value of my self at this moment?”   In contemporary free-market societies the self seems to fluctuate in value from moment to moment.  The resulting insecurity means we are always trying to enhance our value through the accumulation of wealth, power, and status, through the pursuit of perfection, through ceaseless defensiveness and self-promotion, and through the defeat and humiliation of our rivals.  The anxious self, worried about its own insufficiency, is at the root of most human cruelty….

There are also psychological consequences to our erroneous view of the self.  Our clinging to a separate, enduring self can become a false refuge from existential anxiety and can impede a genuine awakening to our human condition. We often hear exhortations from within the self-help community to ”express ourselves,” ”love ourselves,” ”be our true selves,” and ”discover ourselves.” These exhortations have genuine value when they encourage the undoing of habitual self-abnegation, self-hatred, or self-obliviousness. They become hindrances, however, when they encourage glorification of the self, or pursuit of the self as an end-goal in life…  The Buddha believed that trying to take refuge in insubstantial, transient, and ultimately unsatisfying things was the root cause of human suffering. The belief that ”if only I had this I would be happy” is reborn in the human heart in each and every moment: ”If only one had more money”, or ”a better job,” or ”a better partner,” or was ”more beautiful,” or ”talented,” or ”healthier,” and so on, ad infinitum. This belief in psychological rescue and refuge in ultimately unsatisfying things leads us to waste our lives in their pursuit, or leads us to berate and hate ourselves for failing to obtain or be them.

The Buddha believed that if one clearly saw that the self for what it was, one would not cling to self, and that this would assist one in ending suffering…   One would not take pride, for example, in being intelligent, and use that personal characteristic as a way of feeling either existentially sufficient or superior to others.  Intelligence is not a static, fixed thing: we act intelligently one moment and stupidly the next. Intelligence is not permanent: at any moment it can be impaired by age, injury, or disease.  Intelligence is also not ”ours;” we cannot take credit for it:  It is a function of our parents’ genes, adequate nutrition, gifted teachers, the inculcation of good study habits, and the knowledge passed on to us from past generations. So there is no reason to cling to it: it is something that is here due to previous causes and conditions and is ephemeral. It is the same with every trait that we take to be part of the self: our kindness, our beauty, our courage, our strength.  All of it is due to causes and conditions, and will vanish with changing causes and conditions; none of it is ours.  We can be happy it is here, but it can’t be our refuge.

Not that the self is all bad.  All human beings above a minimal level of intelligence develop a sense of self, regardless of culture.  It’s also clear that they do so at a very early age, although the sense of self continues to elaborate and develop across the life span.  The universality of the self suggests that we are biologically predisposed to develop one, and that this self must have important survival value for us as a species. This sense of self and agency are also deeply imbedded within language which has a semantic structure based on the distinctions between actor, action and object.  While some think that our sense of self grows out of the semantic structure of language, it seems more likely that a proto-self emerges prior to language acquisition, and that both the self and the semantic structure of language have similar roots in the structure of human experience given our biological makeup and our interaction with the world.

Some of the earliest roots of the self lie in mammalian behaviors such as territoriality, possession, and the social structure of the pack.  It’s easy to intuit the survival values of those behaviors and their role in natural selection.  It is also easy to tie identity formation to the welfare of the family and clan; identity is in part determined by the reflected appraisals and ascribed roles of family and clan, and in turn serves as a locus of social responsibility for parents and teachers as they enculturate the child.

The fact that we are biologically predisposed to view things in a certain way, and that it might be useful to do so for some purposes, doesn’t mean that it is the only, or even the most useful, way to view things.  We are biologically predisposed to see objects as solid, and it is in many ways useful to do so; but objects are mostly empty space, and viewing them as solid prevents us from making other kinds of use of the material world.  It looks to us as if the Earth is flat and that the sun moves around it; for most purposes that suits us well, but it is woefully inadequate for other purposes.  As our social and intellectual evolution progresses, and as our species continues to interlink across the globe and reach beyond it, and as we begin to alter our environment and genetic makeup in radical ways, and as we develop technologies that can lead to our own extinction, prior ways of seeing things may no longer serve us. In our ancestral world of open space and small competing clans with only limited powers of control and destruction, the old view of self and other may have been good enough.  Now, perhaps, a view of understanding what connects us, the unity of all things, a vision of inter-being, becomes imperative if we are to survive as a species.

One further problem with a false view of self is that it can prevent us from growing psychologically and spiritually.  We can mistakenly believe that our narratives about ourselves are our true indentity, and not see them for what they are: just stories. Often we can be hemmed in by inadequate narratives that preclude and hamper our ability to change.  If one sees onself as inferior, or deficient, or “an addict,” or a “mental patient,” or “a victim,” for example, one may buy into that definition.  If you are woefully deficient in some way, there is nothing you can do about it.  You just have to suck it up.  Personal growth requires us to let go of old stories and definitions and try on new identities.  The less intensely one clings to a particular identity, the greater the potential for growth and change.

The Buddha, in neither endorsing self nor not-self in response to Vacchagotta’s questions, came awfully close to the four-fold denials of Nagarjuna, the second century poet-yogi-philosopher.  We can always count on Nagarjuna to take things one step further, so it’s fitting to end this post with Nagarjuna’s take on self and not-self:

”It is said that ”there is a self,” but ”non-self” too is taught. The buddhas also teach there is nothing which is ”neither self nor non-self….”   Everything is real, not real; both real and not real; neither not real nor real: this is the teaching of the Buddha.”  –Nagarjuna, Mulamadhyamikakarika (Stephen Batchelor trans.)

Everybody got it?

23 Replies to “Self and Not-Self”

  1. Fantastic read. I’ll be sharing this over at

    Couple things:

    “The self can be compared to a whirlpool in the ocean. A whirlpool is a distinctive feature of the ocean: it’s visible, tangible, and measurable. It’s real. It exists. On the other hand, at any given moment the water that makes up the whirlpool is different from the water that comprised it a moment before, and from the water that will comprise it a moment later. The whirlpool is a pattern that retains a discernible identity while it continues to exist. At any given time, there is no separation between the whirlpool and the ocean. It makes no sense to say that the whirlpool is ”here” and the ocean is ”there.” Whirlpooling is a feature of the ocean.”

    This is a fantastic analogy of the self. I will definitely be using this in the future when I try to describe the non-essence of the self.

    I think what sometimes gets tricky about the “not me” philosophy is that people sometimes wrongly interpret it to mean that we are free from responsibility, and that our actions don’t have consequences or karma. When we recognize that there is a self, and that it is also interconnected with others, we see that karma is a crucial concept in alleviating suffering.

    I hope to read more from you soon!

  2. Excellent! I also appreciate the example of the whirlpool.

    In Tibetan Buddhism, the phrase that would apply is: “free from permanence and non-existence.”

    You said: “The self exists as a pattern: a pattern of behavioral response.” The Dalai Lama refers to the self as “a label for a complex web of interrelated phenomena.” And of course he says we are not denying the existence of phenomena altogether. They are just not the way they seem to be to us.

    Thanks for a very well written piece.

  3. Thank you David, Steven, and Sandra for your kind comments.

    I wish I could take credit for the whirlpool metaphor, but Charlotte Joko Beck was the first to use it in her book “Nothing Special”:

    “We are rather like whirlpools in the river of life. In flowing forward, a river or stream may hit rocks, branches, or irregularities in the ground, causing whirlpools to spring up spontaneously here and there. Water entering one whirlpool quickly passes through and rejoins the river, eventually joining another whirlpool and moving on. Though for short periods it seems to be distinguishable as a separate event, the water in the whirlpools is just the river itself. The stability of a whirlpool is only temporary…. The energy that was a particular whirlpool fades out and the water passes on, perhaps to be caught again and turned for a moment into another whirlpool.”

    Thank you Sandra for the phrase “free from permanence and non-existence.” It’s new to me and sounds lovely to my ear.

  4. Perhaps it should be noted that Buddhism teaches not only that there are no individual “I’s” but also that there is no universal “I” or Creator. This distiguishes it not only from the Semitic religions dominant in much of the world, but also from the belief systems of many ancient cultures, which often contain a creation myth. So, while many people throughout recent millennia have struggled with their relationship to God, Buddhists have been unencumbered by such concerns and the guilt associated with it. It is interesting that so many nowadays assert that a belief in monotheism is essential for humanity’s moral foundation, but Buddhism provides such a foundation through the precepts, the great resolutions, the paramita of Sila and the very idea of dependent co-arising without resort to the notion of a God as Creator. As to the whirpool, Hakuun Yasutani Roshi uses the metaphor of a succession of waves in the ocean when discussing the concept of re-birth in an unpublished monograph titled “Eight Beliefs in Buddhism.” According to him, there is no substance to tranmigrate, but there are energies that carry imprints from one wave to the next.

  5. Hello. I found you text by google, through “not self”. I was searching comments on “Steppenwolf” by Herman Hesse. There is a passage on that book about the missconceptions of self. I’ve been practising meditation for years and it’s not a new idea for me – Hesse just triggered something, or reminded me of something I all ready knew.

    I noticed that you talked about “anatta” and “atman”. Have you read the Upanisads? Its a common belief that “atman” is a soul of some sort – but actually Atman = Brahman is presented in some hindu texts almost the same way as Whirlpool = Ocean. The is no separation between them. The Upanisads doesn’t say that Atman doesn’t flow like everything else or that it is permanent – or that the world is just dreaming.

    I recommend you study “Ashtavakra Gita”. It has many similarities with the most brilliant Diamond Cutter Sutra. They both argue that there is no Yes or No to many important questions…

    “For me established in my own glory,
    there is no Self or Non-self,
    no good or evil,
    no thought or even absence of thought.

    For me established in my own glory,
    there is no dreaming or deep sleep,
    no waking nor other state beyond them,
    and certainly no fear.

    For me established in my own glory,
    there is nothing far away and nothing near,
    nothing within or without,
    nothing large and nothing small.”
    (Ashtavakra Gita)

    1. Thanks, Juho, for bringing the Ashtavakra Gita to my attention. This is a relatively late addition to the Advaita Vedanta literature written probably somewhere between 800 and 1400 CE, over 1,000 years after the Buddha. During the 1,000+ years that Buddhism and Vedanta coexisted together on the Indian subcontinent they influenced each other a great deal. It’s not uncommon to see Buddhist themes adopted into Vedanta, and to see Vedantic ideas absorbed into Buddhism — to the point where, at times, it’s hard to see where one begins and the other ends. In Hinduism, the Buddha eventually became the 24th avatar of Vishnu — talk about absorption!

      1. New linguistic research on pali and sanskrit come up with a different facts that, vedanta sanskrit literature has emerged much later part after evolution of nagari script, wher as pali language had a different script called dhamm lipi (script) which is seen in all Ashokan inscription. One more think that oldest surviving barck leaf of Sanskrit found in Gandhara called scroll of Gandhara are Buddhist literature written in different script. Vedic and vedanta surviving manuscript are dated around 1400 AD written in Nagari script. As far as my understanding goes Buddhism was divided into many sub school from which vedanta philosophy emerged.

  6. Hello Seth and thank you for this beautifully written and very clear piece! The only thing I would object is when you write that our self is all due to external causes and conditions. It´s true that our intelligence, our sense of compassion and everything else is given by our genes, parents´ teachings, culture that surrounds us etc. but that would mean that if we take for example two brothers, they have to be equally intelligent/compassionate and share the same interests. That´s obviously not true because one can choose not to go to university, the other that compassion he was taught is a sign of weakness and they develop different personalities THANKS TO THEIR OWN DECISIONS taken in life. Their character is (at least partially) their own merit.

    What puzzles me about buddhism – which I strongly admire and just begginning to study – is that saying that our (present and impermanent) self is not ours at all given that is a result of external conditions means that all characters, all people are exactly the same – at least those who were brought up in the same environment. When it´s obvious that a celf-centred twat that torture animals and passing his existence getting drunk is quite different from a study-loving and modest vegan striving all his life to learn something new and to keep his mind open. And that´s because of their own personal choices not because of the genes.

    1. Thanks! I really don’t want to get into an extended discussion of whether our actions are “chosen” or “determined.” My main point is that the designation of an autonomous self that is somehow separate from “external” influences is a fiction. We’re an integral part of the flow of the universe — even if that flow sometimes causes temporary eddies that coalesce for awhile (a very short while given the time span of the universe!) into subsystems with their own internal dynamics.

  7. I really liked the comparison to the whirl pool. I found the part “…at any given moment the water that makes up the whirlpool is different from the water that comprised it a moment before, and from the water that will comprise it a moment later.” to be one of the best ways to describe the self theory. Also the apart being one with earth through the connection of our skin really helps out the mind at ease when trying to think about how we benefit from the Earth without even knowing. This article really helped me get a better of the self concept and im sure it helped others as well. It really stresses the point that in order to truly grow spiritually you need to one with the self. All in all a great piece.

    1. Trace, Glad you liked the Whirlpool metaphor. I do too. I wish I could take credit for it, but I read it first in a book by the late Zen Master Charlotte Joko Beck. Best of luck to you on your own spiritual journey and finding your own way to be connected to the earth and all beings.

  8. Hi,

    if I understand “self” not as a person or a human being, but rather as the “immediate givenness of experience”, the very way of being of experience, i.e. subjectivity itself, featureless and empty and itself unchangeable, but that which underlies all qualities, all experience: that in experience which persists, while the content of experience changes (this is my understanding of Advaita’s atman) – does Buddhism, in your opinion, denies the existence of this?

    I’m sitting here, the world is “given to me” through the point of view of this person, Edralis. I hear the hum of my computer, click-clack of my fingers on the keyboard, watch the screen. There is this experience, of Edralis doing this – and this experience is *mine*. But now there is another experience, equally as present. And yesterday’s Edralis’ experiences were equally mine (I think).

    Edralis’ experiences, in the sense that Edralis is the “center” of that experience – but Edralis is herself a feature of that experience, so she cannot properly be a “witness” of it. If anything is *in* experience (i.e. if it has any experienced quality), it cannot be that for which experience is. Edralis is just a cluster of feelings and percepts, that happens to be at the center of the experience that is immediately given to *me*, the subject of that experience. And myself, as I understand it, is nothing else but the immediate givenness of that experience, the way that experience exists. And this “I” is identically present in all experiences that are mine (i.e. it is a sort of “universal”, empty and unchanging). There are many experiences that are mine, but I, as the subject, am equally in all of them. I am the now, the presence, the givenness. The content of experience changes, but I remain.

    Does Buddhism denies the existence of “self” in this sense? I.e. not self as Edralis, as a person, human being, but “self” in the sense of the persisting (in the sense that it is equally in many experiences), empty and unchanging (quality-less) “dimension of being” of experience?

    Thank you!

    1. Edralis, you are asking a complex set of questions, and I will try to answer them to the best of my ability. First, it is important to remember that there are different schools of Buddhism, both historically and in the present, and that different schools might give different answers. As far as the Buddhism of the Pali Canon is concerned–the basis for Theravada Buddhism–there is no doubt that it denies the advaita idea of “atman,” or of a consciousness that is somehow unchanging and separate from one’s psychophysical organism. There is no pure, unchanging consciousness that witnesses the world. Later schools of Buddhism accept the idea of an aspect of consciousness separate from sense experience that appropriate’s consciousness as “mine.” Any act of consciousness both points in two directions: both outwards to the sense world and inward back to “me” at the same time. There are ideas in later Buddhist thought, however,–as Buddhism evolved alongside Vedanta–that seem to smuggle pure forms of consciousness back into Buddhism, and this can be seen especially in the Tibetan schools today. Ideas such as “Buddha-Nature” smuggle the idea of something pure and unchanging back into Buddhism, where it was clear in early Buddhism that everything (except Nirvana) was subject to change.

      Most forms of Buddhism see the self as something subject to continual change through karmic activity. The Buddha didn’t mean to say that the word “self” is meaningless, but only that there was no “self” that existed (like a “soul” or “atman”) separate from our pyschophysical organism, and that whatever the “self” was was neither pure, unchanging, nor separate from conditioning factors. I don’t know how well this answers your question. If it doesn’t, feel free to ask in another way.

    2. Edralis:

      You may want to read Philosophy in the Flesh : The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, which covers your questions through the discipline of cognitive linguistics and presents an analysis that is harmonious with the early Buddhist notions that Seth mentions. This will give you a taste of Lakoff’s approach:

      1. Thank you very much for your answer!
        When Buddha denies the “self”, isn’t he denying the existence of souls/selves in this sense: of something pure and unchanging and separate that *also* has a personality and memory etc.? Because it seems to me that what usually people mean when they think of “self” or “soul”, is some “inner mental core” of a human being, that possesses character and memories and “lives inside” the body (like the souls in Christianity), not the subject of experience as I described it above (what I understand “atman” to be – perhaps very incorrectly!). And if it is denied that we possess some inner true nature, it might just mean that *people* do not possess inner true nature, not that the subject does not exist.

        You say “there is no doubt that it denies the advaita idea of ”atman,” or of a consciousness that is somehow unchanging and separate from one’s psychophysical organism. There is no pure, unchanging consciousness that witnesses the world.” But this could be interpreted in so many ways! In some sense, atman (as I understand it) is “unchanging and separate and pure”, but in another, it is not. For example: it is not unchanging, because what it “witnesses” is ever-changing, and because what it is is just the way what it witnesses exists, so we could say it actually also changes in this sense all the time (because that of which existence it is changes all the time); yet it is unchanging, because it is present equally in every experience, i.e. it just is the being of that experience. It is separate, because whereas what is witnessed comes and goes, it stays, and so it must be, in some sense, independent and separate. But at the same time, it is not separate, because it *just is* the way the witnessed exists, and it cannot exists separately from the witnessed. There is no ”inner core” of a person, of a human being, that makes that person be what it is — the person is just some psychology and some physiology, ever changing, fuzzy. But the subject/atman (as I understand it) is not that. (But I might be actually totally confused about this.)

        Sometimes it seems to me that the different schools/philosophies/religions might not actually be in conflict with one another, and that the disagreement that they have is purely conceptual: that is, that what Buddhism denies when it denies “atman”, is not the same thing the existence of which Advaita affirms. But because of their different “conceptual maps”, and different terminologies, they seem to be in actual conflict, when their conclusions about what is and isn’t are actually compatible.

        I would really like to know how it really is! And understand how it is that different venerable traditions offer such seemingly different opinions about our “true nature”, or whether there even is such a thing. Do you think it is possible that all these perspectives really are not in disagreement with one another?

        Because I just don’t understand how it could be the case that there is *one true understanding* of how things are, whether it be Buddhist (of whichever kind) or Vedantic, or any other, and all others are false or lesser. Surely, the same truth could be gleaned “from different sides”, discovered using different conceptual maps? But perhaps that is not so. In the end, certainly some teachings go deeper and are more encompassing. But then, how do I know which one is actually true, when they all seem very deep, and very old, and very respectable, and all of them are full of wise people that are certain that their understanding is the ultimately true one?

        1. Edralis, you continue to ask wonderful questions. Unfortunately, they are way above my pay grade to answer. I am sympathetic to the Perennialist view that all spiritual traditions are “actually saying the same thing” or pointing to the same underlying ineffable reality and that the differences between them are the unfortunate effect of putting these insights into language that is inevitably dualistic or into preexisting symbols that are meaningful within particular cultures and historical contexts–but I am unconvinced that Perennialism is actually true. While there may be core similarities between all or most spiritual traditions, it is important not to overemphasize the similarities and ignore the real differences and particularities. Whether there actually is an unchanging consciousness or aspect of consciousness that is part of all experience but unchanged by it–who knows? One could make arguments for or against that position, but I couldn’t tell you with any surety which was correct. I suspect no one else can either. They can just give you the perspective of their own tradition. In addition, if some esteemed and worthy person claims a dramatic insight into this problem from their own medititative or psychedelic experience, how would we know whether that dramatic insight was really a valid insight and not some mistake? Or that we were really understanding what were saying correctly, since it is again being expressed through the medium of language? I am content to leave all these questions as interesting speculations and do not feel any existential need to resolve them. I am a happy agnostic. It is enough for me to work on the questions I am actually able to answer through my own direct experience and checking that experience against the experience of others.

          1. Thank you for your thoughtful answer. Agnosticism and seeking direct (experiential) understanding seem overall like the safest strategies, indeed. I will try and continue to search and doubt and understand (and not get too existentially hung up on things being one way or another).

  9. Sorry for the later reply. I am doing a study of the Yoga Sutras – and there is material in there regarding a response to the Buddhists at the time regarding the atman and the idea of no atman. Patanjali’s basic method is to state that yoga is the restriction of the movements of the mind; then (tadā), there is an abiding (avasthānam) in the essential nature (sva-rō«pe) of the Seer (draṣṭuḥ) (i.e. – not through identity but through recognition); other occasions (itaratra) (i.e – when the mind is not still), there is identity (sārō«pyam) (between the Seer and) the modifications (of mind) (vá¹›tti).

    What confused me was some of the Buddhist school approaches that there is no ‘essential nature’. What then makes it different from Jean-Paul Sartre’s approach to existentialism? What I understand about Sartre’s philosophy is that nature proceeds essence. You see, Patanjali is stating that the issue is that essential nature or ‘atman’ bounds itself to nature (prakriti) and identifies with the modifications of nature – so, here, essence precedes nature. And this approach is understood in the proposed yogic method. This method is similar, at least on the surface, to that of Shantideva detailed in his book Way of the Boddhisattva where he states, in the chapter on vigilance, where he recommends that the practitioner be like a log of wood in response to the movements of the mind (he is very severe!).

    What I am saying here is that there cannot be a wrong view of self if there is no self, thus achieving the freedom that Sartre speaks of. But is seems clear to me that isn’t what Buddha was speaking to as he said, as you quoted, that he was not a proponent of ‘annihilationism’.

    Anyway, read much of what you wrote and just wanted to respond, even though this is an old post. Thanks.

    1. Bill, I really cannot comment on the Yoga Sutras and Patanjali, as I have not read them and am only vaguely familiar with them. What I can comment on is the Mahayana Buddhist view of “no essential nature” and how it is different from Sartre’s idea that “existence precedes essence.” For Sartre, “existence precedes essence” is an assertion of humankind’s radical freedom, that we are free to create and define ourselves. For Buddhism, the absence of self-nature (sunyata, or “emptiness”) is a statement of our radical contingency on causes and conditions and the way we arise in interdependence with everything else. The apparent “I” is not some unchanging essence like an atman our soul, but is something arising out of a multiplicity of biological, historical, social, and cultural conditions and that comtinues to undergo constant change and transformation through continous interaction with an unending flow of influences that are themselves undergoing continuous transformation—ultimately through the interaction of everything with everything. My apparent “I” at age 2 is very different from my apparent “I” at age 72. In some ways, the flow of “me” that began at birth is continuing now, but the “me” is also undergoing continuous change. This is the way in which Buddhism is a midpoint between eternalism and annihilationism——my 2 year old me no longer exists, but my 72 year old me is part of the same continuous stream of events, and I could not be the particular 72 year old me I am now if I had not once been the specific 2 year old me I once was.

  10. Thank you for such a nice and simple undestanding of no
    self. One thing which i want bring to you notice that, new linguistic research on pali language and sanskrit language came up with a different facts that, vedanta literature written in Sanskrit language has emerged at much later, that is after evolution of nagari script, where as pali language had a different script called dhamm lipi (script) which is seen in all Ashokan inscription and this is language and script in which early Buddhist literature are written. One more think is that the oldest surviving barck leaf of literature found in Gandhara called Gandhara scroll are Buddhist literature written in Sanskrit gandhar script. Vedic and vedanta surviving manuscript are dated around 1400 AD written in Nagari script. As far as my understanding goes Buddhism was divided into many sub school from which vedanta philosophy emerged.

    1. Bharath, thanks for this——you are certainly correct that Vedanta developed after the Buddhism of the Pali canon I think we can say that Vedanta arose as a parallel tradition to Buddhism, and that Buddhism and Vedanta influenced each other as they continued to develop in India. I don’t think we can say that Vedanta emerged from an earlier subschool of Buddhism, however.

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