Who am I? What am I? How am I? We’ve all asked these questions. Throughout history, people have asked these questions, and come up with countless answers and religions and philosophies to answer them. Just who or what is this “self” we all have to deal with?
Interestingly, the Buddha does not offer a final metaphysical view on self. Rather, he uses the insight of “not self” as a skillful strategy to bring about the end of suffering. He doesn’t say, “Accept the view that you have no self.” He doesn’t say, “Accept the view that you have an eternal soul.” He doesn’t say, “Accept the view that you have an eternal, cosmic Self.” He doesn’t have you identify with anything, or seek identity with any kind of “self,” because he proved (and you can find out for yourself) that there is no such intrinsic self in what is fabricated!
Look deeply and skillfully into phenomena, the Buddha said, and you’ll find there’s no real self to cling to or be attached to. Everything is “empty” of self—little self or big Self. Even to posit a “Self” beyond all concepts of self is just another self view to be abandoned. But remember, he not saying there is no self or there is a self, nor both, nor neither! He is simply saying that what we are isn’t anything we can think of, conceive, or imagine, and we have to find out what that is for ourselves—no irony intended!
The Buddha saw that if we pin our quest for happiness on our personal self, a savior self, or a cosmic self, this only leads to suffering. What’s more, the Buddha said this practical realization of “not self” isn’t annihilation, or non-being, but leads to absolute freedom, the unbounded, the deathless—a “suchness” beyond all concepts. (On the nature of this “suchness,” the Buddha himself remained silent, but later Buddhist traditions do attempt to describe this “suchness.” Each much decide for himself whether such descriptions leads to the end of suffering or end in what the Buddha called a “thicket of views.”)
In any event, the “not-selfness” of all things isn’t a metaphysical idea we adopt. It’s not yet another view. It’s a skillful means we can see and prove for ourselves by discerning how cause and and effect, karma, work in terms of the Four Noble Truths: the stressfulness of all fabricated things, the causes of this stress, seeing what actions bring about the end of that stress, and through abandonment of those causes, the end of stress, or suffering.
The Buddha had one very practical and down-to-earth goal: the end of suffering. Living in a culture filled with myriad religions and sophisticated philosophies all centered around views of gods and a supreme Self over all, the Buddha took a radical and revolutionary path. He saw all these metaphysical views about self as only getting in the way of his goal, and indeed, as even increasing suffering.
When asked about metaphysical ideas about Self, and God, eternity, and infinity, the Buddha remained silent, refusing to answer because to him, these were the wrong questions! They did not lead to the end of suffering, but to a “thicket of views” that could never be resolved.
Seeing for ourselves the “not selfness” of any form or state of consciousness or being is simply one of the tools the Buddha offers on path to the end of suffering. Finally, even that tool is abandoned in the final awakening to what is. But until full freedom appears, we need to see through all the delusive ways we fabricate a self and identify with a self, however subtle, sophisticated, or sublime.
The Buddha makes the freedom from “self views” so clear:
“There is the case where an uninstructed, run-of-the-mill person…does not discern what ideas are fit for attention, or what ideas are unfit for attention. This being so, he does not attend to ideas fit for attention, and attends [instead] to ideas unfit for attention….
This is how he attends inappropriately: ‘Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what was I in the past? Will I be in the future? Will I not be in the future? What will I be in the future? How will I be in the future? Having been what, what will I be in the future?’ Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the immediate present: ‘Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where is it bound?’
As this person attends inappropriately in this way, one of six kinds of view arises in him: The view I have a self arises in him as true & established, or the view I have no self…or the view It is precisely because of self that I perceive self…or the view It is precisely because of self that I perceive not-self…or the view It is precisely because of not-self that I perceive self arises in him as true & established, or else he has a view like this: This very self of mine—the knower that is sensitive here & there to the ripening of good & bad actions—is the self of mine that is constant, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and will endure as long as eternity.
This is called a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is not freed from birth, aging, & death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. He is not freed from stress, I say.
The well-taught noble disciple…discerns what ideas are fit for attention, and what ideas are unfit for attention. This being so, he does not attend to ideas unfit for attention, and attends (instead) to ideas fit for attention…. He attends appropriately, This is stress…This is the origin of stress…This is the stopping of stress…This is the way leading to the stopping of stress. As he attends appropriately in this way, three fetters are abandoned in him: identity-view, doubt, and grasping at precepts & practices.”