The Buddha claims there is no self. In this essay, I explain the Buddha’s principal argument against the existence of the self. Personally, I cannot take a definitive position on whether the self exists, because I do not feel the argument holds up to the challenge of proving a negative. On the other hand, we cannot prove the existence of the self, whether for insufficient skill or knowledge or its non-existence. That leaves us between our inability to prove, and our ability to disprove the self; thus, for now I remain agnostic.
The Buddha says our world is one of suffering, of which the origin is our clinging to transient pleasures (Thera, 2010; Bodhi, 2010). These cravings can be understood through the five aggregates. “Any individual being’s physical and psychological make-up comprises five groups of conditions and functions: a physical body normally endowed with five senses; feelings that are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral; ideas and concepts; various desires and volitions; and self-consciousness” (Gethin, 1998). Whether there is a self pertains to whether, at any moment and thus at every moment, there is “an unchanging, constant underlying experience” (Gethin, 1998). The idea of the self is one of something that is persistent over time, and that is in control.
The principle argument against the self, is that these qualities are contradictory to what we know about the individual being. Ultimately, we have no control over the five aggregates: e.g. we experience feelings as we have them, but we do not dictate them (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2011); all of the aggregates, all of our experiences, are characterised by impermanence; there is no constant. Gethin (1998) provides a third argument, which revolves around how the self should relate to our experiences, either, “one must regard the self as the same as experience, or [..] as something apart from experience, or [..] as having the attribute of experience.” Experience and the self cannot be the same, because that would make the self impermanent; they cannot be unrelated, because that would lead to issues of control, yet it can also not have the attribute of experience, because “such a self must [..] be distinguishable from experiences, yet there is no basis upon which to make such a distinction, since it remains the case that apart from particular experiences it is not possible to think of oneself as existing” (Gethin, 1998). Thus, we have exhausted our options, and we must therefore conclude: there is no self.
I do not find the Buddha’s argument sufficiently convincing; yet questioning the Buddha’s reasoning does not prove the existence of a self either. This means I cannot take a definitive position on whether the self exists. The Buddha’s reasoning rests on a few major claims: the self belongs to the individual, and is permanent and in control; and the individual is comprised of five aggregates. The argument is then as follows: for the self to belong to the individual, it must be part of the five aggregates. This means the characteristics of the one should reconcile with the other; they don’t, so one of the two does not exist. We know the individual exists, and so the self does not. First, the Buddha does not explicitly claim the five aggregates to be allencompassing. If the individual might be comprised of something else than the five aggregates, the self could both belong to the individual and not be part of the five aggregates, and thus the argument falls apart. Second, the argument also falls apart if one would allow in his definition for the self to not be in complete control, or for it to not be permanent. The argument of control suggests that “control must be exercised by something other than the psychophysical elements” (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2011). The five aggregates are not in control, and so something else must be: hence, there is a self. Similarly, what if that what we perceive as the self, is the accumulation of actions, which is possible as of yet outside of the realm of our understanding. We can take an evolutionary view and claim the self is constantly adapting in incremental steps; it is never exactly the same, but at all times so dependent on its previous forms that it gives the impression of permanence.
So, according to the Buddha there is no self, because its permanent and in-control nature cannot be reconciled with the individual’s five aggregates. However, both the claim that the five aggregates are exhaustive of the individual being, and the claim of inherent characteristic of the would-be self are rather frail. Hence, where I find both the arguments for and against unconvincing I cannot take a definitive stance on whether the self really does exist.
Bodhi, B. (2010). “The Nobility of the Truths”. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 5 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_20.html
Gethin, R. (1998). “The Foundation of Buddhism”. Retrieved (17 June 2017) from: http://www.ahandfulofleaves.org/documents/The%20Foundations%20of%20Buddhism_Gethin_1998.pdf
Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (2011). “Buddha, Chapter 3: Non-Self”. Retrieved (17 June 2017) from: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/buddha/#NonSel
Thera, N. (2010).”Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting Rolling the Wheel of Truth” (SN 56.11), translated from Pali. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 13 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.nymo.html