- No-self or Not-self?
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu
- Copyright © 1996 Thanissaro Bhikkhu
One of the first stumbling blocks that Westerners often encounter when they learn about
Buddhism is the teaching on anatta, often translated as no-self. This teaching is a
stumbling block for two reasons. First, the idea of there being no self doesn't fit well
with other Buddhist teachings, such as the doctrine of kamma and rebirth: If there's no
self, what experiences the results of kamma and takes rebirth? Second, it doesn't fit well
with our own Judeo-Christian background, which assumes the existence of an eternal soul or
self as a basic presupposition: If there's no self, what's the purpose of a spiritual
life? Many books try to answer these questions, but if you look at the Pali Canon -- the
earliest extant record of the Buddha's teachings -- you won't find them addressed at all.
In fact, the one place where the Buddha was asked point-blank whether or not there was a
self, he refused to answer. When later asked why, he said that to hold either that there
is a self or that there is no self is to fall into extreme forms of wrong view that make
the path of Buddhist practice impossible. Thus the question should be put aside. To
understand what his silence on this question says about the meaning of anatta, we first
have to look at his teachings on how questions should be asked and answered, and how to
interpret his answers.
The Buddha divided all questions into four classes: those that deserve a categorical
(straight yes or no) answer; those that deserve an analytical answer, defining and
qualifying the terms of the question; those that deserve a counter-question, putting the
ball back in the questioner's court; and those that deserve to be put aside. The last
class of question consists of those that don't lead to the end of suffering and stress.
The first duty of a teacher, when asked a question, is to figure out which class the
question belongs to, and then to respond in the appropriate way. You don't, for example,
say yes or no to a question that should be put aside. If you are the person asking the
question and you get an answer, you should then determine how far the answer should be
interpreted. The Buddha said that there are two types of people who misrepresent him:
those who draw inferences from statements that shouldn't have inferences drawn from them,
and those who don't draw inferences from those that should.
These are the basic ground rules for interpreting the Buddha's teachings, but if we
look at the way most writers treat the anatta doctrine, we find these ground rules
ignored. Some writers try to qualify the no-self interpretation by saying that the Buddha
denied the existence of an eternal self or a separate self, but this is to give an
analytical answer to a question that the Buddha showed should be put aside. Others try to
draw inferences from the few statements in the discourse that seem to imply that there is
no self, but it seems safe to assume that if one forces those statements to give an answer
to a question that should be put aside, one is drawing inferences where they shouldn't be
So, instead of answering "no" to the question of whether or not there is a
self -- interconnected or separate, eternal or not -- the Buddha felt that the question
was misguided to begin with. Why? No matter how you define the line between
"self" and "other," the notion of self involves an element of
self-identification and clinging, and thus suffering and stress. This holds as much for an
interconnected self, which recognizes no "other," as it does for a separate
self. If one identifies with all of nature, one is pained by every felled tree. It also
holds for an entirely "other" universe, in which the sense of alienation and
futility would become so debilitating as to make the quest for happiness -- one's own or
that of others -- impossible. For these reasons, the Buddha advised paying no attention to
such questions as "Do I exist?" or "Don't I exist?" for however you
answer them, they lead to suffering and stress.
To avoid the suffering implicit in questions of "self" and "other,"
he offered an alternative way of dividing up experience: the four Noble Truths of stress,
its cause, its cessation, and the path to its cessation. Rather than viewing these truths
as pertaining to self or other, he said, one should recognize them simply for what they
are, in and of themselves, as they are directly experienced, and then perform the duty
appropriate to each. Stress should be comprehended, its cause abandoned, its cessation
realized, and the path to its cessation developed. These duties form the context in which
the anatta doctrine is best understood. If you develop the path of virtue, concentration,
and discernment to a state of calm well-being and use that calm state to look at
experience in terms of the Noble Truths, the questions that occur to the mind are not
"Is there a self? What is my self?" but rather "Am I suffering stress
because I'm holding onto this particular phenomenon? Is it really me, myself, or mine? If
it's stressful but not really me or mine, why hold on?" These last questions merit
straightforward answers, as they then help you to comprehend stress and to chip away at
the attachment and clinging -- the residual sense of self-identification -- that cause it,
until ultimately all traces of self-identification are gone and all that's left is
In this sense, the anatta teaching is not a doctrine of no-self, but a not-self
strategy for shedding suffering by letting go of its cause, leading to the highest,
undying happiness. At that point, questions of self, no-self, and not-self fall aside.
Once there's the experience of such total freedom, where would there be any concern about
what's experiencing it, or whether or not it's a self?