I used to admire and subscribe to the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta which speaks of a universal consciousness.
Chuang Tzu once dreamt that he is a butterfly flying through a garden. When he woke up, he wondered whether Chuang Tzu dreamt that he is a butterfly, or whether the butterfly is dreaming that it is Chuang Tzu. The only thing common between the two is "I" (consciousness), hence this "I" must be the "permanent" thing?
There are many beings, but only one "I" (consciousness) according to Advaita. The "I" (consciousness) is identical between beings that Advaita says is the same Supreme Consciousness, that is the silent witness behind and beyond all beings. And this is also the Atman, the Self, which manifests as the Supreme Consciousness through all beings.
As nice as that sounds, when I read the Buddha's description of consciousness, it met my observation of my own consciousness more accurately than Advaita's.
From MN 38:
"Just as fire is classified simply by whatever requisite condition in
dependence on which it burns — a fire that burns in dependence on wood
is classified simply as a wood-fire, a fire that burns in dependence
on wood-chips is classified simply as a wood-chip-fire; a fire that
burns in dependence on grass is classified simply as a grass-fire; a
fire that burns in dependence on cow-dung is classified simply as a
cow-dung-fire; a fire that burns in dependence on chaff is classified
simply as a chaff-fire; a fire that burns in dependence on rubbish is
classified simply as a rubbish-fire — in the same way, consciousness
is classified simply by the requisite condition in dependence on which
it arises. Consciousness that arises in dependence on the eye & forms
is classified simply as eye-consciousness. Consciousness that arises
in dependence on the ear & sounds is classified simply as
ear-consciousness. Consciousness that arises in dependence on the nose
& aromas is classified simply as nose-consciousness. Consciousness
that arises in dependence on the tongue & flavors is classified simply
as tongue-consciousness. Consciousness that arises in dependence on
the body & tactile sensations is classified simply as
body-consciousness. Consciousness that arises in dependence on the
intellect & ideas is classified simply as intellect-consciousness.
Think about it. How can the silent witness witness anything except through one of these media: eye, ear, nose, tongue, touch or mind? There was never a time, when there was consciousness being aware of something except through the eye, ear, nose, tongue, touch or mind. There is therefore no independent consciousness.
Consciousness is dependent on and conditioned upon these six media. It was a "aha" moment for me when I read that, and realized that the Buddha's analysis of consciousness is more accurate than Advaita's.
In terms of self, the Buddha never said that there is no self. There is a self. But this self is not permanent, not standalone. It arises by the inter-working of the five aggregates (form, sensation, perception, mental formations and consciousness). It is not independent. In normal day to day circumstances, there is obviously a self, but if you examine deeply, the five aggregates (and
everything else) are themselves ultimately empty of a self.
From AN 6.38 (shows that there is a self for all practical purposes):
“So, brahmin, when there is the element of endeavoring, endeavoring
beings are clearly discerned; of such beings, this is the self-doer,
this, the other-doer. I have not, brahmin, seen or heard such a
doctrine, such a view as yours. How, indeed, could one — moving
forward by himself, moving back by himself — say ‘There is no
self-doer, there is no other-doer’?”
From Dhammapada 160 (shows that you use your self to reach the fruit of liberation - arahatta phala):
One indeed is one's own refuge; how can others be a refuge
to one? With oneself thoroughly tamed, one can attain a refuge (i.e.,
Arahatta Phala), which is so difficult to attain.
From SN 44.10:
"Ananda, if I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a
self — were to answer that there is a self, that would be conforming
with those brahmans & contemplatives who are exponents of eternalism
[the view that there is an eternal, unchanging soul]. If I — being
asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer
that there is no self, that would be conforming with those brahmans &
contemplatives who are exponents of annihilationism [the view that
death is the annihilation of consciousness]. If I — being asked by
Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that
there is a self, would that be in keeping with the arising of
knowledge that all phenomena are not-self?"
"And if I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no
self — were to answer that there is no self, the bewildered
Vacchagotta would become even more bewildered: 'Does the self I used
to have now not exist?'"
From MN 2:
"As he 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
by means of self that I perceive self... or the view It is precisely
by means of self that I perceive not-self... or the view It is
precisely by means 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 stay just as it
is for 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, I tell you, from suffering &