The doctrine of no-self in Buddhism


  • Huntington, C. W. (1989). The Emptiness of Emptiness - An Introduction to Early Indian Madhyamika Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  • Steve Collins (1982). Selfless Persons Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • James Duerlinger (1984). Candrakiirti's denial of the self. Philosophy East and West, 34:3, July, 261-72.
  • Mark Siderits (1997). Buddhist reductionism. Philosophy East and West, 47:4, Oct, 455-78.
  • Mark Siderits (2003) Personal Identity and Buddhist Philosophy. Ashgate.
  • Theodore Sider (2003). Four-Dimensionalism - An Ontology of Persistence and Time. OUP.
  • Matthew Kapstein (2002). Reason's Traces. Wisdom Publications.
  • stanford:identity-time, stanford:identity-personal

Doctrinal discussion


@Just as a set of wooden parts,
Receives that name of carriage,
So do we give to elements,
The name of fancied being.

@Actions do exist, and also their consequences, but the person that acts does not.@

@The mental and the material are really here,
But here there is no human being to be found.
For it is void and merely fashioned like a doll.
Just suffering piled up like grass and sticks.

Theses and implications

Ignorance of the three characteristics (三法印) lead to samsara (reincarnation):

  1. Anicca - (諸行無常) Nothing is permanent.
  2. Dukkha - (一切皆苦) Nothing is satisfactory. (Everything is "stress","unsatisfactory", "suffering", "苦").
  3. Anatta - (諸法無我) Nothing has a "self".

Historical background

  • The rejection of the self as inherent existent is a reaction to Brahmanism (印度婆羅門教) – an earlier form of Hinduism.
    • Two central texts - Upanishads (奧義書) and Aranyakahs (阿蘭若迦).
    • Enlightenment as unification of the individual soul (Atman) with the unchanging and permanent world soul (Brahman), a universal spirit.
  • Doctrine of dependent origination (緣起性空).

What about reincarnation (輪迴,samsara)?

  • If the self does not exist, what is it that is supposed to be reincarnated?
  • The self depends on the five aggregates (五蘊,skandhas) – material, sensation, conception, volition, consciousness.
  • Samsara rebirth lies in causal continuity – stream, fire metaphor. From Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośa (世親/ 阿毘達磨倶舍論本頌)

@The Personalist: If the Person does not exist, who then is it that wanders about in Samsara? It is difficult to see how the Samsara itself can wander about.

Vasubandhu: The correct explanation is, however, quite simple: When a flame burns a piece of wood, one says that it wanders along it; nevertheless there is nothing but a series of flame-moments. Likewise there is a continuous series of processes which incessantly renews itself, and which is falsely called a living being. Impelled by craving, this series is said to 'wander' in Samsara.

Some interpretations of the doctrine

1. Eliminativism / Denial of self - The self does not exist.

  • This can be taken as the semantic thesis that the first-person pronoun "I" is non-referential, i.e. tokens of the term do not refer.
  • Implications
  1. Lack of existential import. Statements of the form "I am F" do not entail "there is something that is F."
  2. What about agency and responsibility?

2. Denial of inherent existence - The self lacks inherent existence

What is it for x to have inherent existence? Some explanations:

  1. x is permanent and exists forever.
  2. x does not change over time.
  3. x is a substance (an object that can exist independently of other objects.)

Note that these definitions are independent of each other. They need not entail eliminativism about the self.

3. Denial of attachment - We should not be too attached to our own desires

  • A normative and not a metaphysical claim.
  • But if the self does not exist, then presumably it would be a mistake to be attached to the self.

4. A state of meditation

  • A state of conscious experience where the self does not exist, or where the self is perceived to be non-existent.

5. Reductionism about the self

  • The self exits but reduces to X. The self does not exist over and above X.

How radical is the thesis?

  • Eliminativism - there is no self
  • Reductionism - the self = X, nothing but X
  • Error theory - we think that the self = X, but actually the self = Y.

@the Madhyamaka is not saying that we do not exist, nor that we should not use the word 'I'. Rather, we do not exist in the way we think we do, as inherently existent, independent mondas. The correct way of understanding our existence is as conceptually created entities superimposed upon our changing mental and bodily states.@

Paul Williams (1989) Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations Routledge, p67.

Why not Four Dimensionalism?

  • 4D-ism is the view that a physical object is a mereological sum of its temporal stages.
  • The self = the collection of person-stages. See David Lewis (1976). Survival and Identity.
  • Candrakirti's Entry into the Middle Way 月稱《入中論》

@If the self is the psychological aggregates, then there would have to be a plurality of selves, since there is a plurality of aggregates.

[The composite of aggregates] is not the protector, nor the one to be subdued, nor the witness, and therefore the [self] is not the composite.

[The self is, in this respect, similar to a carriage.] One does not consider a carriage to be different from its own parts, nor to be identical, nor to be in possession of them, nor is it "in" the parts, nor are they "in" it, nor is it the mere composite [of its parts]; nor is it the shape [of those parts].

If the carriage were simply the composite [of its parts], then it would exist even when [the parts] were disassembled.

Category.philosophy buddhism