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Self vs. Not-Self – A Brief Comparison of Two Indian Religions

Throughout his teachings, the Buddha vehemently denied the ancient Indian notion of selfhood, “etaṃ mama, esohamasmi, eso me attā” (that is mine, I am that, that is my self) with its counter-statement, “netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā” (this is not me, this is not mine, this is not my self)[1]. While never denying that the self exists conventionally (sense of self) as an empirical truth that is experienced in everyday life, the Buddha rejected the notion of an ultimate core, a permanent substratum, and an enduring selfhood that persists through time.

The language in which the Buddha denied an ultimate self stems from the Upaniṣadic and Vedic phrases so ham asmi and aham asmi, both meaning “I am.”

so ham asmi

सोऽहम् अस्मि

aham asmi

अहम् अस्मि

In the ancient Indian religious traditions from which modern Hinduism derives, heavy emphasis was placed on the existence of a soul, a permanent self, or ultimate personality. The earliest Upaniṣads, some of the foundational texts of present-day Hinduism, contain powerfully succinct expressions of this belief in a soul and its unity with an impersonal God, or Brahman.

aham brahmāsmi

अहं ब्रह्मास्मि

“I am Brahman”

Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad | बृहदारण्यक उपनिषद्

tat tvam asi

तत् त्वम् असि

“Thou art that”

Chāndogya Upaniṣad | छान्दोग्य उपनिषद्

While these statements may be striking, they were not accepted by the Buddha. Ultimately, personality-view (sakkāya-diṭṭhi) or belief in an ultimate selfhood, is considered a fetter on the path of wisdom taught by the Buddha[2].

The Buddha taught that there is an empirical self that operates phenomenally, but no trans-empirical equivalent like a Soul. There is no characteristic or set of characteristics that remains constant throughout life, or even in future lives. Self is not transcendental. It does not transcend impermanence and suffering. Self is malleable and ever-changing. It is subject to arising and passing away, subject to suffering.

Self is an instantaneous arising and passing away of various causes and conditions, not a persistent entity. Personal identity is a deceptive, elusive phenomenon. Self can be understood not as a being but as a process. The belief in a self is an assumption, not a reality. In the Buddha’s words:

To an uninstructed run-of-the-mill person, touched by experience born of the contact of ignorance, there occur (the thoughts): ‘I am,’ ‘I am thus,’ ‘I shall be,’ ‘I shall not be,’ ‘I shall be possessed of form,’ ‘I shall be formless,’ ‘I shall be percipient (conscious),’ ‘I shall be non-percipient,’ or ‘I shall be neither percipient nor non-percipient.’

Samanupassana Sutta: Assumptions (SN 22.47)

Thus, all statements of “I” – whether “I am” or “I was” or “I will be” – are understood as assumptions by the Buddha. They amount to nothing absolute and instead reflect our contact with ignorance – not knowing things as they are. When the illusion of a self as observer drops away, reality can be seen clearly, without being filtered through the lens of a someone who is watching. This state that is absent of self is the realm of the Buddhas.

[1] For the Buddha’s rejection of self-identification or “atta” see:

Discourses from the Majjhima Nikaya

MN 8, MN 22, MN 28, MN 35, MN 62, MN 109, MN 140, MN 144, MN 148

Discourses from the Samyutta Nikaya

SN 4.16, SN 12.70, SN 18.13, SN 18.14, SN 22.8, SN 22.15, SN 22.16, SN 22.17, SN 22.45, SN 22.46, SN 22.49, SN 22.59, SN 22.71, SN 22.72, SN 22.76, SN 22.77, SN 22.79, SN 22.82, SN 22.91, SN 22.92, SN 22.118, SN 22.119, SN 22.124, SN 22.125, SN 24.31, SN 24.32, SN 35.1, SN 35.2, SN 35.3, SN 35.4, SN 35.5, SN 35.6, SN 35.54, SN 35.55, SN 35.70, SN 35.167, SN 35.168, SN 35.169, SN 35.170, SN 35.171, SN 35.172, SN 35.173, SN 35.174, SN 44.2, SN 44.7

Discourses from the Anguttara Nikaya

AN 3.134, AN 4.177, AN 4.181, AN 4.196, AN 10.93,

[2] For the Buddha’s rejection of personality-view or “sakkāya-diṭṭhi” see:

Discourses from the Digha Nikaya

DN 33

Discourses from the Majjhiima Nikaya

MN 2, MN 44, MN 64, MN 109

Discourses from the Samyutta Nikaya

SN 1.21, SN 2.16, SN 22.82, SN 22.155, SN 35.149, SN 41.3, SN 45.114

Discourses from the Anguttara Nikaya

AN 3.95, AN 6.89, AN 6.90, AN 6.91, AN 7.85, AN 7.92, AN 9.67, AN 10.13, AN 10.76

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