It seems the goal of Buddhist practice is to become an Arahant - someone who won't take a rebirth, and therefore will be eternally relieved from suffering.

But WHO is this someone who doesn't get reborn? I mean if there never was a self to begin with, then who exactly achieved Nirvana?

Seriously, this line of thought is screwing up my motivation. All this work, just so someone who doesn't exist yet, and never will, doesn't have to suffer.

Buddhism doesn't promise relief from suffering in the current lifetime, in fact it guarantees us we'll all die, and most of us will suffer from sickness and old age (not to mention loads of other suffering), but it promises an end by not taking a rebirth - but the whole concept of rebirth is made utterly confusing by the concept of non-self.

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    Do you want an answer from any particular tradition? Commented Sep 14, 2014 at 19:14
  • Just a little tip. Oriental philosophy in general are very different from western ones, in regard of logic. When you think about oriental philosophies try to embrace paradoxes, dilemmas and openness. For example, in the west there is self or there is no self, and in east the self may exist and may not exist at the same time. If you try to use western reason to understand eastern philosophy you will get nuts.
    – eric
    Commented Nov 17, 2014 at 16:29

11 Answers 11


This linguistic terminology generally has caused a lot of miscommunication and misunderstanding.

The notion of not self is that is there no:

  1. unchanging everlasting component which we can identify as self. Other contemporary teachers tried to identify such a part which they called Atman
  2. there is nothing to which any one can have absolute or ever lasting control over either externally or internally

Also the notion of self, self consciousness, ego, thoughts relating to oneself all is:

  1. delusional
  2. a source of misery

Since you do not have any control over any of the what make up this self you cannot have futuristes view of your self and destiny. Also since your influence to the external world is limited, you can get to own or control is also limited. But when we think about I will to this or that, there is a sense of absolute control of destiny or the environment. This is delusional as you cannot to things to absolute certainty and any deviation result is you becoming disappointed.

If you drill down more deeply when some tough or contact comes through your sense doors. (E.g. some one is scolding you or you remeber someone is scolding you.) 1st you recognise this is some one is scolding, then you identify this incident it is me who is getting scolded. At this point you get a bad feeling (literally) in your body. You have a mental reaction to this and then form volitional though like I will scold him back. Likewise if it praise you get an opposite feeling. Though this itself is subtle you lose the balance of your mind, as you might get puffed up, when some one does this type of talk. Also you cannot get the pleasantness of praise to last always which sometimes lead to subtle disappointments. Thus each time you get any notion of I, me, mine, etc. coming up in your mind some disappointment is bound to happen if you analyze it fully and realistically, thus not understanding this fast is a delusion. So the notion of no self, in this this context. If you you hold onto a notion of self (Pudgala - Sanna) misery arises, letting go of the notion of self your mind gets free from misery. Hence the linguistic rendering of no self.

Also the absence of anything upon which you can exert absolute control or any component which is permanent, to which you can reliably apply the label this is me or myself - the eternal me (this part of me never changes) or this is image of me (a good person, strong person, etc.) or belongs to me or in my control (this should be as I wish or will it to be) - viz. noting identifiable as self, me, mine, I. Since there is nothing we can use the word or label with the word self, considering either of the properties of everlasting, absolute control, we say there is no self.

This does not mean you do not exist in any colloquial sense or any sense outside the above definitions (permanent, controllable properties). So if you or any body practices to get you mind to be stress and disappointment free, the benefits are to be reaped by the person getting enlightened. So you should be be motivated to achieve it. So do not get some play on words deter you. (These are very difficult to understand concepts, thus should be careful of misconceptions using the same wording or rendering.)

Also developing this notion (any concept or notion is Manasikara) as a beginner (though you have to abandon this view also at higher stages of meditation) can help dissolve your ego, self consciousness, self awareness, concept of self in you mind. This can be an early stage catalyst in your progress (also helping you reduce stress and disappointment due to the concept of I, me, mine) than somethings reducing your motivation to practice

In Buddhism you should experience the peace within this lifetime and in each step you take. More you practice more powerful your peace becomes. Lesser mental reaction you have towards great, pleasant, unpleasant, hurt, sour, etc. feelings caused by external stimuli more balance your mind will be and more peaceful you will get.

Also remember Buddhist concepts are not easily explainable in words as the concepts are not really mainstream, thus the the language and ability to communicate them has not developed. When translating these into languages with not Buddhist or related culture, things are even more difficult.

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    Interesting. In my own native language I see people increasingly using the word "ego" (which has itself many conotations, but the central point relates to egotism) when refering to the "self". I see expresions such as "the traps of the ego". I agree that wording may be confusing to some people, and I like your explanation here very much.
    – Geeky Guy
    Commented Sep 15, 2014 at 17:29
  • Yes perhaps you can say "getting to no ego" Commented Sep 15, 2014 at 17:33
  • 3
    Better wording is soullessness + lack of control. Commented Sep 15, 2014 at 17:50

You say that "Buddhism doesn't promise relief from suffering in the current lifetime", which I think is wrong, so let's take that from the top.

Suffering or "Dukka" can (and should) be analyzed: The First Noble Truth says,

  1. Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha;
  2. sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha;
  3. association with the unbeloved is dukkha;
  4. separation from the loved is dukkha;
  5. not getting what is wanted is dukkha.

In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.

The "five clinging-aggregates" which are listed above correspond to the five skandhas. Buddhism teaches that what we normally think of as "our self" is actually five different skandhas (a skandha translates as "aggregate, mass, or heap" in English); the five skandhas being,

  1. "form" or "matter"[e] (Skt., Pāli rūpa; Tib. gzugs): external and internal matter. Externally, rupa is the physical world. Internally, rupa includes the material body and the physical sense organs.[f]
  2. "sensation" or "feeling" (Skt., Pāli vedanā; Tib. tshor-ba): sensing an object[g] as either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.[h][i]
  3. "perception", "conception", "apperception", "cognition", or "discrimination" (Skt. samjñā, Pāli saññā, Tib. 'du-shes): registers whether an object is recognized or not (for instance, the sound of a bell or the shape of a tree).
  4. "mental formations", "impulses", "volition", or "compositional factors" (Skt. samskāra, Pāli saṅkhāra, Tib. 'du-byed): all types of mental habits, thoughts, ideas, opinions, prejudices, compulsions, and decisions triggered by an object.[j]
  5. "consciousness" or "discernment"[k] (Skt. vijñāna, Pāli viññāṇa,[l] Tib. rnam-par-shes-pa): cognizance,[5][m] that which discerns[6][n]; or a series of rapidly changing interconnected discrete acts of cognizance

You can observe that the above (forms, sensations, perceptions, etc.) are impermanent. You might think of your "self" as permanent (e.g. that you are the same person you are yesterday); however, observations suggest otherwise, and suggest that none of the above are your permanent self.

In fact the marks of existence are (together with Dukka or suffering, defined above), "impermanence" and "non-self".

Your question complains that if there is no self, then how can there be enlightenment?

Well, if the "self" doesn't exist, is there suffering? However, simply pretending that "self" doesn't exist does not make your suffering, your vulnerability, go away: for example, If nothing exists ...

Buddhist practice is to "realize" this.

Buddhism does promise release from suffering: that's The Third Noble Truth

The "end" isn't only by "not taking a rebirth": the Buddhist argument is that suffering is caused by desire/craving; and that stilling craving and letting go of attachment (to a false self) will end suffering. No desire also results in no rebirth, but it's the "no desire", the "control of mind", the "wisdom" which causes or results in "cessation of suffering".

In other words the argument is, "no desire implies the cessation of suffering (in this life), and no rebirth (in the next life)".

The argument is not, "no desire implies no rebirth, which implies no suffering in the next life, but meanwhile you cannot affect your suffering in this life".

A tamed mind brings happiness.

  • might a more accurate translation be:, "no attachment implies the cessation of suffering..."? It seems "desire" can be cause for the awakening factor energy to arise (for Noble Eightfold Path to awakening).
    – user8619
    Commented Oct 2, 2016 at 15:40
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    I think attachment is slightly different ("Upādāna") ... attachment is when you seize on something when you perceive it as desirable. The Noble Truths talk about "Taṇhā", usually translated as "craving" (or maybe "thirst" or "greed") ... which I think of as undirected, i.e. I think it's a generalized craving for anything, not (or, before) an attachment to something in particular. You're thinking of "Chanda"
    – ChrisW
    Commented Oct 2, 2016 at 17:11

Rebirth and reincarnation only make sense with the full cosmology. The forms of Buddhism that take the full cosmology as literally true, either don't put much emphasis on annata, or do handwaving (stories about candle flames being transferred from candle to candle) or appeal to "how it works is beyond our understanding".

If you look at the historical Buddha as a man of his times, he, or is followers were not ready to give up on reincarnation. One solution they proposed was to try to split the difference between eternalism (eternal self) and extinctionalism (no-nonsense, no-self) and find middle path. The response to this being a contradiction is to appeal to monism and nondualism. Another way was to try to dismiss it as a useless metaphysical question. As a secular Buddhist, I just dispense with the reincarnation bit and not being useful and as you noticed, it actually gets in the way of understanding and using the useful parts of Buddhism, namely annata.

So back to annata. The Buddha posited that in our naive state, we think we have permanent soul. But by self inspection we can see nothing in ourselves is permanent-- it's all changing, all the time. It's like every second we die to be replaced with a new person linked by all the actions take before us up to now. The hope is that if we realize this, then we will stop grasping at things that don't even exist and we will be at peace. This is like putting out the fires of desire (for things that are just as illusory and unstable as our imagined self). That flame of grasping & desire is the flame "blown out" by nirvana (the word nirvana means blown out, like flame). So that is the point were we achieve nirvana, right here and now. We benefit from it until we reach parinirvana and are dead.

After that, we only live on in the minds, memories and traces we leave on earth. (To use Stephen Batchelor's way of salvaging rebirth for secular consumption)

Reference-- this is drawing mostly on Glenn Wallis (Basic Teachings) and Stephen Batchelor's work.


Nibbana, the final goal of Buddhism is achieved while you live. All suffering go away once you attain Nibbana. You don't have to wait till you die. Suffering is a loaded experience. There's no 'who' or 'self' in it. Suffering feels like self because of ignorance. Suffering is unpleasant. That is why it should be ended. Attaining Nibbana means the end of suffering. It is not a case of a self being rescued. Because as you have mentioned, a self doesn't even exist in the 1st place. The concept of rebirth has no conflict with the teaching of Anatta. Rebirth is an instance of causes and effect. Neither the cause nor the effect qualifies as a 'self'. Otherwise, you should be able to be born wherever you want.


"It seems the goal of Buddhist practice is to become an Arahant - someone who won't take a rebirth, and therefore will be eternally relieved from suffering."

In conventional terms, yes that is the goal, however an Arahant is somebody who has abandoned the desire to become anything. This is important in understanding the practice.

"But WHO is this someone who doesn't get reborn? I mean if there never was a self to begin with, then who exactly achieved Nirvana?"

The Buddha answers this here: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn12/sn12.012.than.html

Nirvana is the unconditioned element, and is the cessation of conditioned consciousness. There is no need for a "self" to be involved, that's just an assumption. Birth is a conditioned process dependent on "becoming" which is ultimately dependent on "ignorance" — which includes clinging to the notion of self. Simply put, when there is becoming, there is birth. There does not need to be a "self" involved here.

"Seriously, this line of thought is screwing up my motivation. All this work, just so someone who doesn't exist yet, and never will, doesn't have to suffer."

Who is there to "not exist"? I've been in your situation before. Note that suffering only arises for those who cling to the notion of self. When the "self" is truly abandoned, there is no more suffering.

"Buddhism doesn't promise relief from suffering in the current lifetime, in fact it guarantees us we'll all die, and most of us will suffer from sickness and old age (not to mention loads of other suffering), but it promises an end by not taking a rebirth - but the whole concept of rebirth is made utterly confusing by the concept of non-self."

Buddhism does promise suffering in the current life time. He doesn't say that everyone can do it, but he says that it's possible as long as we follow the path.

Look at where "you" are now. There are the 5 aggregates, those are the elements of your experience. They arise due to conditions. Their complete cessation is nirvana, the deathless state void of suffering. What you are going through is doubt, which is part of the aggregates. This is an undeniable truth. The Buddha pointed the way which leads us to let go of the aggregates in order to realize nirvana and the cessation of suffering.

The aggregates of feeling, perception, and volition arise all dependent on contact with form, and you can see this here and now. What happens when there's awareness of the eye and eye-objects? Feeling, perception, and intention arise. So why are you doubting?

I don't mean to say you're wrong or anything, I just want you to understand that this is a conditioned state, and your suffering arises because you don't fully understand it.

So, relax. Watch your breath. Absorb yourself in Jhana. Isn't that peaceful? It's certainly more peaceful than being doubtful!

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    Edit?-- When you said "Buddhism does promise suffering in the current life time", did you mean "Buddhism does promise relief from suffering in the current life time"? Commented Sep 16, 2014 at 16:01

if you're practising buddhism to achieve an end to multiple lives, you're still doing it for the promise of cake - and to be honest, buddhism has a cookie for you right now: clear-mindedness. i'm told that's a tasty cookie, if you can manage to eat it.

besides, are you dying this instant? is whatever might happen "next" an actual issue right now? practically speaking, if you're dead you'll have nothing to worry about, so why worry now? and if you do still find yourself worrying, you're clearly not dead in any useful, end-of-your-existence way and have more time than you thought to figure this all out and practice it. so why worry?

as for who; "i" is a tricky concept. it's supposed to mean "this continuum of experience given rise by this physical form," or at least that's fairly close to how we tend to think of it. but what it usually, actually means is closer to "the story this continuum of experience tells about itself to itself."

"who" is a semi-autobiographical, semi-fictional novel in your head in which the protagonist is of course the author. subjectively, the story is so broad and long and complex that it's very easy to mistake for you-the-continuum, as it does share some similarities.

we relate things (including living things) to each other by story, and it's a survival trait, but it'll still bite you in the ass.

it's useful when you're making plans to meet someone at a cafe next week, or remember where the best escape route from that tiger is, or do maths. it's less than useful when you're dwelling on how much you miss someone, or how "unfairly" you were treated that time.

either you-the-continuum, from instant to instant, perceiving each instant, chooses how you use that story; or you don't choose, so then you perceive through the lens of that story and react according to it rather than reality.

now, as for relief from suffering; that's not a philosophy for living we're talking about, that would be opiates and alcohols - and they come with suffering of their own, eventually at least. maybe some unscrupulous huckster sold you a dream wrapped up as buddhism?

here's my contention: given an able enough torturer, any buddhist or masochist will be subjected to suffering by the pain they're forced to experience. whether that torturer is a homo sapien, extreme dehydration, some awful disease or whatever else doesn't really matter.

a philosophy cannot "end suffering," only help you learn how not to waste your energies railing against that which you cannot change, and how to focus your attention on what is best for you (and perhaps everyone. i believe that which is truly best for you is best for everyone, and vice versa) in the long run.


forget about the cake you've been "promised" later. enjoy the cookie you can have now.

  • Points all well-taken. Something to share, that you may have intended to be implicit: sometimes a practice can "end suffering". Here's an example from the Sedona Method (a set of tools that seem very Buddhist-flavored for me, for processing "limiting feelings" and being present, with equanimity) -- in the Sedona Method there is a "pain-clearing technique," that I learned the day before I slammed my fingers, closing a window. 5-10 minutes later: bloody fingers, no pain. Of course, some elements of the technique will not surprise you: welcoming the "right-now sensations". Commented Sep 15, 2014 at 18:18

This is what Buddhism teaches: suffering and prevention of suffering.

And what is suffering? Suffering is the painful feeling of wrongness, frustration, helplessness we experience when life sends us lemons. What Buddhism teaches, is how to make lemonade out of those lemons.

But first, we need to understand that we are not helpless victims of life, that we are in control.

To understand this, we have to realize, that whatever arises in dependence on a combination of conditions, can be controlled by manipulating the conditions. We have leverage over conditional phenomena!

All phenomena, without exception, are conditional. Because all phenomena are conditional, they can all be controlled. This includes the subjective experience of suffering -- the painful feeling of wrongness, frustration, helplessness -- which is a conditional phenomena and therefore can be controlled.

And how is suffering conditional? Suffering depends on conjunction of the following factors: "this", "that" and "attachment". Attachment is an irrational clinging to either "this" or "that".

And how can experience of suffering be controlled? By dropping these very attachments we can stop existing suffering, and prevent new suffering.

This is what Buddhism teaches: suffering and prevention of suffering.


it guarantees us we'll all die, and most of us will suffer from sickness and old age

Although it's true that sickness and old age are included in the list of types of suffering; and (together with poverty and death) might be inevitable, however, people might not have to "suffer" (might control, limit, put away, put an end to their suffering) when they have these experiences.

For example, when the Buddha reached his old age, he isn't reported to have said, "Oh God! Why, why me? Oh please, no!"

Similarly, some people are able to be sick: to have cancer for example; and to behave well, speak well, think well, etc., for as long as they're alive -- which benefits themselves and people who know them.


As others have pointed out, the 3rd noble truth does promise relief.

Re. the question of identity (or of "collective identity" in connectedness, or "impermanence of identity" as an aspect of reality), not-being-"personal" does not weaken enlightened dynamics: you can have it as "happening in the space" (regardless of whether "I" am "causing" something, or an "I" for it to happen to).

So, it can simply be present, even if there is no experiencer. And even if it is not some "thing" for an "I" to create, it is still
-- something(s) for there to be awareness of,
-- something(s) for there to have relatedness in,
-- something(s) for participation to be happening with,
-- something(s) for there to be organization around / synchronization in.

Personally, when I'm treating ALL things with love/respect, and when I'm including love/respect for points-of-view of "individual", that, ironically, has it be easier, & more natural, to embrace experiences of "collective". Implicit in that practice, for me, is a practice of re-presencing that "individual" is connected, (not separate).

Pema Chodron, in teaching "tonglen", talks about an "absolute practice" (like watching), and a "relative practice" (like letting in "dark stuff", and sending out "compassion" / the 4 immeasurables), and presents having both an absolute practice and a relative practice.

It seems to me that in an absolute practice there is nothing to do -- another thing that can mess with motivation, lol -- and in a relative practice there is something to do... and in the example of a tonglen practice, she teaches beginning and ending with the absolute practice.

Like, the "nothing to do" is a context, in which sometimes the "something to do" happens.


In this answer I tried to answer that "cessation of suffering during this life" is part of Buddhism (the 3rd noble truth).

In that answer:

  • I tried to introduce 'no self', because 'no self' (as well as suffering, rebirth, and enlightenment, not to mention a lack of motivation) was the theme of the OP's question.

  • I tried to illustrate a connection between between 'no self' and 'no suffering', plus that practice is needed in order to realize that ... but, I suspect I did not do that well, so I try again as follows.

Instead of a connection between 'no self' and 'no suffering', perhaps it's truer (i.e. it follows more directly from the 2nd noble truth) to talk about a connection between 'no craving' and 'no suffering'.

But if that were true and all you needed to know, why does the 4th noble truth expand into 'the eightfold way' instead of simply saying, 'the way that leads to the cessation of suffering is the cessation of craving' or 'the way that leads to the cessation of craving is the mindfulness of impermanence and mindfulness of the self's being a compound thing'?

For example, part of 'the eightfold way' is 'Right intention' (a.k.a. 'right aspiration'). Why even have a right aspiration, if the goal is to end craving? Well, it's said that,

Three Kinds of Right Intention

The Buddha taught that there are three kinds of Right Intention, which counter three kinds of wrong intention. These are:

  • The intention of renunciation, which counters the intention of desire.
  • The intention of good will, which counters the intention of ill will.
  • The intention of harmlessness, which counters the intention of harmfulness.

In summary I think that:

  • Buddhism says that 'suffering exists', but also 'no suffering'
  • Similarly, 'desire' exists but also 'renunciation' exists

Life is not simply nothing and noone (and nobody). Even so, life can be lived well.

"Brief, bikkhus, is the life of men - a matter of flitting hence, having its sequel elsewhere. To be wrought is the good, to be lived is the holy life. To him that is born there is no-dying. He bikkhus, who lives long, lives but a hundred years or a little longer."

I think the term 'Middle Way' originally (in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta) had a single, specific meaning: i.e. neither the one extreme of renunciation and starving alone, nor the other extreme of sheer hedonism.

Apparently the term Middle Way now has a more general meaning; it's used not only when referring to the "extremes of austerities and sensual indulgence": it's also used for other extremes.

Perhaps your concept of 'no self' is causing a problem, is becoming 'too extreme'. Practising the eightfold path requires ... something ... some self? In order to have intent, or for even 'right intent' to exist.

  • That matches my experience: some kind of self practices. (Maybe how little I've learned? LOL.) Perhaps, as Suminda suggests, something lost in translation (or added) has us take no-self too conceptually. In practice, I find embracing "invidual* makes it easier to "live in" connected. Besides: having grown up around New Age Americanized Buddhism, I found drawbacks to literally believing I had no self. I actually put some self in, after reading "The Secret Life Of Kids", (which asserts it's healthy to let kids develop a healthy ego structure, b4 learning ego-transcending meditation). Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 17:24
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    Wikipedia says western psychology defines Dissociation on a sliding scale or "continuum": in mild cases, a coping mechanism to master or tolerate stress; further along the continuum are "non-pathological altered states of consciousness"; but "More pathological dissociation involves dissociative disorders, including dissociative fugue and depersonalization disorder with or without alterations in personal identity or sense of self". I don't know all this; Google says some people distinguish between disassociation and disidentification.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 17:41
  • A worthy question. To me, it's similar to the important difference between non-attachment, and detachment: for me, detachment has an element of "disconnect", whereas non-attachment can not only be connected, but also can actually facilitate being connected -- just as non-attachment does not cling, it also does not resist -- we can "let life go," and we can "let life in." (Also similar: the difference betw peace (hi energy) and apathy (low energy), and how Pema Chodron talks about how, in the practice of Tonglen, which lets it all in, there is an access to a vast amount of energy.) Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 19:28

It's not about whether there is or isn't a self, it's about whether or not there's suffering. If there's no suffering in your life, then Buddhism has nothing to offer you. If there is suffering in your life then Buddhism says it can help.

The reason you should bother is if there's suffering in your life and you're willing to take a chance on Buddhism.

  • There may also be a notion that Buddhism benefits everyone, and not only "you".
    – ChrisW
    Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 15:07
  • We don't practise to benefit others, we practise to stop creating the division between self and others.
    – user10515
    Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 15:14

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