The Buddhist non-self; or, what the self is not

Although the doctrine of no-self is central to Buddhism, it would be misguided to definitively say that nothing whatsoever subtends subjectivity. Rather, the central point for the Buddhist is that the self is not the five aggregates and its objects even though we tend to assume that the aggregates and its phenomena constitute some enduring or fixed self.

Any faculty that engages in intentionality is not-self, and this is also true of its intended objects. The Abhidarma, which is the Pali Canon’s systematic philosophical and psychological contents, contains much finer-grained analyses of the human subject. Commentarial traditions from different Buddhist traditions divide these up differently. Abhidhammattha-sangaha by Acariya Anuruddha lists fifty-two mental factors. Atthasālinī by Buddhaghosa lists fifty-two mental factors; Abhidharmakośa by Vasubandhu — lists forty-six mental factors; Abhidharma-samuccaya by Asanga lists fifty-one mental factors; Innermost Core of Topics of Knowledge (mDzod-phug) by Shenrab Miwo — a Tibetan Bon commentary that lists fifty-one factors.

But that which subtends subjectivity has nothing to do with any of these factors, and it is not static or substantial but dynamic, and ultimately, undefinable and unfathomable by humans. Indeed, there are quite a few points at which the Buddha argues that such investigation is unwise because it is not only ultimately unanswerable and incomprehensible by humans, but risks producing both distress and attachment to phenomena, which it is precisely the point of Buddhism to escape. Here are some examples from the Pali Canon in which the wisdom and answerability of such inquiry is repudiated:

Majjhima Nikaya 63 and 72:

  1. The world is eternal.
  2. The world is not eternal.
  3. The world is (spatially) infinite.
  4. The world is not (spatially) infinite.
  5. The being imbued with a life force is identical with the body.
  6. The being imbued with a life force is not identical with the body.
  7. The Tathagata (a perfectly enlightened being) exists after death.
  8. The Tathagata does not exist after death.
  9. The Tathagata both exists and does not exist after death.
  10. The Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist after death.

The Sabbasava Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 2:

  1. What am I?
  2. How am I?
  3. Am I?
  4. Am I not?
  5. Did I exist in the past?
  6. Did I not exist in the past?
  7. What was I in the past?
  8. How was I in the past?
  9. Having been what, did I become what in the past?
  10. Shall I exist in future?
  11. Shall I not exist in future?
  12. What shall I be in future?
  13. How shall I be in future?
  14. Having been what, shall I become what in future?
  15. Whence came this person?
  16. Whither will he go?

Standpoints that see the self as “permanent, stable, everlasting, unchanging, remaining the same for ever and ever” is “becoming enmeshed in views, a jungle of views, a wilderness of views; scuffling in views, the agitation (struggle) of views, the fetter of views.”

Written by

Experienced psychology writer and practitioner of psi abilities. Looking forward to contributing to a worldwide awakening to the reality of psi phenomena.

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