Lecture Twelve: Action 12.3

12.3 A middle way

In the discourses, the attainment of liberation is the supreme soteriological goal. This is not an easy feat to realize, although the discourses provide a quite optimist view of the possibility of achieving it in this life (unlike earlier Brahmanical views that often tended to regard their notion of liberation as something to be fully achieved only at death). Since liberation is not liberation from life or from the world, it can be achieved while someone is still alive and living in the world. And yet, liberation entails a radical change in one’s way of living in the world. The stock phrase used in the discourses to express one’s realization of ultimate freedom is ‘birth is destroyed.’ Several layers of meaning surround this expression. For now, the most relevant has to do with the fact that ‘birth’ can be understood as the very act of personification through which one is acknowledged as a self. Birth is a ‘state’ or a ‘condition’ or more broadly ‘a form of existence.’ Birth encompasses and defines what a certain individual is, their identity. This is what happens when one refers to one’s birth to make claims about descendance, social rank, or even profession and personal skills. Enacting mastery, one enacts a self, that is, one gives birth to oneself. ‘Birth is destroyed’ means that this process has stopped, mastery has been dropped, and there is no longer anyone that needs to be acknowledged as the master of this or that. There is no more state or form of existence to appropriate.

This interpretation of the practice of anattā is at odds with three alternative interpretations. According to the first alternative, the Buddha’s argument is aimed at guiding his audience towards the realization of their ‘true Self’ (akin to the Upaniṣadic ātman).[1] On this view, realizing that none of the five aggregates is ‘my true Self’ (because it is uncertain, impermanent, and suffering, contrary to the true Self, which is eternal and blissful), should allow the audience to disengage from the world and thus turn (inward, arguably) towards the true hidden Self. The problem with this interpretation is that the Buddha’s argument relies on interpreting ‘self’ (attā) as a pragmatic attitude of mastery and it is aimed at dismissing that, while the Upaniṣadic view is interwoven into an ontological commitment about reality and being.

In the discourses, there is no denial that composure can lead to an intransitive experience, and even to the cessation of all experience.[2] In this sense, the discourses share a common experiential background with other Indian and world traditions and acknowledge the ‘mystical states’ we discussed in Lecture Four. Their disagreement concerns the interpretation of these experiences and states, especially when it comes to giving them ontological value. The very notion of ‘existence’ (and its correlative notion of ‘non-existence’) is regarded as a product of appropriation and as a tool to exercise ownership and mastery over experience.[3] Insisting that something exists (and even more, that it is eternal) betrays an attitude of grasping, which is expressed by the use of the very notion of ‘existence.’ This is the reason why the Buddha acknowledges (MN 1) almost all experiential states that could be taken by other spiritual seekers as potential end goals of their practice. However, he then clarifies how his approach differs from theirs by stressing that he does not conceive of, identify with, or appropriate any of these states in any possible way—and it is precisely by not identifying with anything (even with ‘the All’ or nibbāna) that the Buddha claims to have gained awakening. In other words, the Buddha’s discussion of non-self does not aim to disprove the experiential dimension attained by other renunciants, ascetics, or mystics, but rather challenges their interpretation of it.

A second alternative interpretation takes the Buddha’s argument as mainly directly against the Upaniṣadic view. Assuming that an audience instructed in the sort of soteriology defended in the Upaniṣads would be seeking a true Self, the Buddha shows that none of the constituent elements of reality fulfill these expectations, and thus that the expectation itself is ill-conceived.[4] On this reading, the Buddha would not reject selfhood in toto, but only the more specific and metaphysical view of the ‘true Self’ defended by Upaniṣadic sages, leaving for instance untouched the ‘empirical’ or ‘ordinary’ sense of self. The concern that seems to motivate this interpretation is twofold: acknowledging the contrast between the Buddha’s teaching and the rival teaching of the Upaniṣads (contrary to the first interpretation), but also avoiding the threat of alienation, depersonalization and nihilism that seem to follow from a full-scale denial of any form of selfhood altogether.

However, the problem now is that no Upaniṣadic sage would seek the ‘true Self’ among what the Buddha presents as the five aggregates. It would be obvious to them that the physical form, for instance, is not the ‘true Self.’[5] More importantly, this interpretation makes the Buddha’s teaching quite limited in its validity and scope, since it presupposes that its main target is only a transcendent conception of selfhood. What goes under the rubric of an ‘ordinary’ or ‘empirical’ self is thus seen as unproblematic. And yet, it is precisely in this domain that mastery of uncertainty is more relevant and widespread. The discourses witness that the Buddha was equally concerned with materialist and hard naturalist views of the self that would reduce it to just the physical body, or to any specific life-form (cf. SN 56.11, Ud 3.10). After all, the first part of the discourse on non-self we discussed concerns bodily ‘afflictions’ that can well be understood and experienced in an entirely ordinary and non-transcendent context—and it is in this context too that selfhood is enacted. If the Buddha’s argument aims at countering the enaction of selfhood in any context of experience, it is hard to believe that he would see no problems with ‘ordinary’ or ‘empirical’ ways of enacting selfhood. They operate on another segment of the spectrum, but they are still part of the same project of mastery.

The third alternative interpretation is the more radical one and takes the Buddha’s argument as an ontological claim about the fact that the self does not exist in any form. Not only there is no ‘true Self’ that transcends the aggregates, but there is also no ‘immanent’ self within them. The ordinary or empirical self is just an illusion.[6] This is the sort of view already encountered in Lectures One and Two. The problem with this interpretation is that it assumes that the Buddha’s argument is an argument about ontology, about what is or is not there. In making this assumption, the interpretation also takes for granted that questions about being and existence are somehow more fundamental than any other questions. However, as we already noted, the ontological issues surrounding the self make sense only if the self is enacted—i.e., if a ‘doing’ is taking place. Without this doing, there is no point in asking whether the self exists or not, since its being depends on what is enacted. In other words, the Buddha’s pragmatic approach reverses the relation between being and agency, by taking agency as more fundamental than being. Accordingly, ontological issues can only be derivative on pragmatic issues.

To sum up, the early Buddhist teaching on non-self can be interpreted as a pragmatic injunction to drop the attitude of mastery towards experience, as ultimately ill-conceived and eventually doomed to fail. When this attitude is dropped, the whole of experience undergoes a profound transformation. Grasping and appropriation are released, the loop of passions that supported them is disrupted, and the compulsion to be concerned with uncertainty ceases. One is freed. This scheme presupposes that selfhood and mastery are actions, and thus that the actual process of relinquishing selfhood depends on a different way of acting.[7] There must be conditions in virtue of which actions lead to enacting the self (‘I-making’), but also conditions in virtue of which the self is no longer enacted, nor even needed. Distinguishing the two is at the core of the Buddha’s teaching on action (kamma).

  1. This interpretation usually develops as an attempt at bringing the Buddha’s teaching closer to the orthodox Indian school of Advaita Vedānta, which draws his core doctrines from the Upaniṣads.
  2. For a more detailed historical discussion, see Alexander Wynne, The Origin of Buddhist Meditation (2007). In his more recent article ‘Sariputta or Kāccana? A preliminary study of two early Buddhist philosophy of mind and meditation’ (2018), Wynne attempts to distinguish between two trends in the philosophy of mind and meditation that surface in the discourses, one arguably connected with an older and original teaching, the other with Upaniṣadic influences. The former trend would stress the importance of ‘bare attention’ or the ability to stop conceptualizing and to rest with experience as it simply manifests, while the latter is more concerned with reaching a state of intransitive consciousness via meditative absorption, or else knowing a pre-established object of insight.
  3. See further discussion of this point in Andrea Sangiacomo, ‘The Meaning of Existence (bhava) in the Pāli Discourses of the Buddha’ (2022).
  4. See e.g. Richard Gombrich, What the Buddha Thought (2009), chapter 5.
  5. Although this does not mean that the Buddha’s teaching did not also target explicitly the Upaniṣadic account of selfhood, most likely it did. The point at stake here is rather that a purely contextual explanation seems to miss an important part of the Buddha’s teaching. Concerning how the doctrine of the five aggregates might have been developed also in an attempt at countering Upaniṣadic views, see Alexander Wynne, ‘The Buddha’s ‘skill in means’ and the genesis of the five aggregate teaching’ (2010).
  6. Alexander Wynne, ‘Early evidence for the ‘no self’ doctrine?’ (2009) analyses SN 22.59 and its parallel versions from other traditions to establish a difference between an original pre-sectarian teaching of ‘non-self’ (none of the aggregates is ‘self’) and an ancient, yet later canonical development of a stronger reductionist view of ‘no self’ (the self as such does not exist). This shows that a certain tendency to interpret this teaching in a nihilist way (as a statement on the non-existence of the self) is as old as the Buddhist tradition. In a more extensive study (‘The ātman and its negation. A conceptual and chronological analysis of early Buddhist thought,’ 2010-2011), Wynne reviews most of the relevant discourses discussing the issue of selfhood and personal identity, concluding that the earliest teachings in the discourses develop a ‘philosophy of epistemological conditioning’ according to which the very notions of existence and space-time need to be understood as constructed from the point of view of self-consciousness. Hence, the relinquishment of self-consciousness would lead one to transcend the very use of these notions, without this entailing any ontological statement because the very notion of ‘existence’ upon which any ontology rests is transcended as well. 
  7. For a further discussion of how the sense of self emerges from, and is related to, the process of appropriation (and how the extinguishment of appropriation is related to the experience of nibbāna), see Charles Fink, ‘Clinging to Nothing: The Phenomenology and Metaphysics of Upādāna in Early Buddhism’ (2015).


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The Tragedy of the Self by Andrea Sangiacomo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.