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anātman (P. anattā; T. bdag med བདག་མེད་; C.wuwo 無我) is the last of the three marks of existence and a central doctrine of Buddhism. This term is translated as "not-self", "non-self," "impersonality," etc.

The Buddha said "I have taught one thing and one thing only: that is suffering and the end of suffering." His teachings on anātman are taught in this vein.

The doctrine of anātman is not an ontological statement. It is a soteriological statement. That is, it is not a statement about whether or not a so-called "self" (ātman) exists or does not exist. It is a statement about how we can relate to the "self" (I, me, mine) in a skillful way.

Specifically, the Buddha noted that we tend to think of the self as something that is permanent and as something that exists independently from the world around us. We think and act as if there is an "I" or "me" that is somehow unique, independent and permanent. This way of relating to "I" or "me" leads to different types of attachment that cause us to suffer. In the teaching on anātman (not-self), the Buddha presents a skillful way to relate to the self that can lead to a decrease in suffering, and eventually to liberation.

Overview and historical context

Peter Harvey states:

In the Buddha’s day, the spiritual quest was largely seen as the search for identifying and liberating a person’s true Self. Such an entity was postulated as a person’s permanent inner nature, the source of true happiness and the autonomous ‘inner controller’ (Skt antaryamin) of a person’s actions, inner elements and faculties. It would also need to be in full control of itself. In Brahmanism, this ātman was seen as a universal Self identical with Brahman, while in Jainism, for example, it was seen as the individual ‘Life-principle’ (jīva). The Buddha argued that anything subject to change, anything involved with the disharmony of mental pain, anything not autonomous and totally controllable by its own or an owner’s wishes, could not be such a perfect true Self or what in any way pertained or belonged to it. Moreover, to take anything as being such is to lay the basis for much suffering; for what one fondly takes as one’s permanent, essential Self, or its secure possession, all actually changes in undesired ways. While the Upaniṣads recognized many things as being not-Self, they felt that a real, true Self could be found. They held that when it was found, and known to be identical to Brahman, the basis of everything, this would bring liberation. In the Buddhist Suttas, though, literally everything is seen as non-Self, even Nirvana. When this is known, then liberation – Nirvana – is attained by total non-attachment. Thus both the Upaniṣads and the Buddhist Suttas see many things as not-Self, but the Suttas apply it, indeed non-Self, to everything.
The teaching on phenomena as non-Self is not only intended to undermine the Brahmanical or Jain concepts of Self, but also much more commonly held conceptions and deep-rooted feelings of I-ness. To feel that, however much one changes in life from childhood onwards, some essential part remains constant and unchanged as the ‘real me’, is to have a belief in a permanent Self. To act as if only other people die, and to ignore the inevitability of one’s own death, is to act as if one had a permanent Self. To relate changing mental phenomena to a substantial self which ‘owns’ them – ‘I am worried . . . happy . . . angry’ – is to have such a Self-concept. To build an identity based on one’s bodily appearance or abilities, or on one’s sensitivities, ideas and beliefs, actions or intelligence etc. is to take them as part of an ‘I’.
The non-Self teaching can easily be misunderstood and misdescribed; so it is important to see what it is saying. The Buddha accepted many conventional usages of the word ‘self’ (also attā), as in ‘yourself’ and ‘myself’. These he saw as simply convenient ways of referring to a particular collection of mental and physical states. But within such a conventional, empirical self, he taught that no permanent, substantial, independent, metaphysical Self could be found. This is well explained by an early nun, Vajirā: just as the word ‘chariot’ is used to denote a collection of items in functional relationship, but not a special part of a chariot, so the conventional term ‘a being’ is properly used to refer to the five khandhas relating together. None of the khandhas is a ‘being’ or ‘Self’, but these are simply conventional labels used to denote the collection of functioning khandhas.
The non-Self teaching does not deny that there is continuity of character in life, and to some extent from life to life. But persistent character traits are merely due to the repeated occurrence of certain cittas, or ‘mind-sets’. The citta as a whole is sometimes talked of as an (empirical) ‘self’ (e.g. Dhp.160 with 35), but while such character traits may be long-lasting, they can and do change, and are thus impermanent, and so ‘non-Self’, insubstantial. A ‘person’ is a collection of rapidly changing and interacting mental and physical processes, with character patterns re-occurring over some time. Only partial control can be exercised over these processes: so they often change in undesired ways, leading to suffering. Impermanent, they cannot be a permanent Self. Being ‘painful’, they cannot be an autonomous true ‘I’, which would contain nothing that was out of harmony with itself.[1]

Strategic reasons for putting aside questions on the existence or non-existence of a "self"

In the Pali sutta With Ananda (SN 44.10), the wanderer Vacchagotta asks the Buddha two questions: "Is there a self?" and "Is there no self?" The Buddha declines to answer both of these questions. Afterwards, the Buddha explains to his attendant Ananda why he did not answer these questions.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu expounds on this exchange, and provides a detailed explanation of the Buddha's reasoning on this topic.

This section includes content from Selves & Not Self (Talk 2) on, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 Dhammatalks icon 50px.png

Selves and Not Self, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Excerpt from Talk 2)

Tonight I'd like to talk more about why the Buddha refused to get involved in the issue of whether there is or is not a self. This will involve discussing in more detail two of the points I made last night.

The first point is that the Buddha's teaching was strategic, aimed at leading to a specific goal: total freedom in the minds of his listeners. The second point is that, as part of this larger strategy, the Buddha had strategic reasons for putting questions of the existence or non-existence of the self aside.

Part of his teaching strategy was to divide questions into four types, based on how they should be best approached for the purpose of putting an end to suffering and stress [§9]. The first type includes those that deserve a categorical answer: in other words, a straight "yes" or "no," "this" or "that," with no exceptions. The second type includes questions that deserve an analytical answer, in which the Buddha would reanalyze the question before answering it. The third type includes questions that deserve a counter-question. In other words, he would question the questioner before answering the original question. And the fourth type includes questions that deserve to be put aside as useless — or even harmful — in the quest to put an end to suffering. And, as I said, the questions, "Is there a self? Is there no self?" are ones he put aside.

Here's the passage where he explains why:

"Then Vacchagotta the wanderer went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, exchanged courteous greetings with him. After an exchange of friendly greetings and courtesies, he sat down to one side. As he was sitting there he asked the Blessed One, 'Now then, master Gotama, is there a self?' When this was said, the Blessed One was silent. 'Then is there no self?' The second time the Blessed One was silent. Then Vacchagotta the wanderer got up from his seat and left.

"Then not long after Vacchagotta the wanderer had left, Venerable Ānanda said to the Blessed One, 'Why, Lord, did the Blessed One not answer when asked a question by Vacchagotta the wanderer?'"

And here's the Buddha's response: "Ānanda, if I, being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self were to answer that there is a self, that would be conforming with those brahmans and contemplatives who are exponents of eternalism [the view that there is an eternal, unchanging soul]. If I, being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self were to answer that there is no self, that would be conforming with those brahmans and contemplatives who are exponents of annihilationism [the view that death is the annihilation of the self]. If I, being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self were to answer that there is a self, would that be in keeping with the arising of knowledge that all phenomena are not-self?"

And Venerable Ānanda said, "No, Lord."

Then the Buddha said, "And if I, being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self, were to answer that there is no self, the bewildered Vacchagotta would become even more bewildered: 'Does the self that I used to have now not exist?'"

— SN 44.10

Notice that only one of the Buddha's reasons for putting these questions aside concerns the person asking them: Vacchagotta would be bewildered by the answer. The other three reasons state that any answer to these questions would either side with wrong views, or would get in the way of an insight that, as we will see, is an important step at an advanced stage of the path.

Also notice that the Buddha is not giving an analytical answer to either of Vacchagotta's questions, nor is he giving a counter-question, such as, "What kind of self do you mean?" This rules out the idea that the not-self teaching is aimed at negating specific ideas of self — in other words, that the answer would depend on what you mean by "self."

However, most popular misinterpretations of the not-self teaching give just this kind of answer to these questions. In other words, "It depends on what kind of self we're talking about. Certain types of self exist, whereas other types don't." What this means is that these misinterpretations say that the Buddha didn't answer Vacchagotta's categorical question because it required an analytical answer. But as we have seen, the Buddha knew how to give analytical answers to categorical questions whenever he needed to. And he had his reasons for putting these questions on the existence or non-existence of the self aside.

But because these popular misinterpretations are so pervasive, it's important that we look at them in some detail, to see why they are misinterpretations: how they misunderstand the Buddha's approach and place obstacles in the path. Otherwise, it's all too easy for us to fall into these misunderstandings ourselves.

One misinterpretation is that the Buddha's not-self teaching is aimed specifically at negating the view of self proposed in the Brahmanical Upanishads — that the self is permanent, cosmic, and identical with God — but the Buddha is not negating the fact that we each have an individual self. In other words, he's saying, Yes, you have an individual self, but, No, you don't have a cosmic/God self.

The second misinterpretation is the exact opposite: The Buddha is negating the idea that you have a small, separate self, but he's affirming the existence of a large, interconnected, cosmic self. In other words, he's saying, Yes, you do have a connected self, but, No, you don't have a separate self.

The third misinterpretation is similar to the first, but it introduces the idea that a self, to be a true self, has to be permanent. According to this interpretation, the Buddha is affirming that the five aggregates are what you are, but these five aggregates don't really qualify to be called a self because they aren't permanent. They're just processes. In other words, No, you don't have a self, but, Yes, you're a bunch of processes; the aggregates are what you are.

None of these interpretations fit in with the Buddha's actual teachings, or his actual approach to the question of whether there is or is not a self. They misrepresent the Buddha both for formal reasons — the fact that they give an analytical answer to a question the Buddha put aside — and for reasons of content: They don't fit in with what the Buddha actually had to say on the topic of self and not-self.

For example, with the first misinterpretation — that the Buddha is denying the cosmic self found in the Upanishads — it turns out that the Upanishads contain many different views of the self, and the Buddha himself gives an analysis of those different kinds [§11]. He finds four main varieties. One is that the self has a form and is finite — for example, that your self is your conscious body and will end when the body dies. The second type is that the self has a form and is infinite — for example, the view that the self is equal to the cosmos. The third type is that the self is formless and finite. This is similar to the Christian idea of the soul: It doesn't have a shape, and its range is limited. The fourth view is that the self is formless and infinite — for example, the belief that the self is the infinite spirit or energy that animates the cosmos.

The Buddha says that each of these four varieties of self-theory comes in three different modes as to when and how the self is that way. One is that the self already is that way. Another is that the self naturally changes to be that way — for example, when you fall asleep or when you die. The third is that the self is changeable through the will. In other words, through meditation and other practices you can change the nature of your self — for example, from being finite to being infinite.

Multiply the four varieties of self by their three modes, and you have twelve types of theories about the self. All of these theories the Buddha rejects. He doesn't agree with any of them, because they all involve clinging, which is something you have to comprehend and let go. This means that his not-self teaching is not just negating specific types of self — such as a cosmic self, a permanent self, or an ordinary individual self. It negates every imaginable way of defining the self.

As for the second misinterpretation, that the Buddha is actually affirming the cosmic or interconnected self, the evidence I've already given you shows that that cannot be the case. There is also a passage in the Canon where he says specifically that the idea of a cosmic self is especially foolish [§12]. His argument is this: If there is a self, there must be what belongs to a self. If your self is cosmic, then the whole cosmos must belong to you. But does it? No. Does it lie under your control? No. Therefore it doesn't deserve to be called yours.

As for the third misinterpretation — that the five aggregates aren't a self because they aren't permanent, but nevertheless the five aggregates are what you are — the Buddha says repeatedly that it's not fitting to identify the aggregates as "what I am" [§19]. As we will see later, he explains the five aggregates as the raw material from which you create your sense of self, but that it's not skillful to think that they constitute what you are.

Another problem with this misinterpretation is that it opens the Buddha to charges of lying in the many passages where he does refer to the self in a positive way — as when he says that the self is its own mainstay. If there really is no self at all, why does he talk about it as if it exists? To get around this problem, the interpretation introduces the distinction between two levels of truth: conventional and ultimate. Thus, it says, when the Buddha is talking about self, he's doing so only in a conventional way. On the ultimate level, no self exists. The problem with this distinction is that the Buddha himself never uses it — it was introduced into the tradition at a much later date — and if it were so central to understanding his teachings, you'd think that he would have mentioned it. But he didn't.

There's also the problem that, if the aggregates were what you are, then — because nibbāna is the ending of the aggregates — that would mean that when you attain nibbāna you would be annihilated. The Buddha, however, denied that nibbāna was annihilation. At the same time, what good would be the end of suffering if it meant total annihilation? Only people who hate themselves or hate all experience would go for it.

And as for the idea that only a permanent identity deserves to be called a self: It's not the case that the Buddha would tell you to create a sense of self around the experience of something unchanging or permanent. As we will see, at an advanced level of the practice he tells you to develop the perception of not-self even for the phenomenon of the deathless, which is something that doesn't change [§30; see also Talk 6]. The problem with the act of self-identification is not just that it's mistakenly focused on impermanent objects when it should be focused on permanent objects. It ultimately shouldn't be focused on anything at all, because it always involves clinging, regardless of what it's focused on, and clinging involves suffering and stress. The whole point of the Buddha's teaching is to put an end to suffering and stress.

So when the Buddha refused to answer Vacchagotta's questions, it wasn't because he had an analytical answer in mind that he couldn't explain to Vacchagotta but would perhaps explain to others. It was because, in order to avoid getting involved with issues that get in the way of putting an end to suffering, these questions deserved to be put aside no matter who asked them. In fact, there's another sutta passage that makes precisely this point: No matter who you are, if you try to answer the question, "Do I exist?" or "Do I not exist?" or "What am I?" you get entangled in views like, "I have a self," or "I have no self," which the Buddha calls "a thicket of views, a wilderness of views [§§10, 19-20]." The image is clear: If you're entangled in a thicket or a wilderness, you've wandered far from the path and will have trouble getting back on course.

The main point to take from all of this is that the Buddha is not interested in defining what you are or what your self is. He's a lot more compassionate than that. He wants you to see how you define your own sense of self. After all, you're not responsible for how he might define your self, and his definition of your self is not really your problem. But you are responsible for the way you define yourself, and that very much is your problem. When you define yourself through ignorance, you suffer, and you often cause the people around you to suffer as well.

As a first step in putting an end to this suffering, you have to bring awareness to the process by which you create your sense of self so that you can clearly see what you're doing and why it's causing that suffering. This is why the Buddha aims at getting you to understand that process in line with his two categorical teachings. He wants you to see how your act of self-definition fits within the four noble truths, and to see when it's skillful and when it's not, so that you can use this knowledge to put an end to suffering. When it's skillful, you use it. When it's not, you regard it as not-self so that you can stop clinging to it and can put it aside [§19].

  - by Bhikkhu Thanissaro

Methods of teaching about not-self

The concept of anātman (not-self) is explained in many different ways within Buddhist literature, using various examples and metaphors. Similarly, modern day Buddhist teachers take a variety of approaches to presenting this topic. Some examples are presented below.

Impermanent nature of the "self"

Thai master Ajahn Chah emphasized the impermanent, transitory nature of our physical bodies (which correspond to the skandha of form).

For example, Ajahn Chah stated:

The Buddha said that rich or poor, young or old, human or animal, no being in this world can maintain itself in any single state for long. Everything experiences change and deprivation. This is a fact of life about which we can do nothing to remedy. But the Buddha said that what we can do is to contemplate the body and mind to see their impersonality, that neither of them is me nor mine. They have only a provisional reality. It's like this house, it's only nominally yours. You couldn't take it with you anywhere. The same applies to your wealth, your possessions and your family - they're yours only in name. They don't really belong to you, they belong to nature.
Now this truth doesn't apply to you alone, everyone is in the same boat - even the Lord Buddha and his enlightened disciples. They differed from us only in one respect, and that was their acceptance of the way things are. They saw that it could be no other way.
So the Buddha taught us to probe and examine the body, from the soles of the feet up to the crown of the head, and then back down to the feet again. Just take a look at the body. What sort of things do you see? Is there anything intrinsically clean there? Can you find any abiding essence? This whole body is steadily degenerating. The Buddha taught us to see that it doesn't belong to us. It's natural for the body to be this way, because all conditioned phenomena are subject to change. How else would you have it? In fact there is nothing wrong with the way the body is. It's not the body that causes suffering, it's wrong thinking. When you see things in the wrong way, there's bound to be confusion.
It's like the water of a river. It naturally flows downhill, it never flows uphill. That's its nature. If a person was to go and stand on the river bank and want the water to flow back uphill, he would be foolish. Wherever he went his foolish thinking would allow him no peace of mind. He would suffer because of his wrong view, his thinking against the stream. If he had right view he would see that the water must inevitably flow downhill, and until he realized and accepted that fact he would be bewildered and frustrated.
The river that must flow down the gradient is like your body. Having been young your body's become old and is meandering towards its death. Don't go wishing it were otherwise, it's not something you have the power to remedy. The Buddha told us to see the way things are and then let go of our clinging to them.[2]

Inter-connected nature of the "self"

Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has emphasized the inter-connectedness of all beings with their environment - we don’t exist separately from the world around us and other beings. We depend upon the air we breath, the water we drink, the food we eat, etc. When we die, the elements of our physical body break down and become nutrients for other forms of life.[3]

Thich Nhat Hanh states:

We do not have a stem linking us to our mother anymore, but when we were in her womb we had a very long stem, an umbilical cord. The oxygen and the nourishment we needed came to us through that stem. Unfortunately, on the day we call our birthday, it was cut and we received the illusion that we are independent. That is a mistake. We continue to rely on our mother for a very long time, and we have several other mothers as well. The Earth is our mother. We have a great many stems linking us to our Mother Earth. There is a stem linking us with the cloud. If there is no cloud, there is no water for us to drink. We are made of at least seventy percent water; the stem between the cloud and us is really there. This is also the case with the river, the forest, the logger, and the farmer. There are hundreds of thousands of stems linking us to everything in the cosmos, and therefore we can be. Do you see the link between you and me? If you are not there, I am not here; that is certain. If you do not see it yet, look more deeply and I am sure you will see. As I said, this is not philosophy.You really have to see.
A wave on the ocean has a beginning and an end, a birth and a death. But Avalokiteshvara tells us that the wave is empty. The wave is full of water, but it is empty of a separate self. A wave is a form that has been made possible, thanks to the existence of wind and water. If a wave only sees its form, with its beginning and end, it will be afraid of birth and death. But if the wave sees that it is water and identifies itself with the water, then it will be emancipated from birth and death. Each wave is born and is going to die, but the water is free from birth and death.[3]

Composite nature of the "self" (the skandhas)

One of the earliest and most common methods of explaining the concept of anātman is through the model of the five skandhas.

Skandha is a Sanskrit term that can be translated into English as “heap”, “aggregate”, “bundle”, etc. The five skandhas (form, sensation, perception, mental formation and consciousness) are a list of five heaps or aggregates that collectively make up all the constituents of what is conventionally called the “self.” For example, the skandha of form (rupa-skandha) includes all the elements of our physical body, such as skin, blood, bones, feces, etc. The skandha of sensations (vedana-skandha) includes all instances of pleasant, unpleasant and neutral sensations that are changing from moment to moment, and so on.

From the Buddhist point of view, what we habitually think of as the "self" is nothing more than the collection of these five skandhas. In Questions for King Melinda (Milindapañha), the Buddhist sage Nagasena uses the simile of a chariot to illustrate this view. As summarized in the Visuddhimagga:

Just as the word 'chariot' is but a mode of expression for axle, wheels, and other constituent members, placed in a certain relation to each other; but, when we come to examine the members one by one, we discover that, in an absolute sense, there is no chariot; just as the words 'house,' 'fist,' 'lute,' 'army,' 'city,' 'tree,' are only modes of expression for collections of certain things disposed in a certain manner, in exactly the same way, the words 'living being' and 'ego' are only modes of expression for a complex of bodily and non-bodily constituents.

As shown through this metaphor, what we call the “self” is merely a collection of interdependent skandhas. Now, one might suggest that perhaps the “self” exists within these skandhas. For example, perhaps the truly existing “self” can be found within the heart, or the brain, or within one’s consciousness.

However, if we analyze the skandhas individually, we find that the constituents of each skandha are interdependent and constantly changing. For example, if we look at the constituents of the skandha of form: our skin is constantly shedding old cells and regenerating new cells; our blood is constantly absorbing new nutrients from our food and expelling waste products; our bones are continually growing when we are young, and decaying as we grow older. And all of our body parts are dependent on the food we eat, the water we drink and the air that we breath. There is nothing within this skandha that exists of its own accord, without dependence on other factors. So there is no one thing that we can point to and say “this is the skandha of form”.

In the same way, all of the skandhas are a constantly shifting, interdependent collection of constituent parts. Thus there is no one permanent, independent thing within any of the skandhas that we can point to and say, “this is the self.”

Perceptions of self can change based on circumstances

Thanissaro Bhikkhu emphasizes how our sense of what is “self” and “not-self” is constantly changing - we develop different perceptions of ourself, depending on the circumstances.

This section includes content from Selves and Not Self (Talk 1) on, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 Dhammatalks icon 50px.png

The path begins with discernment—the factors of right view and right resolve—and discernment begins with this basic question about which actions are really skillful: “What, when I do it, will lead to long-term welfare and happiness?” [§8] The Buddha’s teaching on not-self—and his teaching on self— are, in part, answers to this question. To fit into this question, perceptions of self and perceptions of not-self are best viewed as kamma or actions: actions of identification and dis-identification. In the terms of the texts, the perception of self is called an action of “I-making” and “my-making (ahaṅkāra mamaṅkāra).” The perception of not-self is part of an activity called the “not-self contemplation (anattānupassanā).” Thus the question becomes: When is the perception of self a skillful action that leads to long-term welfare and happiness, when is the perception of not-self a skillful action that leads to long-term welfare and happiness?

This is the reverse of the way that the relationship between questions of kamma and not-self are usually understood. If you’ve ever taken an introductory course on Buddhism, you’ve probably heard this question: “If there is no self, who does the kamma, who receives the results of kamma?” This understanding turns the teaching on not-self into a teaching on no self, and then takes no self as the framework and the teaching on kamma as something that doesn’t fit in the framework. But in the way the Buddha taught these topics, the teaching on kamma is the framework and the teaching of not-self fits into that framework as a type of action. In other words, assuming that there really are skillful and unskillful actions, what kind of action is the perception of self? What kind of action is the perception of not-self?

So, to repeat, the issue is not, “What is my true self?” but “What kind of perception of self is skillful and when is it skillful, what kind of perception of not- self is skillful and when is it skillful?”

We already engage in these perceptions all of the time and have been doing so ever since we were children. We have many different perceptions of self. Each sense of self is strategic, a means to an end. Each comes with a boundary, inside of which is “self” and outside of which is “not-self.” And so our sense of what’s self and what’s not-self keeps changing all of the time depending on our desires and what we see will lead to true happiness.

Take an example from your childhood. Suppose you have a younger sister, and someone down the street is threatening her. You want to protect her. At that moment she is very much your sister. She belongs to you, so you will do whatever you can to protect her. Then suppose that, when you’ve brought her home safely, she begins to play with your toy car and won’t give it back to you. Now she’s no longer your sister. She’s the Other. Your sense of your self, and of what is yours and not yours, has shifted. The boundary line between self and not-self has changed.

You’ve been doing this sort of thing—changing the boundaries of what’s self and not-self—all of the time. Think back on your life—or even for just a day—to see the many times your sense of self has changed from one role to another.

Normally we create a sense of self as a strategy for gaining happiness. We look for what abilities we have in order to gain a happiness we want. Those abilities are then ours. The hand we can use to reach for the object we want is our hand; the loud voice we can use to scare off the bullies threatening our sister is our voice. This is why the element of control is so essential to our sense of self: We assume that the things we can control are us or ours. Then we also try to think about which part of ourselves will live to enjoy the happiness we’re trying to gain. These things will change depending on the desire.

Unfortunately, our desires tend to be confused and incoherent. We’re also unskillful in our understanding of what happiness is. Thus we often end up with an inconsistent and misinformed collection of selves. You can see this clearly as you meditate: You find that the mind contains many different inner voices expressing many conflicting opinions as to what you should and shouldn’t be doing to be happy.

It’s as if you have a committee inside the mind, and the committee is rarely in order. That’s because it’s composed of selves you’ve collected from all your past strategies for trying to gain happiness, and these strategies often worked at cross-purposes. Some of them seemed to work at a time when your standards for happiness were crude, or you weren’t really paying attention to the results you were getting—as when you threw a tantrum and got your mother to give you the food you wanted. These members of the committee tend to be deluded. Some of your strategies involved doing things you liked to do but actually led to suffering—as when you hit your sister and got your toy truck back. These members of the committee tend to be dishonest and deceitful: They deny the suffering they caused. This is why your committee of selves is not an orderly gathering of saints. It’s more like a corrupt city council.

The Buddha’s purpose in having us master perceptions of self and not-self is to bring some clarity, honesty, and order to the committee: to teach us how to engage in these activities of perception in a conscious, consistent, and skillful way that will lead to true happiness.

It’s important to understand this point, for it helps to clear up a major misunderstanding that can cause us to resist the teaching on not-self. We instinctively know that our strategies of self-making are for the sake of happiness, so when we misunderstand the Buddha’s not-self teaching—thinking that it’s a “no self” teaching, and that he’s trying to deny us of our “selves”— we’re afraid that he’s trying to deprive us of our strategies for finding happiness and protecting the happiness we’ve found. That’s why we resist the teaching. But when we gain a proper understanding of his teaching, we see that his aim is to teach us how to use perceptions of self and not-self as strategies leading to a happiness that’s reliable and true. In teaching not-self, he’s not trying to deprive us of our strategies for happiness; he’s actually trying to show us how to expand and refine them so that we can find a happiness better than any happiness we’ve ever known.

See also


  1. Harvey 2013, Chapter 3: Early Buddhist Teachings.
  2. Ajahn Chah 2007.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Thich Nhat Hahn 2009, s.v. Chapter: Happy Continuation.


Further reading