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"There's no 'I' in team" is an aphorism that promotes the selfless group effort, but what about first person pronouns from a Buddhist perspective such as 'I', 'me', 'mine', and 'my'. I am also wondering about starting a sentence with the pronoun 'I'.

Is it helpful from a Buddhist perspective to always avoid such pronouns? Is using it just a symptom and the underlying disease needs to be treated?

I usually try to avoid using pronouns in these context but sometimes the ease of using them overcomes my efforts, like with this sentence.

Most likely this rule needs to be taken with a grain of salt but was wondering if the community had any helpful advice.

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    discussions of anatman confound "lack of identity" and "nothing is causally independent". Anatman means "nothing is causally independent." – MatthewMartin Dec 14 '14 at 21:23
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There is no rule about such use, and the Buddha begins many suttas with 'Aham, bhikkhave...' 'I, bhikkhus,...'

ChrisW has the general idea: the point is not the use or omission of the personal pronoun but the point of view in back of and reflected by that use.

  • Where the point of view is simply to identify an individuality (as one's place on the computer screen is marked by the cursor) such use is called 'speaking conventionally', for example,

    "Please pass me the salt. I will be going to the store at 10. I, friends, when I was a young lad ..."

  • Where the use is to enhance the idea of an on-going or eternal self, the use signifies that a point of view concerning the self is present in the speaker, for example,

    "I am everything and everything is me. You make me feel bad. That is my toy. Some day I will be president."

As for the middle way being part of the answer to this question, there are a number of suttas where an Arahant is praised for teaching Dhamma 'without bringing in the self'.

The two extremes that are not the Middle way can be said to be the point of view that an eternal self exists and that an eternal self does not exist. (See: The First Sutta) (The way it is stated in the First Sutta: 'the path down self-indulgence, and the path down self-torture' represent the forms of behavior that result from these two extreme views of existence. They are elsewhere directly spoken of as being the two extreme worldly points of view.)

The Middle way, the essence of the Dhamma teaches the fact of becoming, the satisfactions of becoming, the disadvantages of becoming, and the way to escape from becoming without bringing in a point of view concerning 'self.'

The whole of the Dhamma is essentially The Middle Way, but The Ariyan Eightfold Way is specifically called that, and an equivalent of the Eightfold Way, also often called 'The Way Down the Middle' is the Paticca Samuppada which you can see speaks about the process but does not bring in the self:

"From blindness proceeds own-making.
From own-making proceeds consciousness.
From consciousness proceeds named-forms.
From named-forms proceeds the six realms of the senses.
From the six realms of the senses proceeds sense-experience.
From sense-experience proceeds desire.
From desire proceeds fueling desire.
From fueling desire proceeds existing.
From existing proceeds birth.
From birth proceeds old age, sickness, and death,
grief and lamentation,
pain and misery,
and despair.

But from the utter eradication of blindness comes the utter destruction of own-making.
From the utter eradication of own-making comes the utter destruction of consciousness.
From the utter eradication of consciousness comes the utter destruction of named-forms.
From the utter eradication of named-forms comes the utter destruction of the six realms of the senses.
From the utter eradication of the six realms of the senses comes the utter destruction of sense-experience.
From the utter eradication of sense-experience comes the utter destruction of desire.
From the utter eradication of desire comes the utter destruction of fueling desire.
From the utter eradication of fueling desire comes the utter destruction of existing.
From the utter eradication of existing comes the utter destruction of birth.
From the utter eradication of birth comes the utter destruction of old age, sickness and death,
grief and lamentation,
pain and misery,
and despair.

No mention of self. If the thinking in back of the personal pronoun is of such a nature there is no reflection there of a point of view of self. Where the thinking in back of such speech is: "I am. That is mine. That is the self of me. I am a part of that. That is a part of me." Whether of the past, the future or of the present, then the self has been brought in.

Still this is not a matter for criticizng others or holding one's self superior or taking pride in one's handling of personal pronouns! It is simply a reflection of one's inner state of mind.

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I completely support obo's answer. I think it's best to regard such usage as mere conventions in use in the world - and be mindful of the characteristic of non-self which is intrinsic to all conditioned phenomenon.

[Deva:]
He who's an Arahant, his work achieved,
Free from taints, in final body clad,
That monk still might use such words as "I."
Still perchance might say: "They call this mine."
...
Would such a monk be prone to vain conceits?

[The Blessed One :]
Bonds are gone for him without conceits,
All delusion's chains are cast aside:
Truly wise, he's gone beyond such thoughts.
That monk still might use such words as "I,"
Still perchance might say: "They call this mine."
Well aware of common worldly speech,
He would speak conforming to such use.

Arahanta Sutta (SN 1.25)

Elsewhere, this is what the Buddha advises :

‘You should not cling to a regional language; you should not reject common usage.’ So it is said. In what connection is this said? How, bhikkhus, is there clinging to a regional language and rejection of common usage? Here, bhikkhus, in different regions, they call a ‘bowl’ pati, patta, vittha, serava, dahropa, pona or pisīla. So whatever they call it in such and such a region, they speak accordingly, firmly adhering (to the words) and insisting, ‘Only this is right; everything else is wrong.’ This is how, bhikkhus, there is clinging to a regional language and rejection of common usage. And how, bhikkhus, is there no clinging to a regional language and no rejection of common usage? Here, bhikshus, in different regions, they call a ‘bowl’ pati, patta, vittha, serava, dharopa, pona or pisīla. So whatever they call it in such and such a region, without adhering (to the words), one speaks accordingly. This is how, bhikkhus, there is no clinging to a regional language and no rejection of common usage. So it is with reference to this that it is said, ‘You should not cling to a regional language; you should not reject common usage.’

Aranavibhanga Sutta (MN 139)

Here's the Pāḷi of MN 139 (for those who are interested)

“‘janapadaniruttiṃ nābhiniveseyya, samaññaṃ nātidhāveyyā’ti — iti kho panetaṃ vuttaṃ. kiñcetaṃ paṭicca vuttaṃ? kathañca, bhikkhave, janapadaniruttiyā ca abhiniveso hoti samaññāya ca atisāro? idha, bhikkhave, tadevekaccesu janapadesu ‘pātī’ti sañjānanti, ‘pattan’ti sañjānanti, ‘vittan’ti sañjānanti, ‘sarāvan’ti sañjānanti ‘dhāropan’ti sañjānanti, ‘poṇan’ti sañjānanti, ‘pisīlavan’ti sañjānanti. iti yathā yathā naṃ tesu tesu janapadesu sañjānanti tathā tathā thāmasā parāmāsā abhinivissa voharati — ‘idameva saccaṃ, moghamaññan’ti. evaṃ kho, bhikkhave, janapadaniruttiyā ca abhiniveso hoti samaññāya ca atisāro.

“kathañca, bhikkhave, janapadaniruttiyā ca anabhiniveso hoti samaññāya ca anatisāro? idha, bhikkhave, tadevekaccesu janapadesu ‘pātī’ti sañjānanti, ‘pattan’ti sañjānanti, ‘vittan’ti sañjānanti, ‘sarāvan’ti sañjānanti, ‘dhāropan’ti sañjānanti, ‘poṇan’ti sañjānanti, ‘pisīlavan’ti sañjānanti. iti yathā yathā naṃ tesu tesu janapadesu sañjānanti ‘idaṃ kira me āyasmanto sandhāya voharantī’ti tathā tathā voharati aparāmasaṃ. evaṃ kho, bhikkhave, janapadaniruttiyā ca anabhiniveso hoti, samaññāya ca anatisāro. ‘janapadaniruttiṃ nābhiniveseyya samaññaṃ nātidhāveyyā’ti — iti yaṃ taṃ vuttaṃ, idametaṃ paṭicca vuttaṃ.

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    Thanks for the citation to SN 1.1.25 I had wanted to include that in my answer but could not remember where it came from. For the full text see: obo.genaud.net/backmatter/indexes/sutta/sn/01_sagv/… – user2418 Dec 14 '14 at 20:30
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    Can you please explain why you included MN 139? It seems like it is kind of related, perhaps peripherally. The passage from SN makes more sense to me in this context. – Parag Dec 15 '14 at 4:36
  • @Sisyphus Yes, you are right - it is only peripherally related - but I thought "you should not reject common usage" might be relevant if it is understood in and of itself - though the Buddha explains it in a different way in this discourse. – Monk Dec 15 '14 at 16:36
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    'common usage' is referring to Pali? – Parag Dec 16 '14 at 5:10
  • The words used in the Pāḷi were , Samaññā and Atisāra, which seems to roughly translate to "Designation" and "Overstepping/Extrapolating" in English. So, "do not reject common usage" - seems to be a translation of what in the Pāḷi was seemingly written/meant as (roughly) "do not overemphasize/extrapolate such a conventional truth as a particular designated meaning of a particular word in a particular language" - in the sense that one should not emphasize "‘Only this is right; everything else is wrong." – Monk Dec 17 '14 at 11:20
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Is it helpful from a Buddhist perspective to always avoid such pronouns?

To avoid those pronouns reminds me of what Ursula Le Guin in this speech called "the father tongue".

As described in the first few paragraphs of Ursula's speech, avoiding "I" might often be good practice (because "I" is usually not the "subject").

Note: Le Guin is a novelist; she has written among other things a translation of the Tao Te Ching, and she is I think humane, and writes well; but she is not a formally-Buddhist teacher (and neither am I) so this is not a formally-Buddhist answer. I give this as a personal opinion instead of quoting canon because I don't know that there is a canonical answer: Buddhists do not in my experience avoid saying "I".

I deliberately wrote "me" into the first sentence, to signal that was a personal not a canonical answer. It might have been easy to try to make it sound more authoritative: "Avoiding those pronouns is what Le Guin called etc."

But it wouldn't actually be more authoritative though, even if it were trying to sound that way.

I try to write truthfully at least: i.e. "Right Speech" (although Right Speech is more difficult than simply being truthful; it would also have to be appropriately-timed and helpful and welcome).

Sometimes we talk about things ("that table's dirty"), sometimes opinions ("I think that table looks dirty").

I usually try to avoid using pronouns in these context but sometimes the ease of using them overcomes my efforts, like with this sentence.

Yes, well that's what happens when you write about yourself. :-)

Is using it just a symptom and the underlying disease needs to be treated?

I doubt it's helpful to always avoid such pronouns.

It makes sense to use it sometimes: e.g. when you go to a doctor to say, "I am sick" rather than "This person (points finger) is sick."

If you're not a monk it might be basic politeness too, when shopping: "Good morning. I would like a loaf of bread, please."

There are plenty of uses of the word "I", e.g. on pages like the following: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/sacca/sacca4/samma-ditthi/kamma.html

These Zen stories are full of the word "I": http://www.ashidakim.com/zenkoans/zenindex.html

Buddhists are at least supposed to be tolerant of each other, I don't see why you should have to avoid "I".


I think a more usual way to formulate your question is how to view "self". For example, seeing "self" as eternal is wrong, but seeing "self" as destructible is wrong. And that answer is more difficult. But I'm pretty sure that the "Middle Way" is part of the answer to that question.

  • The humorous anecdote at the beginning of the commencement address by Ursula Le Guin piques my curiosity for the rest of the speech. The link seems to be a part of a repository for other commencement addresses. – Parag Dec 15 '14 at 4:42
  • You mean the humorous anecdote which starts, "People need to be getting up now. ..."? She summarizes it as the language of lectures and public discourse ... and not even "language of objectivity" but "language of thought that seeks objectivity". I contrast that with the advice a little later, "Offer your experience as your truth." etc. – ChrisW Dec 15 '14 at 16:14
  • "unlearning what we learned in college and then relearning what we unlearned..." may be it wasn't meant to be humorous but i did chuckle. I dont think I got as far as the part you just mentioned. – Parag Dec 15 '14 at 20:21
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A very practical advice, trying it, playing with it, and finding out if the notion of I is disappearing.

Thinking on understanding, there is no better that testing.

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