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Self, No-Self, or Self


The concept “self” is definitely one of the paradigmatic perennial questions. It has occupied a central place over the past 2-3 millennia in a variety of philosophical traditions. Today, it figures prominently in psychological, metaphysical, moral, epistemological, and political discourses— What role does the “self” (“what we call self”) play within psychological development? What is the “self”? Are we moral agents who are responsible and accountable, morally as well as legally? Is there a subject of knowledge? What do we attach our religious, political, cultural, etc. identities to?

Cognitive scientist Ray Jackendoff identifies the difficulty to reconcile the “phenomenal self” (the self that we experience) and the “computational” and “neural” “self.”* Even established neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio struggle to explain the phenomenon of “self.” To solve this dilemma, theorists generally relegate these two conflicting positions to the first- and third-person perspectives, respectively. The Buddhist go-to conception of the “no-self” (anātman) does not make this conundrum a lot easier as this concept is frequently balanced with the notions of “person” (pudgala) and “buddha-nature” (tathāgatagarbha). So, what does it mean to negate the existence of what we call the “self”?

Before I dive more into the Buddhist conception of “no-self,” I would like to introduce the reader with the conceptual lay-of-the-land. In his pioneering textbook on global critical philosophy of religion, Timothy Knepper identifies five specific theories of what we call “self.”** According to them, the “self” is that which is:

1) “substantial and individual,”
2) “constituted by what brings it into existence,”
3) “part of [a] wider cosmic reality,”
4) “fundamentally in relation,” and
5) “reducible to underlying processes.”**

While, positions 1), 3), 4), and 5) articulate what constitutes the self––1) an identifiable, individual, and self-contained substance, 3) a particular embodiment of the universal soul, 4) a self-in-relationships, and 5) a product of underlying processes such as neuro-physiological processes or the five skandhas––position 2), which Knepper illustrates with the Yorùbá ori and the South Asian conception of karma, focuses on the destiny or moral actions that shape who we are and implies the notion of a relatively self-contained but temporary individual “self.”

Neuroscientific self. Artist: L’Engle Charis-Carlson, copyright: Gereon Kopf.

Many mainstream Buddhist systems seem to agree with contemporary philosophers such as Derek Parfit (1942-2017) as well as most neuroscientists and computational scientists insofar as they embrace position 5) suggesting that the “self” is “reducible to underlying processes.” But what is this “no-self”? How do we solve the above-mentioned dilemmas in, among other areas, psychology and ethics?

In the Pāli canon, the concept of “no-self” (anātman) is designed as a negation of the Upaniṣadic conception of “ātman” conceived of as universal, eternal, self-caused, and unified. The Pāli canon contrasts this “ātman” with particular, impermanent, and momentary other-caused compounds: the 5 skandhas. This is the meaning of the concept “anātman” (“no-self”). Our names are just that names, they do not designate a separate and eternal “self.”

This so-called nominalism (“names are names only”) is famously illustrated in the Conversations With King Menander (Miliṇḍapañha). Asked by King Menander what his name refers to, Nāgasena responds that his name does not refer to a single thing; like the term “chariot,” “Nagasena” refers to a functional unity of impermanent, inter-dependent (pratītyasamutpāda) elements, the 5 skandhas. Like Nāgasena himself, each skandha is selfless. The Humane Kings Wisdom Dhāraṇī explains: “there are two ways of no-self: the ego is devoid of a self and the dharmas are devoid of a self.”***

Global self. Artist: L’Engle Charis-Carlson, copyright: Gereon Kopf.

So we are back at the beginning: “what is the “no-self”? The Saṃyuktāgama sūtra narrates a famous story: Buddha refuses to answer the question of an interlocutor who inquires whether we have a self or not. Asked for the reason of his silence, Buddha responds “if I had said that there is a self, he would have formed the view of the self. If I had said that there is no self, he would fall into ignorance and madness and would be even more confused.”**** The Mahāprajñāpāramitā śāstra adds some helpful comments: “the claim ‘the five skandhas are impermanent, empty, and without a self’ means that in the perfected wisdom, the five skandhas are neither permanent nor impermanent, neither empty nor non-empty, neither with a self nor devoid of a self.”***** And, “if there is permanence, there is impermanence, self-existence, no-self existence, activity no activity, form formlessness. These are many forms of non-attainment.”****** In other words, in these Mahāyāna texts, one can see a tendency that is already anticipated in Buddha’s famous silence: The notion of “no-self” may negate the universal, substantive self of the Upaniṣads but not the sense of self, in general. The texts cited here refuse to be trapped in the seductive but false alternative between self and no-self. Like many other Buddhist texts, they aim for a middle path. The answer to the question “what/who is self?” cannot be answered by an either-or logic. To paraphrase the Diamond Sūtra, “what we call the self, is not the self, therefore, we call it the self,” more aptly written as self.

As catchy as this phrase is, it does not solve our dilemma. Once again, I receive my inspiration from the Japanese Zen master Dōgen (1200-1253). He not only wrote about the “self,” he also provided a conceptual framework on how to interpret middle way philosophy so that it can be applied to contemporary discourses. His famous line “To study the Buddha-Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by the 10,000 dharmas. To be actualized by the 10,000 dharmas is to cast off body and mind of self and other” (DZZ 1:7).******* What we call and think of as “self” is actually not who we are. We are connected to and embody our environment, in particular, and the world, in general. Binary conceptual pairs such as “body” and “mind,” “self” and “other” are not helpful. Elsewhere, he describes the relationship between “self” and “other” as “you attain me—I attain you.”******** In positive terms, we are who we are in a network of ever-changing relationships with individual others as well as the world.

Indra’s Net. Artist: Amber Takano, copyright: Gereon Kopf.

But Dōgen does not stop here. Many discussions on the self forget that “self” is a concept not a thing. As a concept it helps us highlights particular phenomena. However, as Dōgen famously observed, “when one side is illuminated, the other side is obscured.”******** Concepts are linguistic and discursive forms of “expressions” (dōtoku). As such, “when we express expression we do not express non-expression.  Even when we recognize expression in expression, if we do not verify the depth of non-expression as the depth of non-expression, we are neither in the face of the buddha-and-ancestors nor in the bones and marrow of the buddha-and-ancestors” (DZZ 1: 303). Dōgen suggests that all “expressions” are also “non-expressions” (fudōtoku). Actually, they are expressions, “expressions-and-non-expressions.”

And this brings us back to the opening paragraph. When we discuss specific topics, we need to employ the appropriate concepts. Discussions of responsibility and accountability, moral as well as legal, require a notion of “self” as “substantial and individual”; religious discourses that focus on salvation or liberation highlight that we are “constituted by what brings it into existence,”; religious discourses that promote self-cultivation emphasize that we constitute a “part of [a] wider cosmic reality”; political discourses uphold that we are “fundamentally in-relation”; finally, attempts to understand our motivation and cognition assume that we are “reducible to underlying processes.” I believe that the concept of “no-self” developed in the texts discussed above accommodates such a multilayered and multi-faceted understanding of the self. Dōgen provides the framework that brings out the many aspects of the “no-self” so that we can meaningfully understand the various aspects of our existence and solve the puzzles they create.

* Jackendoff cited in Varela et al., 1991, 52.
** Knepper, 2023, 84-85.
*** T 996.19.0523.
**** T
***** T 1509.25.0114.
****** T 1509.25.0148.
******* I have written about this line in an earlier essay: “Who Am I — Self-discovery in Japanese Zen Practice” (
******** DZZ 1:333. For more on Dōgen’s notion of intersubjectivity, see “Why I Study Zen Philosophy” (
********* DZZ 1: 7. See “Entangled in Indra’s Net” (


Knepper, Timothy. 2023. Philosophies of Religion: A Global and Critical Introduction. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Ōkubo, Dōshū, ed. 1969–70. Dōgen zenji zenshū (Complete Works of Zen Master Dōgen). Two volumes. Ed. Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō. [Abbr. DZZ].

Varela, Francisco, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch. 1991. The Embodied Mind. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Takakusu, Junjirō and Kaigyoku Watanabe, eds. 1961. Taishō shinshū daizōkyō (The Taishō Edition of the Buddhist Canon). Tokyo: Taishō Shinshū Daizōkyō Kankōkai. [Abbr. T].

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