Does The Self Exist According to Buddha?
There are a lot of people in the spiritual community who talk about how there is no self so there are no problems and everything is basically an illusion. Why should we be concerned about anything when there is no-one that it happens to? but this is not the whole story and not what Buddha taught and it leads people to huge misconceptions about exactly what the self is and how to live a good life.
I would like to offer a middle way which is what I believe Buddha taught 2,500 or so years ago. I notice in spiritual communities the idea put across about an illusory self or a non existent self and they often teach that when you look for a self through self-enquiry you cannot find one so there must not be a self. This is exactly the conclusion that is warned against in ancient scriptures. To say the self does not exist at all is a big mistake on many levels.
“There is a self but it’s just not what you think it is.”
What you think the self is, is exactly what an ego is, an imagined story of who you think you are based on social conditioning and this is what’s eliminated through spiritual practice, a false notion of the self. In fact it is not eliminated because it never existed; it is imaginary. What happens is the false imaginary self is ‘seen through’ and not believed in any more. But there is a real self that cannot be eliminated and there is a real individual despite what so many self proclaimed awakened spiritual teachers try and teach.
The middle way is the middle ground between two extreme views. Saying the self exists as a separate and permanent thing is an extreme. But it is also an extreme view to say the self does not exist at all. The self is neither permanent nor non-existent. The middle way is somewhere in between these two extremes. There are two mistakes that are made with Buddhist negation of the self. Negating too much and not negating enough.
Buddha taught a specific type of self does not exist – that is a permanent and separate self. BUT the Buddha did not say the self does not exist at all. This misconception leads to the gross error of thinking karma does not exist and actions do not have consequences. The hardest thing in Buddhist philosophy is to match the two teachings of no self and karma together.
In our experience there seems to be a fixed, separate and autonomous self that is different from everything else and goes through life having things happen to it. We believe in this self and create stories about it. This is the self that is negated using either of the two main types of Buddhist meditations; either using ‘direct looking’ or ‘logical analysis’. What is revealed is reality.