In a Nutshell: Self and No-Self in Buddhism

By Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche
The Buddha, by rejecting the idea of soul, also rejected the concept of reincarnation. He was therefore at variance with many of the Hindu traditions of India that retained the concept of a soul that survived death and went on to live a series of lives. In the Buddhist view, only a collection of psychic materials is transferred from one life to the next, and that, as with everything else, is subject to change. All physical and mental phenomena are compounded or conditioned, and whatever is conditioned is caused, and whatever is caused is impermanent and subject to change. Nothing can be permanent. Therefore, the Buddhist view cannot be seen as similar to, or in some way compatible with, the other beliefs we have mentioned. It is an alternative to them, which is not to say that it is superior. The Buddhist idea of rebirth is incompatible with the Hindu idea of reincarnation, theories of an immortal soul, and resurrection. It is important to recognize the real difference here, rather than mixing different ideas together.

To be enlightened is to be two things: to have less emotional afflictions and to have mental clarity.These various concepts of self or soul that we have, according to Buddhism, are mental constructions and not something that we can go on to find or determine in any real sense, which is why different people have different ideas of what this real self might be. Certain traditions point to the observer itself as something akin to this real self. Buddhism, though, and particularly the Madhyamaka tradition, negates this view of an observer as well, and so is clearly distinguishable from the direction of particular Hindu traditions, especially the Advaita Vedanta, which claims the presence of a so-called witness consciousness—another notion of atman, or transcendent conception of self—an observer that observes our experiences, feelings, perceptions, and so on, but is not those in and of itself. It cannot be known like a self can, because it is not an object of perception; nevertheless there is an observer there, said to be different from what is observed. From a Buddhist position, apart from its fundamental objection to a soul substance, there is an additional problem here in getting caught up in the idea of such an observer, which is the problem of infinite regress—the observer’s being observed, and another observer that observes that the observer is observing the observed, and so on, going back and back, and really explaining very little. According to Buddhism, nothing becomes any clearer for all this, and it can never be satisfactorily resolved in any case. As far as the observer’s being an observer is concerned, we are conscious beings, and merely through being conscious, we are aware of things, as opposed to being unconscious of them. Following on from here, to be enlightened means to be far more conscious in our waking state than most of us normally are. There is no need to posit an extra entity, a real self, to have the idea of an observer, because the function of consciousness is to observe and be aware. This is why it is named “consciousness” in English, and shepa in Tibetan, meaning “knowing.” Otherwise we would be unconscious and not distinguishable from inanimate objects.

If we are a bundle of processes, then as current dispositions change, our process of consciousness changes, which is precisely the reason that enlightenment is possible.There is an observer in Buddhism, of course, just not an unchanging “real me” that observes. If there were no self at all, we would not bother to meditate, as there would be no point since there would be no person to benefit from it. Therefore a conventional self is not denied. According to Buddhism, the observer we speak of, the experiencer, is the bundle of functions and attributes described by the five skandhas, and it is through meditation techniques that we inquire directly into this. We look at our body and find that we are not our body, and that we are not our feelings, or memory, and so on. This something called “me” or “I” is then searched for as a separate entity existing completely independently of our preferences and dispositions, characteristics, and personalities.

There is a problem discussing these matters in the way we tend to revert to “thing” language rather than “process” language. The principle of process negates the need to define the observer so insistently as an entity, as we do with “thing” language and philosophies of substance. The process of observation and the construction of a sense of self is a process, or many processes.

Normally we think we have these things, these personal characteristics, but somehow “I” remains different from all the things owned by us. In these self-inquiries, we ask, after disowning all these aspects that we have concluded do not ultimately define us—what is left? Nothing. If we are none of these things—not our memories, dispositions, body, name, occupation, or any physical and mental attributes—then what are we? Yet we postulate at a deep level something separate from all these things. It is at this juncture that Buddhism states that nobody is there. With thorough investigation, we find this out; we discover, or realize, “no self.”

We are not nonexisting ghostly beings but quite real—just without an inner essence about which we can say, “Well, this is me.” When we discover that, we realize no self. There are the five skandhas that the conventional self consists of, and that is enough. Why do we need anything more? We can call a table a table without concerning ourselves too much with something called “tableness.” It is easy for us to see and reason in this way—that the table is not existent in the sense that it has an essence: The table is not the legs or the top. We can tear the table apart and see that there is no “tableness” to it. The table is what we see, with the legs and the top and so forth. The self is no different: we are our feelings, memories, aspirations, fears, ambitions—all these things that we have is what we are. We are the five skandhas. Discovering that there is nothing there beyond this point, to know that there is no such thing as “tableness,” or “self,” is to realize emptiness, or shunyata. Shunyata is not found somewhere else as a separate entity apart from the various existing things.

Kyabgon, Traleg. “Karma: What It Is, What It Isn’t, Why It Matters.” Shambhala 2015, pp. 99–102, Chapter 7: Immortality, Reincarnation, and Rebirth

See also