The Buddha was careful to classify questions according to how they should be answered, based on how helpful they were to gaining awakening. Some questions deserved a categorical answer, that is, one that holds true across the board. Some he answered analytically, redefining or refining the terms before answering. Some required counter-questioning, to clarify the issue in the questioner’s mind. But if the question was an obstacle on the path, the Buddha put it aside.
When Vacchagotta the wanderer asked him point-blank whether or not there is a self, the Buddha remained silent, which means that the question has no helpful answer. As he later explained to Ananda, to respond either yes or no to this question would be to side with opposite extremes of wrong view (Samyutta Nikaya 44.10). Some have argued that the Buddha didn’t answer with “no” because Vacchagotta wouldn’t have understood the answer. But there’s another passage where the Buddha advises all the monks to avoid getting involved in questions such as “What am I?” “Do I exist?” “Do I not exist?” because they lead to answers like “I have a self” and “I have no self,” both of which are a “thicket of views, a writhing of views, a contortion of views” that get in the way of awakening (Majjhima Nikaya 2).
So how did we get the idea that the Buddha said that there is no self? The main culprit seems to be the debate culture of ancient India. Religious teachers often held public debates on the hot questions of the day, both to draw adherents and to angle for royal patronage. The Buddha warned his followers not to enter into these debates (Sutta Nipata 4.8), partly because once the sponsor of a debate had set a question, the debaters couldn’t follow the Buddha’s policy of putting useless questions aside.
Later generations of monks forgot the warning and soon found themselves in debates where they had to devise a Buddhist answer to the question of whether there is or isn’t a self. The Kathavatthu, an Abhidhamma text attributed to the time of King Ashoka, contains the earliest extant version of the answer “no.” Two popular literary works, the Buddhacharita and Milinda Panha, both from around the first century CE, place this “no” at the center of the Buddha’s message. Later texts, like the Abhidharmakosha Bhashya, provide analytical answers to the question of whether there is a self, saying that there’s no personal self but that each person has a “dharma-self” composed of five aggregates: material form, feelings, perceptions, mental fabrications, and consciousness. At present we have our own analytical answers to the question, such as the teaching that although we have no separate self, we do have a cosmic self—a teaching, by the way, that the Buddha singled out for special ridicule (MN 22).
“There is no self” is the granddaddy of fake Buddhist quotes. It has survived so long because of its superficial resemblance to the teaching on anatta, or not-self, which was one of the Buddha’s tools for putting an end to clinging. Even though he neither affirmed nor denied the existence of a self, he did talk of the process by which the mind creates many senses of self—what he called “I-making” and “my-making”—as it pursues its desires.
In other words, he focused on the karma of selfing. Because clinging lies at the heart of suffering, and because there’s clinging in each sense of self, he advised using the perception of not-self as a strategy to dismantle that clinging. Whenever you see yourself identifying with anything stressful and inconstant, you remind yourself that it’s not-self: not worth clinging to, not worth calling your self (SN 22.59). This helps you let go of it. When you do this thoroughly enough, it can lead to awakening. In this way, the not-self teaching is an answer—not to the question of whether there’s a self, but to the question that the Buddha said lies at the heart of discernment: “What, when I do it, will lead to my long-term welfare and happiness?” (MN 135). You find true happiness by letting go.
Some ways of selfing, the Buddha and his disciples found, are useful along the path, as when you develop a sense of self that’s heedful and responsible, confident that you can manage the practice (Anguttara Nikaya4.159). While you’re on the path, you apply the perception of not-self to anything that would pull you astray. Only at the end do you apply that perception to the path itself. As for the goal, it’s possible to develop a sense of clinging around the experience of the deathless, so the Buddha advises that you regard even the deathless as not-self (AN 9.36). But when there’s no more clinging, you have no need for perceptions either of self or not-self. You see no point in answering the question of whether there is or isn’t a self because you’ve found the ultimate happiness.
The belief that there is no self can actually get in the way of awakening. As the Buddha noted, the contemplation of not-self can lead to an experience of nothingness (MN 106). If your purpose in practicing is to disprove the self—perhaps from wanting to escape the responsibilities of having a self—you can easily interpret the experience of nothingness as the proof you’re looking for: a sign you’ve reached the end of the path. Yet the Buddha warned that subtle clinging can persist in that experience. If you think you’ve reached awakening, you won’t look for the clinging. But if you learn to keep looking for clinging, even in the experience of nothingness, you’ll have a chance of finding it. Only when you find it can you then let it go.
So it’s important to remember which questions the not-self teaching was meant to answer and which ones it wasn’t. Getting clear on this point can mean the difference between a false awakening and the real thing.