Bhikkhu Thanissaro—prolific translator of Buddhist texts and a member of what I called the League of Extraordinary Gentle-Bhikkhus—has a great article in Tricycle debunking the idea that the Buddha taught that there was no self. Not only that, but he shows how a teaching the Buddha rejected became seen as his central doctrine.
This emphasis on the self not existing is often paired with the expression “anatta doctrine” or “no-self doctrine,” as if this was something the Buddha actually taught.
Here are the first three results for “anatta doctrine” that came up on Google.
The first, from Wikipedia, says “According to the anatta doctrine of Buddhism, at the core of all human beings and living creatures, there is no ‘eternal, essential and absolute something called a soul, self or atman.'”
The third says that this supposed doctrine “lies at the center of Buddhist thought.”
And yet there is no “anatta doctrine” in the Buddha’s teachings.
He used the word “anatta” a lot, but this is a word that means “not yourself.” Here are typical examples of how it’s used:
- Then there is the case where a well-instructed disciple of the noble ones — who has regard for noble ones, is well-versed & disciplined in their Dhamma; who has regard for men of integrity, is well-versed & disciplined in their Dhamma assumes about form: ‘This is not me, this is not my self [anatta], this is not what I am.’ [Source]
- Now both the internal earth property and the external earth property are simply earth property. And that should be seen as it actually is with right discernment: ‘This is not mine, this is not me, this is not my self [anatta].’ When one sees it thus as it actually is with right discernment, one becomes disenchanted with the earth property and makes the mind dispassionate toward the earth property. [Source]
- Any kind of consciousness whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near must, with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not my self [anatta].’ [Source]
The Buddha isn’t saying “there is no self.” He’s encouraging us to stop identifying anything as being our selves, which is a very different way. The purpose was to get us to let go of having any view of self. It was not to come to the realization “I have no self”— which would be just another view of self.
A more general statement of the principle behind the quotes given above is found in Dhammapada verse 179: “‘All things are not-self’ — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.”
Again, this is not saying that there is no self. Just that we should see nothing as constituting a self.
It would be odd for the Buddha to have a “central doctrine” that he somehow forgot to teach, and that he also contradicted in various places, such as in The Sabbasava Sutta:
The view I have a self arises in him as true & established, or the view I have no self … This is called a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is not freed from birth, aging, & death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. He is not freed, I tell you, from suffering & stress.
So, again: the view that there is no self is a hindrance to insight, just as the hindrance “I have a self.”
Now I confess that sometimes I do say that the self doesn’t exist, but I try to be careful to qualify that by saying that this means “the kind of self you think you have doesn’t exist.” We like to think that there’s something in us that is unchanging, separate, and has agency, and that this constitutes our essence, or true self. Nothing like that exists. And that’s what the Buddha is pointing too. Perhaps my talking in that way is potentially misleading, so I’ll rethink whether perhaps I should change the language I use.
Anyway, do go check out Bhikkhu Thanissaro’s article. It’s worth a read.