The literature is filled with statements that there is no self and that we would be selfless, that we should never think of our self, that all our effort should be for the benefit of others. When most people read that, it gets their back up quite understandably. The idea of never thinking about oneself and that, regarding the self, there “is no there there” doesn’t sit well and if that’s what necessary to walk the path, well then they won’t walk it. Or at least they won’t go further than meditating for more calm in their life.
But that teaching is wrong as worded. The Buddha never said that there is no self. NEVER. In fact, the Buddha often referred to the self, as in “if it causes you suffering it is not you, it is not yours, it is not your self.” What the Buddha did do was enumerate all the things … basically the emotions and perceptions that flow from the ego-mind … that are not self. Which statement is a back-handed confirmation that there is a self.
When asked directly once whether the self exists or whether the self does not exist, the Buddha would not answer. When Ananda asked him afterwards why he did not respond, the Buddha basically said that regardless what he said, the listener would find it confusing and either answer would be taken up by those who are for or against the eternal existence of man’s soul. So he ducked the question.
But I think it is clear from the Buddha dharma that there is a self, and the self is one’s unwounded heart, one’s true Buddha nature. That is what allows one to intuit what is right intention, right effort, right view, etc. It is not the “I” that moves one to engage in Right action.
If there were no self, one would be totally subject to the urgings of the ego-mind and one would never be able to walk the path. Even if one said “Not me!” to the output of the ego-mind, what would be left would be a void. And just as physics “abhors a vacuum” the same is true of spirituality. If one weren’t able to identify with a self other than the ego-mind, the ego-mind would rush right back in and fill that void.
And so when you read phrases like “selfless,” you should read it as “egoless.” When you read that you should never think of your self, what is really meant is that you should never follow your ego-mind. That will still upset someone if they haven’t learned to not identify with the ego-mind; but if they’ve learned that their true self is their heart, then this change in phrasing should go down well.
The Buddha dharma is after all a teaching on how to rid ourselves of suffering. Following the Buddha dharma is thus without question about acting in one’s own best self-interest, it is caring for one’s self. As the saying goes, “You can only be there for others if you are there for yourself first.”