“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.
This was not a very encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I hardly know, sir, just at presentat least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
“What do you mean by that?” said the Caterpillar sternly. “Explain yourself!”
“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.”
“I don’t see,” said the Caterpillar.
“I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,” Alice replied, very politely, “for I can’t understand it myself, to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing. ”
“It isn’t,” said the Caterpillar.
“Well, perhaps you haven’t found it so yet,” said Alice; “but when you have to turn into a chrysalisyou will some day, you knowand then after that into a butterfly, I should think you’ll feel it a little queer, won’t you?”
“Not a bit,” said the Caterpillar.
“Well, perhaps your feelings may be different,” said Alice; “all I know is, it would feel very queer to me.”
“You?” said the Caterpillar contemptuously. “Who are you?”
—Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

James Hillman, the patriarch of Jungian thought in America, wrote that “whatever one says about the human soul—if it hits the mark at all—will be both right and wrong.”

One of the Buddha’s solutions to this dilemma was to say nothing at all. When the recluse Vachchagotta asked the Buddha if there was a self, the Buddha remained silent (Samyutta-nikaya 4.400). Vachchagotta then asked if there was no-self, and again the Buddha remained silent. When the bewildered hermit finally departed, one of the Buddha’s more intimate disciples asked why he had not replied. The Buddha responded by saying that no matter what he might have said, the result would have been a misunderstanding.

In recent years there has been a marked rise of those willing to step in where the Buddha bowed out, that is, willing to provide the occasion for just such a misunderstanding. Little wonder that editors groan and scholars grind their teeth when faced again with that “hideous theory of no-self,” as one friend designates it. And yet, for many, the Buddha’s presumed denial of self is precisely what makes Buddhism distinct from all other religions and traditions.

What, then, is this “self” that everyone is making such a fuss about?

Only in our time has self emerged and separated itself from a pack of words that translate atman (Sanskrit) and atta (Pali). Other possibilities include personality, ego, and soul. Not only is self English, it is pure English, coming straight down from Old English. The words employed to translate atman are certainly not synonymous, but they do share common traits: the idea of personal identity and some form of an unbroken continuity of existence (for some, even an existence after death).

Illustration copyright Claude Martinot.


Western writers and lecturers, from the Victorian age to the present, frequently insist that for us the Buddhist theory of no-self is baffling and well-nigh unapproachable. But one wonders. The question of no-self aside, is there anyone single inherited and accepted intellectual or religious definition in the West for the idea of self? Would Michael Milken and Mother Theresa agree with Lewis Carroll and Sigmund Freud on what was meant by self? Still worse, the suggestion that no-self is nearly impenetrable for us mistakenly implies that somehow the Asian mind mysteriously and easily assimilates the notion of no-self. Someone forgot to tell Vachchagotta. Surely, the idea of no-self was just as astonishing to the Buddha’s contemporaries as it ought to be for you and me.

The word atman is found in the earliest hymns of the Vedas (c. 2000 B.C.E.), although its usage is fairly rare. The derivation of the word is uncertain, but it is most frequently thought to derive from the Sanskrit root an, “to breathe.” The Sanskrit derives no doubt from the same Indo-European term expressed in the Greek root an, with the same meaning, “to breathe,” whence the Greek anemos, or “wind” (from which derive English animate and animal). The nominal form, atman, must originally have meant “breath,” but in the cosmic sense of the vital breath responsible for life. Atman as “breath” or “life-breath” reflects its cognates in German (Atem, “breath”; atmen, “to breathe”), Greek (atmos, “breath,” d. atmosphere), and Old English (ethem, “breath”). In this sense, perhaps, it could be compared with the original use of the Greek concept ofpsyche (“soul”). In later usage, atman appears as a simple reflexive pronoun: myself, yourself, herself, and so on. The appearance of atman to denote body (meaning the trunk of the body or the body as a whole, as opposed to the limbs) occurs rather early, but it is still found in the Upanishads, composed just prior to the rise of Buddhism in the sixth century B.C.E. In its final evolution in the Upanishads, atman acquires the meaning most familiar to modern Indians. It is also the meaning familiar to most of us whose mother tongue is English and the definition found in most English dictionaries: “the self or soul; the supreme principle of life in the universe” (Oxford English Dictionary). The Buddhist term anatman is arrived at by the simple addition of the negative prefix an-, hence “no-self” or “not-self.”

The translation of atman as “self” (and anatman as “no-self”) is not in itself inherently bad. In fact, self tends to be as serviceable as any other word. What we are faced with, however, is the problem of translation on a larger scale, the translation not of words but of ideas. To translate an idea one must understand it. According to Buddhist doctrine, to understand anatman, or no-self, is tantamount to enlightenment.

What is one to do? I am certainly not enlightened, and I don’t think anyone who is would spend his or her time writing a three-hundred-page dissertation on anatman. Still, something can be understood and communicated, otherwise the Buddha would have remained perpetually silent. The ideas communicated by Buddha, the ideas that need to be translated for our culture, are the forms or scaffolding for a sincere search. The ideas and conceptualizations presented by the Buddha issued from his experience and are there to create conditions that might lead to experience, direct experience, without substituting the ideas and forms of the teaching for experience and understanding. The totality of the dharma, or teaching (ideas, forms, exercises, and conditions), is a means toward experience and perception, and not an end in itself. When hearing a great idea like no-self (not the explanations of it), especially for the first time, it stops me: suddenly, I am present—I have an experience of myself as unknowing, present to myself, and in question. Who am I, if not a self?

One of the Buddha’s intentions in presenting the idea of no-self must have been to create a shock forcing me to question this unquestioning and unconscious belief that I exist, that I have a self, that I say I countless times a day. Who am I when I say I? Am I, my self, to be found in this body, these feelings, or these thoughts that are constantly shifting and changing, the arising of which depends on stimuli that I am usually utterly unconscious of? If not, then where am I to be found?

In translating the idea of no-self, it helps to be cognizant of our own ignorance and lack of experience, particularly of different levels of insight and presence. The attempt to utterly explain anatman, to encapsulate and fix its meaning, runs the danger of robbing me of the taste of being present to myself as I find my self suddenly in question. It seems probable to me that the meaning, interpretation, and significance of no-self would change as one’s insight grew, as the idea was met with different levels of experience.

I admit to having my own understanding of the idea of no-self, one that I will spare you. And as I sit with that cozy understanding, I am waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under me, to fall through the rabbithole again. But that is just where I want to be. Remember, when Vachchagotta later complained to the Buddha that he felt lost and bewildered, stripped of the feeling of satisfaction and progress he had gained from his previous talks with him, the Buddha replied that he should be at a loss, that he should be bewildered: for dharma not only looks deep, it is deep, difficult to see, and difficult to understand.

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