Is There a Self?

What did the Buddha say about the nature of the self?

While his teachings were preserved in the oral tradition through recitation, nothing was written down until 450 years after his passing.   I can’t help but wonder how much editorial enhancement his teachings received as they were shared over the centuries following his death.

There are some fantastical sayings attributed to the Buddha.  Check out the website, “FakeBuddhaQuotes”, and you’ll see just how much distortion can arise — in any tradition.

What did the Buddha say about the “Self?”

Whether the following story is true or not, I really like this one:

In the Buddha’s time there were philosophical debates among traditions. The Buddha eschewed these events, noting dharma debates had little to do with one’s personal practice and practice was where the action was.

One great debate topic was whether or not there was a “Self”.

In this story, the Buddha was walking along a road when he was approached by a man who asked him directly, “Is there a Self or is there not a Self?”

Traditionally, if you asked the Buddha a question three times, he was obligated to respond. I imagine this persistent and probably obnoxious guy managed to blurt out the three questions before the Buddha could move on.

His answer (if this really was his answer, of course):

“I won’t say there is a self,” he purportedly responded, “and I won’t say there isn’t a self. I will say I can’t find one.”

Isn’t that awesome?

His response drew on no scripture, no teaching, no philosophy or no edict.

It was entirely self-referential and scrupulously honest.

This is how I aspire to practice: From the inside out and with brutal honesty.

When it comes to exploring the question of “Not Self”, the practice requires an exquisite balance of both rigor and relaxation, doubt and faith, concentration and profound receptivity.

There is a word used by many modern dharma teachers  “Selfing.”  “Selfing” is when you think, speak and act from your conditioning. It is generally focused on self-preservation and colored by greed, hatred or confusion.

Then what is “Not Selfing?”

I think most of us have had glimpses.

Chances are you’ve experienced at times a state of “flow”, a sense of deep absorption, a sense of the mystery or intimacy or joy. In those moments that sense of “self” was either not there or in some way, more diffused. “You” were in the moment without wanting, pushing away or confusion. “You” probably felt a wonderful sense of spaciousness and grace.

How do you explore Not Self?

Rather than look for the answer outside, you must look inward.

There are lots of books on this principle of “Not Self”. I’ve noticed, though, none of those publications come with experience.

I’m fascinated by the practice of inquiry. You slow down, open your awareness to receive what arises, ask a question with deep sincerity and note what arises as you listen inward.

It’s a deep dive. You have to be willing to persevere, stay open and let go into what comes to light in your inquiry.

I’m leading a daylong retreat designed to help you explore this teaching of “not self”. We’ll explore a bit from the perspective of the traditional teachings, but most importantly, experientially.

You’ll have time for meditation, journaling and reflective inner exploration, but you’ll also have time with  like-minded people who share your curiosity and sincerity.

I think of the best retreats as when I’m “alone together”. Cave time for personal practice is important, but I’m equally, if not more affected when I can share and hear from others.

The practice can be challenging, but it points toward these words, quite possibly said by the Buddha thousands upon thousands of years ago:

“One who experiences the unity of life sees one’s own Self in all beings, and all beings in one’s own Self, and looks on everything with an impartial eye.”


Jonathan Foust is an IMCW teacher, cofounder of the Meditation Teacher Training Institute and a senior teacher and former president of Kripalu Center. Jonathan is the creator of the “Year of Living Mindfully” program. He is teaching upcoming daylong and multi-day retreats, including No “I and Mine:” An Experiential Inquiry into the Teachings of No Self online, on Saturday, October 17.

Jonathan’s talk on “Understanding Self and Not Self”.



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