In my book, I argued that this seeming conflict flows from a basic misunderstanding of the Buddha’s teaching, taking the concept too literally or absolutely. “One may perceive the intrinsic emptiness of all five skandhas and be at one with all things, free of ego, and in this sense have no self, and yet still have a self.” I posited that the self that is part of one’s true Buddha nature is one’s unborn spirit, one’s elemental nature.
Recently when I was meditating, I was aware of several instances during the preceding days when I said things, when not aware, that could only be described as coming from some very minor expression of the ego. My ego was interfering with my being at one with those I was interacting with and thus I wasn’t able to listen deeply and respond accordingly.
During my meditation, I came to an understanding of the clear separation between the question of ego, which is clearly not a part of one’s self and the question of no self. It seemed to me that we all have a self which is our true Buddha nature and which goes beyond our elemental nature. This is consistent with my writings on “The Four Basic Needs” in my book ... when we are born, that baby clearly lets others know it’s primal needs.
That baby definitely has a self although it is free of thought and thus free of ego at that stage. And it is to that elemental nature and primal self that our ego ultimately attaches as a result of our learned experiences.
Thus I came to question the teaching of “no self” more strongly. It wasn’t just that there was a self in no self, it’s that the teaching of no self seemed wrong, opposed to the evidence of our lives.
And with that thought, I went back to the authoritative book, The Life of the Buddha, by Bhikkhu Nanamoli, to see what the Buddha actually said on this subject. As a note, most of the passages in this book are taken directly from the Pali canon, which is the most immediate and direct presentation of the Buddha’s life and teachings.
What I found, and had surprisingly missed on previous readings, was that the teaching of “no self” is not a teaching of the Buddha. Instead, this is yet another example of a translation having been used for English fluidity but having the unfortunate consequence of changing the meaning for it’s intended Western audience and creating barriers.
What the Buddha did, at various times, was enumerate all the things that were “not self,” basically all the things that make up our ego, our learned experience, the clinging aggregates. For example, he said that form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness are impermanent, of dependence origination, and are not self. In “The Doctrine,” he stated that these attributes should be regarded as, “This is not mine, this is not what I am, this is not my self.”
While we thus have a clear statement of what is not self, the Buddha does not provide a similar statement for what is self. But by logic, self is the absence of these attributes, which is in essence our true Buddha nature which is free of ego, free of the intervention of thought, dwelling in perfected wisdom, experiencing all directly and at one with all things. Thus when the Buddha says that when one perceives not-self, he eliminates the conceit, “I am,” this is not a negation of the concept of self, but a statement that naming it is a function of the thinking mind, and everything that is thought is not-self.
At one point, the Buddha is asked whether the self exists. He doesn’t respond. Then he is asked if the self doesn’t exist. He again doesn’t respond. When Ananda asks him afterwords why he did not answer the question, the Buddha said that regardless how he would answer, it would be confusing because it would contradict some other aspect of the teaching or would confirm one point of view versus another. In this as in other instances, we find that there is no right answer because all is one; there is just one’s true Buddha nature.
After arriving at these conclusions, I did a Google search to make sure that I wasn’t missing something. What I found was that teachers far more learned than I have made basically the same points. The doctrine of “no self” is not a teaching of the Buddha.