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I am trying my best to digest the concept of the non-self but each time it hits a fundumental question, that i can't stop thinking of. If the self is an illusion, what is the point of self awerness meaning self respect, self esteem... is it important to have them in this context.

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  • Is the self an illusion? Who said that and where does it say that?
    – user23951
    Jun 30, 2022 at 14:28

7 Answers 7

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A baby doesn't think of identity, of self or of non-self. A baby doesn't think of self-respect or self-esteem, but a baby isn't enlightened either:

MN64:3.3: For a little baby doesn’t even have a concept of ‘identity’, so how could identity view possibly arise in them?
MN64:3.4: Yet the underlying tendency to identity view still lies within them.

In MN64, the Buddha teaches about the five lower fetters. Identity view is the first fetter.

MN64:5.2: Their heart is overcome and mired in identity view,
MN64:5.3: and they don’t truly understand the escape from identity view that has arisen.
MN64:5.4: That identity view is reinforced in them, not eliminated: it is a lower fetter.
MN64:5.5: Their heart is overcome and mired in doubt,
MN64:5.6: and they don’t truly understand the escape from doubt that has arisen.
MN64:5.7: That doubt is reinforced in them, not eliminated: it is a lower fetter.

Identity view is a problem because it taints our interactions, making them cumbersome and lopsided. Identity view creates a problem of "me versus world". For example, to say "always respect others" is a tainted view. To say "always respect yourself" is a tainted view. However, saying "respect the skillful" has no notion of self or non-self.

AN2.19:1.6: ‘Give up the unskillful.’
AN2.19:1.7: And if giving up the unskillful led to harm and suffering, I would not say:
AN2.19:1.8: ‘Give up the unskillful.’
AN2.19:1.9: But giving up the unskillful leads to welfare and happiness, so I say:
AN2.19:1.10: ‘Give up the unskillful.’
AN2.19:2.1: Mendicants, develop the skillful.

After deep meditation, I once went to my Roshi and bowed, saying, "there is no self." Roshi tapped me on the knee and said, "what is that?".

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Depends on where one is on the Path, there're different levels of penetration into the truth of Anatta/Not-Self. Only those who have attained one of the Four Noble Stages would be able to "live" that truth. At our level, the worldling's level, there'll always be a sense of self-identity, no matter how much book-knowledge one's acquired about the concept. And since we always have this sense of self which tends to work toward the negative side most of the time: selfish, self-serving, self-interested, etc... there's a need for their counter-balances: self-respect, self-esteem, etc. to steer them back toward the positive side. And hopefully, with more and more cultivation, hence more progress on the Path, one'd be able transcend all self-identifications, good and bad, to really penetrate the truth of Anatta/Not-Self.

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There is fairly famous example of abstraction by Alfred Korzybski.

Suppose you see a fan with blades. If you turn on the fan, the blades will spin, when the blades are spinning you will see a disc.

You will see that disc because the blades are spinning and it can be said that you see a disc where there is no disc.

Some might say that the disc you see is an illusion and the disc is not real.

However it doesn't mean that the disc means nothing, for if you were to touch the disc you would get hurt by the blades.

The disc is then rather a useful abstraction, an abstraction produced by the nervous system.

It is likewise with words. We can't pin down the self as a truth or reality but it doesn't mean that the word means nothing.

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No-self is a difficult concept. The problematic here is the objectification of the self: the construction of a representation of the self in intellectual/cognitive/emotional terms. In other words, we might think:

  • I'm a barber (or a banker, or a bookmaker...)
  • I'm a spouse (or single, or separated...)
  • I'm an atheist (or agnostic, or anabaptist...)

and in thinking those things we set up a list of self-expectations, self-demands, self-negations, etc. This is the creation of an identity, something we think should be permanent and inviolate, but (by definition in Buddhism) isn't. That leads to craving and discontentment and a host of associated problems.

On the other hand, there is a subject, something that creates these identities, holds these abstract principles, and observes this 'self-object'. We often assume that the subject that observes this self-object is identical to the self-object that it observes, but that's not the case. The subject is... something else, which we can only learn to access through meditative practices that wean us away from identified thinking.

Self-esteem, self-respect, self-love, etc, are attachments to that self-object: i.e., we feel self esteem when we live up to the demands and expectations of the self-object, and lose self-worth when we fail to do so. But the subject that observes doesn't have much use for self-worth, be it high or low. It is merely, keenly aware of what is. Once we rid ourselves of the self-object and live as subjects, ideas like pride and shame (elements of self-worth) no longer have any real hold on us.

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If the self is an illusion

I think that "self views" (or "views about self") can be a problem, not strictly necessary, and helpful to do without -- but that's not central to this question so let's, just accept that as a theory or premise for now.

what is the point of self awareness meaning self respect, self esteem

For a start, I don't think you have to bring "self" into that.

There are factors of enlightenment -- including "energy", "concentration" -- you can see these as existing and useful, for example: "Energy is good and useful." You don't need to bring "self" into it at all, for example you needn't say "that's my energy" nor "that energy is me".

As well as the positive or beneficial factors I think that a lot of Buddhist doctrine is about removing harmful factors, which are sometimes translated "afflictive emotions".

When you mention "self-esteem" and "self-respect", I see that as the absence of a negative -- which does not require a belief in or a view of "self -- and that negative's non-existing is what's important, not "self-esteem" especially but "no remorse". That "absence of a negative" might be difficult to perceive and to enjoy, and not what people are usually taught to be aware of -- we're usually taught to be aware of "existent" things -- but I think that's important.

For example, one of the fundamental doctrines might be "absence of remorse" which results from "skilful virtue". An "absence of remorse" is necessary for serenity and so on, e.g. as listed in AN 11.1. That doesn't require a theory of self, what's more important is to not engage in behaviour that causes remorse.

Similarly I suppose that "self esteem" might be related to or necessary for confidence, enthusiasm, a willingness to try something -- for example, "I think I am a good, safe driver, and therefore I am willing to try to drive a car even though in theory it might be dangerous". I think I'd argue though that "self" there is just a phrase, a verbal short-hand -- you're called "self-confident" but what you're really confident in is the experience of learning, understanding, practicing, studying how to drive safely, and diligence and proper attention when doing so -- those are the "factors" which enable anyone or everyone to drive, they're not especially "self".

Surely it's possible to be confident without being "self"-confident. Canonically I think that Buddhists should, instead of self-views, have "verified/confirmed confidence in the Buddha, the Sanga, and the Dhamma".

Lastly I suppose the attributes you mentioned -- self-respect and self-esteem -- might be seen as beneficial or necessary because they're antidotes to some debilitating poison, i.e. "low self-esteem" or "no self-respect" or however you might phrase that, maybe "fear", "depression", "defeatism", perhaps "shamelessness" and other factors listed as defilements. But I think that this answer pointed out that those are maybe two side of the same coin, e.g. "I am good", "I am bad", "I am superior", "I am inferior", are all of them "conceits" or possibly variations of "self-view" or "views of self" -- and possibly it's better to see the world, e.g. "this causes that" and so on, without (or at least with less) ego-centrism. Remember that Buddhism is a "middle way", i.e. "avoiding both extremes". You might see that both extremes -- e.g. "self-confidence" and "lack of self-confidence" -- are potentially harmful. Possibly it's more sensible to do away with both, and if anything base "confidence" on something other than "self".

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The Internet. You know what it is. You are here.

You use the Internet and you can communicate with others who use it.

We are often concerned about our data privacy and information security on the Internet.

If our access to the Internet is broken, we would be concerned because we do many things through it, for e.g. electronic banking.

But a hundred years ago, the Internet did not exist.

Even today, you cannot find a single thing called Internet. It's an emergent concept. It exists but it's not permanent, standalone or unchanging. You cannot pinpoint an exact thing called "Internet". It's a fuzzy concept that is sharpened by a label given by your mind.

The self is also an emergent concept. It exists, but just like the Internet, it's not permanent, standalone or unchanging.

Your self was always changing throughout your life and even throughout your day.

A person who suffered from dementia or brain damage would even have complete personality changes. Where did their self go to, then? You cannot pinpoint an exact thing called "self". It's a fuzzy concept that is sharpened by a label given by your mind.

In Buddhism, the purpose of "all phenomena is not self" is simply to avoid clinging to the idea of a permanent, standalone, unchanging self or associating things with it.

By not clinging to impermanent things, and letting them go, you can become free from suffering and discontent.

“Bhikkhus, suppose there was a mountain river sweeping downwards, flowing into the distance with a swift current. If on either bank of the river kasa grass or kusa grass were to grow, it would overhang it; if rushes, reeds, or trees were to grow, they would overhang it. If a man being carried along by the current should grasp the kasa grass, it would break off and he would thereby meet with calamity and disaster; if he should grasp the kusa grass, it would break off and he would thereby meet with calamity and disaster; if he should grasp the rushes, reeds, or trees, they would break off and he would thereby meet with calamity and disaster.

“So too, bhikkhus, the uninstructed worldling … regards form as self, or self as possessing form, or form as in self, or self as in form. That form of his disintegrates and he thereby meets with calamity and disaster. He regards feeling as self … perception as self … volitional formations as self … consciousness as self, or self as possessing consciousness, or consciousness as in self, or self as in consciousness. That consciousness of his disintegrates and he thereby meets with calamity and disaster.

“What do you think, bhikkhus, is form permanent or impermanent?”—“Impermanent, venerable sir.”…—“Therefore … Seeing thus … He understands: ‘… there is no more for this state of being.’
SN 22.93

However, sometimes, it may be beneficial and skillful to make use of the concept of the self, as stated in the sutta quote below.

So, whether we use or don't use the concept of the self on the path, is pragmatic and methodological, rather than the self being ontological and metaphysical.

“And for the sake of what benefit should a woman or a man, a householder or one gone forth, often reflect thus: ‘I am the owner of my kamma, the heir of my kamma; I have kamma as my origin, kamma as my relative, kamma as my resort; I will be the heir of whatever kamma, good or bad, that I do’? People engage in misconduct by body, speech, and mind. But when one often reflects upon this theme, such misconduct is either completely abandoned or diminished. It is for the sake of this benefit that a woman or a man, a householder or one gone forth, should often reflect thus: ‘I am the owner of my kamma, the heir of my kamma; I have kamma as my origin, kamma as my relative, kamma as my resort; I will be the heir of whatever kamma, good or bad, that I do.’
AN 5.57

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The other answers are good. I just wanted to add a few thoughts.

self is a homonym.

Within the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism,in Bodhisattva yogacaryā catuḥ śatakaṭikā 256.1.7 Candrakirti identifies the self as:

an essence of things that does not depend on others; it is an intrinsic nature. The non-existence of that is selflessness.

Note that he says 'things' (or phenomena). Within the Madhyamaka, the meaning of 'self' is not to do with the person alone.

Buddhapālita adds, while commenting on Nagārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (in Buddhapālita-mula-madhyamaka-vrtti, P5242, 73.5.6-74.1.2),

What is the reality of things just as it is? It is the absence of self. Unskilled persons whose eye of intelligence are obscured by the darkness of delusion conceive of an essence of things and then generate attachment and hostility with regard to it.

The perception that we naturally have that things (including ourselves) exist as independent, self-contained, objectively existent is an error, a mistake, a delusion, an affliction.

This perception is the definition of 'ignorance' - we see things (and ourselves) in a way that they are not.

Having self-respect means something else. It means respect for the person. The person exists, but not how we perceive it. I exist - but not as I perceive myself.

So, while the carefully defined 'self' is a non-existent, both self-grasping (the delusional perception of 'self') exists - and keeps us bound to samsara, and likewise the person exists.

The manner of all existence (of person, delusion, etc.) is that these things exist with the specific qualification that they do not exist as we normally perceive them. They exist as transitory dependant-arising compositions with no essence, no independence, and without efficacy (i.e. they are not worthy of either attachment or hostility).

Therefore the perceived self is not really an illusion - it is a non-existent (Illusions are external, whereas our perceptions of self is internal, generated by ignorance). Those things that exist are like an illusion in that we endow those things which exist with a power, quality, or efficacy that they do not have. This includes the person.

Self-respect is absolutely valid and necessary. This is when we identify the meaning of self to be that of the person. We need to value and respect all people - all sentient beings. We need to develop compassion and loving-kindness to all beings - this includes ourselves.

We need to recognise our own suffering - the coarse suffering of pain, as well as the more subtle suffering of change, and the most important suffering of all - that while our actions are contaminated by mistaken perception, the consequences of our actions will likewise be contaminated.

Once we experientially recognise that truth, then our compassion for all beings becomes unshakeable.

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