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PEI~SONALITY,

CONSCIOUSNESS
ANI) NII:tVANA
IN EAI:tLY
BUI)l)HISM

PETER HARVEY

THE SELFLESS MIND
Personality, Consciousness and Nirv3J}.a
in Early Buddhism

Peter Harvey

~~ ~~~~!;"~~~~urzon
LONDON AND NEW YORK

First published in 1995
by Curzon Press
Reprinted 2004
By RoutledgeCurzon
2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN

Transferred to Digital Printing 2004

RoutledgeCurzon is an imprint ofthe Taylor & Francis Group
© 1995 Peter Harvey
Typeset in Times by
Florencetype Ltd, Stoodleigh, Devon
Printed and bound in Great Britain by
Biddies Ltd, King's Lynn, Norfolk
AU rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or
reproduced or utilised in any fonn or by any electronic,
mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter
invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any
infonnation storage or retrieval system, without pennission in
writing from the publishers.

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Library of Congress in Publication Data
A catalog record for this book has been requested
ISBN 0 7007 0337 3 (hbk)
ISBN 0 7007 0338 I (pbk)

Ye dhammd hetuppabhavti tesaf{l hetUf{l tathiigato aha
Tesaii ca yo norodho evQf{lvtidi mahiisamaf10 ti (Vin.l.40)

Those basic processes which proceed from a cause,
Of these the tathiigata has told the cause,
And that which is their stopping The great wandering ascetic has such a teaching

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I would like to thank Dr Karel Werner, of Durham University (retired),
for his encouragement and help in bringing this work to publication.
I would also like to thank my wife Anne for her patience while I
was undertaking the research on which this work is based.

CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION

Key non-Buddhist concepts
Key Buddhist concepts
'Not-Self' and scholars
Sources
Methodology

1
1

2
7
9

11

Part I Exploring tbe Notion of Selflessness
THE QUESTION OF SELF

Scholars who see a metaphysical Self in the
'early Suttas'
Uses of the word 'self' (alta) in the 'early Suttas'
Passages which might indicate the acceptance of a Self
Nibbiina as not-Self and not related to a Self
Self as 'not being apprehended'
A Self beyond 'existence' and 'non-existence'?
Proof of the impossibility of a Self
Buddhism and the Upani~ads on Self
The status of the 'person'
Why is Self not denied?: the Buddha and the
Annihilationists
The 'I am' attitude: its cause, effect and its ending
2 THE MEANING OF 'NOT-SELF'
The role of viewing phenomena as not-Self
The criteria for Self-hood
Nibbiina and the Self-ideal

17
17

19
21
23
24

28
31
33
34
38
40
43
43
46
51

3 DEVEWPING A SELF WITHOUT BOUNDARIES
Living with citta as an 'island'
Developing a 'great self'
'One of developed self'
The Arahat as self-contained and 'dwelling alone'
The Arahat's boundaryless citta
The Arahat's boundaryless, self-contained self

54
54

4

5

PERSONAL CONTINUITY AND RESPONSmiLITY

64

65

MY WORLD AND ITS END

78
78
79
83

Self-world link and the meaning of 'world' (loka)
Buddhist perspective on the world
undetermined questions
undetermined questions on the world

THE LIFE-PRINCIPLE AND THE BETWEEN-LIVES STATE

The undetermined questions on the life-principle
The 'life-principle' accepted by early Buddhism
Discernment and rebirth
The question of the intermediary existence (antarii-bhava)
The nature of the intermediary existence
The gandhabba: spirit-being of the intermediary
existence

7

60

62

The person as a continuity
Responsibility for actions
The stability of character traits over lives
What conserves character traits and the unity of the
'continuity'?
To what extent are 'continuities' isolated from each other
and the world?

The
The
The
The

6

55

57
58

66

68
72

74

84

89
89
91
95
98
102

lOS

Part II: Saqasiric and Nibbinic Discernment

109

THE CENTRALITY OF DISCERNMENT

111
111

The nature and centrality of citta
A person as discernment and the sentient body
The vortical interplay of discernment and the sentient
body

116
119

8 DISCERNMENT AND CONDmONED ARISING
The nature of the constructing activities
The conditioning of discernment by the
constructing activities
The conditioning of discernment by ndma-rupa
Discernment as conditioned by attention
The conditioning of the sentient body by
discernment
Conditioned Arising as an analysis of the
perceptual process

122
122

9 DISCERNMENT AND THE PERCEPTUAL PROCESS
The perceptual process in the 'early Suttas'
The nature and functions of cognition (saiiiiii)
The activity of discernment (viiiiiiii}Q)
The functions of discernment in the Abhidhamma
'process of cittas'
The nature of viiiiiiii'Ja
The effect of karma on discernment in the
perceptual process

138
138
141
143

124
127
129
130

134

145
148
151

10 BHAVANOA AND. THE BRlGHTLY SHINING MIND

155

Is the bhavailga concept ruled out by the 'early
Sutta' world-view?
'Early Sutta' evidence for a bhavailga-type state
The meaning of 'bhavailga'
The roles of bhavahga
The brightly shining citta
Freedom from defilements
The shining citta and bhavailga
The Arahat's ever-shining citta
The shining citta and the Buddha-nature
The shining citta and the realms of rebirth

155
151
160
162
166
169
170
173
114
111

ll NmBANA AS THE TIMELESS 'SlOPPING' OF THE
ENTIRE PERSONALITY

The nibbiina-element without remainder of upiidi
Nibbiina during life as not ever-present in the
Arahat
The 'stopping' of the personality{actors during life
Nibbiinic 'stopping' and nirodha-samiipatti

180
181
182
185
187

Re-entry to the state of 'stopping'
Nibbiina during life as 'unborn', 'unconstructed'
and 'deathless'
Nibbiina as a timeless object of insight
12 NIBBANA AS A TRANSFORMED STATE OF DISCERNMENT
Nibbiina as a form of discernment
Nibbiinic discernment as 'stopped', 'objectless'
and 'unsupported'
Udiina.80 as a description of nibbiinic discernment
The nature of nibbiinic discernment
Unsupported discernment and nibbiina beyond death
The relation of nibbiinic discernment to the
Arahat's normal state
Theraviidin perspectives
Alahiiyiinaperspectives

188
189
193
198
199
201
203
205
208
210
214
217

13 SEEKING THE TATHAGATA
The 'untraceability' of the tathiigata
The 'hard to fathom' tathiigata and Dhamma
The tathiigata as 'not being apprehended'
Nibbiinic discernment and the views on the
tathiigata after death

227
228
231
235

14 CONCLUSION

246

239

Appendix: The Theory of the Process of Cittas

252

Notes
Abbreviations
Bibliography
Index and glossary

259
274
277
282

Charts
1. The 'process of cittas' in waking consciousness,
according to Abhidhamma theory
2. The cilia-sequence in sleep
3. The cilia-sequence in meditative jhiinas

146
163
163

INTRODUCTION

(1.1) This work is concerned with exploring certain key features of
the world-view of early Buddhism: its attitude to notions of self and
its understanding of the nature and role of viiinai}Q: 'consciousness'
or 'discernment'. Both of these topics are of intrinsic interest in
themselves, and exploration of them in early Buddhist literature
both facilitates a better understanding of early Buddhism and adds
a different perspective to the current debate on these topics. In order
to carry out this analysis, though, it is necessary to have an understanding of certain basic concepts of early Indian thought.
KEY NON-BUDDHIST CONCEPTS
(1.2) Prior to Buddhism, the Brahmanical (proto-Hindu) tradition
had started to produce compositions known as Upani~ads. In these,
the spiritual quest was seen as, at heart, the quest for knowing the
Self (Skt. iitman), which came to be seen as an essence underlying
the whole of reality: both the external world and personality. It was
not a personal 'self'. though, but lay beyond both body and mind,
as a transcendent, yet immanent reality that was a person •s true
nature. Lying beyond empirical individuality, it was a universal Self,
the same in all beings. Such ideas were among those debated by the
non-Brahmanical samaQOs, or religious wanderers, that the Buddha
(circa 484-404 BC) moved among. One group of samaQOs was the
Jains. They saw a person's true Self as the 'Life-principle' (.iiva),
a luminescent iMer Self which lay within a person, trapped in
matter until it was liberated. Such a 'Life-principle' was. unlike the
Upani~adic Self, seen as an individual entity: each being had a
sepanlte Life-principle. In Buddhist texts, though, the word atta (Pali)
or iitman, meaning self or Self (Piili and Sanskrit have no capital
1

THE SELFLESS MIND

letters) is used for all such concepts. Another sama1J(l group was
the Ajivakas. These were fatalists who felt that there was a Lifeprinciple or individual Self that was impelled from rebirth to rebirth
by an iron law of destiny. Another group, dubbed by the Buddhists
as •Annihilationists', were materialists who held that a person was
completely destroyed at death. In this, they were unlike the Brahmins,
Jains, Ajivakas and Buddhists, all of whom believed that beings went
through a series of rebirths, as humans, animals, or other kinds
of beings. All but the Ajivakas also thought that how a person
was reborn depended on the quality of their karma, or action.
Simply put, good, unselfish actions were seen as leading to pleasant
rebirths, and bad, selfish ones were seen as leading to unpleasant
rebirths. All, though, sought to attain liberation from this age-old
round of rebirths, so as to gain fmal peace in some form. In his
summary of the religious scene of his day, the Buddha often
grouped others under three heads: the 'Eternalists', who believed
in some form of eternal Self or Life-principle; the •Annihilationists',
who felt that a person is destroyed at death, and the 'Eel-wrigglers',
referring to a group of Skeptics who felt that human beings
were incapable of having knowledge of such matters as Self and
rebirth.

KEY BUDDHIST CONCEPTS
(1.3) Turning to the Buddhists, they have believed in a number of
kinds of rebirth (Harvey, 1990: 32-46). The most unpleasant are
various forms of hellish existence which, though long-lasting, are not
eternal. Other unpleasant ones are the realms of the frustrated
'departed' or ghosts, and animals/birds/fishes/insects. The human
realm is among the relatively pleasant rebirths, as are a number of
heaven worlds, populated by (non-eternal) gods (devas) of a progressively refined nature. The lower ones belong, like all the worlds
mentioned so far, to the 'realm of sense-desire', where beings experience things largely in terms of what seems desirable or
undesirable. More refined are those heavens belonging to the realm
of '(pure) form', where things are experienced in a somewhat less
partial way. Such rebirths correspond to, and are seen as attained by
achieving, certain refined meditative states known asjhiinas, of which
there are four. Perhaps the most important type of god is Great
Brahmli, who dwells in one of the lower (pure) form heavens. Such
a being is seen as full of lovingkindness and compassion, but as

2

INTRODUCTION

thinking, mistakenly, that he created the world. Most refmed of the
heavens are the four 'formless' rebirths, which exactly correspond to
certain meditative states. Such 'formless' worlds are seen as entirely
mental in nature. The jhiinas are developed by careful concentration
on such things as the breath or the attitude of lovingkindness to all.
The formless states focus on such objects as 'infinite space'.
Together, they form a sequence in which the whole body-mind
complex is progressively calmed and stilled.
(1.4) The goal of Buddhism, nibbiina {SkL nirvii1Ja), is said to
entail an end to all rebirths. Such a goal is attained by an Arahat,
who experiences nibbiina during life, and then fmally 'enters' it at
death. The Arahat is one of several 'Holy' or 'Noble' (ariya) persons:
saints who have fully experienced nibbiina or glimpsed it from afar.
The first of these saints is the Stream-enterer, who has defmitively
entered the 'stream' (path) which will lead to nibbiina within seven
lives at most, and will never be reborn at less than a human level.
The second is the Once-returner, who will return only once to the
realm of sense-desire in future rebirths. The third is the Non-returner,
who will not return to this realm, but be reborn in one or more 'pure
abodes', part of the realm of (pure) form, before becoming an Arahat.
Lastly, there is the Arahat. These saints, along with the four types
of person well established on the way leading to these states, comprise
the 'Holy Sangha', the community of saints. There is also the
monastic Sangha of monks and nuns who, in the Buddha's day, are
mostly said to have been Holy persons. The monastic way of life
was established by the Buddha as a disciplined spiritual way which
was particularly conducive to spiritual progress. Its material needs
were supplied by the Buddhist laity. While conditions for a lay practitioner were less ideal, there are plenty of early references to Jay
Stream-enterers and even Non-returners, plus a few Jay Arahats. All
followers of the Buddha expressed their commitment by going to the
Buddha, Dhamma and (Holy) Sangha as 'refuges', i.e. looking to
them as the embodiment of good qualities which inspire and generate
inner strength when reflected on. In this trio, Dhamma refers to the
Buddha's path and its goal, nibbiina. It can also mean
the Buddha's teachings, the eternal Truth at which these point,
and various spiritual realisations along the path. The Buddhist way,
then, was, and still is, one of understanding, practising and realizing
Dhamma.
(1.5) At the heart of the Buddha's teachings are the four 'Holy'
Truths. These are essentially that:

3

THE SELFLESS MIND

i)

life is frustrating, subject to dukkha, or 'suffering', and all
components of personality are dukkha, in the sense of being
•unsatisfactory';
ii) the main cause for this situation, and for repeated rebirths, is
craving of various kinds;
iii) if craving is destroyed, dukkha is destroyed, this end of suffering
being nibbtina
iv) the Path to the end of dukkha is the Holy Eightfold Path, which
consists of cultivating various aspects of virtue, meditation and
wisdom (Harvey, 1990: 47-72).

Among the spiritual qualities to be developed on the Buddhist path are
lovingkindness (mettii): the heartfelt aspiration for the happiness of
oneself and others - ultimately all beings -, and the four 'foundations
of mindfulness (sati)': careful moment-to-moment observation of the
arising and passing·of states, be they bodily sensations, feelings, states
of mind, or patterns of existence such as the four Holy Truths or
analyses of personality.
(1.6) The main Buddhist analysis of personality is that it consists
of the five khandhas, 'groups', or uptidtina-kkhandhas, 'groups of
grasping'. These are five groups of processes that we normally
grasp at as 'I' or 'me'. They can, thus, loosely be described as the
'personality-factors' (and they will be referred to in this way in this
work). The five are:
rupa: '(material) form', meaning the body;
ii) vedana: 'feeling', the hedonic tone of any experience, its aspect

i)

as being pleasant, unpleasant or neutral;
iii) saflfiii: 'cognition', that which recognizes, classifies and inter-

prets objects of the senses and mind;
iv) the sahkhiiras: a number of 'constructing activities', of which the
typical one is cetanii, or volition; others include such things as
emotional states and attention;
iv) viflfiiif)Q: generally translated by the rather vague term
'consciousness', but, as argued in chapter 9, better seen as
'discernment': sensory or mental awareness which discerns the
basic parts/aspects of its object.
Another analysis is that of the 'twelve sense-spheres' (iiyatanas): the
five sense organs, with mind-organ (mano) as a sixth, and the six
kind of objects these are aware of. A third analysis is in terms of
4

INTRODUCTION

the 'eighteen elements' (dhatus): these twelve with the addition of
the kinds of discernment related to each sense-organ. Personality is
also analysed in a more dynamic way, according to the principle of
pa{icca-samuppada: 'Conditioned Arising' or 'Dependent Origination'. The principle is that nothing (other than nibbiina) arises or
ceases except in dependence on certain conditions. The application
of this principle to personality is most often done in tenns of a series
of twelve nidanas, or causal links, each one conditioning the one
which follows it in the sequence:
'(spiritual) ignorance' (avijja) (of the four Holy truths), in the
fonn of persistent ntis-perception of the nature of reality.
ii) 'constructing activities' (the satikharas): the fourth factor of
personality, emphasized here as that which generates karmic effects.
iii) 'discernment' (viiiiial)a), the fifth factor of personality.
iv) 'mind-and-body'(nama-rupa): a person in their mental and
physical aspects, i.e. the sentient body, particularly at the start
of a new rebirth.
v) 'the six sense-spheres' (the tiyatanas): the six sense-organs.
vi) 'stimulation' (phassa): the mind's bare awareness of sensory
contact.
vii) 'feeling' (vedana): the second factor of personality.
viii)'craving' (tapha): the key cause of suffering.
ix) 'grasping' (upadana): clinging to things and views.
x) 'becoming' (bhava): perhaps meaning the continuing process
of life.
xi) 'birth' (jat1): the start of a new life.
xii) 'ageing, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair .•.
this whole mass of dukkha'.

i)

The weak points in this sequence are ignorance and craving.
Meditative calming (samatha), by the jhanas, is seen to weaken
craving, and direct meditative insight (vipassana), based on strong
mindfulness, is seen to destroy both craving and ignorance.
(1.7) It is emphasized, again and again, that each personalityfactor, sense-sphere, element and link has three qualities: qualities
which mean that one should not cling to or be attached to them.
These are that they are:
i) impennanent (anicca): subject to change and decay
ii) dukkha, causing suffering, and being unsatisfactory

5

THE SELFLESS MIND

ii) not-Self (anatta, Skt. anatman): not a substantial, real Self

or I.
It is the interpretation of this latter point that this work is largely
concerned with. Essentially, if many things are not-Self, is this
because there is no Self or, in a way similar to the Upani~ads, was
early Buddhism counselling people to find their genuine, true Selfl
It is said that 'all dhammas (basic processes or patterns) are notSelf': but what is implied by this, and why is it so emphasized in
the early Buddhist texts?
(1.8) Among the early Buddhist teachings relevant to its position
on 'Self, is that concerning the 'views on the existing group'
(sakkiiya-di{{his). The 'existing group' (sakkiiya) {or, possibly, 'own
group') is the five personality-factors, as described above (M.I.299).
The views on these are a set of beliefs held on them by a puthujjana, an 'ordinary person' who has not yet become a Stream-enterer,
nor is poised for becoming one. As these beliefs are only held by a
spiritually undeveloped person, they are clearly seen as unacceptable.
The views in question concern a putative 'Self and its relation
to the personality-factors. Of feeling, for example, the views hold:
i) Self is feeling, or ii) Self has the property of feeling, or iii) feeling
is in Self, or iv) Self is in feeling. Parallel views are held with respect
to each of the other four personality-factors, so that there are twenty
such views in all, covering all the ways that an ordinary person
might look on the personality-factors and 'Self. This means, for
example, that it is wrong to say that the body is Self, or that the
body is a property of Self, or that the body is contained within
(i.e. part of) Self, or that the body contains a Self! A related set of
theories are those enshrined in what are known as the 'undetermined
(avyakata) questions': a set of questions which were frequently put
to the Buddha, but which he set aside with the response 'say not so'
to each and every one. This set of ten questions is:
i)

'Is the world (loka) eternal?'
ii) 'Is the world not eternal?'
iii) 'Is the world finite?'
iv) 'Is the world infinite?'
v) 'Is the life-principle (jiva) the same as the mortal body
(sarira)?'
vi 'Is the life-principle different from the mortal body?'
vii) 'A tathiigata {enlightened person) !§ after (his) death?'
6

INTRODUCTION

viii)' A tathagata is not after death?'
ix) 'A tathagata both is and is not after death?'
x) 'A tathagata neither is nor is not after death?'
The possible implications of the Buddha's reaction to these questions,
particularly on the intriguing and mysterious 'tatluigata', are most
thought-provoking!

'NOT-SELF' AND SCHOLARS
(1.9) In the history of modem scholarship on Buddhism, many
words have been spilled on the implications of, and potential philosophical problems in, Buddhism's teaching that all components
of personality are 'not-Self'. The Buddhist tradition, in general, is
seen as taking this as implying that, as no pennanent, metaphysical
Self can be found in personality, then such a thing does not exist.
Indeed the tradition is often taken as explicitly denying the existence
of such a Self. Thus Paul Williams, for example, in an otherwise
excellent recent book, persists in translating andtman as 'noSelf' (1989: 77). Certainly some modem followers of the Theravada
school see the Buddha as having 'denied' the existence of Self.
This is also the line taken in the most recent book-length study of
the not-Self teaching according to the Theravada school, Steven
Collins's Selfless Persons (eg. pp. 7, 10, 71). As will be shown below,
though, the early sources used by the Theravada are bereft of
any such explicit denial. The idea that Buddhism, 'denies the self',
though, has become a commonplace of Religious Studies. While
sophisticated treatments like Collins's are clear that the Buddhist
perspective does not rule out psychological continuity within a
person, it is quite common to find that newcomers to Buddhist Studies
see in 'there is no Self' a denial of any kind of self, metaphysical
(Self) or empirical. This is plain wrong. Moreover, in teaching
that the factors of personality are not-Self, the Buddha has been
portrayed as engaged in an attack at the concept of Self, rather
than as getting his disciples to recognize an important truth about
the empirical factors of personality. Again, this portrayal does not
seem true to the sources of early Buddhism. Collins fails to recognize this, though, when he says that, for the scholar and meditator,
the not-Self teaching functions merely as 'a linguistic taboo in technical discourse' (p. 77): that is, a declaration that Self-talk is a
philosophical no-go area.

7

THE SELFLESS MIND

(1.10) The not-Self teaching is not without its potential problems,
such as: what is it that is reborn after death? Who is the agent of
action and the locus of moral responsibility? As Collins and others
have argued, there are classical Buddhist answers to these questions
which do not require the assertion of a Self. Nevertheless, worry over
such problems has been recurrent. Indeed, one quite influential early
Buddhist school, the Puggalavadins, or 'Personalists', was prompted
by such questions to posit some kind of genuine Self. This was the
'person' (puggala), which was seen as neither the same as nor
different from the empirical personality-factors: just as a whole is
not identical with or different from its parts. Over time, it was neither
changing nor unchanging.
(1.11) Such questions have also caused a number of modem
western and Indian writers to assert that, in saying that many things
are not-Self, early Buddhist sources implicitly, or even explicitly,
asserted the existence of such a Self, beyond the realm of empirical
personality. The list of such interpreters includes Mrs C.A.F. Rhys
Davids, Ananda Coomaraswamy, George Grimm, K. Bhattacharya,
J. Perez-Rem6n, and even two of the most illustrious translators of
Buddhist texts, Miss I.B. Homer, late president of the Pa.li Text
Society, and Edward Conze, renowned for his work on Mahayana
Perfection of Wisdom texts, and author of many fine books on
Buddhism. Given such different views on the subject, it seems appropriate to add to the literature on not-Self by attempting an impartial
assessment of what the teaching actually says, both explicitly and
implicitly, and what the intention behind the teaching is. For if the
teaching is as central as it certainly seems, it is crucial to understand
what it is about, and what it is not about. Unlike Collins ( 1982: 77),
I hold that a sensitive approach does allow the scholar, qua scholar,
to explain what the use of the not-Self teaching 'means'. In doing
so, of course, one must seek carefully to allow the texts to speak
for themselves, being alive to the fault of imposing one's own prejudices on the material. Once the question of Self has been fully dealt
with, this work will then analyse the nature of 'discernment', which
seems to be assigned a central role in the empirical personality and
also allows an increased understanding of the nature of nibbdna and
the mysterious tathagata, he who is literally 'Thus-gone'.

8

INTRODUCTION

SOURCES
(1.12) The primary sources for this work are drawn from the 'Pili
Canon', the early collection of scriptures, in the Pili language, of the
Theraviida school. Of the early schools of Buddhism, which developed prior to the arising of the Mahayana movement (circa first
century BC/fll'St century AD), this is the only one for which we have
a full Canon of scriptures. It is all seen, traditionally, as having
been taught by the Buddha (or his immediate disciples) and, though
some parts of it clearly post-date the Buddha, many parts of it are
ancient and may date from his day or soon after. Its teachings generally have an overall harmony, which strongly suggest 'authorship'
of a system of thought by one mind. The Piili Canon was originally
transmitted orally, by communal chanting, and was fll'St committed
to writing, in part or whole, in the first century BC on the island
of Ceylon. Steven Collins ( 1990) has argued that the Theraviidins
were the only Buddhist school to have developed a closed 'Canon'
of scriptures, and that this took place in the early centuries AD in
the context of sectarian rivalries in Ceylon. He therefore sees the
Canon as the product, rather than the pre-existing basis of this school.
I would agree that certain portions of the Canon, whenever they were
composed, do show evidence of a specifically Theravadin orientation. But, on the other hand, much of the material is not specifically
'Theravadin', but is simply the collection of teachings that this school
happened to preserve from among the early, non-sectarian body
of teachings. That this is so can be seen from thr fact that it contains
material which is at odds with later Theravadin orthodoxy. A good
example of this is the material analysed in ch.6, which shows
that the early Buddhists believed in an intermediary period between
rebirths, unlike the Theraviidin view which sees no gap between the
end of one life and the start of the next The Theraviidins, then, may
have added texts to their Canon for some time, but they do not
seem to have tampered with what they already had from an earlier
period. It is the texts of this earlier period that I shall take as the
main focus of my investigation. I do so both because of the rich
and fascinating nature of the material itself, and because an examination of it helps us to see what later ideas and formulations were
building on. Some see a focus on the early Pili material as a sign
of a purist 'Protestant' approach. I contend, however, that the early
material is far richer and diverse than modem Theravadin 'Protestant'
reformers hold it to be.

9

THE SBLPLBSS MIND

(1.13) The basic structure of the Pili Canon is:
i) Vinaya-pitaka, the section on monastic discipline.
ii) Sutta-pi{aka, the section on the 'discourses' of the Buddha.
iii) Abhidhamma-pitaka, the section on 'further teachings', in the
form of a psycho-philosophically exact and systematic formulation of the Sutta-teachings.
Of this material, the most relevant to the subject of this work is
the Sutta section. This consists of five 'Nikayas'. Other than parts
of the Vinaya, the oldest sections of the Canon lie in the fust
four Nikiiyas and parts of the fifth. The fmt four are known as the
Digha Nikiiya, Majjhima Nikiiya, Safl'lyutta Nikiiya and Anguttara
Nikiiya. Of the fifth, or Khuddaka, Nimya, the sections I shall refer
to most are: the Suttanipiita, Udana, ltivuttaka, Dhammapada,
Theragtithd and Therigdthd, all of which are in verse. I shall also
make some use of the Vimiinavatthu, Petavatthu, Jdtakas (all from
the Khuddako Nimya), and Sutta-like sections of the Vinaya. I do

not see any of these as specifically Theravadin in content. They
constitute a unit of texts, of broadly the same period of composition,
which for want of a better phrase I shall refer to as the 'early Suttas',
though parts of the Vinaya are included, and parts of the Khuddako
Nikiiya are excluded. These shall be my main focus of interest. It
would have been good to consult parallel versions of many of such
texts, in the Tibetan and Chinese Canons, but this goes beyond my
linguistic abilities.
(Ll4) My second group of primary sources are those texts which
can be seen as the early interpretative Jitemture of the Theravii.da
school. These are their Canonical Abhidhamma texts, sections of the
Khuddaka Nikiiya such as the Niddesa and Pa{isambhidamagga, and
the post-Canonical Milindapanha (approximately fmt century AD,
though portions may be as late as the fourth century, and it is probably not exclusively Theravadin). In the main, these works are
concerned with an analysis and systematisation of the teachings of
the fust group of texts, with the Abhidhamma focussing on a momentby-moment analysis of reality. The second group of texts is consulted
to expand on topics not dealt with in sufficient depth in the 'early
Suttas '. It is also consulted to find and assess interpretations of the
earlier material, which interpretations are only accepted - as plausible readings of what was originally meant - if they cohere with
that material. In a similar way, a third group of primary sources are
10

INTRODUCTION

consulted: the Theravadin commentaries and the Visuddhimagga of
Buddhaghosa (sixth century AD). These texts are clearly later than
the second group of texts (except, perhaps, for portions of the
Milindapaiiha), and generally expand on rather than diverge from the
latter. Nevertheless, when going beyond the 'early Suttas', the second
group of texts is referred to in preference to the third, so as to keep
as near as possible to the early period. I am thus primarily concerned
with analysing the ideas expressed in the 'early Suttas', but have
consulted later Theravadin literature for the reasons stated, and to
note where certain changes in ideas have occurred.
(1.15) All the texts cited so far are in Pali, and belong to the
Theravada school. A few other texts have also been consulted. They
include certain Upani~ads and Mahayana works (originally in a form
of Sanskrit), along with certain Jain works (in Prakrit). These have
been consulted so as to shed further light on aspects of 'early Sutta'
concepts and to trace how certain of these concepts were developed
in the Mahayana. Similarly, in order to follow up certain topics raised
in the 'early Suttas', particularly relating to the status of the 'person'
and the 'between-lives' state, there has also been some reference to
the Abhidharmakosa of Vasubandhu (fifth century AD), a work
in Sanskrit expressing the ideas of the (V aibhii$ika) Sarvastivada
school. This was one of the three major pre-Mahayana schools which
generated an Abhidhamma and other systematic interpretative
treatises, the others being the Theravada and Personalist schools. To
better understand the ideas of the Personalists, the translation of their
Sammitiya-nikiiya Stistra, from Chinese, has also been consulted. This
was translated into Chinese some time between 381 and 431 AD, and
is one of the few surviving texts of this school. In understanding
their views, then, we must rely on it as well as sections of the
Abhidharmakosa (ch.9; fifth century AD) and the Theravadin
Abhidhamma work known as the Kathavatthu (pp.l-69; 250 BC or
later). These texts allow us to investigate another important nonTheravadin perspective on the 'early Sutta' material.
METHODOLOGY
(1.16) When dealing with the Pali literature, one finds that one is
confronting a single world-view, though admittedly one which
is very rich and with many aspects to it. Not only between texts in
the same group, as defined above, does one fmd a remarkable homogeneity of ideas, but· there is also a large degree of coherence even
ll

THE SELFLESS MIND

between texts of different groups. One can thus tteat the literature
as one 'world' in which there is a generally coherent body of ideas,
but also certain tensions and divergences. My method has thus been
to try to gain an understanding of this world in its own terms, drawing
out the nuances of its thought.
(1.17) Now it should be noted that Edward Conze was critical
of the idea Buddhism as a coherent body of truths:
statements of Buddhist writers are not meant to be propositions
about the natwe of reality, but advice on how to act. ... H
one, however, isolates the Buddha's statements from the task
they intend to perform, then they become quite meaningless
(1951: 16--17).
This formulation of the situation suggests that, because the Buddha
only made statements useful for helping persons towards nibbiina,
such statements are not also to be seen as intended to be objectively
true. However, to point out that statements attributed to the Buddha
were practically orientated does not show that, in being so, they were
not also seen as true. It only implies that the Buddha would not have
been seen to teach things which were true but not useful. Indeed the
'early Suttas' portray the Buddha as having gained knowledge of
many things, but having only taught those which were conducive
to nibbana (S.V.437-38). He is said (M.I.395) to have uttered speech
only if it was true and spiritually useful, not if it was true and not
spiritually useful, or false and not spiritually useful. There is no reference to speech which is false but spiritually useful: the Buddha held
that only what is true is of potential spiritual use.
(1.18) Certainly, Conze was right to insist that passages be understood in their practical context of use: this helps to clarify meaning
and avoid misunderstandings. If, however, the context of a passage
is properly consulted, then the passage can be extracted, like a plant
and some of its immediate environment, to compare and fit together
with similarly extracted passages. If 'There is only one truth; there
is no second ...• (Sn.884), it would seem reasonable to see 'early
Sutta • statements as intended to fonn a coherent and mutually
compatible set of teachings, even though they are portrayed as having
been originally given in a variety of contexts, to people of different
backgrounds and levels of understanding. Taking this approach of
contextual understanding is certainly fruitful. In order to assess the
meaning of an 'early Sutta' passage, consultation of parallel 'early
12

INTRODUCTION

Sutta • passages, and ones using similar language, often shed much
light on the material. The Buddha may not have been a philosopher,
as such, but it is quite possible to extract a coherent philosophy from
the far-ranging, practically-oriented and inter-related teachings attributed to him in the 'early Suttas'. Of course, this must be done
sensitively, so as to avoid partial interpretations, or reading ideas into
the material rather than seeking to extract them from it. The method
followed, in this work, then, is as follows:
a} treat passages from the 'early Suuas' as presenting a coherent
body of ideas-cum-practical-guidelines, unless there are clear
contradictions. This still allows that different passages may stress
or concentrate on different aspects of a particular topic.
b) where the meaning of a passage, in context, is not clear, parallel
passages should be sought to help illuminate it, providing that
their context is taken into account.
c) build up a coherent pattern of ideas by such a method.
d) where infonnation is lacking in the 'early Suttas', consult later
material, provided it is in harmony with the fonner. in order to
provide a fuller picture.
Except when noted, I take responsibility for all translations as my
own. 1

13

1

THE QUESTION OF SELF
If Selfand what belongs to Self are truly, reliably not being apprehended .•. (M.l.l38).

SCHOLARS WHO SEE A METAPHYSICAL
SELF IN THE 'EARLY SUTTAS'
(1.1) In order to explore the implication of the teaching that 'all
dhammas are not-Self (an-atta)', it is useful to refer to the interpretations of some of those who see the 'early Suttas' as positing or
allowing the existence of a metaphysical alta : a permanent, substantial, autonomous self or I. To refer to such a supposed entity, I will
refer to it as 'Self", reserving the lower case 'self" for an empirical,
changing self of any kind. As the general trend in the literature on
Buddhism is simply to see it as denying a Self, it seems appropriate
to calmly listen to those who have gone against this consensus. One
can then use their interpretations as, at least, hypotheses to be tested
against what the texts actually say. Even if they are wrong, they may
be wrong in interesting ways!
(1.2) Miss I.B. Homer, whi.le allowing that the early Pali texts
often use 'otto' simply in the conventional sense of 'oneself", held
that it is also used as the logical opposite of not-Self, i.e. as Self
(1971: 32). Her view seems to have been that there is a 'Higher'
or 'Greater' Self and a 'Lower', individual one that can become
the 'Higher' Self by perfecting itself: 'Man was not to be regarded
as That Self which is the Highest, but as potentially capable of
becoming even as That Self" (1936: 103). She also talked of the
individual self as coming to attain 'union with' the Higher Self ( 1936:
238). Nevertheless, she wished to avoid saying too much as to the
nature of Self. She saw the Pili Canon as not regarding otto
as a permanent core to personality, nor as a permanent entity which
survived death, nor as an underlying principle of the universe, as
in the Upani~ads. Moreover, nibbiina was included among those
things which were 'not-Self" (1977: 288-89).1
17

THE SELFLESS MIND

(1.3) Another great translator of Buddhist texts (mostly
Mahiyiina) who seems to have posited some kind of Self was Edward
Conze. In Buddhism, its Essence and Development (1951), he says
that 'our true self gets estranged from Itself' when we identify
ourselves 'with what we are not' (p.109). He then seems to identify
the 'true self" with the 'Unconditioned' or •Absolute', i.e. nibbtina
(p.lll). In a 1959 article, though, he says that it has been the 'curse
of Buddhist studies' that people have tried to 'attribute to primitive
Buddhism the Upanishadic teaching on Self or dtmon' (1967:
12-13). In his Buddhist Thought in India (1962). while still affmning
that 'I am nothing else than the Absolute' (p.43). he makes clear
why he sees no Upan~adic 'universal dtman' in early Buddhism:
because it is identified with 'consciousness' (viiiiidi]D), which is
counted as not-Self by Buddhism (p.127). All in aU. his considered
view is that the Buddha did not deny the Self but only said that it
'cannot be apprehended' (p.39). The passage on which this view
is based will be considered carefully below. Conze also warns that
'The non-apprehension of a self- essential to a religious life along
Buddhist lines, is greatly cheapened when it is turned into a philosophical statement proclaiming that the self does not exist' (p.130).
This warning is, I hold, well given. Conze"s own reasons for giving
it are that the Buddha taught 'self' to coarse materialists, 'nonexistence of self' to egoists, and to lhose near nibbdna and free from
all love of self, he taught 'that there is neither self nor not self'
(p.208). In a 1963 article, he talks of nibbdna as a 'state in which
the self has become extinct' (1967: 211), by which he must mean
that the empirical self becomes extinct. Finally, in a 1967 article, he
says that (Mahiyina) Buddhism aims at 'some kind of union with
the transcendental One, which is identical with our true Self'. also
seeing the latter as a 'divine spark' (1975: 17 and 19).
(1.4) Among scholars who have devoted full books to outlining
a Self-interpretation of Buddhism is George Grimm, in his Doctrine
of the Buddha (1958, English version). In this he runs into a number
of problems. One is that. In order to explain why the Self is not liberated, he has to attribute craving to it, but as the latter is clearly said
to be not-Self, he has to see it as an 'inessential quality' (p.233).
One part of his interpretation which is of real interest, though, is his
view that 'you are not Something, but you are indeed Nothing'
(p.133), ie. one's Self is no-thing, nothing knowable: it is beyond
the categories of 'being' and 'non-being'. which only apply to the
finite world (p.6). This seems similar to Conze"s view that the Self
18

THE QUESTION OF SELF

'cannot be apprehended'. J. Perez-Rem6n has produced a somewhat
more sophisticated version of a Grimm-type position in his Self and
Non-self in Early Buddhism ( 1980), but it still fails to avoid the
problem of coherently relating craving to the 'Self'.
(1.5) Having outlined the views of selected Self-interpreters, it
is clear that they raise certain possibilities which must thus be borne
in mind when investigating the 'early Sunas' on the question of
self/Self:
there is a real Self, which is not nibbana, and a changing self
which becomes the real Self (Homer).
ii) there is a 'true Self' which is the 'Unconditioned'. nibbana, but
which is 'not apprehended' (Conze).
iii) such a real or true Self is beyond the categories of 'existence'
and 'non-existence • (Grimm).
i)

USES OF THE WORD 'SELF' (ATTA) IN THE
'EARLY SUTTAS'
(1.6) Before examining passages which might support or disprove
the above hypotheses, it is first useful to clear the ground of possible
confusions. It is clear that the 'early Suttas' often use the word
'atta' (literally 'self') in such a way that no metaphysical Self is
implied, only a changing empirical self. One common usage of this
type has 'atta' simply meaning 'oneself', 'himself', or 'myself',
according to contexL For example, when it is recommended that one
should not act in a way that would be displeasing if someone else
acted in this way towards one, it is said, 'self (of another) ought to
measured against self (i.e. oneself)' (M.I.97). 2
(1.7) A second, related meaning of 'atta' is when it refers to
'character'. For example, at A.IV.I14, a monk is said to be a 'selfknower' (attaiiiiu) when he knows of himself that his spiritual
qualities such as faith are developed to a certain degree. Perez-Rem6n
sees such a usage as evidence for a real Self, which is the 'substrate'
of such qualities as faith (1980: 65, cf. 82 and 92). As such qualities
must be seen as part of the personality-factor of 'constructing activities', however, this view seems to be a fonn of 'view on the existing
group' (sakktiya-dif(hi), all of which are rejected by the Buddha.
This is because it would see Self as 'endowed with' the constructing
activities, or these as 'in' Self. Other passages use 'atta' to refer to
one's 'self' (character) as 'uprooted and injured' if one prevents
19

THE SELFLESS MIND

someone from giving alms (A.I.16l), and as 'become pure' when
one lives virtuously (M.I.179). Such 'character', as it is clearly
changeable, may be what I.B. Homer refers to as the changing
'Lower' self, but it cannot be the supposed Self that is different from
the 'not-Self'. As it changes, it is impennanent, and so must be notSelf (S.III.67).
(1.8) Thirdly, alta also occurs in the compound 'atta-bhiiva',
literally 'selthood'. At A.V.202, this is used to refer to the (living)
body of an elephant, and at 0.11.210, to refer to the visible, bodily
aspect of the god Brahma. At M.III.53, it is said that a hannful
'assumption of selthood', when followed, leads to the growth of
unwholesome states of mind: here the compound means something
like 'personality'. Likewise, there is reference to a 'fonnless assumption of self (atta)', i.e. a personality in a formless rebirth realm
(0.1.195).
(1.9) Fourthly, 'atta' can be used as equivalent to 'citta', which
is variously translated as 'mind', 'heart' or 'thought'. This is evident
from an investigation of Ohp. 160, a verse which is often picked on
by Self-interpreters:
Self is protector of oneself (atta hi attano natho),
for what other protector would there be?
For with a well-controlled self (attana'va sudantena)
one gains a protector hard to gain.
Here, the 'protector' self is one which is 'well-controlled', parallelling a line at Ohp.35: 'a controlled (dantam) citta is conducive to
happiness'. A self/citta identity is also seen at A.II.32 and Ohp.43:
the first refers to 'perfect application of self' as leading to prosperity,
the second to a 'perfectly applied' citta as of more benefit than the
action of relatives. Now something which must be controlled or well
applied is evidently changing, and not an unchanging metaphysical
Self. The 'protector' self is simply the empirical citta , which is said
to be very changeable, so that it should not be seen as 'my Self'
(S.II.94). Again, as the arising of citta is said to depend on the arising
of mind-and-body (nama-rapa, S.V.184), which is not-Self, it must
itself be not-Self, following the principle enshrined in the following:
'How will the eye, which is arisen from what is not-Self, be Self!'
(S.IV.l30). Citta as 'self' seems to refer to one's psychologicaV
emotional 'centre', which can be uncontrolled, badly applied and
agitated, or well controlled, well applied and calm. It is 'self' in this
20

THE QUESTION OF SELF

sense which can upbraid one, as can other people, for lapses from
virtue (A.V.88). It is also a 'self' which can be 'unguarded' even if
a person is protected externally by an army (S.I.72-3).
(1.10) Among the non-Buddhist religious groups of the Buddha's
day, the Annihilationists held that a person was completely destroyed
at death. It appears, though, that they believed in up to seven 'Selves',
the physical body, and various kinds of mental Selves, perhaps seen
as psychic 'centres' (0.1.34--6). While all such Selves were seen as
destroyed at death, they seem to have been regarded as unchanging
during life, for the Buddha describes the Annihilationists as teaching
the cutting off of a 'real being (sato sallassa)': i.e. they saw death as
destroying a substantially real being/Self. The implication is clearly that
an unchanging 'real being' is synonymous with a Self, and that it is contradictory to posit such an entity but then say that it can be destroyed.

PASSAGES WHICH MIGHT INDICATE
THE ACCEPTANCE OF A SELF
(1.11) I.B. Homer has pointed to a passage at Vin.l.23 as indicating
an early Buddhist belief in a Self (1971: 33): 'What do you think of
this, young men? Which is better for you, that you should seek for
a woman or that you should seek for self?'. This passage has been
seen as an allusion to the Upani~dic Iitman, for at BU.I.4.8, it is
said 'One should meditate on the Self alone as dear'. However, the
Vin.l.23 passage need mean no more than 'look within', particularly
if the young men that the Buddha spoke to would have taken 'seek
for one's self/Self' as simply a call to spiritual practice. Indeed, at
the time, it seems that the religious life was popularly equated with
'seeking for Self'. Thus at M.lll.l55, a non-Buddhist gatekeeper
simply assumes that some Buddhist monks meditating in a grove
'appear to be desiring Self (atta-kdma-rupa )'.
(1.12) I.B. Homer (1971: 34) also refers to a passage at Ud.
47, where king Pasenadi and his wife agree that there is no one
'dearer than self'. Later, the Buddha says, 'Since self is so dear
to others, let the self-lover not harm another'. Whatever Pasenadi
meant by 'self', it is clear that the Buddha does not here refer to
a metaphysical Self: for such a thing, being permanent, would
be beyond suffering and harm. Reference to it would thus not be a
reason for not harming others. The Buddha is here saying: everyone
cares for their own happiness, just like oneself, so don't inflict
suffering on them.
21

THE SELFLESS MIND

(1.13) A passage which both I.B. Homer (1971: 34) and
K. Bhattacharya (1973: 62) refer to as showing a 'Great Selr or
Upani~adic Self is A.I.l49-50:
There is nowhere in the world, indeed, for hiding evil action,
0 man, your self knows whether it is true or false,
Indeed, dear witness, you scorn the good self,
(You) who hides the existing evil self in yourself.
The tatluigatas and gods see the fool who walks crookedly
in the world.
Thus let he who has self as master wander mindfully ..•
Homer translates: ' ... Indeed, my friend, thou scom'st the noble
self, thinking to hide the evil self in thee from the self who witnessed
it. ... ' 'This gives the impression that there is a good/noble self which
co-exists with and is witness to the acts of an 'evil' self. However,
the Pali word translated as 'witness' or 'who witnessed it', 'sakkhi',
is in the nominative or vocative case, the latter being most likely
after 'bho', 'dear', or 'my friend'. It is not in the ablative, as implied
by Homer's translation. The passage thus seems to mean: your self
witnesses good and bad actions, but you neglect to cultivate good
aspects of yourself and only hide the real evil parts: but not only
yourself, tatluigatas and gods see through you! The passage does
refer to good and bad selves, but one is not a witness to what the
other does. The two refer to good and bad aspects of personality,
and the 'selr which witnesses both is identical with neither, but
probably refers to deeper aspects of cina acting as 'conscience'.
As for having 'self as master' (attahipako}, the context (A.I.147)
indicates that 'dominance of the self (attadhipateyyatT))' refers to
striving energetically, so as not to be ashamed of one's laxity, just
as 'dominance of the world' refers to doing so lest gods intuit the
bad states in one's mind. Having 'self as master', then, means
being in charge of oneself, preserving one's integrity by not doing
anything that one would be ashamed of. No underlying 'Great Selr
is implied.
(1.14) Such passages as the above, while they do not indicate
that the early Buddhists believed in a metaphysical Self, do indicate
that they regarded the empirical self as a def'mite quantity to be reckoned with. It can and should be blamed (Sn.778, 913), censured
(Dhp.379), upbraided (A.I.157) and controlled, if this is necessary,
and should be 'conquered' (Dhp.l04), for 'self, indeed, is hard to
22

THE QUESTION OF SELF

tame' (Dhp.l59). As has been seen above, the 'self' which needs
such treabnent is citta.
NIBBA.NA AS NOT-SELF AND

NOT RELATED TO A SELF
(1.15) In investigating whether a Self is posited in the 'early Suttas',
it is useful to eliminate one possibility: that nibbiina might be a Self,

or what a liberated Self merges into and becomes, or that it might
be not-Self, but be what is enjoyed by a liberated Self (cf. Para.l.5)?
A good place to start, here, is with the refrain (eg. A.I.286) that 'all
constructed things (sankhilrii) are impermanent, all constructed things
are dukkha, all basic patterns (dhamnui) are not-Self'. Now it is clear
that the five personality-factors are what are normally to be regarded
as impermanent, dukkha and not-Self (S.ill.167): for they are what
are normally grasped at (wrongly) as what 'I' am. If nibbiina is
a dhamma, though, it also falls within the range of those things which
are not-Self. That nibbiina is a dhamma is clear from A.II.34:
•As far as dhammas constructed or unconstructed (sankhatii vii
asankhatii), dispassion is reckoned best of those dhammas, that is to
say ... nibbiina'. This shows that, among dhammas, some are
constructed, i.e., 'constructed things', and some are unconstructed,
i.e. nibbiina. The above refrain thus clearly indicates that while only
constructed dhammas are impermanent and dukkha, they and also the
unconstructed dhamma, nibbiina, is not-Self.
(1.16) If nibbiina is not-Self, might it, though, be enjoyed by
a liberated Self? When Ud.28 talks of a monk as knowing 'nibbiina
of self or perhaps 'his own nibbiina', is this using 'self in anything
more than a conventional sense? A good indication that a purely
conventional sense is meant is at M.I.4. Here, a spiritually undeveloped person is said to 'conceive (ideas)' (maniiati) on a number of
items, including nibbiina. The verb 'maniiati' is frequently used to
refer to 1-centred thought, such as seeing oneself as 'better', 'equal'
or 'inferior' (Sn.918, S.I.l2): thoughts which are the stuff of 'conceit'
(mana)' (Vibh.346). This is surely the sense that maniiati has here:
relating things back to 'I', or Self. While the enlightened Arahat
is free from such conceiving, the spiritually undeveloped person
conceives that: i) ('I' am) nibbiina; ii) ('I' am) in nibbiina; iii) ('I' am)
(different) from nibbiina; iv) 'nibbiina is mine'. As all these positions
are seen as inappropriate, nibbiina cannot be seen as standing in any
relation to a real 'I', or Self.3
23

THE SELFLESS MIND

SELF AS 'NOT BEING APPREHENDED'
(1.17) A passage of crucial importance in ascertaining the early
Buddhist position on Self is found at M.I.l38:
'If, monks, there were Self, could it be said "it belongs
to my Self' '. 'Yes, Lord'. 'Or, monks, if there were what belongs
to Self, could it be (said) "it is my Self'?'. 'Yes, Lord'. 'But if
Self and what belongs to Self are truly, reliably not being
apprehended (saccato thetato anupalabbhamtine), is not the
view and causal relation that "this the world, this the Self,
this after dying I will become, permanent . . . ", is this not,
monks, absolute, complete folly?'
At MLS.I.l77, I.B.Horner translates •saccato thetato anupalabbhamtine' as 'although actually existing, are incomprehensible'.
The passage is also clearly that alluded to by Edward Conze when
he says that the Buddha did not deny the Self but only said that
'it cannot be apprehended' (Para.l.3). Again, K. Bhattacharya holds
the passage as indicating that any self that can be objectively seized
is not the true, durable Self (1973: 67, note 3). The key question is,
which of the following is being said by the passage:
i)

a metaphysical Self exists (or, perhaps, lies beyond 'existence'
and 'non-existence'), but is inapprehensible, ineffable;
ii) there is absolutely no evidence for a metaphysical Self, as it is
not apprehended in experience; Self can thus be seen as an empty
concept alluding to something that does not exist.
(1.18) Firstly, what is the most reliable translation of 'saccato
thetato'? In some contexts, 'sacca' (adjective or neuter), not accompanied by 'theta', can mean 'real': as used of the present personality
as opposed to past or future ones (0.1.201), or of nibbdna
(Sn.756-58). However, where 'sacca' is found with 'theta', the
former has the sense of 'truth' and the latter 'reliable'. For example,
'Having abandoned false speech, the sama'la Gotama ... is a speaker
of truth (sacca-viidi), joined to truth (sacca-sandho), reliable (theto),
trustworthy, not a breaker of his word' (0.1.4). As the two words
occur together at M.l.l38, this indicates that 'sacca' here means
'true', not 'real' or 'existing'. Indeed, the two words occur together
in a similar context at M.I.8:' ''There is for me a Self' the view
24

THE QUESTION OF SELF

arises to him as true, as reliable (saccato thetato)'. Changing this
from the adjectival to the adverbial mode (truly, reliably) thus gives
the best rendering at M.l.l38.
(1.19) What, then, of the implications of Self 'not being apprehended'? Two parallel passages help to shed some light, here.
At A.I.I74, the Buddha is criticizing three types of doctrine
of 'inaction', and says that of those holding such views, 'there is no
desire, nor effort, nor this is to-be-done, nor this is not-to-be-done.
So that, as to-be-done-not-to-be-done are truly, reliably not being
apprehended (saccato thetato anupalabbhiyanuine), the tenn sa11Ul{la
is not justly used specifically of you'. Now it might be said that
those things which are 'to-be-done' or 'not-to-be-done' are realities
which exist even if not apprehended, and thus that we have an
example of something's 'not being apprehended' not precluding
its existence. However, the context does not allow this. The possessive construction 'is not ... of them' is used, meaning that the people
involved do not have desire or (we must say) the sense of 'to-bedone' etc. As the phrase about 'not being apprehended' follows
on from this, it must summarize it, and mean that 'to-be-done-notto-be-done' is truly not found to exist in such people. This is in line
with usage in later portions of the Pili Canon, where 'anupalabbhiyamiina' is synonymous with 'non-existent' (asanta) (Nd.l.253,
273, 277, 436). Indeed, in the Abhidhamma, the Personalist is
at pains to argue, against the Theravadin, that the 'person' (puggala)
is 'apprehended (upalabbhati)' (Kvu.l ff.). This clearly implies that,
when the text was composed, 'not apprehended' was equivalent
to 'does not exist', whether in a limited context, or at all.
(1.20) Another related passage is found at S.III.ll8 and S.IV.384.
Here, after various ways of regarding the relationship between a
tathiigata and the five personality-factors have been dismissed, it is
said: 'as here in this visible world, truly, reliably a tathiigata is not
being apprehended4 by you, is it proper for you' (to explain as you
have on the state of a tathiigata after death)? Now it would be rather
rash to read this as saying that a tathagata does not exist, as
'Tathiigata' refers to an enlightened being, one who is 'deep, immeasurable, hard to fathom as is the great ocean' (M.I.487). At S.III.l20,
in the Sutta after that at S.III.ll8, though, there is an indication as
to the meaning of what is said. There, the Buddha says, 'Enough,
Vakkali, what is there for you in this vile visible body? Vakkali, who
sees Dhamma sees me; who sees me sees Dhamma'. Now the Buddha
often used the word 'tathiigata' in place of 'I' or 'me', to refer to
25

THE SELFLESS MIND

himself inasmuch as he was enlightened5. S.III.l20 thus says:
whoever sees Dhamma sees the tathiigata. As the mysterious
tathiigata can thus be (metaphorically) 'seen', his 'not being apprehended' cannot imply his non-existence.
(1.21) Note, though, that the tathiigata is said to be 'not being
apprehended' by you (someone who is spiritually undeveloped, who
has not yet 'seen' Dhamma), that is, there is a qualification. With
(the sense of) to-be-done, the only qualification is that the text is
talking of a particular kind of person: but something's 'not being
apprehended' in them still amounts to its non-existence in them. In
the case of Self, there is no qualification given to its 'not-being apprehended'. The Pili word order in the three passages may also be of
relevance. In literal English, these run:
i) 'by you ... truly, reliably, a tathiigata is not being apprehended'.
ii) 'to-be-done-not-to-be-done truly, reliably are not being appre-

hended'.
iii) 'Self and what belongs to Self, truly, reliably are not being

apprehended'.
This suggests that the implication in iii) is of the same type - something does not exist- as in ii), unlike the implication in i): something
exists but is not found. Moreover, related passages and the context
of M.I.l38, on Self, also indicate that Self's 'not being apprehended'
implies that it does not exisl
(1.22) A well known passage at S.I.l35 is on a 'being' (satta) as
not 'apprehended'. Now as it has been seen above that the Buddha saw
'a real being' and 'Self' as synonymous (Para.l.l 0), this passage seems
directly relevant to Self as 'not being apprehended'. It is addressed to
Miira, a perverse god who encourages people in attachment and delusion, so as to keep them within the round of rebirths:
Why do you harp on 'being'
Mira, you are afflicted with speculative views,
A pure heap of constructed things, this
Not, here, is a being apprehended (na-y-idha san-upalabbhati).
For just as when the parts are rightly set,
The word 'chariot' is (used),
So, when the personality-factors are, there is the agreed usage
'being'.
It is just dukkha which arises, which persists and passes.

26

THE QUESTION OF SELF

None apart from dukkha arises, none other than dukkha
ceases.
Here, the nun Vajira makes the point that 'being' is merely a conventional designation for the personality-factors in functional
relationship, just as 'chariot' does not refer to any special entity over
and above the properly configured parts of a chariot 'Being', or
'self', then, is not a name for a real essence or Self within what
we call a "being' or "self'; such an essence is not apprehended because
it does not exist. The relevance of S.I.135 to M.I.l38 is strengthened
by a passage in the same Sutta (the Alagaddii.pama-sutta), at M.l.I40.
Here, the Buddha denies that he teaches the •cutting off of a real
being' (at the death of a tathagata): he simply teaches the cessation
of dukkha. As "being' is just a label for the collection of empirical
components of a person, which are also equivalent to "dukkha'
(S.IV.39), when these end, what we conventionally call a particular
'being' ends, but this is no destruction of a 'real being'. If a 'real
being' is not accepted, at M.l.140, then this implies that the Self
referred to earlier in the Sutta is also not accepted.
(1.23) It is now fruitful to examine M.I.138 in its context, to get
a full appreciation of its meaning. The Alagaddupama-sutta begins
by saying that one should not learn Dhamma simply so as to be able
to reproach others. It then goes on to discuss six views: five varieties
of 'This is mine, this l am, this is my Self', as well as the view
which M.I.138 says is absolute folly: "This the world, this the Self,
this after dying I will become, pennanent. . . . • All these views are
seen as leading to anxiety (p.136), and one who holds the view seen
as absolute folly is seen as particularly anxious as, when he hears
the tathagata's teaching on nibbiina, he feels that death will bring
his annihilation, rather than the pennanence that he had previously
thought (p.137): that is, it is seen as bringing the cutting off of a
'real being'. Next, the Buddha gets his monks to admit that one could
never pennanently, eternally possess anything. The monks then admit
that there is no 'Self-doctrine-grasping' nor 'dependence on a view'
which does not lead to grief and suffering. At this point, the passage
on Self as 'not being apprehended' is given, followed by one which
says, on each of the five personality-factors, that it is 'not fitting to
regard that which is impennanent, dukkha, liable to change as ''This
is mine, this am I, this is my Self".'
(1.24) This context shows the Buddha condenming the idea of
gaining a permanent state for oneself, after death, and sees all
27

THE SELFLESS MIND

doctrines of Self as leading to suffering. This makes sense of the fact
that at M.l.l38, 'it belongs to my Self' and 'it is my Self' are in
quotes, representing something which is verbalized or thought, ie.
some form of view. Indeed, at S.III.l14, a spiritually immature
person, affllcted by views on Self, is said to be assured, with respect
to each factor of personality, 'it is my Selr. One can thus see M.l.138
as saying: if there were a Self, or what belongs to Self, then the
views 'it belongs to Self' or 'it is my Selr would be appropriate.
The context of the passage completes the meaning:
I)
ii)
W)
iv)

any Self-doctrine leads to suffering,
if there were a Self, a Self-doctrine would be appropriate:
but no Self is found to exist;
so a doctrine on Self is truly foolish, as it leads to suffering, and
is not even grounded on reality.

That is, M.I.I38 does not allude to a real Self which is inapprehensible, but implies that such a thing Is impossible: if there is a
Self, one can have views on Jt; as no view on it is acceptable,
no Self can exist. In logical notation: if A, then B; if not-8, then
not-A.
(1.::!5) The most that a Self-interpreter could get from M.l.l38 is
to say that Self is so inapprehendable as to be beyond even 'existence': if it is admitted to exist, then views can be held on it, and
these are inadmissible. However, not even the Upani1ads take this
line: 'Not by speech, not by mind, not by sight can he be apprehended (praptUI(I). How can he be comprehended (upalabhyate)
except by him who says "He is"' (KU.II.3.12). Again, even nibbana
is said, in Buddhism, to exist (atthi, Ud.80). However, it still might
be possible that the 'early Suttas' do posit a Self beyond existence:
unless it is proved otherwise.
ASELFBEYOND'EX~TENCE'AND

'NON-EXISTENCE'?
(1.26) A passage of direct relevance to this is S.IV.400-01. Here,
the monk Vacchagotta directly asks the Buddha whether 'a self' exists
(atthi) or not (as Pili has no capital letters, this can be seen as a
question on self or Selt). In response to both questions, the Buddha
remains silent. The passage is thus appropriately placed in the
avyakata-salflyutta, which deals with 'undetermined questions': ones
28

THE QUESTION OF SELF

which the Buddha set aside without giving any answer. The Buddha
later explains his responses to Ananda:
to have replied 'a s/Self exists' would have been to side with
the Eternalists (those who believe in an eternal Self which
survives death) and would not have been 'in accordance with'
the knowledge that all dhammas are not-Self.
ii) to have replied 'a s/Self does not exist" would have been to side
with the Annihilationists, and 'it would have been more bewilderment (sammohdya) for the bewildered Vacchagotta, for he
would have said "It is, then, that formerly my self existed, (but)
now it does not exist?".'

i)

(l.:Z7) This clearly says that it is inappropriate to assert that 'a Self
exists'. Might this allow that, nevertheless, there is a Self beyond
'existence'? To escape the rebuttal in i), Self would have to be not
a dhamma, and also be beyond time, so as not to be even 'eternal',
in the sense of existing forever in time. However, the wording of the
passage does not allow such an interpretation. In Indian logic, it is
meaningful to say that something 'is neither x nor not-x', or 'neither
is nor is not'. Indeed, the Buddha was often asked if a tathdgata
after death 'neither is nor is not': another 'undetermined question'.
The point is, that if 'a Self neither exists nor does not exist' were
true, then both 'a Self exists' and 'a Self does not exist' (and 'a Self
both exists and does not exist') would be false. The Buddha could
have said that they were false, but he did not: he simply responded
with silence. In other cases of 'undetermined questions', he is said
to have 'set aside' the questions (M.I.426), or said that such things
were 'not a proper question' (S.II.I3-14). This response implies that
the questions are wrongly put, misconceived, with a mistake built
into them. They are unanswerable, like the question 'have you
stopped beating your wife?', when put to an innocent man.
The problem in this case probably arose from the ambiguity of the
word 'self'; for to say, for example, that an empirical 'selr exists
might well be mistakenly seen as meaning that a metaphysical 'Selr
exists.
(1.28) Now, as it happens, an empirical self, strictly speaking,
'neither exists nor does not exist': so if it were also hUe that
Self 'neither exists not does not exist', the Buddha could have
unambiguously said: 's/Self neither exists nor does not exist';
for whichever way the reply was taken, it would be true! The

29

THE SELFLESS MIND

demonsttation that an empirical self is seen to neither exist nor not
exist is:
Now for him, Kacciiyana, who with right insight sees, as it
really is, the arising of the world (/oka-samudaya1(1), there is
not non-existence in respect of the world. For him, Kacciiyana,
who with right insight sees, as it really is, the stopping of the
world (/oka-nirodhan;l). there is not existence in respect of the
world (S.II.17).
This passage makes the point that one who sees the world as a flow
of changing, conditioned phenomena, sees that it neither totally lacks
existence, nor exists in a substantial, unchanging way. While the
passage is on the 'world', at S.IV.39 'world', 'a being' and 'dukkha'
are said to be alternative ways of describing the same eighteen
'elements' (Para.l.6). That is, 'world' and 'a being' are equivalent.
As empirical 'selr must be equivalent to an empirical 'being'
(cf. Para 1.10), it can thus be said that self= being = world, and
that all of these 'neither exist nor do not exist'. Of course, as they
are equivalent to dukkha, they are all not-Self. It can therefore be
said:
i)

if there was a Self beyond existence and non-existence, the
Buddha could have safely said so;
il) the only 'selr which is beyond existence and non-existence is
the empirical self, which is not-Self.

(1.29) Returning to Vacchagotta's questions to the Buddha, two
queries remain:

i)

is it possible to deduce an answer to the question 'does
Self exist?', rather than to the ambiguous 'does s/Self
exist?';
ii) if the Buddha felt that Self did not exist, why did he not directly
say so to Vacchagotta, having first made a distinction between
self and Selfl

The first question will be addressed next and then, after a discussion
of Upani~dic concepts of Self and the Personalist's 'person', the
second.
30

THE QUESTION OF SELF

PROOF OF THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF A SELF
(1.30) The basis for developing such an argument is found in the
Mahti-nidtina-sutta, at 0.11.66-68. Here, three concepts of Self are
discussed:
'My Self is feeling (vedanti)'
ii) 'No, my Self is not feeling, my Self is without experience
(appafisal'(lVedano)'
iii) 'No, my Self is not feeling, nor is it without experience, my Self
feels, it has the property of feeling'.

i}

The first view is refuted on the grounds that feeling fluctuates from
being pleasant to being unpleasant or neutral, such that each of these
modes is impermanent. If any of them were taken as Self, one would
have to say 'My Self has departed' when that kind of feeling passed
(but a permanent Self cannot pass away). If, on the other hand, one
took feeling in general as Self, then one would take Self as something which was 'impermanent, a blend of pleasure and pain, and
liable to rise and fall': this is clearly seen as unacceptable. So, feeling
is not Self. The refutations of views ii) and iii), are:
ii) 'My friend, where there is entirely no feeling, would "I am" be

there?' 'No, venerable sir'.
iii) 'My friend, were feeling of every sort or kind to cease without
remainder, all feeling not existing, from the cessation of feeling,
would "this I am" (aham asmit1) be there?'. 'No, venerable
sir'.
(1.31) These two refutations show that, for the authors of the 'early
Suttas', a real Self must have self-awareness, having a sense of
'I am' or 'this I am'. The argument is, though, that the sense of 'I am'
or 'this I am' only arise when feeling exists. As they thus depend
on feeling, which is itself not-Self (refutation i), they are themselves
not-Self, from the principle mentioned in Para 1.9. The 'I' that is
Self would thus tum out to be not-Self, which is a contradictory
situation. That is, if there can only be a Self under conditions which
would make it not-Self, then it is clearly impossible for there to be such
a thing as a Self. While the above passage may not be intended to
'refute' Self, but only deny certain views on Self, it clearly has the
effect of showing that the concept itself is self-contradictory.
31

THE SELFLESS MIND

In fact, S.III.105 says that there is only 'I am' by clinging (upaddya)
to the personality-factors, which are, of course, not-Self. That is, a
sense of Self only arises with respect to the factors of personality,
but it is not legitimately applied even here. As is said at S.III.46, all
who 'consider Self in various ways consider it as all these five
personality-factors, or as a certain one of these'. The self-contradictory
Self-concept, then, concerns something which is supposed to be both
permanent and aware of itself as 'I'. But to get even an illusory sense
of I-ness, it must be feeling, or one of the other personality-factors,
which work in unison with feeling (or all the factors), but
these are all impermanent.
(1.32) At S.III.l27ff., the Arahat is said to lack the sense of both
'I am' and 'this I am': both must thus be based on illusions
transcended at enlightenment. The passage also makes clear what
both of these feelings/views are. The monk Khemaka explains that
he does not consider any of the personality-factors as Self or what
belongs to Self, such that he is without 'views on the existing group'
(sakkiiya-ditrhi). This shows that he is at least a Stream-enterer,
one of the types of Holy persons. However, he still has the 'conceit'
and 'latent tendency' of 'I am', and so he is not yet an Arahat, the
highest type of Holy person. He then explains by saying that though
he has the attitude 'I am' with respect to the personality-factors, he
does not consider 'this I am'. That is, he does not say 'lam' with
respect to any specific personality-factor, nor 'apart from' any of
them, but he has the attitude 'I am' with respect to all of them, just
as the scent belongs to the whole flower, not just to a particular part
of it. Only later does he become an Arahat, without the 'I am conceit
(asmi-miino)'. Thus:
i)

thinking 'this I am' is to have a 'view on the existing group':
identifying Self with, or relating it to, a specific personalityfactor;
ii) thinking 'I am' is a more deep-rooted conceit, more a vague
attitude than a conceptualized view, which can exist even after
i) is destroyed, but not once Arahatship is attained.
Both Self-view and Self-attitude, then, evaporate under the light of
knowledge developed on the path to Arahatship. An Arahat has
feeling, but does not misinterpret this so as to hold the conceit that
he is a permanent, substantial Self feeling that which is other than
Self. Feeling is simply observed to arise as a conditioned process.

32

THE QUESTION OF SELF

He or she no longer clings to the personality-factors, and it is only
by so clinging that he can consider 'this is mine, this I am, this
is my Self (S.III.l81-82). When he considers 'this is not mine, this
is not I am, this is not my Self', therefore, he has merely transcended
craving ('this is mine'), conceit ('this I am') and views on the existing
group ('this is my Self). He is not alluding to any real Self or
I which is not the personality-factors.
(1.33) In interpreting 0.11.66-'8, though, George Grimm applies
his idea of a Self beyond existence, thus seeing it as saying that one
cannot say of the true I, 'I am': 'Thus the Buddha here expressly
declares the cupola "to be" possesses meaning only within the realm
of sensations . . . if we rid ourselves of sensations, it can no longer
be said that our self is' (1958: 149). Though it has been shown above
that there is no evidence that the Buddha postulated a Self beyond
existence, Grimm's suggestion is still worthy of careful assessment.
His notion is that, though there "is" 'mine' 'I' and 'Self', it is wrong
to identify them with anything, making them be something (rather
than no-thing; see Para. 1.4). The context of 0.11.66 does not fit this
suggestion, though. The Buddha is simply asked whether Self can
be identified in certain ways, and shows that this cannot be so: as it
would be to take something which is impermanent, or something
beyond 'I am', as Self, which is contradictory. That is, the Buddha
uses the link between Self and 'I am' in the disproof of the offered
views.
(1.34) Summarising the findings so far, it can thus be said that,
while an empirical self exists - or rather consists of a changing flow
of mental and pysical states which neither unchangingly exists nor
does not exist - no metaphysical Self can be apprehended. This does
not imply that it is real but inapprehensible, as the Buddha of the
'early Suttas' saw views on it as appropriate, if it was real. Moreover,
even nibbtina is not-Self and not related to a Self, and the Buddha
did not accept that Self exists, or that it even lay beyond existence
and non-existence. Indeed, the concept itself is seen as selfcontradictory, for 'Self is dependent on a sense of 'I am', and this
can only arise by clinging to the conditioned factors of personality,
which are not-Self.
BUDDHISM AND THE UPANI$ADS ON SELF
(1.35) Several authors, such as K. Bhattacharya, have tried to see
the Buddha as having agreed with the Upani~ads that there is an

33

THE SELFLESS MIND

inapprehensible pennanent Self (Skt. titman), a universal essence
which underlies all individual beings and the whole world. The above
clearly shows how the Buddha of the 'early Suttas' differs from such
a view. For him, only nibbtina was beyond impennanence, and it
was also, precisely, not-Self. As nibbtina was attained by one without
clinging (S.II.279), no 'I am' attitude could arise with regard to it.
Self, though, is the ultimate reality of the Upani$ads. Even 'in the
beginning', when only it existed, it said 'I am' (BU.1.4.1). The
Upani$ads agree that Self requires the sense of 'this I am' (Skt. ayan
aham asmiti; CU.VIII.ll.l), so that Self cannot be the state of dreamless sleep; but unlike Buddhism, they hold that Self can get this sense
from something beyond the conditioned factors of personality.
Whereas the Upani$ads see Self as underlying the whole world,
being 'below', 'above', and in the four directions (CU. Vll.25.1-2),
the Buddhist Arahat says 'Above, below, everywhere set free, not
considering "this I am" ' (Ud.74). Some Upani$adS seem closer
to Buddhism, though. The post-Buddhist Maitri Upani$ad (111.2)
holds that only the defiled individual self (Skt. bhUt-titman), rather
than the universal one, thinks 'this is I' or 'this is mine'. This is very
reminiscent of Buddhism, and may well have been influenced by it
to divorce the universal Self from such egocentric associations.
Nevertheless, the earlier, pre-Buddhist Upani$ads (BU and CU)
clearly linked Self to 'I am'. Though Self shares certain qualities
with nibbtina (both being pennanent, beyond suffering, and unconditioned), it is clear why the Buddha would have shunned any attempt
to see the spiritual goal in tenns of 'Self. Both in the Upani$ads
and common usage, self/Self is linked to the sense of 'I am': but
this ego-sense is seen as the very thing which keeps a person in the
round of rebirth, preventing him or her from attaining nibbtina
(S.III.46). If the later Upani$ads came to see ultimate reality as
beyond the sense of 'I am', Buddhism would then say: why call
it 'Self, then?

THE STATUS OF THE 'PERSON'
(1.36) Of course, within the Buddhist fold, a school developed
which upheld the reality of the Self-like 'person' (puggala): the
Personalists (Puggalavadins). It is appropriate at this juncture to
describe and assess its views. Its characteristic doctrine was that the
'person' is neither the same as nor different from the five factors of
personality (Kvu.ll-13 and 20, SNS.l79). If it were different from
34

THE QUESTION OF SELF

them, it would be an eternal Self, as in the views of the EtemalisL
Moreover, as the 'person' is the same as the 'life principle' (jiva)
(Kvu.25-26), this would mean that the life-principle was different
from the 'mortal body' (sarira), which the Buddha did not accept.
Moreover, a person separate from the personality-factors could not
produce an effort in them to end rebirth, nor would it make sense to
talk of its bondage or liberation (SNS.l80-01)6 • As regards the view
which identifies the person with the factors of personality, the
Personalists saw this as implying Annihilationism, and that the life
principle was the same as the mortal body: again, views not accepted
by the Buddha. Their 'person', in other words, was carefully
described so as not to come obviously under any of the views which
the Buddha had not accepted.
(1.37) The 'person' is said to be related to the personality factors
by the relation of upadaya: 'derivation from', 'relation to' or 'correlation with' (Kvu.34, L'AK.V.323). It is like the relationship between
fire and burning fuel, the fire getting its name from what it bums
(SNS.l82). Perhaps the most useful image, though, is one suggested
by Venkataramanan {SNS.225). This is that of a whole (the person)
and its parts (the personality-factors). That is, the Personalists held
the 'person' to be a kind of whole which was more than the sum of
its parts. In this, it is different from a mere complex of elements,
such as 'milk', which they admitted to be no more than its component parts {L'AK.V.232-33). It must thus be seen as an organic
whole; thus Venkataramanan refers to it as an 'organismic whole'
(SNS.I59), and Conze sees it as kind of 'structural unity' (1962:
128). Such a 'person' is said to be neither constructed nor unconstructed, neither eternal nor non-eternal (Kvu.24). It is 'ineffable'
(avaktavya) (L'AK.V.237).
(1.38) The main point of contention between the Personalists and
their opponents - principally the Theravadins and Sarvastivadins -,
was as follows. The Personalists held that the 'the person is apprehended (upalabbhan) in accordance with real and ultimate meaning'
(K vu.l ), while their opponents held that it was not (K vu.2), holding
that 'person' is merely a conventional label for the personality-factors,
which are genuinely 'apprehended'. As a well known passage in the
Milindapanha puts it, a person's name, such as 'Nagasena' is 'but a
denotation, an appelation, a designation, a current usage ... indeed no
person is apprehended here' (Miln.25). In this passage, Nagasena
explains that 'Nagasena' is not any specific personality-factor, nor all
of them merely listed together, nor apart from them, just as a 'char35

THE SELFLESS MIND

lot' is not so related to its parts (Miln.2~7). It is simply that the
designation 'Niigasena' is 'dependent on' (pa{icca) each personalityfactor. Niigasena then (p.28) quotes S.I.135 (Para.l.22):
For just as when the parts are rightly set,
The word 'chariot' is (used),
Thus, when the personality-factors are, there is the agreed
usage 'being'.
Now Niigasena did not accept that the 'person' 'Niigasena' was simply all the personality-factors listed together, just as a 'chariot' is not
all its parts layed out on the ground. Just as the chariot parts have to
be 'rightly set' for there to be a 'chariot', so the personality-factors
have to be in functioning relationship for there to be a 'being' or 'person'. On this, the Personalist and non-Personalist agree. The
Personalist, though, sees this relationship as constituting a new entity,
while the non-Personalist sees 'person' as just a label, a nominal reality. For the Personalist, 'When the personality-factors are, the person
is apprehended' (L'AK.V.238), for the non-Personalist, no such extra
entity can be found. In this, the non-Personalist are clearly supported
by the early texts, for at S.I.135, just before the lines quoted by
Niigasena, it is said, 'not, here, is a being [equivalent to 'person'] apprehended'.
(1.39) It is apparent that the Personalist's 'person' is rather like
'I am', discussed above. This is because 'I am' is said to be 'uptidiiya'
each of the personality-factors (S.III.l 05). At Para 1.31, this was translated 'by clinging to', but it can also mean 'derived from', as when
the Personalists say the person is 'derived from' the factors. Moreover,
at S.DI.127ff. (Para 1.29), Khemaka has the attitude 'I am', but does
not see 'I am' as being any of the factors or as 'apart from' them.
It is thus like the 'person': not the same as or different from the factors. Now while the attitude 'I am' is a reality, the 'I' it postulates is
simply a delusion, for the Arahat transcends it. If 'I am' were the 'person' of the Personalists, the Arahat would no longer be such a person.
Yet he still has the personality-factors and the early text still refer to
him as a 'person' (eg. S.III.I59-60). Such reference to 'person', then,
can only be seen as conventional language, not a reference to some
mysterious inner 'person', as the Personalists thought.
(1.40) A favourite proof-text of the Personalists (e.g. at
L'AK.V.256) was the 'Burden Sutta', S.DI.~. The essential points
made in this passage are:
36

THE QUESTION OF SELF

i) there is a 'burden' (bhara), which is the five personality-factors;
ii) there is the 'taking hold of the burden' (bhiirahiira): 'the person
... that venerable one of such and such a name';
iii) there is the 'taking up of the burden' (bhiiradana): craving, which
brings suffering;
iv) there is the 'laying down of the burden' (bhiira-nikkhepa): the
complete cessation of craving, in one who attains nibbana.

The Personalist argues that 'the burden cannot be the taking hold
of the burden' (L' AK. V.256), that is, the personality-factors
cannot be the same as the 'person'. That this is so is by no means
clear, for craving, the 'taking up' of the burden, is seen as an
aspect of the conditioned factors of personality: it is said to be conditioned by feeling in the Conditioned Arising sequence. Craving, in
fact, is said to 'cause a person to be' (S.I.37): that is, craving causes
a new rebirth, constituting a 'new' person. Such a person, 'of
such and such a name' is a concatanation of personality-factors
which are 'taken hold of': held together by the momentum set
up by past craving. When a person attains Arhatship, then he has
'put down the burden (ohita-bhiiro)' (lt.38). That is, he has no present
craving for the personality-factors, but he continues as a person,
with his personality-factors cohering together and functioning, till he
dies.
(1.41) The 'Burden Sutta' does not, then, indicate any Personalist
'person'. Indeed, as S.I.37 says that craving 'causes a person to be',
the 'person' of the Suttas cannot be the Personalist one, for this is
said not to be conditioned. However much the Personalist hedges on
the relationship of 'person' and personality-factors, he must still say
that it 'grasps' at this burden. As pointed out by Vasubandhu, though
(L'AK.V.260), the Buddha sees the question, 'Who, now, venerable
sir, is it who grasps (upadiyati)'?', as not a proper question, for 'I do
not say "he grasps"' (S.II.I4). A proper question would be to ask
what condition grasping arises from: the answer being 'craving'. That
is, the grasping at the personality-factors etc. is itself a conditioned
factor just like other factors within a person.
(1.42) Among the functions ascribed by the Personalists to the
'person' was that of being the subject of discernment/consciousness.
This is seen by their reference to a 'support' (Skt. asraya) of discernment 'he who discerns (Skt. vijnatam)' (L' AK.V.279), and to 'he
who sees', who is 'derived from the eye' but does not cease when
it ceases (Kvu.37). The 'early Suttas', though, argue against the
37

THE SELFLESS MIND

reality of any subject lying behind discernment. It is simply discernment (viiiiiiil}a) itself which 'discerns (vijaniiti)' (S.Ul.87). In fact,
the Buddha saw the question 'Who, now, venerable sir, is it who
feeds on (iihiireti) the discernmemnt-nutriment (-iiharall})1', as
another improper question (one without an answer) (S.ll. 13).
A proper question would be simply to ask 'Of what is discernment
the nutriment?', the answer being that discernment acts as a condition for future rebirth. There does not, then, appear to be any support
in the 'early Suttas' for the 'person' of the Personalist, just as there
is no support for a Self.

WHY IS SELF NOT DENIED?: THE BUDDHA
AND THE ANNIHILATIONISTS
{1.43) If Buddhism, then, does not accept the existence of a Self,
why did the Buddha not deny its existence when asked by Vacchagotta, regarding a denial of 's/Self' as equivalent to Annihilationism?
The simplest answer to this is that the Buddha accepted a changing
empirical self which was not destroyed at death, but flowed on into
a future rebirth. The Annihilationist 'denial" of s/Self rejected any
idea of rebirth, and thus denied 'self' in this sense.
(1.44) Moreover, we see elsewhere that Vacchagotta frequently
pestered the Buddha for answers to the undetermined questions, such
as on the state of a tathiigata after death (eg. S.IV.391-402), and
was generally affected by 'bewilderment' at his responses (e.g.
M.l.487). Thus, if he had been told that s/Self did not exist, he would
(wrongly) have assumed this to have impled that a tathiigata
did not exist after death, but was annihilated. He would have been
bewildered as he would have been like the Etemalist who, on hearing
the teaching on nibbiina, would think, 'I will surely be annihilated',
so as to 'grieve' and be 'bewildered' (M.I.136-37). Such an Eternalist
is thus said to be anxious about something 'internal that does
not exist', this being like someone who grieves over something
'external that does not exist', which the commentary explains to mean
the case of losing some external possession. This suggests that
Vacchagotta would have been 'bewildered' at the denial of s/Self
because, having formerly suspected that he had an eternal Self, he
would feel that he had lost it if told that such a s/Self did not exist.
He would grieve at what he would see as the non-existence of
the Self he thought that he had; and at the non-attainment of eternal
existence after death.

38

THE QUESTION OF SELF

(1.45) It is a curious fact that the 'early Suttas' see even Annihilationism, which the Buddha equated with denial of s/Self, as tied
up with belief in a Self. At S.IV.286, Annihilationism is among a
range of views all of which arise due to 'views on the existing
group': i.e. on there being a Self in some sort of relationship to the
personality-factors. As has been seen, Annihilationists believed in
various kinds of Self that existed unchangingly throughout life before
being destroyed at death (Para.l.lO). The Buddha saw it as nonsense,
though, to say that a genuine Self or 'real being' could be destroyed.
The Annihilationist, then, is one who denies that anything of a person
exists after death, but who believes in a one-life Self, typically identifying this with the body. He is still preoccupied with 'I' and 'Self',
then. As S.III.46 says, the attitude 'I am' leads, among other things,
to the idea 'I will not be', i.e. Annihilationism. Similarly, M.I.S sees
the wrong views 'there is for me a s/Self' and 'there is not for me
a s/Self' as both arising from unmethodical speculation on whether
or what one was in the past, whether or what one will be in the
future, or thinking, as to the present, 'Now am I? Now what am I?'.
That is, preoccupation with 'I' even leads to the idea that 'I' do not
exist. Thus, if the Buddha had said 's/Self does not exist', he would
have been legitimizing such preoccupation. He thus did not see it as
a true statement, or choose to say that 's/Self exists' is false.
(1.46) While Annihilationists believed in a one-life Self, seen by
the Buddha as a type of 'real being', they could also sound like
nihilists, denying not only that there is a world beyond death, but
also saying that 'this world does not exist' (0.1.55). There may have
been different groups of Annihilationists, but it is perhaps more likely
that Annihilationists held that anything which does not last forever
does not really 'exist'. If this is so, the Buddha's criticism, that they
accepted a 'real being' that is destroyed at death, would amount
to the accusation that their beliefs were inconsistent. The point would
be that, in accepting the destruction of a Self at death, the Annihilationists denied it true existence as a 'real being', but in accepting an
unchanging Self during life, they implicitly accepted it as a truly
existent 'real being'. Moreover, if Self is wholly unchanging during
an entire life-time, it can't suddenly succomb to the catastrophic
change that is destruction; only the changeable can be destroyed. This
seems the most plausible reading of the situation as regards to the
Annihilationists. As seen above (Para. 1.28), the Buddha held that,
while the world lacked unchanging 'existence', it was an experienced
reality, and so could not be said to be totally 'non-existent'. In this,
39


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