No-self or Not-self?
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 drawn.
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 limitless freedom.
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?
Copyright © 1996 Thanissaro Bhikkhu
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Revised: Sun 3 October 1999