In that book, I argued that this seeming conflict flows from a basic misunderstanding of the Buddha’s teaching, “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.
Later 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 was define what was "not self." At one point he said to his disciples, "If it causes you suffering, it is not you, it is not yours, it is not your self for your self would not cause you suffering." The Buddha also enumerated 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. And 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; he just frequently refers to the 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 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 one must perceive his true self before one can be fully free of ego, the conceit, "I am."
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.
You have a spiritual self – your true Buddha nature which resides in your heart. You were born with that self and it remains a part of you, regardless how buried it is under the detritus of your learned experience and the five skandhas, And so your heart is light, love, faith, trust, compassion, humility, gratefulness, joy, contentment, strength, courage, and wisdom. Rediscover your heart, free yourself from the control of your ego-mind, be sustained by the love of your Buddha nature within you, so that you become a radiant being who is a light to yourself and to all those around you.
See the videos in my "Coming Home" series, "Your Ego ≠ Your True Self," and "Your True Self = Your Heart." See also my post, "How to Free Yourself from the Control of Your Ego-Mind," together with the numbered posts at the beginning of the blog list.