The Buddha on Self and Non-Self

| February 12, 2018 | 10 Comments

The Buddha’s teachings on the self and on non-self are some of his most subtle, interesting, and unique. We’ll take a look at them in this video. We’ll also compare the Buddha’s view of the self with that of western philosophers David Hume and Derek Parfit.

Suttas mentioned in this video:

Sabbāsava Sutta (MN 2.8)
Ānanda, is there a self? (SN 44.10)
Authorities (AN 3.40)
Dhammapada “The Self” (Dhp. 157-166)
Udāna 5.1
The All (SN 35.23)
The Characteristic of Nonself (SN 22.59)
The Snake Simile (MN 22.23-25)

HERE is a very good video with Derek Parfit discussing his notion of personal identity and that of the Buddha.

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Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug is Study Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. He has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. A long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tipiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma. He posts videos at Doug's Secular Dharma on YouTube. Some of his writing can be found at

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  1. rhk0322 says:

    Doug, I am new to Buddhist thinking and this idea of the non-self is tricky to me. I am wondering how what you discussed in the video squares with the idea of a Buddha Nature, which seems like a self that is identified with the universe. How is the Buddha nature different from the Hindu understanding of atman?

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hi rhk and thanks for the question. I agree that the notion of Buddha Nature seems to go against the Buddha’s teaching of non-self, and seems very similar to the Brahminic teaching of atman (In that time period, Hinduism is an anachronism; Hinduism is a much later development). However as with all thorny concepts like these, it depends on how it’s understood. If it’s just understood as a kind of “potential to awaken” then it might not really be anything much like the atman. But this is a matter of some real controversy and dispute in Buddhism, as different schools and different teachers see it different ways.

  2. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Very nice overview, Doug.

    But I‘d like to go another step and further investigate the ways non-self fits with other parts of Gotama’s thought. I’d like to hear your reaction to this formulation of non-self:

    Seems to me that’s useful to think of the self as something constructed (to this extent the metaphor of the chariot is ok – though it misses the dynamic character of the self, and that the self, unlike the chariot, is at least partly self-constructed). It is constructed from the way I experience the world — the things I attach too, cling to, incorporate into my self-image. There’s a feed-back loop or dialectic at work here – My attitudes shape the way I experience the world, but my perceptions shape my attitudes (Thus self is also usefully thought of as a process). Attitudes are just reactions (though perhaps complex ones) to the things I experience, only temporarily persistent effects. There is nothing beneath experience and its effects. No permanent core to which things attach, just the attachments themselves. Thus no “form” that can be called a permanent self.

    But “mind” or “self” as a temporary construct is both effect and cause. Karma (and fruits of) is formed by the dialectic described above: It is in a sense, the self itself. This is unlike the Jain notion in which karma seems to be a one-way effect of the world on the self/soul, accumulating almost without end,weighing it down, and unlike the Brahmins’ notion of the self as something that develops according to an intrinsic nature (see Acela Sutta). It also follows that karma, the self itself, can be altered. We usually allow the feedback loop/dialectic to run its course without (using your word) control, or even awareness that control is possible. But Gotama holds out the prospect that mindful control is possible – that, as the Dhammapada says, “The self is master of the self. Whose else?” (Same line you quoted, but remember this translation). I think he was also very much aware that the feed back nature of self-formation made it hard to change – of why the 8FP and persistent practice are necessary. Finally, is nibbana anything more than a limiting case in which control is total, in which experience no longer attaches (is “let go”), no longer conditions?

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Interesting thoughts, Michael. I think in general we are in agreement about what the Buddha might have believed. I’m not sure I’d want to say that nibbana is a state (?) of total control though, since that might imply or suggest a controller. I prefer to say it’s a state of perfect (supramundane) freedom, as in:

      It could also be understood as a state “beyond training”, where control of the appropriate kind isn’t necessary anymore.

      • Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

        Point taken, Doug. Actually, I’m not very happy with “control” even as an aspect of mindfulness. The desire to control (even self control) smacks too much of a dangerous attachment, hubris rather than mindfulness.

        I suppose most of the words we use in this context imply an entity that controls/attaches/is mindful, but control may be more problematic than many others.

        Hmm — this begins to remind me of the Abhidharmist’s effort to avoid language that implies a self. But I think they may have taken that too far. Despite having written that there is “no permanent core to which things attach, just the attachments themselves,” there is in fact an entity to which things attach, is associated with mindfulness etc. This is of course the biological organism, the body/brain (or mind/body)– this is of course not a permanent thing, but more importantly in this context, it is not the self in the sense of a core or essence that defines “me,” not a ghost or anything else that can be identified as a part of the machine itself. I suppose the self is like a program running on a computer, not inherent in the hardware, temporary and changeable. The program gives the computer system purpose (identity?), but only while it is running.

        (So is reincarnation like a flash drive? Better not go there 🙂

  3. Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

    I think the notion of (partial) control has a place during training; it’s an integral part of right effort. During training we need to expend effort of various kinds in various ways. That implies at least partial control over our minds and bodies such that the effort is meaningful. This is so even if we’re striving not to control, or to avoid “efforting”.

    As we reach the goal though (at least, it is said!) right effort becomes effortlessness.

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