SELF: I think it is Lady Pankhurst who told Winston Churchill, in Parliament, "If you were my husband, I will poison your drink." And Churchill retorted, "Madam, if you were my wife, I shall drink it!" Throughout history, the world has witnessed this play and display of the self. The over-arch of the self in its many-faceted splendor, vanity and frustration has dominated literature and art, passion, creativity, discovery, war and terror, and much besides.

Perception of Self

We would all be zombies if not for the perception of self. We regard ourselves alive from having body, mind, limbs, sensuality, mobility and so on; and the sum total is the self. No one sees it as described by the Buddha: matter, feeling, perception, determinations, consciousness. Then where exactly is this putative elusive self? Its origin, in the uninstructed person [puthujjana], is outlined in the following charming way:

1. Matter…consciousness is identical with self, as a flame and its colour.

2. The self is endowed with matter…consciousness, as a tree has a shadow.

3. Matter…consciousness belongs to self, as scent of a flower.

4. Self is in matter…consciousness, as a jewel in a casket.

Focus and nature of Self

Where, anatomically or physiologically, is this ‘thing’ self, soul, atman? Sites such as the pineal body in the recess of the brain are posited but no one has located it. No one has even indirectly demonstrated that it is nevertheless there, somewhere.

May be it is an external aura like infrared radiation captured by a hologram?

Some are very definite of one thing: animals do not have it. It is a prerogative gift for being born human, and unique – no two, even identical twins have it same. It remains unchanged through life, from birth to death, and beyond. It escapes from a natural aperture of the body to await judgment and redemption.

The Greeks thought someone then weighs it to assess sin.

The Self in Dhamma

The Buddha was the first to argue that self is a deception of a deception as a mirage (a deception) is real (a deception) to one seeing it. No amount of introspection can overcome it. However one reflects, in successive deeper layers of reflexion, either it is with self that one sees no-self, or with no-self see self.

The majority does not bother. The self is taken as granted.

The indirect way

The method of the Teaching from the beginning, in the middle and end is indirect. The technique is to develop insight. There is no other way to override inferential thinking by the self. That is, no amount of inferential knowledge can lead to seeing what it actually is. The word ‘absolute’ has no meaning till there is insight and direct knowledge of what is actually the case.

To reach this stage of intuitive development, the Buddha appeals to unprejudiced reasoning. If matter…consciousness is changing, does it mean the self is also changing with them? Since one can experience only one kind of feeling any one time, pleasant, unpleasant, neutral, does it mean there is a different self feeling pleasant…neutral? Is it proper to regard notwithstanding, there is a permanent, unchanging self?

The coup de grace is now dealt. If in this impermanent bundle of matter…consciousness there is a permanent self, why cannot it be: Let my matter…consciousness be this, not that? Why cannot the self interfere or direct or control or stop change?


Regardless whether there is or there is no self, the observed truth is there is relentless breakdown of the body, and death. Existence is underscored by impermanence. In Dhamma, the focus is the body and mind, and impermanence is subjective instability – to change, fade and disappear whatever appropriated by the self.

Additionally, when what appropriated is regarded as mine, belonging to me, yearning to retain hold of pleasant and dear produces sadness. It is not the impermanence of things per se that brings sorrow but holding to things by the self. In Dhamma, this is called upadana. The existential disappointment is ‘but in truth, there is no self’.


Self-identity, as taught in psychology, is the self as when seen in the mirror. This is not the ‘self’ taught in Dhamma. Nor is the ‘self’ personality. We build personality from childhood. Puberty is the beginning of adolescence shaping manhood. That is, personality or the totality of attitudes and so on, changes. When discussing this, a friend told me how after his father died, his mother gave up living and a sprightly person became bed-ridden, sad and died.


‘This significance (or intention, or determination), ‘mine’ or ‘for me’ is, in a sense, a void, a negative aspect of the present thing (or existing phenomenon), since it simply points to a subject; and the puthujjana not seeing impermanence (or more specifically, not seeing impermanence of this ubiquitous determination), deceives himself into supposing that there actually exists a subject – ‘self’ – independent of the object (which is the positive aspect of the phenomenon – that which is ‘for me’)… But care is needed; for, in fact, the division subject/object is not a simple negative/positive division…The fact is, that the intention or determination ‘mine’, pointing to a subject, is a complex structure…The subject is not simply a negative in relation to the positive object: it (or he) is master over the object, and thus a kind of positive negative, a master who does not appear explicitly but who, somehow or other, nevertheless exists. [Nanavira Thera]

Tragedy and Comedy

All intra and inter-personal, all internecine societal conflict can be traced back and understood as arising from the delusion of ‘self’. In Dhamma, there is no ethnicity or any essential difference in living beings, human or animal. All is matter, chiefly carbon. Living beings have joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure. They have the perception of self, their own precious identity. In sum, it leads to more of tragedy than of comedy.

The teaching of the Buddha aims to disabuse the demarking primitive notion of self, not surely by discriminative thinking. He aims to develop insight: If you look for a self in any thing, you shall not find it – sabbe dhamma anatta. -ANCL

Alone one delights in solitude
He who sits alone, rests alone, walks alone unindolent, who in solitude controls himself, will find delight in the finest.
Pakinneka Vagga – The Dhammapada