This is one of those questions that tends to arise when Hinduism or Christianity come in contact with Buddhism. However, perhaps it should arise more when Buddhism is thinking about itself. I include this discussion here because it addresses some points that are useful for later and previous discussions. True Self and no-self are actually talking about the same thing, just from different perspectives. Each can be useful, but each is an extreme. Truly, the truth is a Middle Way between these and is indescribable, but I will try to explain it anyway in the hope that it may support actual practice. It may seem odd to put a chapter that deals with the fruits of insight practices in the middle of descriptions of the samatha jhanas, but hopefully when you read the next chapter you will understand why it falls where it does.
For all you intellectuals out there, the way in which this chapter is most likely to support practice is to be completely incomprehensible and thus useless. Ironically, I have tried to make this chapter very clear, and in doing so have crafted a mess of paradoxes. In one of his plays, Shakespeare puts philosophers on par with lawyers. In terms of insight practice, a lawyer who is terrible at insight practices but tries to do them anyway is vastly superior to a world-class philosopher who is merely an intellectual master of this theory but practices not at all.
Remember that the spiritual life is something you do and hopefully understand but not some doctrine to believe. Those of you who are interested in the formal Buddhist dogmatic anti-dogma should check out the particularly profound Sutta 1, “The Root of All Things“, in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, as well as Sutta 1, “The Supreme Net (What the Teaching is Not)“, in The Long Discourses of the Buddha.
Again, realize that all of this language is basically useless in the end and prone to not making much sense. Only examination of our reality will help us to actually directly understand this, but it will not be in a way accessible to the rational mind. Nothing in the content of our thoughts can really explain the experience of the understanding I am about to point to, though there is something in the direct experience of those thoughts that might reveal it. Everything that I am about to try to explain here can become a great entangling net of useless views without direct insight.
Many of the juvenile and tedious disputes between the various insight traditions result from fixation on these concepts and inappropriate adherence to only one side of these apparent paradoxes. Not surprisingly, these disputes between insight traditions generally arise from those with little or no insight. One clear mark of the development of true insight is that these paradoxes lose their power to confuse and obscure. They become tools for balanced inquiry and instruction, beautiful poetry, intimations of the heart of the spiritual life and of one’s own direct and non-conceptual experience of it.
No-self teachings directly counter the sense that there is a separate watcher, and that this watcher is an “I” that is in control, observing reality or subject to the tribulations of the world. Truly, this is a useful illusion to counter. However, if misunderstood, this teaching can produce a shadow side that reeks of nihilism, disengagement with life and denial. People can get all fixated on eliminating a “self”, when the emphasis is supposed to be on the words “separate” and “permanent,” as well as on the illusion that is being created. A better way to say this would be, “stopping the process of mentally creating the illusion of a separate self from sensations that are inherently non-dual, utterly transient and thus empty of any separate, permanent self.”
Even if you get extremely enlightened, you will still be here from a conventional point of view, but you will also be just an interdependent and intimate part of this utterly transient universe, just as you actually always have been. The huge and yet subtle difference is that this will be known directly and clearly. The language “eliminating your ego” is similarly misunderstood most of the time.
You see, there are physical phenomena and mental phenomena, as well as the “consciousness” or mental echo of these, which is also in the category of mental phenomena. These are just phenomena, and all phenomena are not permanent, separate self, as they all change and are all intimately interdependent. They are simply “aware,” i.e. manifest, where they are without any observer of them at all. The boundaries that seem to differentiate self from not-self are arbitrary and conceptual, i.e. not the true nature of things. Said another way, reality is intimately interdependent and non-dual, like a great ocean.
There is also “awareness”, but awareness is not a thing or localized in a particular place, so to even say “there is also awareness” is already a tremendous problem, as it implies separateness and existence where none can be found. To be really philosophically correct about it, borrowing heavily from Nagarjuna, awareness cannot be said to fit any of the descriptions: that it exists, that it does not exist, that it both exists and does not exist, that it neither exists nor doesn’t exist. Just so, in truth, it cannot be said that: we are awareness, that we are not awareness, that we are both awareness and not awareness, or even that we are neither awareness nor not awareness. We could go through the same pattern with whether or not phenomena are intrinsically luminous.
For the sake of discussion, and in keeping with standard Buddhist thought, awareness is permanent and unchanging. It is also said that, “All things arise from it, and all things return to it,” though again this implies a false certainty about something which is actually impenetrably mysterious and mixing the concept of infinite potential with awareness is a notoriously dangerous business. We could call it “God”, “Nirvana”, “The Tao”, “The Void”, “Allah”, “Krishna”, “Intrinsic Luminosity”, “Buddha Nature”, “Buddha”, “Bubba” or just “awareness” as long as we realize the above caveats, especially that it is not a thing or localized in any particular place and has no definable qualities. Awareness is sometimes conceptualized as pervading all of this while not being all of this, and sometimes conceptualized as being inherent in all of this while not being anything in particular. Neither is quite true, though both perspectives can be useful.
If you find yourself adopting any fixed idea about what we are calling “awareness” here, try also adopting its logical opposite to try to achieve some sense of direct inquisitive paradoxical imbalance that shakes fixed views about this stuff and points to something beyond these limited concepts. This is incredibly useful advice for dealing with all teachings about “Ultimate Reality.” I would also recommend looking into the true nature of the sensations that make up philosophical speculation and all sensations of questioning.
While phenomena are in flux from their arising to their passing, there is awareness of them. Thus, awareness is not these objects, as it is not a thing, nor is it separate from these objects as there would be no experience if this were so. By examining our reality just as it is, we may come to understand this.
Further, phenomena do not exist in the sense of abiding in a fixed way for any length of time, and thus are utterly transitory, and yet the laws that govern the functioning of this utter transience hold. That phenomena do not exist does not mean that there is not a reality, but that this reality is completely inconstant, except for awareness, which is not a thing. This makes no sense to the rational mind, but that is how it is with this stuff.
One teaching that comes out of the Theravada that can be helpful is that there are Three Ultimate Dharmas or ultimate aspects of reality: materiality (the sensations of the first five sense doors), mentality (all mental sensations) and Nirvana (though they would call it “Nibbana,” which is the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit). In short, this is actually it, and “that” which is beyond this is also it. Notice that “awareness” is definitely not on this list. It might be conceptualized as being all three (from a True Self point of view), or quickly discarded as being a useless concept that solidifies a sense of a separate or localized “watcher” (from the no-self point of view).
Buddhism also contains a strangely large number of True Self teachings, though if you told most Buddhists this they would give you a good scolding. Many of these have their origins in Hindu Vedanta and Hindu Tantra. All the talk of Buddha Nature, the Bodhisattva Vow, and that sort of thing are True Self teachings. True Self teachings point out that this “awareness” is “who we are,” but isn’t a thing, so it is not self. They also point out that we actually are all these phenomena, rather than all of these phenomena being seen as something observed and thus not self, which they are also as they are utterly transient and not awareness. This teaching can help practitioners actually examine their reality just as it is and sort of “inhabit it” in a honest and realistic way, or it can cause them to cling to things as “self” if they misunderstand this teaching. I will try again…
You see, as all phenomena are observed, they cannot possibly be the observer. Thus, the observer, which is awareness and not any of the phenomena pretending to be it, cannot possibly be a phenomenon and thus is not localized and doesn’t exist. This is no-self. However, all of these phenomena are actually us from the point of view of non-duality and interconnectedness, as the illusion of duality is just an illusion. When the illusion of duality permanently collapses in final awakening, all that is left is all of these phenomena, which is True Self, i.e. the lack of a separate self and thus just all of this as it is. Remember, however, that no phenomena abide for even an instant, and so are empty of permanent abiding and thus of stable existence.
This all brings me to one of my favorite words, “non-dual,” a word that means that both duality and unity fail to clearly describe ultimate reality. As “awareness” is in some way separate from and unaffected by phenomena, we can’t say that that unity is the true answer. Unitive experiences arise out of strong concentration and can easily fool people into thinking they are the final answer. They are not.
That said, it is because “awareness” is not a phenomena, thing or localized in any place that you can’t say that duality is true. A duality implies something on both sides, an observer and an observed. However, there is no phenomenal observer, so duality does not hold up under careful investigation. Until we have a lot of fundamental insight, the sense that duality is true can be very compelling and can cause all sorts of trouble. We extrapolate false dualities from sensations until we are very highly enlightened.
Thus, the word “non-dual” is an inherently paradoxical term, one that confounds reason and even our current experience of reality. If we accept the working hypothesis that non-duality is true, then we will be able to continue to reject both unitive and dualistic experiences as the true answer and continue to work towards awakening. This is probably the most practical application of discussions of no-self and True Self.
No-self and True Self are really just two sides of the same coin. There is a great little poem by one Kalu Rinpoche that goes something like:
We live in illusion
And the appearance of things.
There is a reality:
We are that reality.
When you understand this,
You will see that you are nothing.
And, being nothing,
You are everything.
That is all.
There are many fine poems on similar themes presented in Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tiberan Book of Living and Dying. It is because we are all of this that compassionate action for all beings and ourselves is so important. To truly understand this moment is to truly understand both, which is the Middle Way between these two extremes (see Nisargadatta’s I Am That for a very down-to-earth discussion of these issues). While only insight practices will accomplish this, there are some concentration attainments (the last four jhanas or Formless Realms) that can really help put things in proper perspective, though they do not directly cause deep insight and awakening unless the true nature of the sensations that make them up is understood.
Quote from Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book by Daniel M. Ingram (pages 182-187)
Cf. Ontological Qualia: The Future of Personal Identity (for a discussion about how the experience of identity might change in the future), The Manhattan Project of Consciousness (for speculative writing about the potential social benefits of combining bliss technologies with qualia that make us experience oneness in a reliably way), and this essay about Burning Man (which introduces the concept of the Goldilocks Zone of Oneness which refers to the experience of “feeling neither one with everything nor ontologically separate from the rest of reality” in which wonderful things like love, gratitude, and meaning can thrive).