Out of the Thicket and onto the Path
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].
It’s possible to create a huge variety of selves. As the Buddha once said, the mind can take on more shapes than all the species of animals in the world [§13]. Think of what that means: all the whales and insects and everything in-between. Your selves are even more variegated than that. If you watch your sense of self during the day, you’ll see that it continually changes its shape, like an amoeba. Sometimes it looks like a dog, sometimes a person, sometimes a heavenly being, sometimes a shapeless blob.
However, all of these ways of creating a self can be analyzed down to the five aggregates: form, feeling, perception, fabrication, and consciousness. 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 [§14].
As he notes, you can create four different kinds of self out of each of these aggregates. Take the form of the body as an example. (1) You can equate the aggregate with your self—for example, you can say that your body is your self. (2) You can also say that your self possesses that aggregate—for example, that you have a self that possesses a body. (3) You could also have the idea that your self is inside that aggregate—for example, that you have a self inside the body. A few years back, I got into a discussion with my older brother about how we had visualized the soul back when we were children. We both imagined that it was something inside the body, but we had different ideas about what it looked like. Mine was less imaginative. Because the English word “soul” sounds like “sole,” the bottom of your shoe, I thought my soul looked like a glowing piece of leather in a dark space. However, my brother was more imaginative. His soul looked like a rusty can with an iron rod stuck in it. Where he got that image, I have no idea.
At any rate, those are examples of a self conceived of as being inside the body, the third way you could define a soul around the aggregate of form. (4) The fourth way that you can create a sense of self around an aggregate is to say that the aggregate lies inside your self. For example, you have a cosmic self that encompasses your body, that is larger than your body, and your body moves around within that vast self.
All of these ways of defining the self, the Buddha says, cause suffering. This is why he advises you ultimately to put them all aside. But some of them do have their uses on the path, which is why he has you develop them in a skillful way before you drop them.
So instead of getting into a discussion as to which type of self is your true self—or your ultimate self or your conventional self—the Buddha is more interested in showing you how your sense of self is an action. The adjectives he uses to describe actions are not “ultimate” or “conventional.” They’re “skillful” and “unskillful.” These are the terms in which he wants you to understand your selves: Are they skillful? Are they not? And because skill can be understood only through mastery, the Buddha wants you to master these actions in practice.
As it turns out, each of the aggregates is also an action [§15]. When you take on the idea of form in the mind, there is actually a decision in the mind to take on that form. That decision is an action. Feeling is also an action, perception is an action, fabrication is an action, as is consciousness. If you cling to any of these activities, that too is an action: the act of taking delight in repeating that activity again and again.
There are three reasons why it’s useful to analyze your ways of creating a self in this fashion. First, it shows that regardless of how you identify your self, it always involves clinging. Wherever there’s clinging, there’s also suffering and stress. This is why the ordinary way of creating a sense of self falls under the first noble truth. If the object you’re clinging to changes, you suffer from its change. Even if it changes for the better, you realize that its nature is not permanent, therefore it cannot be trusted. Even if you cling to the idea of something permanent, the idea is itself impermanent, as is the clinging to the idea. When you see the activity of creating a self in this way, it gives rise to a sense of disenchantment and dispassion, two emotions that can lead to release. That’s the first reason why it is useful to think of the self as activity in this way: When you see it as an activity, it’s easier to apply the perception of not-self to it so that you can end the suffering that comes from clinging to it.
The second reason for analyzing your ways of creating a self is that, as the Buddha once said, however you define your self, you limit yourself [§§16-17]. For example, if you have the idea that you’re intrinsically bad by nature, something that’s intrinsically bad can’t make itself good. You would need an outside power to help you. This would discourage you from practicing. If you have the idea that you’re intrinsically good by nature, you would need to explain how something intrinsically good could suffer or could cause suffering; also, if it could lose its original pure nature, then once you make it pure again, what would keep it from losing its pure nature again?
There’s also the practical concern that if you believe you’re intrinsically good, it gives rise to complacency. You believe that any intuition that rises up from a quiet mind is trustworthy. In this way, your idea of an intrinsically good self obscures your defilements. This is the opposite of what we sometimes hear—that our defilements obscure our intrinsically good nature—but if you believe your nature is intrinsically good, then when defilements arise in the quiet mind and you identify them as the wisdom of your innate nature manifesting itself, your belief in your intrinsic goodness has blinded you to what’s actually going on.
Also there are times in the meditation when the mind comes to a great state of emptiness, space, light, and peace. If you’re looking for an innately pure and good Buddha nature, you could easily decide that that’s your Buddha nature. However the Buddha advises that even a great state like that should be analyzed to see where there is still some inconstancy and stress—in other words, to see that state of concentration as the result of actions and not as an innate state. Otherwise, again, you get complacent. And as the Buddha said, complacency is the opposite of the source of goodness. The source of goodness or skill is heedfulness [§27].
You also place limitations on yourself if you hold to the idea that you have no self. How could you function? How could you insist that people treat you fairly? What motivation would you have to avoid unskillful actions and to develop the skills of the path? [§19]
Even the idea of a cosmic self has its limitations. It prevents you from seeing how you’re actually functioning in the world and how you’re creating suffering through your I-making and my-making in the present moment. It also provides you with excuses for your unskillful feelings: Whatever arises in the mind is simply the cosmos acting through you, and you take no personal responsibility for it. I once heard of a woman on a retreat who discovered a strong desire for a man sitting in front of her—so strong that she couldn’t stay in the same room. So she went back to meditate in her dormitory room, and there she had a realization: that this was not just her own desire, but it was the force of cosmic desire manifesting through her, and that she should just allow it to happen. When you believe something like that, it’s impossible to practice. As long as you don’t see that these things have their causes in your individual mind, you’ll never be able to put an end to them.
Every way of defining yourself also places a limitation on yourself in the sense that your definition of who you are and what belongs to you is going to conflict with somebody else’s definition of who you are and what belongs to you. The Buddha has a special term for the type of thinking that starts with the thought of self-identification, “I am the thinker.” He calls it papañca, or objectification, and says that it lies at the basis of all conflict. When you start thinking in these terms, your thoughts turn around and bite you.
So these are different ways in which defining what you are can give rise to limitations. When you learn how to drop these unskillful ways of creating a self—or even the idea that you have no self—you can free yourself from these limitations.
Finally, there’s a third benefit that comes from looking at the creation of a self as an action: You’re free to create different senses of self that you can use as tools. You use them when they’re needed and you can put them down when they’re not. And in fact, this is the Buddha’s strategy. This is how we create a path to the end of suffering. We use conditioned things to reach the unconditioned. If you couldn’t do that, you wouldn’t be able to reach the unconditioned—because the unconditioned is not something that can be used. All you have to work with is conditioned phenomena.
The way you use conditioned phenomena is by learning how to master them as skills. In other words, you turn these five aggregates into a path. You can think of the aggregates as bricks that you’ve been carrying in a sack over your shoulder, weighing you down. But instead of carrying them, you now put them down on the ground and make them into a path.
For example, when you’re in a state of concentration, the concentration is actually composed of the five aggregates. Form is your sense of the body as experienced from within, which includes the breath. Feeling is the sense of pleasure or discomfort that can come with the breath. Perception is your mental image or label of “breath” that helps you to stick with the breath and to perceive the breath energy in different parts of the body. The Buddha once said that all states of concentration—except for the very highest—depend on perception because you have to keep a perception of the object in mind in order to stay with the object. As for fabrications, they include sentences in your mind that talk about the breath or the body, evaluating and adjusting the breath, evaluating how well your concentration is going. And finally consciousness is your awareness of all of these other aggregate-activities.
When brought together into a state of concentration in this way, the five aggregates form a path. As you master this skill, you get to see how you create your sense of self around these aggregates: as the agent doing the concentration practice, and as the person enjoying its benefits. This is why the ability to create a set of skillful selves falls under the fourth noble truth. This ability allows you to see the process of I-making and my-making in action. It allows you to understand the powers and limitations of intentional action in leading to true happiness. This understanding is what leads to freedom.
So learn to use these aggregates—and the sense of self you build around them—as tools leading to freedom instead of as burdens weighing you down.
There’s a story that illustrates this principle in T. H. White’s retelling of the King Arthur legend, The Once and Future King. In this version of the story, when Arthur is a young boy, Merlin, the magician, turns him into different kinds of animals to teach him the lessons that can be learned from animals. In the final transformation, young Arthur is turned into a badger and goes down to visit an old badger in his burrow. It turns out that the old badger is like an Oxford don, with many papers spilling out of desks and shelves filling his burrow. He’s written a thesis about why man has dominion over the animals, and he reads his thesis to Arthur. His explanation is much like the creation story in the Bible, except that when God creates all the animals, he doesn’t create them in different forms. He creates them all as identical embryos. Once they are created, he lines them up and announces that he’s going to give them a boon. He’ll allow them to change the shape of their bodies in any way they want, in order to survive better in the world. For example, they can change their mouths into offensive weapons, or their arms into wings.
However, there’s one condition. Once they change their form, they have to stick with it. “So,” he said, “step up and choose your tools.” The different animals thought over their choices, and one by one made their requests. The badgers, being very practical, asked to change their hands into garden forks, their teeth into razors, and their skin into shields. Some of the animals made choices that were very bizarre. For example, a toad who was going to live in the Australian desert asked to swap its entire body for blotting paper to soak up the water from the seasonal rains and store it for the rest of the year.
At the end of the sixth day, there remained only one animal who had not changed its body parts for tools. That was man. So God asked man, “Well, our little man, you have thought over your choice for two days now. Obviously, you have made a wise choice. What is it?” And the little man said, “If it pleases you, I don’t want to change any parts of my body for tools. I simply ask for the ability to make tools. For example, if I want to swim, I will make a boat. If I want to fly, I will make a flying boat.” God was pleased. He said, “Well done. You have guessed our riddle. I will put you in charge of all of the other animals. They have limited themselves, but you have not limited yourself. You will always have many potentials.”
If we take away the theological elements of this story, we can draw a useful lesson from it about our ideas of self: If we create a fixed view of who or what we are, we limit ourselves. We keep on creating suffering and stress. But if we see that we can create many senses of self and can learn to use them as tools, we’ll be in charge of our happiness. We can use these tools to bring suffering and stress to an end.
As with any tools, we have to learn how to use them well, and part of using them well is learning how and when to put them down. Otherwise they get in the way of what we’re trying to do. If we carry them around all the time, they weigh us down for no purpose at all.
This is where the teaching on not-self comes in. It, too, is an activity—a strategic activity—that has to be mastered as a skill: knowing how to put down a particular sense of self when it’s no longer skillful, and ultimately, when your selves have taken you as far as they can, knowing how to let go of them all.
When you understand both self and not-self as activities in this way, it’s easy to see how the Buddha’s teachings on this topic are answers to his basic question for fostering discernment: “What, when I do it, will lead to long-term welfare and happiness?” When, through practice, you’ve learned how to use perceptions of self and not-self in a skillful way, you’ll know for yourself that these skills are a very effective answer to that question.
So that’s the message for tonight. For the next few nights, we’ll explore the different ways in which the Buddha gives us lessons in how to use perceptions of self and not-self as tools on the path.