Does The Self Exist According to Buddha?
There are a lot of people in the spiritual community who talk about how there is no self so there are no problems and everything is basically an illusion. Why should we be concerned about anything when there is no-one that it happens to? but this is not the whole story and not what Buddha taught and it leads people to huge misconceptions about exactly what the self is and how to live a good life.
I would like to offer a middle way which is what I believe Buddha taught 2,500 or so years ago. I notice in spiritual communities the idea put across about an illusory self or a non existent self and they often teach that when you look for a self through self-enquiry you cannot find one so there must not be a self. This is exactly the conclusion that is warned against in ancient scriptures. To say the self does not exist at all is a big mistake on many levels.
“There is a self but it’s just not what you think it is.”
What you think the self is, is exactly what an ego is, an imagined story of who you think you are based on social conditioning and this is what’s eliminated through spiritual practice, a false notion of the self. In fact it is not eliminated because it never existed; it is imaginary. What happens is the false imaginary self is ‘seen through’ and not believed in any more. But there is a real self that cannot be eliminated and there is a real individual despite what so many self proclaimed awakened spiritual teachers try and teach.
The middle way is the middle ground between two extreme views. Saying the self exists as a separate and permanent thing is an extreme. But it is also an extreme view to say the self does not exist at all. The self is neither permanent nor non-existent. The middle way is somewhere in between these two extremes. There are two mistakes that are made with Buddhist negation of the self. Negating too much and not negating enough.
Buddha taught a specific type of self does not exist – that is a permanent and separate self. BUT the Buddha did not say the self does not exist at all. This misconception leads to the gross error of thinking karma does not exist and actions do not have consequences. The hardest thing in Buddhist philosophy is to match the two teachings of no self and karma together.
In our experience there seems to be a fixed, separate and autonomous self that is different from everything else and goes through life having things happen to it. We believe in this self and create stories about it. This is the self that is negated using either of the two main types of Buddhist meditations; either using ‘direct looking’ or ‘logical analysis’. What is revealed is reality.
As Alan Watts describes
“The doctrine of sunyata, or voidness, asserts only that there are no self-existent forms, for the more one concentrates upon any individual thing, the more it turns out to involve the whole universe.”
The path of a simple meditator is to turn your attention around and ‘look’ directly within yourself and see if you can find this separate self. Upon looking all that is found is a clear and open awareness but not a personality or something separate with boundaries.
The second method uses logical analysis. The parts of the self are intellectually separated and logical questions are asked like: is the self the body alone? or is the self the mind alone? does the self own its parts? or is the self found in its parts? After logical reflection the self cannot be found as a separate entity or found within the individual parts. Upon conclusion the self does not exist in its parts or separate from its parts.
So where does that leave us? For a meditator this question is left wide open. Literally wide open without the need to come up with an intellectual answer but to simply remain present and mindful of passing experiences and not attaching to any thoughts about yourself or the world. This is the way of meditation, the ancient way of Zen or the position of ‘no position’. A simple and open ended way to live trusting in present centred awareness. Everything is transient, contextual and immediate. And it’s not even that because they’re all just more ideas and philosophy.
For a person using reason and logic or a scientific approach the best way to describe the self is interdependent. Logically speaking nothing exists apart from anything else. Everything is relational. The self is a contingent entity constantly in flux and always relating to other things. There is no self separate from the body, emotions or mind. The self is labelled dependant on those things which are constantly changing and never fixed.
To understand that everything arises depending on other things allows the wisdom that knows what’s good for the self and bad for the self to shine. Buddha taught to eliminate negative states of mind like anger, greed and selfishness and cultivate positive states of mind like empathy, love and patience. He taught these things because there is a self that depends on such positive states of mind to be happy and live a good life.
The great Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh says if the clouds did not exist we would not exist either. He explains beautifully how interrelated we are with our environment, in fact the very next breath you take to survive is totally dependant on a healthy atmosphere created by the interactions of countless variables like trees, the sun and the ocean. Thich Nhat Hanh calls this self ‘interbeing’ and suggests if you look deeply enough into the back of your hand you can see the whole world there.
There should be a good dose of common sense in our ideas of the self. To say there is no self so there is no need to buy food or pay the bills for our self is obviously an extreme. These days even enlightened beings need to pay the bills. As the old Zen saying goes “before enlightenment chop wood and carry water, after enlightenment chop wood and carry water.” Or a modern version of that saying by Jack Kornfield is: “after enlightenment, the laundry.”
To sum it up – meditating and spiritual practice can reveal a timeless and unbounded dimension to our being but this is not exclusively who we are. The best analogy is we emerge from a vast ocean of consciousness as a time bound individual wave of existence. Whilst we are always connected to the ocean and an expression of the whole ocean we also live simultaneously as individuals swayed by conditions and circumstances.
To enjoy the ride as a wave but to realise you are always the ocean.
To live life is to live on our own individual wave of existence. Being mindful of all the connections that make our existence possible and cultivating positive and healthy relationships to everything. To totally thrive is to be aware of the timeless dimension within, what Buddhist might call Buddha nature, which is where we came from and are constantly connected to that reveals the most profound truth of our complete existence and allows access to deep wisdom, intuition and guidance. That wisdom includes the ability to clearly know what’s healthy for the interdependant self and what’s unhealthy and follow the path that leads to a good healthy life.