It is generally taught in Mahayana monastic universities that Theravada does not posit the selflessness of phenomena. There it is taught a dichotomy exists between the tenet systems employed by various Buddhist traditions:

  1. The selflessness of persons
  2. The selflessness of phenomena

In Mahayana texts it is often said that the self of persons and the self of phenomena comprise the "two selves" that are refuted. It is said that Theravada only posits and thus refutes the self of persons.

This is a commentary on a textbook used in Buddhist monastic universities in India/Tibet written by a Geshe Lharampa:

For the, "Vaibashika school, there are 3 divisions and 18 subschools, one of which is the Theravadan school)"


Selflessness of phenomena is not asserted because the Vaibashikas assert that an established base is pervaded by self of phenomena i.e. even though the V assert selflessness of person, they do not assert the selflessness of phenomena.

Within existence, there are two aspects – person and phenomena. When one talks about selflessness of person, one is referring to the concept of “I”. When one talks about the selflessness of phenomena, one is referring to one’s 5 aggregates, all outer objects and everything other than concept of “I”. The V school doesn’t assert the selflessness of phenomena because they hold the view that phenomena is truly existent from its own side.

Emphasis in the original. The point I think is that a dichotomy is made between persons and external objects. The former is said to lack a self, but external objects are considered to be real or truly existent. Some Mahayana tenet systems say the latter also are unreal and not truly existent.

What do self-identified Theravada proponents think of this? Is this how you'd characterize your school or you understanding? Do you identify with the Vaibashika school?

  • 3
    In my travels through the Theravada world I've never found anyone believing in the self of phenomena. Jokes aside: as far as I'm concerned nothing has a self, nothing has intrinsic value, everything is empty and arises depending on conditions. But, I'm not a scholar. Let's see what others think.
    – user13579
    Aug 15, 2018 at 15:29
  • Thank you @Medhini, I'd be very interested in your perspective on the other related questions!
    – user13375
    Aug 15, 2018 at 15:39

3 Answers 3


The Vaibashika school doesn’t assert the selflessness of phenomena because they hold the view that phenomena is truly existent from its own side.

In my opinion, the Theravada view according to the Pali suttas imply that:

  1. The self (of persons) is not truly existent.

  2. Whether non-self phenomena are truly existent from its own side or not, is (probably) not important towards the path to the end of suffering. (See the Parable of the Poisoned Arrow, Parable of the Simsapa Leaves and the Discourse on the Unconjecturables)

Of course, there may be a lot of Theravadins out there who dispute my second statement above, and would assert that all non-self phenomena are truly existent from its own side.

EDIT: Just to make it clearer:

All sankharas (conditioned and/or compounded things) are subject to change, arising and passing. Nibbana is not subject to change, arising and passing. Both sankharas and nibbana are empty of a self. But this does not mean that sankharas and nibbana are not truly existent. The self is definitely an illusion, but the world, transient as it is, may not be an illusion. Whether the world is an illusion or not, is not important to the path to the end of suffering (according to Theravada, in my opinion).

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    All "things" are dependently originated too, aren't they, and impermanent? Is that the same as their being selfless? What about the parable of the chariot (used to describe the selfless of a person): doesn't that imply that a chariot is selfless like a person is?
    – ChrisW
    Aug 15, 2018 at 16:29
  • All sankharas (conditioned and/or compounded things) are subject to change, arising and passing. Nibbana is not subject to change, arising and passing. Both sankharas and nibbana are empty of a self. But this does not mean that sankharas and nibbana are not truly existent. The self is definitely an illusion, but the world, transient as it is, may not be an illusion.
    – ruben2020
    Aug 15, 2018 at 16:33
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    Good answer, Ruben. Well spoken. Aug 16, 2018 at 3:57

I decided that I will add my two cents about things existent or truly existent. The problem of misunderstanding is common in Buddhism among nearly all the writers that write about Eastern ideas. Masters, scholars and spiritual leaders are no different. Writers have tendency to often oversimplify complex systems where they should be giving explicit and elaborate descriptions leaving clarity. This leads to confusion as there are phrases rich in many implicit meanings (oversimplifications) that cannot be understood by neither ordinary person, nor even moderate Buddhist practitioner.

As a result, there is finally the prevalent confusion about whether things exist or don’t exist, and whether things are of Selfless nature or not, and what does it really mean. In truth, those are two separate questions to be addressed, regardless of school context.

The first question is easily discarded by Buddha in Kaccayanagotta Sutra:

Everything exists': That is one extreme. 'Everything doesn't exist': That is a second extreme. Avoiding these two extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma via the middle (...)

Here, we can only say that things are somehow real and existent, and that would be accurate. Claiming that things exist or don’t exist is a Metaphysical fool’s play with no end. Unfortunately, some commentators do engage in such unsolvable disputes. Comparing such attempts would be like comparing these to solving Gordian’s knot riddle, or other unsolvable mysteries of life.

Therefore, Theravada could not have had it any different than Mahayana when it comes to existence or non-existence.

And rather than exploring these extremes in futile attempts we should explore the Middle as it is real to be experienced here and now. And this is the second question, question about Selflessness of phenomena: When things appear to us, how do they appear, what is their true nature?

The answer to this question is not elaborated nor directly tackled by Theravada, so here, it might or might not be different - it is up to scholar’s interpretation.

But when Nagarjuna says “Samsara is Nirvana” it means that two truths - conventional and ultimate, are in fact one; concepts and fantasies arise from the touch with the way reality really is (tathata). There isn’t really much more to it.

It doesn’t take a great meditator and enlightened being to expand understanding and come up with such conclusions as Nagarjuna did, this is something we already know by intuition. Emptiness is natural, whether inner or outer, because phenomena are not how we picture them. Why? Because we see through the lens of Self framework, and this Self context coming from subject observer experience that infests the nature of things, contextually velcroing Self onto anything we experience. And that is because we cannot easily unlearn to think in other way and unlearning this habit requires great deal of insight. If validity of such wrong perception wasn’t the case in the first place, the loud noise at night wouldn’t make person afraid of the possible robbery. Why? Because here, we are afraid of losing Self by clinging to our very life and well-being, hence we distort reality of things by Self-centered “I” reference. It is the same for anything else, for instance, the deluded object of desire; the context here is Selfish, achieving the object for our own pleasure and satisfaction due to grasping. Looking at the flower we might consider it beautiful as it arouses pleasure, which is again, Self grasping by isolating pieces of reality, singling elements out to form a pleasurable fantasy.

It does not mean that flower has “ego-Self”, but that we see it through our Self scope and this is how it appears to us. In Yogacara it is described in detail as distortion of direct perception of consciousness by interaction with Manas (Self grasping mind faculty). And that’s it. If one is caught up in semantics about “Self” due to objects not capable of having an ego, it is more correct to say that things don’t have “intrinsic essence” rather than to say that they are Selfless. But it is not saying that things “don’t exist” and it is not this sort of debate here, it doesn’t relate to the second question at all.

  • Thanks @bodhihammer for this as it clearly shows that not all Mahayana practictioners agree either and that there is a lot of confusion within the Mahayana tenet systems as well. I can say I agree very little with the above :)
    – user13375
    Aug 16, 2018 at 16:38
  • Inconsistencies and divergence arisen only from the point of Nagarjuna and commentary on Madhyamaka's pieces. For one, Nagarjuna was no Buddha, thus all that speculative commentary should be taken with a grain of salt. Secondly, the rule of thumb in my opinion is that the closest to the Pali canon synthesis it gets, the more likely it is true. I think we have too many Abhidharmas already.
    – user13383
    Aug 16, 2018 at 18:45
  • I marked this answer down because it does not actually answer the question and because it contradicts the question. Aug 16, 2018 at 20:30
  • I apologise sincerely if this doesn't help anyone in any way.
    – user13383
    Aug 16, 2018 at 20:39
  • 1
    FWIW, I voted it up
    – user13375
    Aug 16, 2018 at 23:56

In Theravada, "self" is fabricated ego-ideas of "I", "me", "mine", "you", "us", "them", "ours", "yours", etc.

In addition to the above, Mahayana seems to believe "self" is fabricated concepts such as "rock", "tree", "cloud", "dog", "book", "earth", "water", "aggregates", etc.

Since "phenomena" ("elements"/"dhatu") do not have a "ego-self", the idea of "the selflessness of phenomena" makes no sense at all. "Self" is an idea produced by human thought. Rocks, trees, clouds, feelings, physical bodies, perception, consciousness elements, etc, do not produce any thoughts of "self". Therefore, the question about their "selflessness" is non-sensical. As long as the element of earth is viewed as "earth"; the element of consciousness is viewed as "consciousness"; or the element of thought is viewed as "thought" (rather than viewed as "self", "me", "I", "mine", "you", "us", "them", "ours", "yours", etc) then this itself is the seeing of emptiness (sunnata).

The Lord Buddha, who revealed Buddhism, only taught about the selflessness of persons (anatta; sunnata). The Mahayana idea that the idea of "rock" or "cloud" is a "self" and therefore, in reality, there are no rocks, no clouds, no elements, etc, is unrelated to Buddhism but is a alien ideology.

To read this web page requires at least the element of eye consciousness. To believe there is no such thing as an eye or consciousness (as written in the Chinese Heart Sutra) is not real or true.

So, in emptiness, no form, No feeling, thought, or choice, Nor is there consciousness. No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; No colour, sound, smell, taste, touch, Or what the mind takes hold of, Nor even act of sensing.

No ignorance or end of it, Nor all that comes of ignorance;No withering, no death, No end of them. Nor is there pain, or cause of pain, Or cease in pain, or noble path To lead from pain; Not even wisdom to attain! Attainment too is emptiness.

Heart Sutra

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    This is wrong. Here, "in reality, there are no rocks, no clouds, no elements, etc" is very wrong again, middle way is between existence and non-existence. Also, again "To believe there is no such thing as an eye or consciousness (as written in the Chinese Heart Sutra) is not real or true" is not what the Sutra says.
    – user13383
    Aug 16, 2018 at 8:32
  • Its not wrong. Please do not spam my answers. Thanks. Aug 16, 2018 at 9:32
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    HH Dalai Lama, Essence of the Heart Sutra: "As we go through this process of negation, it may seem we are in danger of arriving at the specious conclusion that nothing exits. But, if we understand the meaning of emptiness clearly, as I hope we will begin to, we’ll see that this is not what is meant."
    – user13383
    Aug 16, 2018 at 9:57
  • This translates the Heart Sutra as saying that the aggregates "are not separate self entities" rather than just "no". Anyway maybe that (i.e. questions or statements about the Heart Sutra) would be better removed from this answer and perhaps posted elsewhere as a separate topic
    – ChrisW
    Aug 16, 2018 at 10:02
  • HH Dalai Lama is simply making excuses for the Heart Sutra. The error of the Heart Sutra is implicit in the question. Aug 16, 2018 at 20:29

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