The three marks of existence is: Impermanence, Suffering, and No-Self. If there is no-self, then there is no Soul.

Our cognitive abilities is the result of the physical (Brain organ) and the non-physical (five Skandhas)

In meditation, we are taught to observe the changes of our thoughts, which I presume is the result of the five Skandhas as well.

The question is, if there is no-self and no soul, then who is observing my thoughts? Am I wrong to say they are my thoughts? Who am I? And who is answering my question in this forum?

As a Buddhist, how shall we make sense of the notion that there is no such thing as a Soul?

I'm not sure why you think that "Soul" is a helpful belief.

I think that "soul" is usually taught as being/meaning something permanent, which maybe contradicts the doctrine (or observation) that "things" (or "everything", or "compound things") are impermanent (anicca).

I think that what we do with ("make sense of") the notion (of non-self) is maybe avoid "suffering" views like "I can't get what I want" and "I can't keep what I have" and "I am dying" and so on -- and maybe, instead, develop views that are closer to being true (or avoid "attaching" to any such views).

The question is, if there is no-self and no soul, then who is observing my thoughts?

It's conventional (in life and in language) to assume that there's an agent.

For example if you see some writing, you might assume that "someone" wrote it, to ask "who wrote this?" -- conventionally the existence of "the writing" proves (or implies) the existence of "the writer".

That's a dangerous generalisation though: if you see a creature, can you assume a creator?

Some people use logic like "The universe (also called "creation") exists, therefore God must have created it" -- but perhaps that's not a very provable, testable, and/or useful statement.

If you look at a rock, for example: did someone create it? Buddhism might say that "there were conditions as a result of which a rock exists" ... maybe many conditions including atoms, gravity , heat, time, wind and water ... but that's not the same thing as saying "there's a creator".

In the same way, the fact that there's "a thought" doesn't imply that there's "a thinker".

Am I wrong to say they are my thoughts?

I think this topic -- How is it wrong to believe that a self exists, or that it doesn't? -- suggests that it's unwise to do so.

Problems (suffering) arise with attachment, with craving, with "I"-making (having wrong views about self).

To some extent, I think that views are a matter of choice. For example perhaps I could choose to believe that my battery-power flashlight gives light because there's a demon or a god inside it, but I prefer not to (I think it wouldn't be a helpful belief).

Who am I?

I think the suttas define this question as the result of unwise attention.

For example here:

A thicket of wrong views

"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? Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what shall 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 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 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, I tell you, from suffering & stress.

"The well-instructed disciple of the noble ones... 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 origination of stress... This is the cessation of stress... This is the way leading to the cessation of stress. As he attends appropriately in this way, three fetters are abandoned in him: identity-view, doubt, and grasping at precepts & practices."


This answer, which uses "a rock" and "a flashlight" as an example, might imply a "materialist" view e.g. "people are only physical"; but I didn't mean that, it's defined as unwise to attach such a view ("this is my permanent Self, my eternal Soul") to anything, including the physical body.

It would also be a mistake to assume the doctrine implies that "nothing matters" -- it's an aspect of the doctrine, not the whole doctrine.

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    Yes, my target is to abandon the three fetters completely. I can make sense of 'Doubt' and 'grasping at precepts+practices', getting rid of the identity view is the hardest. Personally, I do not believe in a permanent soul view either. But I am finding it difficult to discern the fact that there is no-self to what extent. My follow up question would be, how can we best observe and eventually detach the view that that there is a self, in our daily life. – Krizalid_13190 Aug 7 at 2:54
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    You may find this helpful too -- How are 'conceit' and 'identity-view' not the same? -- including Ven Yuttadhammo's description of what a "view" is. – ChrisW Aug 7 at 2:58

if there is no-self and no soul, then who is observing my thoughts?

This is like asking

  • if the giant Atals is not lifting up the earth, who is?
  • If the rain God is not making it rain, who is?
  • If God is not making the sun rise from the east, who is?

Am I wrong to say they are my thoughts?

For practical reasons in day to day life, we all have to use conventional language. But from a realistic point of view, this question is as valid as asking "Is it wrong for Antman to say that ants belong to him?". Antman does not exist. It's fictional. When you start a sentence with "Am I", the existence of an entity is asserted to begin with. Asking if it is wrong for Antman to say that is an invalid question since it asserts that Antman is real in the first place.

Who am I? And who is answering my question in this forum?

The meaning of the word 'who' has no basis in reality. 'Who' is not an experience. There are only 6 types of experiences: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, thinking. 'Who' does not come under any of those. Asking "Who am I?" is as valid as asking "Kryptonian, are you Superman?". Asking "Who is answering my question?" is as valid as asking "is Batman going to save Superman's mother?".

Awareness or knowing is simply an aspect of every experience. It rises with the experience and vanishes with the experience, just like the rest of the five aggregates.

If awareness/knowing is a self or if you are awareness, why can't you be aware of just pleasurable feelings and not painful feelings? Why can't you make the awareness of the pleasurable feelings persist?

Satipatthana meditation is highly recommended to resolve this matter. Mere intellectual understanding of non-self is not sharp enough to cut through thick layers of ignorance.

  • Ok, is it right to say that the "observation" is part of the 5 aggregates? And without the 5 aggregates, the ability to observe, aware, discern, and learn, would be ceased? – Krizalid_13190 Aug 7 at 3:47
  • "why can't you be aware of just pleasurable feelings and not painful feelings" <- I would say experience depends on conditions, which these conditions are not totally under our control. – Krizalid_13190 Aug 7 at 3:49
  • You can try and see if it works. "Let only the awareness of pleasurable feelings arise and let it not fade away". :) – Sankha Kulathantille Aug 7 at 3:58
  • Five aggregates are the experience. Awareness is just 1 of the aggregates. They are caused, impermanent and non-self. – Sankha Kulathantille Aug 7 at 4:00
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    You're welcome. 'We' is another concept :) I, me, we etc. are conceptual and not experiential – Sankha Kulathantille Aug 7 at 8:43

The question is, if there is no-self and no soul, then who is observing my thoughts?

That there is an observer is simply an idea, a mental formation. There is only an object and Mind arising to that object.

I would recommend watching this short Discussion on Death with Ayya Khema. In here she touches on the subject of the illusional observer.

Who am I? And who is answering my question in this forum?

Conventionally speaking, there exists entities such as "a person, man, a woman, an arm, a human body, an animal, a car, a planet etc.". All these conditioned phenomena are called concepts. They exist in conventional reality (sammuti-sacca) but not in ultimate reality (paramattha-sacca).

In ultimate reality, there is just experience.

For more info, please see Conventional Truth (Sammuti Sacca) and Ultimate Truth (Paramattha Sacca) and the Two Truths Doctrine.

Am I wrong to say they are my thoughts?

In MN 140, the Buddha gave a teaching to Ven. Pukkusāti, on how to regard the six elements, six bases of contact, eighteen kinds of mental exploration and four foundations:

*"...Bhikkhu, this person consists of six elements, six bases of contact, eighteen kinds of mental exploration and four foundations..."

And that should be seen as it actually is with proper wisdom thus: "This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self".

-- MN 140: Dhātuvibhanga Sutta, p. 1088, Bodhi Trans.

  • Thanks! In that case, in ultimate reality, my experience is still my experience...accessible only to me, isn't it? – Krizalid_13190 Aug 7 at 2:25
  • There is no "Me, I or Self" in Ultimate reality. These are concepts. It can be difficult to understand intellectually, which is why its recommended to practice Vipassana meditation.´ – Lanka Aug 7 at 10:03

The question is, if there is no-self and no soul, then who is observing my thoughts?

All the volitional formations are impermanent. They simply arise in the Mind and then settle in the Mind. Observations are arising in the Mind and settling in the Mind. (Six sense organs are impermanent that includes Mind but Mind is place where such mental phenomenon arise.)

Am I wrong to say they are my thoughts?

Yes you are wrong to say they are my thoughts. You are unfortunate to say they are my thought because it means you have craving for thoughts. Remember as long as craving survives you will be bound by the world, you will again and again take rebirth. Therefore give up this false idea that you are thought or thoughts are yours.

Who am I?

You are an illusion. You are a result of false belief in five aggregates. You believe you are one of the five aggregates. Or you think one of the five aggregates is yours.

And who is answering my question in this forum?

This answer arose in the Mind and settled in the Mind. It is an invalid question to ask who is answering my question in this forum. The valid question will be depending upon what the answer came up. The answer would be that depending upon Mind consciousness this answer came up. Mind consciousness is impermanent , not self.

  • I definitely believe that the five aggregates consist of impermanence and suffering. But, I also believe the the 5 aggregates are certain functions for us to "experience" life. My question is, who is behind the five aggregates? If there is nobody, why do different people have different thoughts? – Krizalid_13190 Aug 7 at 2:34
  • @user13190 why do fruits of different trees have different tastes? Do the trees have souls? – Sankha Kulathantille Aug 7 at 3:35
  • The tastes are subjective to our feelings and experiences. I would also assume trees are not made of the 5 aggregates, Or, they don't possess the 5 aggregates. But my assumption may not be right...lol – Krizalid_13190 Aug 7 at 3:53
  • People 'have' different thoughts , does not apply. No body owns the thoughts. Thoughts occur and then they settle. Rest is an illusion . – Dheeraj Verma Aug 7 at 3:53
  • @user13190 Trees have only Rupa. So you agree that even without a soul, variation is possible? – Sankha Kulathantille Aug 7 at 4:13

When you ask a question to an intelligent assistant like Siri or Alexa or Cortana, who is answering that question? Ten years from now, such intelligent assistants may be indistinguishable in their interactions, from a human.

Ten to twenty years from now, self-driving cars would slowly replace all human-driven cars on the roads. They are already available today. Who would be driving those cars? It's absurd to think that self-driving cars, have suddenly obtained a soul from somewhere. Rather, a complex interaction between sensors, actuators and computer algorithms are responsible for this appearance of a "self" driving car.

Thankfully we have such marvels of technology today that help us to draw parallels with the anatta concept of Buddhism, for which, you can find more details in this answer.

While I use the self-driving car analogy today, the Buddha used the lute analogy in the Vina Sutta 2500 years ago to explain the same thing:

"Suppose there were a king or king's minister who had never heard the sound of a lute before. He might hear the sound of a lute and say, 'What, my good men, is that sound — so delightful, so tantalizing, so intoxicating, so ravishing, so enthralling?' They would say, 'That, sire, is called a lute, whose sound is so delightful, so tantalizing, so intoxicating, so ravishing, so enthralling.' Then he would say, 'Go & fetch me that lute.' They would fetch the lute and say, 'Here, sire, is the lute whose sound is so delightful, so tantalizing, so intoxicating, so ravishing, so enthralling.' He would say, 'Enough of your lute. Fetch me just the sound.' Then they would say, 'This lute, sire, is made of numerous components, a great many components. It's through the activity of numerous components that it sounds: that is, in dependence on the body, the skin, the neck, the frame, the strings, the bridge, and the appropriate human effort. Thus it is that this lute — made of numerous components, a great many components — sounds through the activity of numerous components.'

"Then the king would split the lute into ten pieces, a hundred pieces. Having split the lute into ten pieces, a hundred pieces, he would shave it to splinters. Having shaved it to splinters, he would burn it in a fire. Having burned it in a fire, he would reduce it to ashes. Having reduced it to ashes, he would winnow it before a high wind or let it be washed away by a swift-flowing stream. He would then say, 'A sorry thing, this lute — whatever a lute may be — by which people have been so thoroughly tricked & deceived.'

"In the same way, a monk investigates form, however far form may go. He investigates feeling... perception... fabrications... consciousness, however far consciousness may go. As he is investigating form... feeling... perception... fabrications... consciousness, however far consciousness may go, any thoughts of 'me' or 'mine' or 'I am' do not occur to him."

One interesting comment I have heard is that although computer algorithms may mimic human beings completely, they still do not have real experience because they do not have a soul.

This "real experience" is attributed to a kind of spiritual consciousness. Hindu Advaita Vedanta expands this to say that all beings have the same spiritual consciousness, which is a kind of universal consciousness, also known as the "silent witness", discussed in this answer.

This too was debunked by the Buddha in 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.

This means that consciousness is dependent on these six media: eye, ear, nose, tongue, touch and mind. There is no separate or independent consciousness apart from this. This too mirrors what you have in self-driving cars: a "consciousness" that is watching the different sensors and also its own "mind" which are the calculating and communicating computer algorithms.

In the automotive and aviation industries, functional safety is a very important concept. These systems are often built with redundancies, like redundant power supplies, hydraulics and auto-pilot computers. These systems also come with monitoring. For example, one system monitors another system for failures, that could switch to another backup system if needed, to ensure that safety is not compromised. This again is not so different to monitoring one's thoughts in meditation.

Who is writing this answer to your question? It can be a computer program or it can be a human. You can't be absolutely sure, can you?

  • Thanks for the answer. Based on the analogy, is it possible the AI also go through reincarnation through the good deeds and karma? If an AI was taught the dharma, what would happen to it after it's machine(Body) falls apart? – Krizalid_13190 Aug 7 at 2:24
  • "Rebirth" of software is possible by transfer of software and data to other computers and devices, over networks. However, AI is not (yet?) a full fledged being with five aggregates and dependent origination, so it's impossible to map it one-to-one. It's just an analogy. – ruben2020 Aug 7 at 5:46

The question is, if there is no-self and no soul, then who is observing my thoughts? Am I wrong to say they are my thoughts? Who am I? And who is answering my question in this forum?

The key to this question is HOW you answer it, not WHAT the answer is. If we tackle it with the intellect, we have just filled our heads with lots more ideas.

Alternatively, we can take it as almost a non-sensical challenge. We can take it as an imperative, a direction to search. To slightly adjust your question, when you observe yourself observing yourself, what do you notice? What is in your experience? When you notice yourself noticing yourself, who is doing THAT noticing? How is that possible? How does each of those noticings differ from the others? Is any one of those more "you" than the others?

It is much more useful to use the question of "no-self" as an injunction to inquire into direct experience, than to think that the mind can ever really understand it. What we are in fact trying to do is to undermine assumptions that the mind has made by looking at what is right there in front of us.

The question is, if there is no-self and no soul, then who is observing my thoughts?

You are, silly :)

Am I wrong to say they are my thoughts?

No, you are not wrong. You are using completely appropriate and normal language. How could that be wrong?

Who am I?

You are an impermanent, non-unitary, utterly dependent, relative, conventional existent that utterly lacks inherent existence. You are you. You exist. The question you should ask is how you exist. Do you exist in the way we naively imagine? As a permanent embodied soul? Or as something else...

It seems impossible that you could exist and have thoughts and be the "owner" of your thoughts yet utterly lack inherent existence, let alone a soul, right? And yet, quite the opposite is true. It is impossible to imagine that a permanent, unitary, independent, substantially existent person with inherent existence could actually exist.

And who is answering my question in this forum?

We are, silly! The people answering that it is somehow wrong to use conventional language or that doing so means you necessarily have not understood anatman or that using everyday conventional language somehow implies craving after existence are pretty silly. Who are these people anyway? :)

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