When the wanderer Vacchagotta went to the Blessed One and . . . after an exchange of friendly greetings and courtesies, he sat to one side. As he was sitting there he asked the Blessed One:

“Now then, Venerable Gotama, is there a self?”
When this was said, the Blessed One was silent.
“Then is there no self?”
A second time, the Blessed One was silent.
Then Vacchagotta the wanderer got up from his seat and left.

(Samyutta Nikaya 44.10)

Vacchagotta, bless his heart, is the truth-seeking gadfly of the Pali canon, buzzing into the Buddha’s presence at regular intervals, asking the questions that have tormented and goaded wanderers for millennia. What is my self? Is there a self? Is the cosmos eternal?

In refusing to answer Vacchagotta’s questions, the Buddha reveals himself as the self-help guru of them all, in the most literal sense. He is telling us: don’t mess with anything that won’t help you get to release; focus only on what can lead to your ultimate well-being and happiness. The implication of his silence on the issue of whether or not the self exists, which he explains later in the sutta to Ananda and elsewhere in the canon, is a signpost for his entire teaching on anatta, or not-self.

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