The Buddha on the Self

Anand Hudli anandhudli at HOTMAIL.COM
Thu Jun 22 14:00:04 CDT 2000

One of the central teachings of Buddha is regarding the Self (Atman).
In fact, he taught the doctrine of non-Self (anAtman). As per this,
all ideas of the Self are false. However, he denied that the Self
is not to be thought of as non-existent. What does this mean? The
Buddha said that there is no Self. If he said it is non-existent,
he could be misinterpreted as negating a once existing thing. To
rule out this interpretation he asked his followers to not think
of it as non-existent. An example will make this clear. Suppose
you are about to sit down for meditation. Your meditation teacher
comes up and says to you "Meditate on the absence of any food in your
vicinity." There is indeed no food in your vicinity. The moment you
try to meditate on the "absence of food", your thoughts will turn to
food and your meditation will be broken! It would have been much better
if your teacher had not even mentioned "food", because it was not
there in the first place.

In this connection, I cite an anecdote from Buddha's life that is
mentioned in the book by Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha taught".
A disciple, called Vacchagottagotta, of the Buddha asked him if there
was a self. The Buddha did not answer the question at all, either in
the affirmative or negative. The disciple left after some time. Buddha
later explained his "silence" thus:

 "If I had answered 'There is a self,' [that would not have been]
  in accordance with my knowledge that all things are without self...
  If I had answered 'There is no self,' then that would have been a
  greater confusion to the already confused Vacchagottagotta. For he
  would have thought: 'Formerly indeed I had a self, but now I haven't
  got one.'" (in "What the Buddha taught", page 62).

This brings out another, sometimes hotly, debated issue here - the
enigmatic silence of the Buddha. It is made clear here that the Buddha's
silence on questions regarding Atman, God, etc., is not taken to be
meant as an assertion of something that cannot be explained in words.
It only means the questions regarding Atman, God, etc., are irrelevant.
If Buddha answered "yes" to the question "Is there a God?", he would
be against his own experience and knowledge. If he answered "no",
he would be misinterpreted as saying that there was a God but He now
stands negated.

It is like a trick-question such as "Have you stopped breaking the
law?" No matter whether you say "yes" or "no" to this question, you
are admitting guilt. It is better not to answer the question, (assuming
you have never broken the law :-))

Coming back to advaita, it is to be noted that there is obviously
a very different view here, where one swears "ayamAtmA brahma",
"This Self is the (ultimate reality) Brahman",
the statement of the mANDUkya upanishhad. And GauDapAda wrote his
kAriKA on this very upanishhad.


bhava shankara deshikame sharaNam

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