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The third mark of existence states sabbe dhamma anatta - all phenomena is not self.

Despite that, the following sutta states that there is a self-doer (attakārī). Also, this implies free will.

How is it that the existence of the self-doer (and free will) does not conflict with the third mark of existence?

“So, brahmin, when there is the element of endeavoring, endeavoring beings are clearly discerned; of such beings, this is the self-doer, this, the other-doer. I have not, brahmin, seen or heard such a doctrine, such a view as yours. How, indeed, could one — moving forward by himself, moving back by himself — say ‘There is no self-doer, there is no other-doer’?”
AN 6.38 (translated by K. Nizamis)

“Brahmin, if there is this element of approaching, brahmin, then it is evident then that beings are approaching: this is what beings do themselves [self-agency], this is what is done by others [other-agency].” “Yes, sir.”

“Brahmin, I do not hold such a doctrine, such a view [that there is no action of one’s own, that there is no action by others]. For, I have neither seen nor heard of a situation where one could oneself step forward or one could oneself step back, and yet say, ‘There is no action of one’s own, there is no action by others.’”
AN 6.38 (translated by Piya Tan)

“Since there is an element of energy, and sentient beings who have energy are found, sentient beings act of their own volition or that of another.

Brahmin, may I never see or hear of anyone holding such a doctrine or view! How on earth can someone who comes and goes on his own say that one does not act of one’s own volition, nor does one act of another’s volition?”
AN 6.38 (translated by Ven. Sujato)

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I believe this talk was given to a brahmin who held the belief that actions are merely actions with no consequences somewhat similar to the doctrine of non-doing. In the case of this brahmin, there was an additional element in that he incorrectly thinks that since there is no one (or self), the actions and their effects are of no consequences. I suspect this was an excuse to ignore or justify that there are no consequences to actions.

The Buddha corrected the brahmin by pointing out that skillful or unskillful actions were initiated by a being and both the actions initiated and the initiator can be identified and recognized. In such a case, there will be karma and its consequences.

A few additional points. First, it is clear the brahmin is not enlightened. Second, actions have consequences due to being tainted by greed, aversion and ignorance. Third, we incline by default towards unskillful actions (arising from our habitual tendencies of selfishness, greed, aversion and ignorance). Wrong beliefs do not help to counteract or reduce this inherent dangers we faced. Only the proper understanding and belief in karma can restraint, correct and reduce our habitual tendencies towards unskillful actions.

Clearly, this sutra has nothing to do with anatta or just vaguely, in the sense that the brahmin was using anatta as an excuse or basis to justify that there are no consequences to actions. With Metta.

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How does the self-doer of AN 6.38 not conflict with anatta?

In the Suttas (Sutta Pitaka), which were directed at the laity, the Buddha used conventional language.

In Ultimate Reality, as seen in the Abhidhamma Pitaka, there's no beings, self, persons, entities etc.

So there's no confliction.

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MN 61 says:

‘yannu kho ahaṁ idaṁ kāyena kammaṁ kattukāmo idaṁ me kāyakammaṁ attabyābādhāyapi saṁvatteyya, parabyābādhāyapi saṁvatteyya, ubhayabyābādhāyapi saṁvatteyya—

‘Does this act with the body that I want to do lead to hurting myself, hurting others, or hurting both?

SN 47.19 says:

Attānaṁ, bhikkhave, rakkhanto paraṁ rakkhati, paraṁ rakkhanto attānaṁ rakkhatī”ti.

Looking after yourself, you look after others; and looking after others, you look after yourself.”

AN 6.38 says:

‘natthi attakāro, natthi parakāro’”ti.

One does not act of one’s own volition, nor does one act of another’s volition.”

These suttas use conventional language. AN 3.68 is not supramundane. It is merely about intention. No one got enlightened. Anatta is not relevant.

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It is an interesting question. Ignorance exists and real events of pain and pleasure and disgust follow from it. If out of ignorance I say I am moving forward and backwards then out of ignorance it is considered true. I am acting out my own volition is true in the world full of ignorance. The idea of self needs to be stamped out to enter the world of knowledge. Saying that there is no self and passively or actively believing that I did that, I am doing this and I will do that doesn’t prove that there is no self, instead it proves that there is a self in the ignorant world. Moving forward and moving backwards is just moving forward and moving backwards and this similar to the understanding heard is just heard, felt is just felt, thought is just thought. Understanding this leads to Nibbana.

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The self-doer or self-doing or volition of AN 6.38 appears to be simply related to intention and volition.

These are not conflicting with the third mark of existence, because they are also part of dependent origination.

Feeling, perception, intention, contact, and application of mind.
Vedanā, saññā, cetanā, phasso, manasikāro—

This is called name.
idaṁ vuccati nāmaṁ. .....

Choices by way of body, speech, and mind.
kāyasaṅkhāro, vacīsaṅkhāro, cittasaṅkhāro.
SN 12.2

“Suppose that the person who does the deed experiences the result. Then for one who has existed since the beginning, suffering is made by oneself. This statement leans toward eternalism. Suppose that one person does the deed and another experiences the result. Then for one stricken by feeling, suffering is made by another. This statement leans toward annihilationism. Avoiding these two extremes, the Realized One teaches by the middle way: ‘Ignorance is a condition for choices.

Choices are a condition for consciousness. … That is how this entire mass of suffering originates. When ignorance fades away and ceases with nothing left over, choices cease. When choices cease, consciousness ceases. … That is how this entire mass of suffering ceases.’”
SN 12.17

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From the dictionary it looks like "kari" is a very generic word for action or performance. That would make "attakari" mean "self-action" or "self-doing" — not "self-doer". Also, from the context it seems pretty clear that Buddha and a brahmin were discussing the notion of free will.

From other suttas we know that the Buddha was a huge opponent of fatalism. He taught his students to implement skillful behavior and avoid unskilful behavior, and to apply a strong continuous effort in meditation, and how can we control our behavior and apply effort if everything is predetermined? So Buddha was clearly against the fatalism.

Based on this, it kind of makes sense that the Buddha supports the idea of self-agency or free-will. But how can free-will coexist with anatta?

Back when I was still seeing a buddhist mentor, I asked him whether there was free-will or not and he said, the official Mahayana position is that it is both yes and no at the same time, that freewill both exists and does not exist. I asked how this was possible and he explained, that's because it's a matter of perspective. If we imagine subjective world of a sentient being, there's making choices and acting. If we look from the perspective of the totality of everything, every activity happens due to some causes, nothing happens by itself.

The concept of agency or acting is a twin sister of the concept of entity. Both are abstractions. The concepts of totality and determinism are also abstractions. In the provisional teaching, the Buddha taught effort and anatta, but in the ultimate teaching he taught freedom from all descriptions.

This is why, in the Aggi Vaccagotta Sutta, and a number of similar suttas the Buddha says "no" to pairs of opposite questions, whether tathagata exists or does not exist after death and so on. The Buddha even explains that "a position" is something he has abandoned. Why? Because freedom from position is the liberation he taught. Why? Because position is a one-sided simplification of reality. When we are stuck on a position we only see what fits into position and become blind to everything else. This leads to conflict and suffering. The Buddha taught seeing reality as it is, not through the glasses of a position.

So in the final analysis we can say, indeed attakari and anatta are a bit of a contradiction but thanks to this contradiction we can understand what Buddha meant when he said he had abandoned all positions.

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  • Looking from an individual's perspective, do you think free will is an illusion arising from not seeing things clearly. Like playing a perfect game of chess or Go. To an amateur, there are many choices (free will?) but to an accomplished player, there is only one right move. Thanks!
    – Desmon
    Oct 16, 2023 at 10:19
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    That's what I used to think, but now I see that analyzing the situation and making that best choice still happens, and the will power perseveres despite circumstances. Accordingly, when you teach others, you teach them to make the right moves and to apply the will power to persevere, not going with the flow.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Oct 16, 2023 at 13:03
  • Indeed, one should stay grounded and do the practice with honesty and sincerity. Thanks.
    – Desmon
    Oct 16, 2023 at 14:06
  • @AndriyVolkov I think a good follow-up question would be: why some conceptualizations tend to be better than other ones (I'm assuming some are better than others because the Buddha chose some, while at the same time opposing to others)? What makes them better? And what is the standard for deciding which is better, if they are all mere human creations, saying nothing "truer" about reality? Oct 17, 2023 at 0:31
  • @BrianDíazFlores That question is of secondary importance imo. Some concepts are better than others in certain context because they more accurately model a certain aspect of reality, making it a more effective tool for certain problems, that is all. But this is common sense. The novel part the Buddhism brings in is to explicitly acknowledge that reality behind the models can be seen but can never be exhaustively conceptualized, and our arguments whose model is better are only ever gonna lead to conflict and suffering.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Oct 17, 2023 at 1:57

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