This may be the most burning question for seekers who come to the Buddha from religions built on belief in imperishable individual souls or in one all-pervading Soul. One of the most memorable exchanges on this question is initiated by a Brahmin wanderer named Vacchagotta, who in various suttas is featured as an asker of big speculative questions. The conversation begins enigmatically:
“Venerable Gotama, is there a self?”
When this was said, the Blessed One was silent.
“Then is there no self?”
A second time, the Blessed One was silent.
The word “self” translates atta (in Sanskrit, atman), and is one of those immensely rich, resonant words that have provoked thousands of years of debate and discussion. For human beings and other sentient beings atta means “the innermost self” or “soul,” the livng core that is eternal, persisting through time and perhaps even residing outside of time. When we speak loosely of the “self” of a world, a culture, a landscape , a mountain, we also mean the underlying essence that unites the varying appearances into “one thing.” Today I saw a murmuration of starlings squabbling with a flock of robins, noticed that the red leaves on my flowering pear tree have started to turn brown, needed to wear my thickest wool coat, and found feathery frost on my car window: all these bespeak a “self” of winter, which had suddenly arrived, ousting autumn, and which cannot be experienced directly but through signs.
When we point to ourselves to say “it’s me,” we know that the Me we are referring to cannot be pointed at, cannot be pulled out and displayed: my finger points physically to my jacket, or when that is removed to my shirt, or my t-shirt under it, or to my chest, but none of these observable things is what I mean by Me. My Self underlies all of the phenomena associated with me and cannot be pointed to. My clothes, my body, my actions, my CV, are all a metonymy for something that exists in supposition as their substratum. Vacchagotta is asking if this substratum exists — if there is an “I” or not, if there is a unifying Soul, or am I nothing but a temporary aggregation of parts that are themselves temporary aggregations of parts, all changing from moment to moment?
The Buddha’s silence might be taken as either a refusal to answer Vacchagotta’s questions, or as the only appropriate answer. To understand this, let’s look at how the Buddha talks about the self in the Anatta-Lakhana Sutta (SN 22:59), which was the Buddha’s second teaching, given to the five monks who were his best friends at the time. Coming just seven weeks after his enlightenment, the teaching is charged with the electricity of new discovery:
Thus I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was living at Benares, in the Deer Park at Isipatana (the Resort of Seers). There he addressed the bhikkhus of the group of five: “Bhikkhus.” — “Venerable sir,” they replied. The Blessed One said this.
“Bhikkhus, form is not-self. Were form self, then this form would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’ And since form is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’
“Bhikkhus, feeling is not-self…[formulaic phrasing above’repeated]
“Bhikkhus, perception is not-self…
“Bhikkhus, determinations are not-self…
“Bhikkhus, consciousness is not self. Were consciousness self, then this consciousness would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’ And since consciousness is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’
“Bhikkhus, how do you conceive it: is form permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, venerable Sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent painful or pleasant?” — “Painful, venerable Sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent, what is painful since subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this is I, this is my self'”? — “No, venerable sir.”
“Is feeling permanent or impermanent?…
“Is perception permanent or impermanent?…
“Are determinations permanent or impermanent?…
“Is consciousness permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, venerable sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent pleasant or painful?” — “Painful, venerable sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent, what is painful since subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this is I, this is my self'”? — “No, venerable sir.”
“So, bhikkhus any kind of form whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near, must with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.’
“Any kind of feeling whatever…
“Any kind of perception whatever…
“Any kind of determination whatever…
“Any kind of consciousness whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near must, with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not my self.’
Rather than just telling us how it is, the Buddha is giving us a framework of questions. If there is a “self,” where does it exist, and can we find it anywhere? Of the possible wheres, there are only five: the five skhandas, “heaps” or agglomerations, which constitute the entirety of our beings. These are 1) bodily “form”; 2) the “feelings” of pain, pleasure, or neither, which accompany every sensation; 3) “perception” or what we sense with our sense organs, including our organ of internal perception, the mind; 4) “determination,” which includes volition, predispositions, preferential tendencies, all the aspects connected with willing and choosing that have given our existences direction and that establish inertia for the future; and 5) “consciousness,” the dimension of thought, intellection, and awareness. There is no other skandha. All five have been compared to five heaps thrown together to make a single being, or the confluence of five rivers rushing together. If the self can be found anywhere, it must be in the skandhas.
With characteristic methodical thoroughness, the Buddha then works through the skandhas one by one. Am I my body? If our selves were the same as our bodies, we would never be at odds with our bodies; instead, we struggle with our bodily limitations, with the frequency of disease and physical pain, with aging and with death. There is always tension between us and our bodies. But am I my feelings, am I my perceptions? Am I my desires? If not, then am I my thoughts, my consciousness? It turns out that the self cannot be found in the other four skandhas: we can struggle with our likes, dislikes, and neutralities, and are often surprised by our feelings; we can resist perceptions, and also be confused by our perceptions; we can suffer conflicting volitions and be paralyzed in dilemmas, and we are capable of not wanting what we want; we can make serious mistakes in our thoughts and judgments, and can repudiate states of mind and mental commitments that have until then dominated our sense of reality. Our inability to identify simply with any of the skandhas proves that the self is not to be found in them, and therefore not to be found in all of them taken together.
The Buddha then points out that in our experience, all five skandhas are subject to change and are constantly in motion. Every cell in our body changes moment by moment, the temperature and blood pressure vary, all the fluids are in motion, and the content of the blood changes in accordance with what we have eaten and with the capacity of the whole organism to digest. The body at least contrives to stay stable and recognizable from day to day, even though philosophers have been quick to dismiss the body for being mired in flux. The sensations, feelings, and volitions are much more volatile and harder to pin down than the body — and what can be less stable, more entirely in motion, than consciousness? It is barely possible to keep track, in the space of a day, of all our states of consciousness — not just the moods and emotions, but also the thoughts, the things that catch our attention, the preoccupations and vexations. Impermanence is what we experience in all the “heaps” of our being — but what we are looking for is that thing whereby we can be considered “ourselves,” something that continues selfsame from one moment to the next, unchangingly itself underneath the chaos. We do not experience the self in any of the five skandhas, and there is no sixth skandha.
There is a lot to unpack and chew over in the Buddha’s terse, repetitive formulations. The careful search for the self amidst the skandhas is itself a form of focused meditation, but in this search one of the things we notice is that in fact the self cannot be an object of the search. Instead, what we call “self” is a process of self-making, a continuous activity in which identification is constantly being attempted. With our bodies, for instance, think of all those times we reject photographs of ourselves that “don’t look like us” and settle on the one that is “us,” that is worthy of representing us; or, more interestingly, consider the person who cannot accept any photograph of themselves as a good likeness. The act of picking out a good picture of myself exists in the context of a lifelong and developing process of making an image of myself that I wish — for many complex reasons — to identify with. What goes on when we choose and reject an image of ourselves is worth investigating seriously. While we settle on an image, we can also at the same time rejoice in the lover who delights in our morning face and morning breath, and we can feel pleasure when a small nephew fondly plays with our grey hair or strokes our bald patch. We are caught here in a web of sometimes contradictory identifications; it can be consternating when our lover who adores our middle-aged frailty thinks that our favorite picture of ourselves is slightly silly and not like us at all. With feelings, volitions, and thoughts, the activity of seeking something to identify with goes on automatically and at a much deeper level. When we are angry, in love, or feeling righteous, we identify so wholly with those states that it is impossible to see ourselves objectively, and when even close friends disagree with us then, we feel that it is our selves that are under attack. It is possible to feel anger, love, and righteousness in succession — and then the identification with three sets of thoughts and emotions can lead perplexingly in different directions.
In an important conversation with the beloved disciple Ananda, the Buddha takes on again the identification with feeling:
“In what ways, Ānanda, does one considering (the idea of) self consider it? One considering (the idea of) self either considers feeling as self, saying: ‘Feeling is my self.’ Or he considers: ‘Feeling is not my self; my self is without experience of feeling.’ Or he considers: ‘Feeling is not my self, but my self is not without experience of feeling. My self feels; for my self is subject to feeling.’
“Therein, Ānanda, the one who says ‘Feeling is my self’ should be asked: ‘Friend, there are these three kinds of feeling—pleasant feeling, painful feeling, and neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling. Of these three kinds of feeling, which do you consider as self?’
“Ānanda, on the occasion when one experiences a pleasant feeling one does not, on that same occasion, experience a painful feeling or a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling; on that occasion one experiences only a pleasant feeling. On the occasion when one experiences a painful feeling one does not, on that same occasion, experience a pleasant feeling or a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling; on that occasion one experiences only a painful feeling. On the occasion when one experiences a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling one does not, on that same occasion, experience a pleasant feeling or a painful feeling; on that occasion one experiences only a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling.
“Ānanda, pleasant feeling is impermanent, conditioned, dependently arisen, subject to destruction, falling away, fading out, and ceasing. Painful feeling is impermanent, conditioned, dependently arisen, subject to destruction, falling away, fading out, and ceasing. Neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling is impermanent, conditioned, dependently arisen, subject to destruction, falling away, fading out, and ceasing.
“If, when experiencing a pleasant feeling, one thinks: ‘This is my self,’ then with the ceasing of that pleasant feeling one thinks: ‘My self has disappeared.’ If, when experiencing a painful feeling, one thinks: ‘This is my self,’ then with the ceasing of that painful feeling one thinks: ‘My self has disappeared.’ If, when experiencing a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling, one thinks: ‘This is my self,’ then with the ceasing of that neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling one thinks: ‘My self has disappeared.’
“Thus one who says ‘Feeling is my self’ considers as self something which, even here and now, is impermanent, a mixture of pleasure and pain, and subject to arising and falling away. Therefore, Ānanda, because of this it is not acceptable to consider: ‘Feeling is my self.’
“Ānanda, the one who says ‘Feeling is not my self; my self is without experience of feeling’—he should be asked: ‘Friend, where there is nothing at all that is felt, could the idea “I am” occur there?’”
“Certainly not, venerable sir.”
“Therefore, Ānanda, because of this it is not acceptable to consider: ‘Feeling is not my self; my self is without experience of feeling.’
“Ānanda, the one who says ‘Feeling is not my self, but my self is not without experience of feeling. My self feels; for my self is subject to feeling’—he should be asked: ‘Friend, if feeling were to cease absolutely and utterly without remainder, then, in the complete absence of feeling, with the cessation of feeling, could (the idea) “I am this” occur there?’”
“Certainly not, venerable sir.”
“Therefore, Ānanda, because of this it is not acceptable to consider: ‘Feeling is not my self, but my self is not without experience of feeling. My self feels; for my self is subject to feeling.’
“Ānanda, when a bhikkhu does not consider feeling as self, and does not consider self as without experience of feeling, and does not consider: ‘My self feels; for my self is subject to feeling’—then, being without such considerations, he does not cling to anything in the world. Not clinging, he is not agitated. Not being agitated, he personally attains nibbāna. He understands: ‘Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no returning to this state of being.’
In brief, if I seek to identify my self in my feelings, which feelings do I fix on for identification? If it is the happy me, am I not myself when miserable? If my self is to be found in my pain, then am I not myself when in pleasure? Furthermore, any feeling of pain or pleasure is changing all the time, so in what part of them can I find myself? If I reject this and say that the self exists beyond feeling, unfeeling and therefore unfelt, why would I have any cause to look for the self anywhere, since experientially it is nothing to me? Only when the seeker stops trying to locate and objectify the self — both in feelings and in non-feeling — will he attain freedom from agitation. The agitation itself is caused by the futile attempt to solidify the self, whether as individual ego or as world-soul, which is an amplification of ego; the way out of this agitation begins with being able to catch ourselves in the act of making identifications.
In all of this, the Buddha is making no assertions about the existence of the self; he wants us to essay, to make an empirical inquiry into our experience of selfing, and to understand for ourselves in what way there is or isn’t a self. What we see is a continual process of identifying, of making selves — never unitary even in a single person. If this is what the word “self” means, then there is a self; but if the object sought for in identification is an eternal selfsameness from moment to moment, then we do not find it anywhere in any experience we can point to. He does not say this version of self doesn’t exist, just that we don’t find it anywhere except in the imagination of faith, which is also not simple non-existence. The more pressing question is why we are looking for the self, what is at stake when we want it to exist or not exist.
To return now to the Brahmin wanderer Vacchagotta, the Buddha denies him a straightforward yes or no, and also a complicated explanation: he answers with silence, partly to throw Vacchagotta back onto himself and provoke him to question his question, but partly to show to this clever quibbler that to such questions there really is no answer. Non-questions get non-answers. It is comparable to someone who watches Star Wars and asks afterwards if the experience of the film was real or not. This is a non-question, because clearly in some way there was the experience of the film: there are dreams, there are fantasies. The non-question is generated by attachment to the idea of a solid reality. A genuine question would be something like, In what way is Star Wars real or not real, true or not true? The answers to this will be more intelligent and nuanced.
Then Vacchagotta the wanderer got up from his seat and left.
Then, not long after Vacchagotta the wanderer had left, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, “Why, lord, did the Blessed One not answer when asked a question by Vacchagotta the wanderer?”
“Ananda, if I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, that would be conforming with those brahmans & contemplatives who are exponents of eternalism [the view that there is an eternal, unchanging soul]. If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, that would be conforming with those brahmans & contemplatives who are exponents of annihilationism [the view that death is the annihilation of consciousness]. If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, would that be in keeping with the arising of knowledge that all phenomena are not-self?”
“And if I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, the bewildered Vacchagotta would become even more bewildered: ‘Does the self I used to have now not exist?'”
Answering yes would corroborate Vacchagotta’s predisposition to hold to an eternal self, which we don’t find in experience of the skandhas; answering no would corroborate him in his deep-seated anxiety that then nothing really exists. These theoretical positions are solidifications, congealments, of the more dynamic ways for self to be or not be. The self happens like the forming of a bubble, like the making of a dream, real in a way, and not real in another way: the point is not to recite this as a strikingly paradoxical proposition, but to be able to see selfing as it happens and to live it in its real unreality, its unreal reality.
The three Suttas quoted here are:
Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic (SN 22:59)
translated from the Pali by Ñanamoli Thera (1993)
Mahanidana Sutta: The Great Causes Discourse (DN 15)
translated from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi
Ananda Sutta: To Ananda (SN 44:10)
translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2004)