Not Self, No Self, Non Self: Interpretations of Anatta

Not Self, No Self, Non Self: Interpretations of Anatta


The title of my talk this morning is “Not-self, No-self, Non-self: Interpretations of Anatta.” I hope this talk can serve both as a brief introduction to the topic of anatta and also as an invitation to join a discussion group on the subject that I plan to offer this fall. This group will be based on a book by Chris Niebauer entitled, No Self, No Problem: How Neuropsychology is Catching Up to Buddhism. I have greatly enjoyed our previous discussion groups, and I am hoping that folks will find this book very interesting to read and talk about. 

Two suttas

Anatta is translated in various ways, as not-self, for example, or no-self, or sometimes in yet other ways, such as insubstantiality. Two suttas seem to be generally considered especially important regarding these teachings: 1) the “Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic,” or the “Anatta-lakkhana Sutta,” and 2) the “Ananda Sutta.”

As you may recall, we heard passages from the “Anatta-lakkhana Sutta” in July. As a brief reminder, crucial passages in that sutta read as follows (this translation is from the National Taiwan University Digital Library of Buddhist Studies):

“The body, monks, is not self. If the body were the self, this body would not lend itself to dis-ease. It would be possible (to say) with regard to the body, ‘Let my body be thus. Let my body be not thus.’ But precisely because the body is not self, the body lends itself to dis-ease. And it is not possible (to say) with regard to the body, ‘Let my body be thus. Let my body be not thus.’

…”How do you construe thus, monks… is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, [and] subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am? ‘No, Lord.’

…”Thus, monks [the body]…is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.”

The “Ananda Sutta”, of  course, is the one we heard this morning, in which the Buddha explains to Ananda why he had not replied to questions about whether there is a self. 

As you know, anatta is regarded as one of the three marks of existence, the other two being dukkha (suffering) and anicca (impermanence). Of the three, anatta may be especially difficult to understand. Joseph Goldstein, for example, has written: “The concept of anatta is difficult to understand intellectually…There is a paradoxical or koan-like quality to the concept. Furthermore, we have great resistance to the idea of selflessness, because our whole life has been built around a sense of self, a belief in I, me, mine. So anatta challenges both our common sense and our deepest attachment. It shakes us to the foundations of our being” (“The Flavors of Anatta: Reflections from a Theravada Perspective,” Inquiring Mind, Spring 1995).

Difficulties of understanding the anatta teachings have gone hand in hand over the centuries with many differences of opinion about how to interpret them, even among deeply knowledgeable Buddhist scholars. For example, Thanissaro Bhikkhu once commented as follows: “The debate between these…positions has lasted for millennia, with each side able to cite additional passages from the Canon to prove the other side wrong. Even now, both sides continue to find adherents attracted to their arguments, but neither side has had the final word.” (“The Not-self Strategy,” 1993)

A contemporary example of disagreement

As an example of this sort of thing, let’s look briefly now at a contemporary instance of such disagreements, in this case between Thanissaro Bhikkhu and Bhikkhu Bodhi, two well-known, highly respected, translators and interpreters of Buddhist teachings, with whose work you may well be familiar. 

Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s understanding of anatta

Let’s take Thanissaro Bhikkhu first. He understands anatta to be “one of the Buddha’s tools for putting an end to clinging.” As he discussed in a 2014 article (in Tricycle), “(e)ven though (the Buddha) 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…Because clinging lies at the heart of suffering, and because there’s clinging in each sense of self, (the Buddha) advised using the perception of not-self as a strategy to dismantle the 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?…You find true happiness by letting go.” In Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s view not only is not-self not an answer to the question of whether there is a self, “(t)he belief that there is no self can actually get in the way of awakening” by becoming itself an object of clinging. (Tricycle, Spring, 2014)

Thanissaro Bhikkhu also places strong emphasis on the importance of honoring the Buddha’s refusal to answer questions about self and no-self, e.g.–as we heard earlier–“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.” (“Ananda Sutta: To Ananda”,, 2004) Furthermore, in Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s view, for an interpreter of the Buddha’s teachings to presume to infer implications in order to answer questions that the Buddha put aside amounts to a scholarly bias that “miss(es) the meaning and purpose of the Buddha’s teachings entirely.” (“The Limits of Description: Not-Self Revisited,”, 2017)

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s understanding of anatta

Keep this last quote in mind as we turn now to Bhikkhu Bodhi. He agrees with Thanissaro Bhikkhu on certain points, but strongly disagrees with him on the basic issue of whether an answer to the question is there a self or not can be inferred from the Buddha’s teachings. Bhikkhu Bodhi writes that he agrees with the Venerable Thanissaro that “the Buddha did not formulate his teaching of anatta as a blank assertion that ‘There is no self,’ a claim made by many present-day interpreters of Buddhism,” and he also agrees that the teaching of anatta is “intended by the Buddha to fulfill a pragmatic purpose…as a theme for contemplation.” However, Bhikkhu Bodhi disagrees with Thanissaro Bhikkhu over whether “anatta…can be understood simply as a ‘strategy of liberation’ without reference to an underlying ontology,” i.e., without reference to a belief about the nature of reality. “The reason the teaching of anatta can serve as a strategy of liberation is precisely because it serves to rectify a misconception about the nature of being…by promoting a correct comprehension…particularly with reference to our own personal existence.” In Bhikkhu Bodhi’s understanding, the correct ontology “precludes a truly existent substantial self” and “exposes phenomena as anatta, as lacking selfhood or any other kind of substantial identity.” (“Anatta as Strategy and Ontology,” Investigating the Dhamma: A Collection of Papers, Bhikkhu Bodhi, 2015, pp. 25-26) In other words, Bhikkhu Bodhi believes–by inference–that the correct interpretation of the Buddha’s anatta teachings is that there really is no self. 


So, this is a contemporary example of two senior Buddhist scholars espousing very much opposed understandings of the anatta teachings: one says that anatta does not answer the question of whether there is a self or not, and was not intended by the Buddha to do so, while the other claims that by inference it actually does answer the question of whether there is a self or not, viz., that there is not. 

It is significant that Thanissaro and Bodhi are from very similar Buddhist traditions: in my opinion, this makes their pointed disagreement about anatta even more striking than it might be otherwise. 

Niebauer’s version of no self

Let’s turn now to Niebauer’s  No Self, No Problem book, in which he discusses a variety of neuropsychological findings and relates them to the concept of no self, as he interprets it. The version of no self on which Niebauer bases the book is one that–or at least, so he seems to believe–not only accurately encompasses all Buddhist interpretations of anatta, but also spans the ideas of no self put forth in several other philosophical traditions of the East. For example, in contrasting the Eastern view of self with that of the West, Niebauer writes:

“…(L)et’s turn to the East. Buddhism, Taoism, the Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism, and other schools of Eastern thought have a quite different take on the self, the ego, or ‘me.’ They say that this idea of ‘me’ is a fiction, although a very convincing one. Buddhism has a name for this concept–anatta, which is often translated as ‘no self’–which is one of the most fundamental tenets of Buddhism, if not the most important…” (p. xvii)

Niebauer goes on to argue:

“…(T)he concept of the self is simply a construct of the mind, rather than a physical thing located somewhere within the brain…The implication is without thought, the self does not, in fact, exist. It’s as if contemporary neuroscience and psychology are just now catching up with what Buddhism, Taoism, and Advaita Vedanta Hinduism have been teaching for over 2,500 years.” (p. xvii)

Niebauer believes that there is a self-image that exists, but this image is like a mirage:

“To be clear, saying the self is an illusion doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist at all, but rather that it’s akin to a mirage in…the desert. The vision of the oasis is real, but the oasis itself isn’t. In the same way, the image of the self is real, but when we look at the image, we find it is simply that, an image and nothing more. The image…is really just another idea or thought and [is] only there the moment it is being thought of.” (pp. 57-58)

Niebauer’s book

This interpretation of no self is the cornerstone of Niebauer’s No Self, No Problem book, in which he introduces us to the two halves of the brain, left and right, summarizes some of the main differences in ways the two sides function, goes into some of the ways these differences are related to various behaviors, and relates this to no-self. According to Niebauer, one of the main jobs of the left side of the brain is to function as what he calls the Interpreter, i.e., to create explanations that help us make sense of what is going on in the world we experience. As research repeatedly has revealed, however–according to Niebauer–the interpreter is often totally wrong in the explanations it produces. Describing results from some classic studies of brain function, e.g., he writes:

“(T)he talking left side of the brain easily came up a plausible and coherent, but completely incorrect explanation based on the evidence it had available…(T)he left brain’s role is one of beliefs and interpretation and…it ha(s) little regard for reality in making up its interpretations.” (pp. 5-6)

In Niebauer’s view, we tend very strongly to identify with the talking interpreter in the left brain as ourselves. 

“Given that language is controlled by the left brain, it is no coincidence that it is the interpreter’s main form of expression…(T)he interpreter…talks to itself in the form of thoughts. This internal dialogue is happening continually for almost everyone on the planet, and it plays a central role in the creation of the mirage that we call the self…Our association of our true self with the constant voice in our head is an instance of mistaking the map (the voice) for the territory (who we really are). This error is one of the biggest reasons the illusion of self is so difficult to see.” (pp. 21-22)

Niebauer compares the yin of the right brain to the yang of the left brain, in that they complement one another in many ways. According to Niebauer, many of the right brain functions proceed “unconsciously,” i.e., mostly beyond the realm of the left brain’s language-based thinking. Nonetheless, Niebauer contends that it is possible to access consciousness of right brain functions, through practices such as yoga, meditation, tai chi, and mindfulness. He believes that practicing mindfulness, e.g., “lessens your identification with the left-brain interpreter.” (p. 78)

In his last chapter, Niebauer hints that he believes there is a reality to our true nature that is related to “…an all-powerful eternal force” in some way. I really do not understand what he has in mind here, but he seems to believe that we do have some sort of a “true self,” though it is very, very different from the self with which we consciously identify, and that this self has something to do with…”an all-powerful and all-knowing entity.” (pp. 138-139)

As confusing as things may seem, don’t be discouraged

Okay. The three ways of interpreting and understanding the anatta teachings that we have touched on here are only a few of those that have been put forward. On the face of it, this plethora of opinions may feel confusing, but I encourage you to not be discouraged. 

Speaking for myself, just learning about the differences of opinion regarding how best to understand the anatta teachings, even among the most senior Buddhist scholars, paradoxically is actually reassuring in a way. It suggests that my uncertainty about how to understand them is not due to some personal short coming on my part: on the contrary, lots of folks have been unsure as to how best to understand these teachings, because they really are very subtle, profound, and inherently not easy to grasp fully. 

Weekly study group

This gives me a good lead into my closing plug: if your curiosity about anatta has been piqued, I urge you to consider joining the study group that I hope to facilitate this fall. If there is interest in such a group, I have something along the following lines in mind:

  1. It would be a study group, not a class, which I would facilitate, not teach; 
  2. It would be based mainly on readings from Niebauer’s book;
  3. I would expect to meet by Zoom, evenings, hopefully Thursdays;
  4. For about six weeks, perhaps the latter part of October and into November.

I will send out an announcement about this on StillSocial in the next day or two. Please let me know if you would be interested in such a group, or think you might be interested; I will follow up with those who respond, and we’ll go from there to finalize plans for the group

This brings me to the end of my prepared remarks this morning; thank you very much for your kind attention, and… let’s continue the discussion below.

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