Image courtesy of Idea go /

Image courtesy of Idea go /

The self is perhaps one of the most fraught and confusing elements of the dhamma. The Buddha considered it an advanced teaching: it’s not something he brought up in discussions with laypeople. Indeed, the great lay benefactor Anāthapiṇḍika was apparently not aware of any of the doctrine of non-clinging until his deathbed, and urged that the Buddha teach it more widely. (Majjhima Nikāya 143.15). It also does not occur explicitly in either the Eightfold Path or the Four Noble Truths, which are the heart of the dhamma. Even in the gradual training, ‘self’ only comes up indirectly in the eradication of bhavāsava, the taint of clinging to existence, at the very end of the path. (MN 27.26) This tells us that self-view does not completely disappear until nibbāna. That is to say, even very advanced Buddhist practitioners will cling to some residual notion of a permanent self.

For most of us it’s enough to be aware of the problem, in particular as it reveals itself in conceit and egotism, and leave it at that. In other words, for most purposes of the householder life, it’s sufficient to work to reduce our knee-jerk egotistical and conceited approach to life. Note that for the Buddha, “conceit” had three elements. One is conceited by thinking oneself better than others: this is how we ordinarily take “conceit” to be. But one can also have the conceit that one is worse than others, which may lead to envy or resentment, or that one is just the same as others, which may lead to complacency. So for the Buddha, any overall comparison of oneself with others is a form of “conceit”, since it reinforces a sense of self.

Now, as to that sense of self: the word the Buddha used for self is “atta” in Pali, derived from “ātman” in Sanksrit. While the Buddha criticized many, diverse views of the self, the one he was most concerned to reject was the view of the self as a permanent, unchanging “ātman“. In Brahmanism, the ātman was taken to be the focus of ritual and soteriological practice: one gained escape from saṃsāra by realizing the unity of one’s own ātman with Brahman, the universal ground of all reality.

The Buddha’s Strategy

It’s a common mistake to claim that the Buddha believed in ‘no self’ in the sense that there are no persons, no individuals. In fact, he argued for a view of ‘not-self’, that is, that the self is not identifiable with any of the objects of experience.

We can show by three examples that the view of ‘no self’ is incorrect. First, the Buddha says that the view “no self exists for me” is part of the “thicket of views” that one should avoid. (MN 2.8). Second, part of the reason why the Buddha rejects materialism is that it involves the apparent annihilation of the self after death. (Dīgha Nikāya 1.3.9ff) “Annihilationism” or no-self is the other extreme, along with the “eternalist” ātman, that the Buddha is concerned to reject, in favor of a middle way between them. Third, the Buddha’s rebirth and kammic reward would be impossible if there were no selves, persons, or individuals.

As Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu says in his book Selves & Not Self:

If you’ve ever been in an introductory course on Buddhism, you’ve probably heard this question: “If there is no self, what does the action and what receives the results of the action?” … [T]his question is misconstrued in two ways.

The first is that the Buddha never said that there is no self, and he never said that there is a self. The question of whether a self does or doesn’t exist is a question he put aside.

The second reason why the question is misconstrued is because it has the framework backwards. … Kamma is the framework, and the teaching of not-self is meant to fit in the framework. In other words, the Buddha takes the teachings on skillful and unskillful kamma as his basic categorical teaching. (pp. 65-66).

Nevertheless, the Buddha refused to answer questions about the nature of the self because in doing so one “is not freed from suffering” (cf. MN 2): the root problem with suffering is clinging, as in the Second Noble Truth, and there is nothing we cling to more tightly than our sense of self. Were the Buddha to propound a theory of the self, it would simply promote clinging to whatever the Buddha theorized. So he was at pains simply to note that the self could not be identified with any of the objects of experience.

At the same time, however,

Your own self is
your own mainstay,
for who else could your mainstay be?
With you yourself well-trained
you obtain the mainstay
hard to obtain. (Dhammapada 160)

If we neglect ourselves, neglect to cultivate skillful intentions and remove unskillful ones, neglect hiri (moral shame) and ottappa (moral dread), we are bound to create bad kamma which will come back to harm us. This is the Buddha’s picture. The very idea of moral shame comes from a healthy sort of self-respect: a sense that we are worth too much to form such intentions.

Parfit’s Picture

As we have seen, the Buddha considered his approach to the self to be something more or less exclusively an advanced teaching: it occured only tangentially in canonical descriptions of the path, and is only fully comprehended at nibbāna. He also avoided formulating an explicit doctrine of what the self was, preferring to stick to descriptions of what it was not.

He was so thorough at stating what the self was not that it can be difficult to figure out what sort of thing could carry out the processes that the Buddha himself claimed the self carried out: including doing actions and receiving results, in Ṭhānissaro’s words. With a nod to the Buddha’s reluctance to formulate the doctrine, we can nevertheless sketch a sort of theory that might fit, which is something of a middle way between eternalism and no-self.

At base the Buddha’s approach is reductionist. All that we can ever be is given by the five aggregates: form, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness. But as Ṭhānissaro says, “The Buddha doesn’t say that these aggregates are what your self is; they’re simply the raw materials from which you create your sense of self.” (p. 14)

The question is how these materials allow that I am the same person tomorrow that I was yesterday. This particularly impinges with questions of ethics and kamma: how are things such that who did the action yesterday could get the result tomorrow? In philosophy, this is known as the question of “personal identity”. It’s where the rubber hits the road.

Contemporary analytic philosopher Derek Parfit worked out what is perhaps the most famous example of such a theory in the 1980s, in his brilliantly influential book Reasons and Persons. I recall it as one of the few contemporary books assigned me in different undergraduate philosophy courses. Parfit presents a number of science and science-fiction derived thought experiments, too numerous and detailed to go into here, explicitly confirming the Buddha’s approach to the self. He expresses the “Reductionist View” this way:

Because we ascribe thoughts to thinkers, it is true that thinkers exist. But thinkers are not separately existing entities. The existence of a thinker involves the existence of his brain and body, the doing of his deeds, the thinking of his thoughts, and the occurrence of certain other physical and mental events. We could therefore redescribe any person’s life in impersonal terms. In explaining the unity of this life, we need not claim that it is the life of a particular person. We could describe what, at different times, was thought and felt and observed and done, and how these various events were interrelated. Persons would be mentioned here only in the descriptions of the content of many thoughts, desires, memories, and so on. Persons need not be claimed to be the thinkers of any of these thoughts. (p. 251).

As a result, for Parfit there are no selves or persons as separate entities, apart from certain streams of physical and mental events. What matters is not the existence of souls, persons, or even strict identity over time. Instead, for Parfit, “Relation R is what matters. R is psychological connectedness and/or psychological continuity, with any cause.” (E.g., p. 262).

What makes us selves, individuals, persons over time is just that we are a causally connected and continuous stream of psychological (or perhaps psycho-physical) events. As Parfit emphasizes, “Buddha would have agreed.” (p. 273).

Buddha claimed that, though [it] is very hard [to believe the Reductionist View], it is possible. I find Buddha’s claim to be true. …

The truth is very different from what we are inclined to believe. Even if we are not aware of this, most of us are Non-Reductionists. … [W]e would be strongly inclined to believe that our continued existence is a deep further fact, distinct from physical and psychological continuity, and a fact that must be all-or-nothing. This is not true.

Is the truth depressing? Some may find it so. But I find it liberating, and consoling. When I believed that my existence was such a further fact, I seemed imprisoned in myself. My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness. When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my lives and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others. (pp. 280-81).

Persons are not like glass tunnels or unbroken threads. Instead they are like nations, clubs, or committees. They are complex constructs, like Milinda’s chariot in the Milinda Pañha. Since personhood is a somewhat vague and indeterminate matter, one that is fuzzy around the edges, we are not as separate from others as we might have thought. But we are also not as much ourselves.

The Contemporary Strategy

A secular interpretation of the self will do away with the strong notion of kammic causation, and the rounds of saṃsāric rebirth.* There is no evidence for the certainty of kammic reward, nor for significant continued psychological connectedness or continuity after bodily death.

To that end, a Secular Buddhist view of the self is actually somewhat thinner than the Buddha’s own: as I’ve argued before, using an ancient analogy to our modern approach, Secular Buddhism mixes elements from the “annihilationist” materialist Ajita Kesakambalī’s view of persons with the ethical and practical teachings of Siddhattha Gotama.

It may be that one day in our future we will be persons who have to confront the possibility of brain transplants, neural implants, mind uploads, or teletransporter duplicates. Perhaps those future beings will have constructed a real world of saṃsāric rebirth, where questions of identity through radical transformation become more acute. But for now at least, these exist only in the realms of theory and speculation. So for now Parfit’s “relation R” still corresponds very closely to our intuitive understanding of single minds in single bodies and brains.

Although we cannot simply identify ourselves with our brains, what we are is constructed out of our brains and depends upon them intimately. Like all physical things, brains inevitably pass away, and we cannot survive their deaths. All the more reason to strive diligently.


* Interestingly, Parfit (p. 227) claims that rebirth, were there really evidence for it, would tend to support the view of an ātman — some “further fact” about self identity — rather than the Buddha’s view that the self was a construct. I am inclined to agree with him.

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  1. Dana Nourie on April 3, 2013 at 2:12 pm

    Thanks for the post, Doug. As I was reading through, I realized that while the teachings of not self were so confusing to me at one time, they seem so obvious to me now. By obvious, I mean observable over time as we are mindful to the way thoughts, emotions, feelings, judgements, etc arise, and how they build a variety of mental ‘selves’.

    I also agree that from what I observe of how this human thing operates that it dissolves into annihilation in the end. Although, I suspect our atoms go into the making of other stuff, just as our atoms were once the result of the super nova of stars. Yet, none of us proclaim to have been suns in past lives:-)

    While not self may be an advanced teaching, I think many Buddhist authors tend to complicate it and muddle it, making it sound like we don’t even exist! On the contrary we do. I like the way neuroscientists are wording how the brain lacks a central driver or decision maker, but is instead creating a multitude of processes. The brain creates the “feeling” of self, and the feeling that we are in a body looking out, but that is just a feeling the brain creates for survival. They also emphasis the brain does not work independently but relies on input from the outside world. So we are not just our brains but entire nervous systems and bodies working in conjunction with interacting in the world around us.

    I find this helpful because I can let go of thoughts I see as unhealthy, creating suffering for myself, etc. because it’s just a process that needs to be “killed” as we say in computing. I don’t have to take every process to heart, and much of it is just junk. Watching this has loosened my clinging ever so gently over the years.

  2. Doug Smith on April 3, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    Thanks, Dana. Yeah, there’s a lot of great material coming out of cognitive psychology and neuroscience about the creation of the self-concept, or perhaps more accurately self-concepts.

    I think nowadays that those of us with some studies in the sciences will be more open to Gotama’s/Parfit’s “Reductionist View” than those of Brahminic India, nevertheless I think it’s still very hard to get a real, deep handle on it.

  3. mufi on April 4, 2013 at 9:55 am

    Doug, I’m still digesting this piece, but my initial reaction says that you’ve done Secular Buddhism a big favor here.

  4. Terry on April 5, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    Thanks Doug for your comparison of ancient and modern philosophical thought and your resultant contemporary strategy about Not-Self and Secular Buddhism. It has caused me to think about the positive Yes-Self, what is true self? My limited exposure to Buddhist thought caused me to think that Not-Self was an illusion about ourselves that created clinging due to personal head games and socialization, in other words we are not whom our mind says we are. Further we could through concentrated mindfulness achieve the clarity and balance needed to recognize the self illusions, see the detrimental effect of the self illusion with the Four Noble Truths, proactively eliminate self illusion by following the Eightfold Path, and end personal suffering. I am happy with that, however, Not-Self deals with the problem of a negation as you discuss, with what you are not in reality. What about who you really are, the Yes-Self? A true Yes-Self, not permanent self, living in absolute reality, free of suffering must exist in our processing minds if we can to find it in this lifetime as Buddha says is possible. Where is true Yes-Self within our mind, is it the primordial self, containing the instinctual evolutionary DNA we are born with that demands food and shelter. Or is it the mature adult mind behaving in rational ways in society to end suffering and at the same time carry out contemporary living, and of course, procreation of the species? It doesn’t seem to me that we can put the Yes-Self aside as has the Buddha because we now know more than the ancient philosophers as you indicate.
    In my contemporary mind it may be related the overall human goal of the survival of the fittest? Does evolution have a moral ethical imperative as Buddhist philosophy might(or might not) infer?
    Doug like all good research, your ideas have left me with much more knowledge about self/not-self, but also I am afraid due to my limited experience, with many more unresolved issues. Thanks again for your important posting!

    • Doug Smith on April 5, 2013 at 1:20 pm

      Hi Terry, and thanks. There are many aspects and nuances to the Buddha’s notion of self; I haven’t nearly covered them all. Ṭhānissaro claims that the Buddha basically wanted us to come up with skillful self-notions and dispense with unskillful ones. That seems to me like an OK way to go with it, though I don’t think the Buddha ever quite talks that way.

      Anyhow, yes, part of the problem with our notion of self is that as you say it “creates clinging due to personal head games and socialization”. There are many problems with a sense of self.

      You ask about a “Yes-Self”. This gets at a bunch of deeper issues. “Who you really are” is basically a continuous, connected stream of psychophysical events, including the five skhandas of form, feeling, sensation, volition, consciousness, or at least their contemporary scientific counterparts. That’s who you really are, changing all the time in dependence upon internal and external conditions. This is not a permanent self, since it’s always changing.

      Or perhaps it’s best to say, like Ṭhānissaro, that this continuous, connected stream provides the “raw materials from which we create our sense of self”. At any rate, all there is is the stream.

      You ask about the “true Yes-Self”, which I take you to be asking about some purified sort of self, like an enlightened self. Such a self doesn’t exist yet for most of us. It’s not like it’s hidden inside waiting to get out; perhaps in a sense it is, but only in the sense that this is a potential that we all share. That is, it’s the potential to act without greed, hatred, or ignorance. (Ignorance here is ignorance about the Four Noble Truths in particular). This isn’t a “primordial self”: it’s neither ancient nor fundamental, but it is I think a wise kind of adult mind, behaving rationally and compassionately.

      In the later, Mahayana tradition the notion of “Buddha Nature” arose, which was claimed as a sort of purified self that existed within all of us, as well as being a kind of “primordial” ground of reality. Then what we’re doing in practice is trying to uncover this hidden purity. “Buddha Nature”, however, is not part of the original Canon, for a good reason: it’s very close to the Brahminic notion of an ātman: a permanent, purified self which is one with the universe. As such, it’s the sort of thing the Buddha would have rejected, and I think we should reject it as well. (Except perhaps as a metaphor for our capacity to learn and improve).

  5. Terry on April 5, 2013 at 3:49 pm

    Doug, thanks for your reply, it has helped broaden my understanding of Not-Self.

    I still have the need to explore any relationship between what the Gatama found and natural selection. Darwin studies and add-ons indicate that human DNA is a product of billions of years of evolution. Human minds know the process for acquiring dukkha, did natural selection create the dukkha process as a virtue to human survival as a species? If so, there is no moral and ethical imperative as we define it in natural selection and what we are working on is going against human survival.

    If there is no natural selection virtue to dukkha, then maybe the mind process that loves dukkha is just an unneeded(detrimental) vestige of the past like fish gills? Maybe Gotama just gave us the path to the “wise kind of adult mind” as you say Doug. This wise kind of adult mind, a Yes-Self, requires work to achieve and it maybe attained to varying degrees depending on capability in this life time which is our human limitation. This is of course is excepting reincarnation, karma, etc. which is not provable and I personally discount, but Buddha used to get around the limitation of one life.

    So what does that leave us with, an elegant solution to dukkha discovered by Gotama to help us attain the wisest adult mind, or Yes-Self, we can attain before death. Like you say when you look around there is not much evidence of Enlightened minds, the best we can find is wise adult minds and this is ok for me as a fledgling secular Buddhist! I can live and die with becoming a wise adult mind. It is the best I can do!

    • Doug Smith on April 6, 2013 at 5:43 am

      Hi Terry,

      “Dukkha” is a broad concept, so I doubt we will ever have a very worked-out evolutionary theory of it, but generally speaking pain is an indicator of tissue damage, and sadness, disappointment and stress are markers of danger and loss: things that are bad for reproductive success. Evolution only “cares” about reproductive success. (I mean, it doesn’t really care about anything, of course. But reproductive success is all that matters to evolution).

      So roughly speaking, dukkha is an evolutionary indicator that something is going wrong, and that one needs to change direction. People who, for example, cannot experience physical pain typically have short lives: they end up injuring and re-injuring themselves, and their bodies never have time to heal. Similarly, people low down in the social hierarchy may feel more stress and disappointment. This is an indicator of worse access to mates and to resources for children. Again, evolution does us a favor in pointing all this out to us with dukkha.

      Many people (such as Robert Trivers) have studied the evolutionary roots of altruism and ethical behavior; this is not controversial. Behaving altruistically within a group can provide better reproductive success. This is why many non-human animals are in fact attuned to altruistic and non-altruistic behavior by their groupmates. So yes, there are evolutionary roots to compassion.

      The Buddha, of course, knew nothing about evolution, and certainly wouldn’t have cared about reproductive success. So I don’t think that an evolutionary approach to the dhamma is liable to be hugely informative. (Except perhaps to look at the biological roots of greed, hatred, and delusion, as well as our more positive inclinations).

      • David Chou on July 10, 2013 at 3:05 pm

        Surprised to hear that “an evolutionary approach to the dhamma [may not] be hugely informative”…we’re on the cusp of genetically engineering our own evolution, after all! I wonder what might be the consequences of “artificially removing” (as opposed to the “natural” or “manual” method of Buddhist practice) dukkha, since tinkering with Mother Nature often results in unintended consequences.

        • Doug Smith on July 11, 2013 at 2:32 am

          Thanks for the comment, David. Part of the problem here is figuring out what we really mean by words like ‘dukkha’. If all we mean is physical or mental discomfort, pain, and unpleasantness, then sure, it might be that we could artificially limit it. We couldn’t actually remove it, since discomfort is actually a very useful indicator of danger. There are, for example, people born without the ability to feel pain. They typically live very short and unpleasant lives, since they are continually injuring and re injuring themselves.

          At any rate, the Buddha actually does not use ‘dukkha’ to mean exclusively physical or mental pain. It’s really something more akin to ‘unsatisfactoriness’, stemming directly from anicca or impermanence. That is, dukkha is the felt indicator that things are never going to be completely satisfying to us, since they always change.

          I doubt that there will ever be anything like a strictly biological or genetic solution to this problem, though I suppose one never knows for sure what the future might bring. And you’re right to suggest that any proposed solution along those lines is liable to bring unintended consequences!

          • David Chou on July 11, 2013 at 10:33 am

            This unsatisfactoriness with impermanence is a funny thing. We humans don’t seem to like change too much…and yet we get bored with routine very easily!! I think there’s some kind of “software issue” there, like an overlooked subroutine in the evolutionary operating system for human beings, as it were…I’m actually hopeful, perhaps in a very naïve way, that genetic engineering will one day resolve this as well.

            Until then, there’s Buddhism!

  6. Terry on April 6, 2013 at 11:19 am

    Thanks for your thoughtful and informative reply Doug!

    I am looking at Secular Buddhism as a mind opening opportunity for me to bring together the various pieces of my divergent interests into a unified theory of best practice. I like to see the big picture of life and how Buddhism fits in. My engineering and business background has led me to the practical aspects of science and humanism while my inquisitive mind has led me to creativity and art.

    I have been multitasking my way through contemporary life with all its responsibilities, successes, failures and resultant baggage. I just turned 70 years old, beginning to feel the pinch of aging, slowing down, but still actively engaged. I haven’t been attracted to organized religion since I was a teenager, but the secular aspects of the core Buddhist teachings make sense to me when I look back over my life.

    The “wise adult mind” as you describe, is a beautiful and practical goal that seems to capture the “more positive inclinations” of people attainable in this lifetime. I have seen this trait in people, so it is a reality. Secular Buddhism gives me a road map to become that wise adult mind with clarity and altruism in my heart without the metaphysical. I am very interested in the reality of living and how Buddhist teachings apply. I already feel the positive effects in my life as I piece together my own perspective of a unified theory of best practice.

    Thanks again Doug and also thanks sangha!

    • David Chou on July 10, 2013 at 3:07 pm

      I’m also searching/trying jimmy-rig some kind of “unified theory of best practice” for myself, Terry…would love to read about your findings some time!

  7. Robert M. Ellis on April 11, 2013 at 3:53 pm

    As it happens I published a paper comparing Parfit’s and the Buddha’s view of the self back in 2000, which you can read at I disagree with the idea that the two are on the same wavelength in any sense, because Parfit was concerned with identity and the Buddha with identification. I found Parfit a rich and stimulating thinker, but he adheres to the analytic philosopher’s prejudice that philosophy and psychology have to be kept absolutely apart, and in doing so, misses the point of what the Buddha has to offer.

  8. Terry on July 10, 2013 at 4:53 pm


    One of these days I may or may not have a unified theory of best practice, I am becoming less optimistic? However, I am receiving a number of positive benefits along the way.

    At this moment I am trusting my research to brief insights and glimpses of my own truth as it unfolds as advised in the Kalamas Sutta. I put my highest credence in those teachers that make sense to me and less to those teachers that espouse and try to impose their own view that “this is the true way of practicing and the only true way for a secular Buddhist to practice.”

    That being said, I am open to all views because sometimes what I “protest against too much” is the clue that I have missed something important in reality, to take note, and investigate why it is such an issue for me. I think that awareness and research that discounts my fabrications of rationalization and intellectualism is a lot of work, but important to me: Sometimes it is even stressful, exhilarating and depressing all at the same time when I have a great lesson to learn.

    In the meantime I move peacefully along a path of the core teachings feeling pretty well balanced and centered most of the time, but thankful for those uncomfortable times of high on the learning curve experiences.

    Thanks for asking David! It has given me a chance to think out loud about my own progress or lack thereof.


  9. David Chou on July 11, 2013 at 10:43 am

    I’m really surprised, as a newcomer to Buddhism, that teachings of the (no/t-) self are considered advanced and, even, strictly unnecessary. Seems to me that everything in human life and society flows from a misunderstanding of such matters!

    From how we live our own lives to how we organize or otherwise participate in society at large, everything’s inevitably bound up with our understanding, or lack thereof, of what a human being is, what a self is (or is not), and so forth. Seems to me that without addressing such matters at first, however esoteric or difficult, practicing Buddhism would be nothing more than the kind of mental pacification Krishnamurti (whose teachings, AFAIK, seem to dovetail easily with major tenets of secular Buddhism) warned against.

    Krishnamurti, IIRC, stated that unless the mind is still, the mind will continue to manufacture misconceptions. (I take that to mean that as an analytical engine, a pattern-generating machine, it’s hopelessly bound to create meaning, even where there is none [that is, its elaborately illustrated maps of reality do not match up with the actual terrain of reality].) But a mind made still is not the same as a mind that is still, and only a mind that is still will be able to perceive the true nature of self, love, God, time, death, and so forth….

    And now I feel as if I’ve simply returned right back where I started! For now I suppose the Buddha may have simply felt that by diligently practicing the Eight-fold Path the mind will be still and calm and then such insights will inevitably arise….

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