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Thread: Buddhist teaching about the "self"

  1. #1
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    Buddhist teaching about the "self"

    Hello. I have learned a bit about the teaching of the Buddha, but am eclectic, in that I like to read material from all traditions (also, differing traditions within Buddhism). However, I tend to stay mostly with Buddhism because a teacher that I knew, many years ago, taught Theravada Buddhism. I don't know whether much or any progress has been made in all the years since (probably not), but I need to raise a matter that still causes some perplexity. The other day, I took down a copy of "What the Buddha Taught", by Dr Walpola Rahula, an accomplished Buddhist scholar. Below, I paste in material from pages 65 and 66, which seems categorically to deny the existence of a self of any kind. Yet, I read that Ramana Maharshi taught that one should meditate upon the Self in order to reach realisation and the end of suffering. In the pages from W.R's book, there seems to be no countenancing of any idea of a Self (even with a capital S). Would someone be kind enough to set me straight on this? Note, I am aware of the distinction between an ego-conceit of a separate individuality, and whatever Reality is. It seems to me that Theravada Buddhism is strong on denial, but very slow to say anything about what the truth of the matter may be. I now paste in the material I copied from the book.

    Some people take ‘self’ to mean what is generally known as ‘mind’ or ‘consciousness’. But the Buddha says that it is better for a man to take his physical body as self rather than mind, thought, or consciousness, because the former seems to be more solid than the latter, because mind, thought, or consciousness (citta, mano, vinndna) changes constantly day and night even faster than the body (kdya).

    It is the vague feeling ‘I AM’ that creates the idea of self, which has no corresponding reality, and to see this truth is to realise Nirvana, which is not very easy. In the Samyutta-nikdya, there is an enlightening conversation on this point between a bhikkhu named Khemaka and a group of bhikkhus.

    These bhikkhus ask Khemaka whether he sees in the Five Aggregates any self or anything pertaining to a self. Khemaka replies ‘No’. Then the bhikkhus say that, if so, he should be an Arahant free from all impurities. But Khemaka confesses that though he does not find in the Five Aggregates a self, or anything pertaining to a self, ‘I am not an Arahant free from all impurities. O friends, with regard to the Five Aggregates of Attachment, I have a feeling “I AM”, but I do not clearly see “This is I AM”.’ Then Khemaka explains that what he calls I AM’ is neither matter, sensation, perception, mental formations, nor consciousness, nor anything without them. But he has the feeling ‘I AM’ with regard to the Five Aggregates, though he could not see clearly ‘This is I AM1’

    He says it is like the smell of a flower: it is neither the smell of the petals, nor of the colour, nor of the pollen, but the smell of the flower.

    Khemaka further explains that even a person who has attained the early stages of realisation still retains this feeling ‘I AM’. But later on, when he progresses further, this feeling of ‘I AM’ altogether disappears, just as the chemical smell of a freshly washed cloth disappears after a time when it is kept in a box.

    This discussion was so useful and enlightening to them that at the end of it, the text says, all of them, including Khemaka himself, became Arahants free from all impurities, thus finally getting rid of ‘I AM’.

    According to the Buddha’s teaching, it is as wrong to hold the opinion ‘I have no self’ (which is the annihilationist theory) as to hold the opinion ‘I have self’ (which is the eternalist theory), because both are fetters, both arising out of the false idea ‘I AM’. The correct position with regard to the question of Anatta is not to take hold of any opinions or views, but to try to see things objectively as they are without mental projections, to see that what we call I, or ‘being’, is only a combination of physical and mental aggregates, which are working together interdependently in a flux of momentary change within the law of cause and effect, and that there is nothing permanent, everlasting, unchanging and eternal in the whole of existence.

    Here naturally a question arises: If there is no Atman or Self, who gets the results of karma (actions) ? No one can answer this question better than the Buddha himself. When this question was raised by a bhikkhu the Buddha said: I have taught you, O bhikkhus, to see conditionality everywhere in all things.’

    The Buddha’s teaching on Anatta, No-Soul, or No-Self, should not be considered as negative or annihilistic. Like Nirvana, it is Truth, Reality; and Reality cannot be negative. It is the false belief in a non-existing imaginary self that is negative. The teaching on Anatta dispels the darkness of false beliefs, and produces the light of wisdom. It is not negative: as Asanga very aptly says: ‘There is the fact of No-selfness’ (nairatmyastita)
    “Underlying the unceasing flow of varied thoughts, there arises the continuous, unbroken awareness, silent and spontaneous, as ‘I-I’ in the Heart. If one catches hold of it and remains still, it will completely annihilate the sense of ‘I’ in the body, and will itself disappear as a fire of burning camphor. Sages and scriptures proclaim this to be Liberation.”

    “The Infinite Expanse is the Reality known as the Supreme Spirit or the Self, which shines without egoism as the Consciousness within the ‘I’, as the One in all individuals.”

    (Italics are the words of Ramana Maharshi)

    With thanks in anticipation of a helpful reply,
    Last edited by Aloka; 03 Jan 20 at 07:45. Reason: Red font too bright & quoting facility available in posting box.

  2. #2
    Hi Ig,

    Good to hear from you again.

    Here's a link to a PDF of the book "What the Buddha taught "mentioned in your post above (your page numbers might need to be adjusted)

    Here also is a link to a translation of SN22.89 :Khemaka Sutta, which is mentioned in your quote from the book:

    This essay "Anatta and Rebirth" by the late Thai teacher Buddhadasa Bhikkhu might also be helpful to you:

    Additionally, the late Ramana Maharishi was not a Buddhist he was a Hindu, and I'm sorry but we are not a comparative religion website (see Code of Conduct no.17), so therefore it might be best not to try to compare his beliefs with the late Walpola Rahula's book, or with the historical Buddha's teachings.

  3. #3
    Technical Administrator woodscooter's Avatar
    London UK
    Hello Ig,

    If you find there's disparity between the words of Walpola Rahula and Ramana Maharishi, then I would put that down to the difference between Buddhism and Hinduism.

    So, concentrating wholly on the passage from Walpola Rahula which you pasted above, I understand that we all have a concept of self. We can regard it however we choose, as mind or as body or as something else.

    I think that the point is that it's illusory. I think we are being told, or prepared for the realisation that there is no self. At some point on our journey we will no longer have to carry that illusion with us.

    However, I'm no expert on this. When I say that, I'm acknowledging my concept of my self and my lack of expertise. So you can see I've still got a long way to go. But that's OK with me. I can still try to live a life with right speech, right conduct and right effort, for now.

  4. #4
    Moderator justusryans's Avatar
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    Jun 2012
    Buckingham, Virginia
    I can’t think of a better book to start on than “What the Buddha Taught” by Walpola Rahula. It’s what I started on and I reread it once a year. You can also find the Dhammapada, a great collection of the Buddha’s teachings.

    Theravada teachers to look into:

    Ajahn Chah, Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Pasanno, Ajahn Amaro to start!
    These are all Thai forest tradition teachers, or at least that’s how they learned.

    You could study these teachings and nothing else for half a lifetime or better.

    I hope this this helps.


  5. #5
    Forums Member Olderon's Avatar
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    Mar 2017
    Concord, New Hampshire, U.S.A.
    Of all forms of attachment, I can think of and have experienced none worse than "the delusion" of self.

    The "study of self" from my experience runs a close second.

    (Told by Narada Maha Thera)

    “A man was forcing his way through a thick forest beset with thorns and stones. Suddenly to his great consternation, an elephant appeared and gave chase. He took to his heels through fear, and seeing a well, he ran to hide in it. But to his horror, he saw a viper at the bottom of the well. However, lacking other means of escape, he jumped into that well and clung to a thorny creeper that was growing in it. Looking up, he saw two mice–a white one and a black one–gnawing at the creeper. Over his face, there was a beehive from which occasional drops of honey trickled.
    This man, foolishly unmindful of this precarious position, was greedily tasting the honey.

    A kind person volunteered to show him a path of escape. But the greedy man begged to be excused till he had enjoyed himself.The thorny path is Samsara, the ocean of life. Man’s life is not a bed of roses. It is beset with difficulties and obstacles to overcome, with opposition and unjust criticism, with attacks and insults to be borne. Such is the thorny path of life.

    The elephant here resembles death; the viper, old age; the creeper, birth; the two mice, night and day. The drop of honey corresponds to the fleeting sensual pleasures. The man represents the so-called being. The kind person represents the Buddha.
    The temporary material happiness is merely the gratification of some desire. When the desired thing is gained, another desire arises. Insatiate are all desires.

    ‘Sorrow is essential to life, and cannot be evaded.
    Nirvana, being non-conditioned, is [quiescent].'”

    From Thus Have I Heard, edited by Minh Thanh and P.D. Leigh.

  6. #6
    Good morning Ig,

    Here's an article by Ajahn Sumedho the previous abbot of Amaravati Monastery UK:

    "Self View, Personality and Awareness"

    and a recording of a talk about Anatta given by Ajahn Amaro, who is the present abbot of Amaravati Monastery:

    These two excellent living Theravada Thai Forest Tradition teachers have already been mentioned by justusryans in post #4 and I hope their resources will be helpful for you.....must dash as its 7.45 am and I have a busy day today!

  7. #7
    Global Moderator
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    Mar 2017
    Body and mind are both in a continuous state of change and any idea of 'self' changes too. This goes against the grain somewhat, so we try to cling to some idea of self we have. If we can accept the transient nature of self we can work on what happens when we let go of the idea both of self and no-self. Eventually we get to experience insight into what lies beyond the two, and then we can move on.

  8. #8
    Forums Member Element's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Ignoramus View Post
    Underlying the unceasing flow of varied thoughts, there arises the continuous, unbroken awareness, silent and spontaneous, as ‘I-I’ in the Heart.
    Hello Ig. The above sounds contradictory to me. If there is 'silence', how can there be 'I-I' in the heart? Regards

  9. #9
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    Jul 2019
    Thanks to all those that have replied to my query. Over time, I shall study and digest all the has been posted, also what the links reveal. Aloka, I'm sorry about posting material that broke the rules. However, I can't see how one can be aware, in the modern world, of other traditions, and not have occasional problems of understanding.
    Metta to all.

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by Ignoramus
    Aloka, I'm sorry about posting material that broke the rules.
    No problem - but its always best to read our community rules as requested, in order to complete the website registration and avoid any misunderstandings later.

    Hope to see you here again soon, Ig.

    With metta,


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