Teachings on Selfhood in Buddhism

Grammatical and philosophical concepts: a review

The teachings on Selfhood involve specialised grammatical and philosophical concepts that should be reviewed before examining the arguments and contemplations on Self..

Genitive case

'Mama' means 'of me' and is therefore usually translated as 'mine'. But 'mine' means either 'an extension of a me' or 'a part of a me'. Therefore I translate ‘netaṃ mama’ as ‘not part of a me’.

The suffix ‘vā/vant’: using the equals sign

Vā/vant indicates an adjective formed from a noun, and expresses possession of the quality or state indicated by the noun to which they are affixed (Duroiselle: Practical Grammar of the Pali Language). Duroiselle gives these examples, using an ‘equals’ sign to produce the final meaning:

  • māna means ‘pride’, mānavā, ‘having pride’=’proud’;
  • guṇa, ‘virtue’; gunavā, ‘having virtue’=’virtuous’;
  • bhoga, ‘wealth’; bhogavā, ‘having wealth’=’wealthy’;
  • bala, ‘strength’; balavā, ‘having strength’=’strong’.

When the suffix is applied to the khandhas, neither Horner nor Bodhi, in their translations (e.g. M.3.17) use the equals sign. Both stop short to the left of the equals sign. Bodhi, for instance, says rūpavant means “possessed of material form”; Horner says “having material shape”.

If Duroiselle’s equals sign was applied, it would give the following results:

  • rūpa means matter, rūpavā/ rūpavant having matter=material;
  • vedanā, sensation; vedanāvā/ vedanāvantaṃ, having sensation=sensitive;
  • saññā, perception, saññāvā/ saññāvantaṃ having perception=perceptive;
  • sankhārā, volition, sankhāravā/ sankhāravantaṃ, having volition=volitional;
  • viññāṇa, consciousness, viññāṇavā/ viññāṇavantaṃ, having consciousness=conscious (M.3.17).

Locative case: intrinsic/inherent

The locative case shows the place in which, or on which, something is, or something happens. It is therefore expressed in English by ‘in’, ‘on’, ‘upon’, ‘at’. The locative case can also denote proximity. For example, ‘corn in the river’ in fact means ‘corn beside the river’ (Duroiselle, Practical Grammar of the Pali Language). Thus attani vā rūpaṃ could theoretically mean “form ‘in’, ‘on’, or ‘near’ a Self”.

However, the Self is not like a cat: sometimes on the mat, sometimes beside it. A more likely simile was suggested by Venerable Khemaka, a non-returner, who said the Self was like the scent of a lotus, which seemed to belong, not to the parts of the flower, but to the whole of the flower (pupphassa gandhoti) (S.3.130). Rather than saying the scent is in, on or near the lotus, if the locative case was involved, one would say the scent is ‘intrinsic to’ or ‘inherent in’ the lotus. In the same way, most people probably regard a Self not in the khandhas, but inherent in them or intrinsic to them. Or they regard the khandhas as inherent in, or intrinsic to a Self.

The defining characteristic of a Self: personal autonomy

The Buddha gave eight contemplations on not-Self, and five arguments to prove it. To properly follow these, one must know which key quality defines a Self. Its key qualities might, for instance, be its ability to control, or own, or to be eternal, or healthy. Then we would interpret the Buddha’s contemplations and arguments as being directed to the insight that these controlling or owning or eternal or healthy qualities are not to be found, and therefore everything is not-Self. However, Argument One (see below) shows that the quality that best defines the Self is its personal autonomy in its experience of happiness. Personal autonomy implies that the Self can have all the happiness it wants. The Self would therefore be invulnerable to old age. sickness, death, and all forms of pain and sorrow.

Secondly, if one accepts that the defining characteristic of a Self is personal autonomy, it becomes redundant to call atta “a Self whose key quality is personal autonomy”. The atta is simply 'personal autonomy'.

Attaniya: personal autonomous qualities

Attaniya is derived from atta ('personal autonomy'). Duroiselle (para 581&585) says the –iya suffix indicates an abstract noun, and indicates “state of, quality, abstract idea”. PED says attaniya, as a neuter noun, means “anything of the nature of ‘soul’”. I therefore translate it as “personal autonomous qualities”.

Asmi: 'me'

Although ‘asmi’ strictly means “I am”, it is sometimes better translated as “me”. For example, consider the Khemaka Sutta, where Venerable Khemaka tells us that he does not regard the body as personally his: “Na kho'haṃ āvuso rūpaṃ 'asmi'ti vadāmi aññatra rūpaṃ 'asmi'ti vadāmi”. This phrase could mean “Friends, I do not say form is ‘I am’ nor do I say ‘I am’ is apart from form”. Or it could mean: “Friends, I do not say form is ‘me’ nor do I describe ‘me’ apart from form”.

Māna: 'conceit' and 'presumption of a Self'

Māna has two meanings. One meaning is ‘conceit’, a defilement associated with extolling oneself and disparaging others (Sn v132); with thinking oneself more beautiful than others (D.3.86); or with winning an argument (Sn 829-830). In this meaning, it is often paired with ātimāna, arrogance (as mānātimāna). This type of māna is abandoned before arahantship (A.3.430; A.5.209; It.3. These passages say that rāgaṃ, dosaṃ, mohaṃ are also abandoned before arahantship; so these words, too, must have a range of meanings).

Elsewhere, māna is equated to the thought “I am” (asmīti bhikkhave mānagatametaṃ: S.4.202-3). Here, māna means the presumption of a 'me', abandoning of which is associated with arahantship. In this meaning, māna is embedded in two phrases with which it is practically synonymous: asmimāno and ahaṅkāramamaṅkāramānānusayā.

  • asmimāno: presumption of a 'me'.
  • ahaṅkāramamaṅkāramānānusayā: “I-making, mine-making, and the tendency to the presumption of a ‘me’. The expression, without redundancy, might mean no more than “the tendency (anusaya) to see things as a ‘me’ or ‘part of me’”. For instance, consider the following story:

    Venerable Upasena, bitten by a snake, and at the point of death, asked his brother, Venerable Sariputta, to carry him outside. Venerable Sariputta remarked that Venerable Upasena seemed very calm about this shocking event, and that there was “no change in his faculties”. Venerable Upasena replied:
    “Friend Sariputta, for one who thinks,
    “The eye is a me or part of a me” ahaṃ cakkhunti vā mama cakkhunti vā
    “The ear is a me or part of a me” ahaṃ sotanti vā mama sotanti vā
    “The nose is a me or part of a me” ahaṃ ghānanti vā mama ghānanti vā
    “The tongue is a me or part of a me” ahaṃ jivhāti vā mama jivhāti vā
    “The body is a me or part of a me” ahaṃ kāyoti vā mama kāyoti vā
    “The mind is a me or part of a me” ahaṃ manoti vā mama manoti vā
    there might be a change in the faculties. But, friend Sariputta, such thoughts do not occur to me”.

    Venerable Sariputta replied: “It must be because the tendency to ahaṅkāramamaṅkāramānānusayā has been thoroughly uprooted in the Venerable Upasena for a long time that such thoughts do not occur to him (dīgharattaṃ ahaṃkāramamiṃkāra mānānusayā susamūhatā) (S.4.40-1).

    Judging from this conversation ahaṅkāramamaṅkāramānānusayā means “the tendency to see things as a me or part of a me”.


Diṭṭhi is usually called ‘view’or ‘wrong view’ and sammādiṭṭhi is called ‘right view’. But the Saccavibhanga Sutta defines sammādiṭṭhi in terms of ñāṇaṃ, for example dukkhe ñāṇaṃ. The Sammādiṭṭhi Sutta defines sammādiṭṭhi in terms of pajānāti, for example dukkhañca pajānāti. These definitions show that sammādiṭṭhi means  ‘actual knowledge, not book knowledge’. Therefore I translate sammādiṭṭhi as ‘right insight’, and ‘diṭṭhi’ as ‘false insight’. Some of the false insights described in the suttas are:
The universe is eternal
The universe is not eternal
The soul and the body are the same
The soul is one thing, the body another
The Tathagata exists after death
The Tathagata does not exist after death
The moon and sun do not rise or set but stand unmoving as a pillar.
After death I will endure for eternity.
Everyone, either foolish or wise, after death ceases to exist.
Neither in giving, taming oneself, restraint, nor in speaking truth, is there any merit.
There is no cause or condition for the staining of beings; beings are stained without cause or condition.
There is no cause or condition for the purification of beings; beings are purified without cause or condition.
Pleasure and pain are meted out; samsara’s limits are fixed; there is no way to shorten or extend it. It is like a ball of string of a fixed length that rolls away unwinding itself

These false insights arise due to clinging (upādāya) and adhering (abhinivissa) to the khandhas. Without clinging and adhering, these false insights would not arise (S.3.218).

The five arguments on Self

Argument One

"Bhikkhus, matter is not one's personal autonomy (anattā). For if, bhikkhus, matter were one's personal autonomy (attā), it would not lead to affliction (ābādhāya saṃvatteyya), and it would be possible to have it of matter: ‘Let my matter be thus; let my matter not be thus’" (evaṃ me rūpaṃ hotu, evaṃ me rūpaṃ mā ahosī'ti) (S.3.66-7). And so on for the other khandhas.

In conclusion, attā, personal autonomy, would mean freedom from affliction.

Argument Two

It is not acceptible (na upapajjati) to say that the eye is one's personal autonomy (cakkhuṃ attā’ti)
As the arising and ceasing of the eye are discerned (cakkhussa uppādopi vayopi paññāyati) it would follow that one's personal autonomy arises and ceases (attā me uppajjati ca veti cā’ti). So it is not acceptible to say that the eye is personal autonomy (M.3.282).

In conclusion, attā, personal autonomy, would not be subject to arising and ceasing.

Argument Three

Is what is not-permanent (aniccaṃ), sorrowful (dukkhaṃ), of the nature to utterly change (vipariṇāmadhammaṃ - PED: 'intense change') fit to be regarded thus:

  • this is part of a 'me' (etaṃ mama)
  • this is what I am (eso’hamasmi)
  • this is my personal autonomy? (eso me attā’ti) (S.3.66-7)

In conclusion, Argument Three is a combination of Arguments One and Two in which mama is synonymous with attā. Whatever is mama would be free of affliction and would not arise and cease.

Argument Four

Bhikkhus, if there was personal autonomy (attani), would I have personal autonomous qualities (attaniyaṃ me’ti)”?
Yes, bhante.

Or if there was personal autonomous qualities, would I have personal autonomy?
Yes, bhante
Attaniye vā bhikkhave sati ‘attā me’ti assāti? Evaṃ bhante.

Bhikkhus, since neither personal autonomy nor personal autonomous qualities are apprehended as true and established,
Attani ca bhikkhave attaniye ca saccato thetato anupalabbhamāne

then this view: “The Universe is one's personal autonomy. After death I will be permanent, everlasting, eternal, unchanging; I will endure for eternity”
yampidaṃ diṭṭhiṭṭhānaṃ ‘so loko so attā, so pecca bhavissāmi nicco dhuvo sassato avipariṇāmadhammo, sassatisamaṃ tatheva ṭhassāmī’ti,

is it not an utterly and completely foolish teaching?
nanāya bhikkhave kevalo paripūro bāladhammoti? M.1.138

Argument Five

Venerable Anuradha unfortunately told some wanderers that a Tathagata would describe a Tathagata as being outside of these four positions:

  • ‘The Tathagata exists after death,’
  • ‘The Tathagata does not exist after death,’
  • ‘The Tathagata both exists and does not exist after death,’
  • ‘The Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist after death’”?

So the Buddha asked him:
Anuradha, do you presume (maññasi) that

  • matter is the Tathagata? rūpaṃ tathāgato’ti
  • sensation is the Tathagata? vedanaṃ tathāgato’ti
  • perception is the Tathagata? saññaṃ tathāgato’ti
  • volition is the Tathagata? saṃkhāre tathāgato’ti
  • conscious function is the Tathagata? viññāṇaṃ tathāgato’ti

No, venerable sir.

Anuradha, do you presume that the Tathagata is

  • intrinsic to matter? rūpasmiṃ tathāgatoti
  • extrinsic to matter? aññatra rūpā tathāgato’ti
  • intrinsic to sensation? vedanāya
  • extrinsic to sensation? aññatra vedanāya
  • intrinsic to perception? saññāya
  • extrinsic to perception? aññatra saññāya
  • intrinsic to volition? saṃkhāresu
  • extrinsic to volition?” aññatra saṃkhārehi
  • intrinsic to the conscious function? viññāṇasmiṃ
  • extrinsic to the conscious function?” aññatra viññāṇā

“No, venerable sir.”

Anuradha, do you presume that the Tathagata is matter and sensation and perception and volition and conscious function taken together?
“No, venerable sir.”

Anuradha, do you presume that the Tathagata is non-matter and non-sensation and non-perception and non-volition and non-conscious function taken together?” “No, venerable sir.”

Anuradha, when the Tathagata is not apprehended by you as real and actual (saccato thetato) even in this very life, is it right to say that a Tathagata describes a Tathagata as outside these four positions:

  • The Tathagata exists after death,
  • The Tathagata does not exist after death,
  • The Tathagata both exists and does not exist after death,
  • The Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist after death"?

“No, Venerable Sir”.

"Very good, Anuradha! Formerly and also now, I explain just suffering and the ending of suffering” (S.3.118).

The eight contemplations on Self

Contemplation One

This is not part of a 'me' (netaṃ mama).
This is not what I am (nesohamasmi).
This is not my personal autonomy (na meso attā’ti).

Contemplation Two

The ordinary person sees matter as one's personal autonomy (rūpaṃ attato samanupassati)..
Or one's personal autonomy as being material (rūpavantaṃ vā attānaṃ)
Or matter as intrinsic to one's personal autonomy (attani vā rūpaṃ).
Or one's personal autonomy as intrinsic to matter (rūpasmiṃ vā attānaṃ)

He sees sensation as one's personal autonomy
Or one's personal autonomy as being sensitive
Or sensation as intrinsic to one's personal autonomy
Or one's personal autonomy as intrinsic to sensation

He sees perception as one's personal autonomy
Or one's personal autonomy as being perceptive
Or perception as intrinsic to one's personal autonomy
Or one's personal autonomy as intrinsic to perception

He sees volition as one's personal autonomy
Or one's personal autonomy as being volitional
Or volition as intrinsic to one's personal autonomy
Or one's personal autonomy as intrinsic to volition

He sees the conscious function as one's personal autonomy
Or one's personal autonomy as being conscious
Or conscious function as intrinsic to one's personal autonomy
Or one's personal autonomy as intrinsic to conscious function (S.3.44).

Contemplation Three

I am nowhere part of anything;
And nowhere is there anything that is part of a me.
nāhaṃ kvacani kassaci kiñcana tasmiṃ
na ca mama kvacani kismiñci kiñcanatatthi’ti
(M.2.263-4, A.1.206, A.2.176-8).

A.1.206 says the particular application of this contemplation is in personal relationships, where one assumes that one is someone’s son, husband, father or employer, and assumes that other people are one’s parents, wife, children, slaves and workmen.

Contemplation Four

This is devoid of personal autonomy and of personal autonomous qualities (suññamidaṃ attena vā attaniyena vā) (M.1.297-8).

Contemplation Five

Sariputta, you must train yourself thus:
In this body together with its conscious function imasmiṃ ca saviññāṇake kāye
there shall be no tendency to see things as a ‘me’ or ‘part of a me’ ahiṅkāramamiṅkāramānānusayā na bhavissanti
Likewise in all external objects bahiddhā ca sabbanimittesu
there shall be no such tendency ahiṅkāramamiṅkāramānānusayā na bhavissanti
We shall so abide in the attainment of the heart’s release, the release by insight yaṃ ca cetovimuttiṃ paññāvimuttiṃ upasampajja viharato
that we have no tendency to to see things as a ‘me’ or ‘part of a me’ ahiṅkāramamiṅkāramānānusayā na honti
That is how you must train yourselves (A.1.133-4).

Contemplation Six

[A monk] should put an end to the source of all presumptions and conclusions (mūlaṃ papañcasaṅkhāya), the thought “I am the knower” (mantā asmīti sabbamuparundhe) (Sn.916).

Contemplation Seven

A virtuous monk should carefully consider the five clung-to aggregates as alien (parato yoniso manasi kātabbā) (S.3.167).

Contemplation Eight

An untaught ordinary person considers things that should not be considered
(ye dhammā na manasikaraṇīyā te dhamme manasi karoti: ye dhammā manasikaraṇīyā te dhamme na manasi karoti).

This is how he carelessly considers ayoniso manasi karoti:

  • Was I in the past? ahosiṃ nu kho ahaṃ atītamaddhānaṃ
  • Was I not in the past? na nu kho ahosiṃ atītamaddhānaṃ
  • What was I in the past? kinnu kho ahosiṃ atītamaddhānaṃ
  • How was I in the past? kathannu kho ahosiṃ atītamaddhānaṃ
  • Having been what, what did I become in the past? kiṃ hutvā kiṃ ahosiṃ nu kho ahaṃ atītamaddhānaṃ
  • Shall I be in the future? bhavissāmi nu kho ahaṃ anāgatamaddhānaṃ
  • Shall I not be in the future? na nu kho bhavissāmi anāgatamaddhānaṃ
  • What shall I be in the future? kinnu kho bhavissāmi anāgatamaddhānaṃ
  • How shall I be in the future? kathannu kho bhavissāmi anāgatamaddhānaṃ
  • Having been what, what shall I be in the future? kiṃ hutvā kiṃ bhavissāmi nu kho ahaṃ anāgatamaddhānanti

Or else he is inwardly perplexed (ajjhattaṃ kathaṃkathī) about the present?

  • Am I? ahaṃ nu kho'smi
  • Am I not? no nu kho'smi
  • What am I? kinnu kho'smi
  • How am I? kathaṃ nu kho'smi
  • Where has this being come from? ayaṃ nu kho satto kuto āgato
  • Where will it go? so kuhiṃ gāmī bhavissatī'ti.

When he carelessly considers in this way, one of six false insights (diṭṭhi) arises in him as true and established (saccato thetato):

  • I have personal autonomy atthi me attā'ti
  • I have no personal autonomy natthi me attā'ti
  • I perceive personal autonomy with personal autonomy attanā' va attānaṃ sañjānāmī'ti
  • I perceive lack of personal autonomy with personal autonomy attanā'va anattānaṃ sañjānāmī'ti
  • I perceive personal autonomy with lack of a personal autonomy anattanā'va attānaṃ sañjānāmī'ti
  • It is this personal autonomy of mine that speaks and feels and experiences here and there the result of good and bad actions. This personal autonomy of mine is permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and it will endure as long as eternity.

Yo me ayaṃ attā vado vedeyyo tatra tatra kalyāṇapāpakānaṃ kammānaṃ vipākaṃ paṭisaṃvedeti. So kho pana me ayaṃ attā nicco dhuvo sassato avipariṇāmadhammo sassatisamaṃ tatheva ṭhassatī'ti.

This is called resorting to false insight, grasping false insight, the wilderness of false insight, the contortion of false insight, the quivering of false insight, the fetter of false insight.
Idaṃ vuccati bhikkhave diṭṭhigataṃ diṭṭhigahanaṃ diṭṭhikantāro6 diṭṭhivisūkaṃ diṭṭhivipphanditaṃ diṭṭhisaṃyojanaṃ.

Fettered by the fetter of false insight, the untaught ordinary person is not freed from birth, ageing and death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. He is not freed from dukkha, I say.
Diṭṭhisaṃyojanasaṃyutto bhikkhave assutavā puthujjano na parimuccati jātiyā jarāmaraṇena sokehi paridevehi dukkhehi domanassehi upāyāsehi, na parimuccati dukkhasmā'ti vadāmi.

Two fetters: seeing Selfhood (sakkāyadiṭṭhi) and presuming a Self (māno)

These two fetters are similar. Stream-entry means freedom from sakkāyadiṭṭhi (M.1.34). Arahantship means freedom from māno. The insight of stream-enterers and of arahants is identical: both have seen the five khandhas as they actually are with proper wisdom (yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya passati) as being not personal autonomy (netaṃ mama, neso hamasmi, na meso attā’ti) (M.1.234-5). In stream-enterers, however, the presumption of a 'me' is still found (asmī’ti adhigataṃ). But in relation to any particular one of the khandhas “This is me” is not found (ayamahamasmī’ti ca na samanupassāmī’ti) (S.3.127-133). Venerable Khemaka said the presumption of a Self was like the perfume of a lotus that could not be said to belong to any particular part of the flower, it belongs to the whole flower. In the same way, he said that though a noble disciple has abandoned the five lower fetters, still, in relation to the five aggregates subject to clinging, there lingers in him

  • a residual presumption of a ‘me’ aṇusahagato 'asmi'ti māno
  • a residual wish for a ‘me' asmi'ti chando
  • a residual tendency to think in terms of a ‘me’ that has not yet been uprooted asmi'ti anusayo asamūhato (S.3.127-133).

Venerable Khemaka explained that if the disciple dwells examining the rise and fall in the five aggregates (udayabbayānupassī viharati), those residual tendencies are uprooted, just as the smell that remains in cloth that is cleaned with cowdung would eventually vanish if the cloth was left in a sweet-scented casket.

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