I suppose that "self" is not easy to identify, especially since Buddhist doctrine is that everything is "non-self".
The words "atta" and "anatta" are used without much obvious definition, in the Anattalakkhaṇasutta (which is maybe the most fundamental sutta on the subject).
The a or an prefix there (i.e. which distinguishes anatta from atta) is just "the negative prefix" which implies the negative or absence of something (I think that's like in English, e.g. "theist" versus "atheist") -- you can't tell whether that means exactly (i.e. you can't usefully distinguish between) "non-self", "no self", "not self", "without self", "independent of self", "free of self-theory", etc. -- those are all more-or-less the same thing, in my opinion.
I asked this question on this site: What are examples of identity-view? (forgive or skip the long question, but perhaps the answers there will make sense to you).
I asked that question because it's (specifically) "identity view" that's listed as a "fetter".
"Identity view" is how people translate sakkāya-diṭṭhi -- you can find definitions of that, for example here
'personality-belief', is the first of the 10 fetters (samyojana).
It is entirely abandoned only on reaching the path of Stream-winning (sotāpatti-magga; s. ariya-puggala).
There are 20 kinds of personality-belief, which are obtained by applying 4 types of that belief to each of the 5 groups of existence (khandha):
- (1-5) the belief to be identical with corporeality, feeling, perception, mental formations or consciousness;
- (6-10) to be contained in them;
- (11-15) to be independent of them;
- (16-20) to be the owner of them (M.44; S.XXII.1).
... and here.
I think it literally or etymologically means something like:
- sa -- true or good or own (maybe it isn't clear what word this was)
- kāya -- body
- diṭṭhi -- view
In summary I think it's identifying with the aggregates, e.g. "I am this body", "I am the feeling", "I am this perception", etc. -- or "I am contained in this body", or "I am independent of this body", or "I am the owner of this body" -- IMO what these views all have in common is the view that "I am" or that "I" am.
An analogy is Gaddula Sutta: The Leash (SN 22.99) which implies that people are tied to it, keep running around it, like a dog might be tied by a leash to a post or stake.
I like Pirsig's description of "the old South Indian Monkey Trap" ...
... the most striking example of value rigidity I can think of is the old
South Indian Monkey Trap, which depends on value rigidity for its effectiveness. The trap consists of a hollowed-out coconut chained
to a stake. The coconut has some rice inside which can be grabbed through a small hole. The hole is big enough so that the monkey’s
hand can go in, but too small for his fist with rice in it to come out. The monkey reaches in and is suddenly trapped...by nothing more
than his own value rigidity. He can’t revalue the rice. He cannot see that freedom without rice is more valuable than capture with it.
The villagers are coming to get him and take him away. They’re coming closer—closer! -- now! What general advice...not specific
advice...but what general advice would you give the poor monkey in circumstances like this?
... though obviously that's not canonical.
See also MN 44 which associates identity view with craving, as defined in the four noble truths:
Then the layman Visākha went to see the nun Dhammadinnā, bowed, sat down to one side, and said to her: “Ma’am, they speak of this thing called ‘identity’. What is this identity that the Buddha spoke of?” “Visākha, the Buddha said that these five grasping aggregates are identity. That is: form, feeling, perception, choices, and consciousness. The Buddha said that these five grasping aggregates are identity.”
Saying “Good, ma’am,” Visākha approved and agreed with what Dhammadinnā said. Then he asked another question: “Ma’am, they speak of this thing called ‘the origin of identity’. What is the origin of identity that the Buddha spoke of?” “It’s the craving that leads to future rebirth, mixed up with relishing and greed, taking pleasure in various different realms. That is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving to continue existence, and craving to end existence. The Buddha said that this is the origin of identity.”
“Ma’am, they speak of this thing called ‘the cessation of identity’. What is the cessation of identity that the Buddha spoke of?”
“It’s the fading away and cessation of that very same craving with nothing left over; giving it away, letting it go, releasing it, and not clinging to it. The Buddha said that this is the cessation of identity.”
It uses the word "self" (atta) to define "identity view", without defining the word "self":
But ma’am, how does identity view come about?”
“Kathaṃ panāyye, sakkāyadiṭṭhi hotī”ti?
“It’s when an uneducated ordinary person has not seen the noble ones, and is neither skilled nor trained in the teaching of the noble ones. They’ve not seen good persons, and are neither skilled nor trained in the teaching of the good persons.
They regard form as self, self as having form, form in self, or self in form.
rūpaṃ attato samanupassati, rūpavantaṃ vā attānaṃ, attani vā rūpaṃ, rūpasmiṃ vā attānaṃ.
They regard feeling … perception … choices … consciousness as self, self as having consciousness, consciousness in self, or self in consciousness. That’s how identity view comes about.”
Another aspect of "self" is pride, apparently, i.e. conceit or māna.
I asked about that here: How are 'conceit' and 'identity-view' not the same?
The answers there are fairly easy to understand.
See also perhaps Sakkāya Ditthi is Personality (Me) View?, which emphasises a distinction between the two fetters.
Another topic I found helpful was: How is it wrong to believe that a self exists, or that it doesn't? -- not that there is or isn't a self, but that any "view of self" leads to suffering.
I was taught history-of-science at school; I think that, to a scientist, a "view" or "theory" is like a description of something. You can choose any view[s] you like, but some views fit better with other views, fit the empirical observations better, are more useful or make better predictions -- so anyway I don't see "is there or isn't there a self?" as being a question of fact, I see it as a question of whether "self" is helpful theory (and Buddhism suggests that it isn't, that it's a hindrance).
I think that another helpful hint as to what the concept of "self" includes can be found towards the end of the Anattalakkhaṇasutta:
“So you should truly see any kind of form at all—past, future, or present; internal or external; coarse or fine; inferior or superior; far or near: all form—with right understanding: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’
“Tasmātiha, bhikkhave, yaṃ kiñci rūpaṃ atītānāgatapaccuppannaṃ ajjhattaṃ vā bahiddhā vā oḷārikaṃ vā sukhumaṃ vā hīnaṃ vā paṇītaṃ vā yaṃ dūre santike vā, sabbaṃ rūpaṃ: ‘netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti evametaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṃ.
In other words there's "self" in the idea of possession or ownership -- i.e. the view that "that is mine" implies that there's a "me" or a "self".
Another way to approach it is in Buddhist descriptions of "a being" -- e.g. "a sentient being". Take the parable of the chariot for example (e.g. "what you call a chariot is a mere assemblage of parts") -- see the Vajira Sutta.
I think that too related to the idea of self (e.g. "I am a being"), though maybe other fetters too (e.g. bhava "becoming").
Is self even a theory? What is it even postulating?
I think it's postulates like these, which Buddhism declares to be wrong views:
A thicket of wrong views (quoting from MN 2)
"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."
I think that "self-views" include:
- I exist
- I don't exist
- I will die
- I will live forever
People sometimes also distinguish between "existing relatively or conventionally" versus "existing absolutely".
I called that a "theory" (or "like a scientific theory") because, per my understanding of the first paragraph of this answer ...
A view is taking something to be true, whereas conceit falls in the category of a simple experience, which one may or may not hold to be valid. It is similar with greed; one may want something without believing it proper to want, and one may likewise feel conceit ("I am better", etc.) without actually believing in a self. This is seen when, after the arising of a conceited thought, one mentally discards it as being based on delusion rather than accepting it as valid.
... a "view" is some kind of long-lived "belief" and not just a short-lived "perception".
I am asking this because I am not sure if anything I observe is considered "self" or not. I don't have this problem with craving or suffering because I can observe/experience craving and suffering and it seems quite clear that they can be and are defined as such.
Well ... good, then, all for the better?
I think there are maybe two kinds of meaning in the word "self":
- "Eternal soul" (see e.g. theories of transmigration)
- Oneself (e.g. as used in a sentence "you must know for yourself whether something is true")
I think that the first of type of meaning (i.e. "soul") was a topic of debate or argument at the time, between different sects of wanderers -- see e.g. the 64 views described in DN 1.
The other kind of meaning (which I think of as "conventional, worldly") is alright maybe as far as it goes -- but it's more than only a matter of grammar, I think that "self views" can lead to various forms of suffering, like "self-pity" ("woe is me!"), "self-aggrandisement", "selfishness", and so on.
And I think it (i.e. the "self" concept) is related to craving and attachment ("I want X", "I have X", "I don't have X", "I have lost X", etc.).
Perhaps it's for the better though if you can or do see that without "I-making".
Lastly, Samana Johann wanted me to mention papañca and to reference The Arrows of Thinking.
In summary, I think that papañca may refer to excessive verbalization, possibly "discursive thinking", of a style that you might want to avoid -- because it isn't restful, because it's obstacle to truly seeing the world as it is, and so on -- possibly related to the "thicket of views" that I mentioned earlier above.
And the suttas also use papañca in the description of why people argue with each other.
See also What is papañca -- some of the answers to that question reference Nagarjuna's doctrine of emptiness, which I think says something like "our descriptions or definitions of things (of any and everything) is not the way in which everything 'really is'" -- which maybe agrees with you and with what I said at the ouset, i.e. that "self" is difficult to define or to identify in reality.
Did the Buddha ever define what he meant by "self"?
Maybe the definitions of non-self are better. From the Anattalakkhaṇasutta perhaps we can infer that if there were a self then it would be ...
- Controllable (if it were me I could control it -- I could tell it to do this or that, or to be this or that)
- Pleasurable rather than unsatisfactory
... which the Anattalakkhaṇasutta says that the aggregates are not.
Also I think that anatta is taught for an effect: e.g. to effect dispassion, renunciation, "this isn't me, isn't mine, isn't my self", a turning away, a release (i.e. the opposite of the attachment and craving).