What did the Buddha mean by "No-Self"?
The Buddha’s insight on what the self is not, is very logical and analytical, but what it leads into is a wonderous realization of inter-being, impermanence, and dependent co-arising.
When trying to understand what Buddhist philosophy says about the self, let us first explore what exactly the Buddha said when asked to speak directly on whether or not there is a self.
A wandering ascetic, named Vacchagotta, once came to visit the Buddha. After a friendly exchange, he asked the Buddha, “So tell me, is there a self?”
The Buddha remained silent, calmly smiling. So, Vacchagotta instead asked, “Well then, is there not a self?”
Again, the Buddha was silent. After some time, Vacchagotta realized the Buddha would not answer any of his questions and he left.
One of the Buddha’s students asked him why he had not replied to the man, the Buddha’s response was very telling, “The teaching on the emptiness of self is meant to guide our meditation. It is not to be taken as a doctrine. If people take it as a doctrine, they will become entangled by it.”
(From the “Discourse on Knowing a Better Way to Catch a Snake”)
It is important for us to understand that the Buddha’s teachings were never meant to answer metaphysical problems but rather be understood as tools to end suffering. It is from this perspective we can have a much deeper understanding of what the Buddha meant when exploring the self. In what is generally considered to be the Buddha’s second discourse after his enlightenment, he asked his students,
“Is there any view of self in which you can take refuge that will not cause anxiety, exhaustion, sorrow, suffering, and despair?”
To which his students replied, “No, venerable teacher.”
(From the “Not-self Characteristics Discourse”)
It is from this discourse, that many miss quote the Buddha, claiming he proposed, “There is no self.” In this discourse, or any other of his teachings, the Buddha never claimed there was no self, but rather that the self is not what it is usually considered to be. The way I like to conceptualize it, is that what he actually taught, was not that there is no self, but there is no separate, independent, permanent self.
The Buddha’s insight on what the self is not, is very logical and analytical, but what it leads into is a wonderous realization of inter-being, impermanence, and dependent co-arising. The Buddha’s argument goes as follows:
Everything there is about a person is made up of the Five Aggregates: form (body), feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.
The self (as it is usually understood) is a separate and permanent thing, that exists through time.
The Five Aggregates are like constantly flowing rivers which contain nothing that could be called separate or permanent.
Therefore, our body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness (everything a person is made up of) are NOT the self.
When we can come to the insight that there is no separate, independent, permanent self, we come to the realization of Not I, Not Mine, Not Myself. The Buddha explains this more deeply through the analogy of a flower. What we think of a separate, individual flower is in fact always changing. The flower is always receiving ‘non’-flower elements such as water, air and sunshine. It too, is always giving to the universe, such as its smell or its pollen. Its very existence is caught up in a stream of input and output; a stream of change made up of the universe. Everything is dependent on everything else, and thus there is no individual existence or separate self. Here we can see that the Buddha’s understanding of no-self, is that there is no single entity whose identity is changeless. All things are constantly changing and co-arising. Nothing endures forever or contains a changeless element called a “separate self”.
This leads to the miraculous insight of emptiness: I am empty, therefore I am Full. It is this insight that is enlightenment. When we can truly see past the illusionary nature of separation, we come to the realization of Not I, Not Mine, Not Myself. A fundamental teaching of Buddhism is that suffering is caused by attachment, craving and desire. What underpins these causes is a miss-understanding (ignorance) of the self. When we see there is no separate self, then there is no I and no mine. There is nothing to want attachment, nothing to do the craving, nothing to have the desire. Thus, the causes of suffering diminish, leading to the eradication of suffering itself.
There is a beautiful quote by Thich Nhat Hanh which encompasses all of this (From Awakening of the Heart),
“Impermanence is the manifestation of reality from the point of view of time. No-self is the manifestation of reality from the point of view of space.”
Put simply: Where are you? Everywhere. What are you? Everything. If we can truly encompass the teaching of impermanence, we can touch the very nature of the universe. If we can deeply connect with the insight of no separate self we can bring rise to the qualities of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic-joy and equanimity.
The Buddha’s teachings on no separate self should not be considered as a philosophy but as an insight. Insight cannot be gained through reading books alone; it is not something that can be taught but is something that is observed and discovered through mindfulness and concentration. Developing the notion of no separate self through teaching is a good start, but we should be careful to remind ourself that the teaching is only an idea. An idea only cannot liberate us. It is the insight gained through our own practice that leads to our awakening.
The next article I will write will explore the question of “If there is no separate self, then what is it that gets reincarnated?” So, keep your eyes peeled if you’re interested to explore more!
For now, I will leave you with a poem I wrote about the self:
I am Full.
The flame is to the fire,
like the waves are to the sea.
My thoughts are fleeting moments of who I am, of me.
But there is no single I or mine,
no separate self or tree.
Each flower holds the sun and rain,
contains the soil and the bees.
All that is, has co-arisen,
connected deeper than we see.
I am because you are, you are because of me.
All of us are forever changing, from what we were, to what we'll be.
Empty of a separate self,
There is only an interdependent We.