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Is it right to say that all Buddhists both do and don't believe in the "empirical self", as in the conscious mind and its concomitants?

And in order I might make sense of your answer, can the latter "not self" be thought of as an absence of any conscious mind from reality itself?

Finally, does that reality include or consist of the Buddha and how can we unenlightened beings confirm that, besides confirming suchness, when it seems we cannot confirm suchness is known?


Peter Harvey in the selfless mind says:

an empirical self strictly speaking neither exists nor does not exist

  • the empirical self, the bundle of sensation etc. ? – user3293056 Jan 13 '15 at 12:14
  • Since the actual beliefs of Buddhists vary wildly, do you mean to ask what is taught in various traditions? – Anthony Jan 13 '15 at 19:50
  • How did any buddhist ever challenge the evidence of "empirical self"? Don't we assign even Names to each other? And didn't the Buddha give help, even individually shaped for each of the "empirical selves" around him, having names like "Sariputta" or "Udali" or "Ananda"...? So I think something in your premises might be somehow uneven and it might be better to do a quest for what the Buddha meant instead when the concept "self" was discussed. In the Brahmanism around him in India was the concept of an "atman" - this is that "self"-concept the Buddha was critical about – Gottfried Helms Jan 14 '15 at 11:05
  • ok so you should answer, saying that no buddhist would say that the skandhas do in some sense not exist. which is wrong IMHO, but it'd be more helpful to leave an answer in this instance IMO – user3293056 Jan 14 '15 at 22:51
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    I'm not sure why this question has been down voted so much. Seems like a good question to me. – Jayarava Aug 17 '15 at 8:48
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In advance stages of Buddhist mediation the exercise is to reduce non conducive notions (see: Girimananda Sutta for such notions). The notion of self or not self is a notion, and it is these preconceived notion you should eliminate as clinging to them causes misery when reality does not match with you notion.

If you have a self image that I am so and so and when this gets shattered it causes pain. If you do not hold into such notion then there is no pin.

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Is it right to say that all Buddhists both do and don't believe in the empirical self?

I think it's more accurate to say that Buddhists ought to avoid having fixed/specific beliefs, or fixed views, about the self: see for example What are examples of identity-view?

And in order I might make sense of your answer, can the latter "not self" be thought of as an absence of any conscious mind from reality itself?

The "not-self" concept is called Anatta.

Buddhism doesn't deny consciousness, but it says that consciousness too is conditioned and impermanent and non-self.

Finally, does that reality include or consist of the Buddha and how can we unenlightened beings confirm that, besides confirming suchness, when it seems we cannot confirm suchness is known?

What "reality" are you talking about?

Still, if you're asking about "reality including the Buddha" then perhaps you want to find out about the doctrines of Buddha nature.


In summary you seem to be saying that the skandhas (including sensation/perception, and consciousness) are "the self", even though (as Wikipedia says),

All of the aggregates are to be seen as empty of self-nature; that is, they arise dependent on causes (hetu) and conditions (paticca). In this scheme, the cause for the arising of consciousness (viññāṇa) is the arising of one of the other aggregates (physical or mental); and, the arising of consciousness in turn gives rise to one or more of the mental (nāma) aggregates. In this way, the chain of causation identified in the aggregate (khandha) model overlaps the chain of conditioning in the Dependent Origination (paticcasamuppāda) model, described more fully below.

I think "have self-nature" means "have independent existence" and "have no self-nature" means "has dependent existence" and therefore temporary and unsatisfactory.

Buddhism suggests that instead of identifying the self with such things ("I am my body! I am my feelings! I am my thoughts!") it's better to not identify yourself in such a way with such things.

This description of right view warns that the following can be called "a thicket of wrong views":

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.

If I understand they way in which you're using words, I suspect you shouldn't say that there's "an absence of any conscious mind from reality itself" because that would be saying "there are no sentient beings, sentient beings do not exist": which might be self-evidently untrue :-)

I'm not sure about whether all of reality is conscious. Apparently some schools of Buddhism teach that,

Furthermore, and particularly in Tibetan Buddhism and Japanese Buddhism, all beings (including plant life and even inanimate objects or entities considered "spiritual" or "metaphysical" by conventional Western thought) are or may be considered sentient beings.

As I mentioned earlier I think this sort of doctrine is later (i.e. post-Theravada) teachings about 'Buddha-nature'.

  • by reality, i p much just mean whatever is outside my mind. i found that your answer doesn't quite answer my question, e.g. don't some buddhists say that all fixeed views must be done away with. anyway... p sure u misunderstood my question but i don't know how to improve it ://// – user3293056 Jan 13 '15 at 11:48
  • whatever is outside my mind I think that Western philosophy tries to distinguish subjective reality (our perceptions) with objective reality (stuff which our perceptions are perceiving), but Buddhism doesn't. Instead of 'subjective' and 'objective', Buddhism describes reality as 'conditioned' (i.e. it can be perceived only on condition that you're present to perceive it) and therefore 'empty'. – ChrisW Jan 13 '15 at 11:57
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I've just been answering another question about "self" here https://buddhism.stackexchange.com/a/10850/5715. Getting the background to such questions right is imperative. Self/selfless is so often misunderstood! The initial question here is:

Is it right to say that all Buddhists both do and don't believe in the "empirical self", as in the conscious mind and its concomitants?

It is never right to say that all Buddhists believe anything. Buddhism is very pluralistic. One has to take a point of view and then work outwards and look at the contrasts in other approaches. Some Buddhists accept the notion of an empirical self and others do not. Personally I don't see how we can understand our experience without some kind of acknowledgement that we at least have a first person perspective - what I see through my eyes is not the same as what you see. But others are adamant that there is no self of any kind. The unfortunate influence of the Two truths Doctrine can be seen far and wide leading Buddhists to illogical conclusions.

Finally, does that reality include or consist of the Buddha and how can we unenlightened beings confirm that, besides confirming suchness, when it seems we cannot confirm suchness is known?

And again Buddhists disagree on the possibility of saying anything about "reality". After many years of studying Buddhist texts I have yet to find a word in Pāḷi, Sanskrit or Chinese that directly corresponds to the European notion of "reality". Indeed the early Buddhist epistemology, which is the point of view that I take as a matter of course, guarantees that we could not say anything about reality anyway. When it comes to knowledge, the only source we have is experience (and Kant says much the same thing in the opening pages of his Critique of Pure reason). Experience is acknowledged by most Buddhists to consist of, at a minimum, a sense object, a working sense faculty, and sense cognition. Since the faculty and the cognition are conditioning factors, experience is always irreducible subjective. I tend to describe experience as being the events that happen when object and subject overlap.

Early Mainstream Buddhists and early Prajñāpāramitā Buddhists argued that though we have experiences, the experience itself is neither existent (astitā) nor non-existent (nāstitā) - it is like soap bubble, like a dream, like a flash of lightening, like an illusion. There is experience, but beyond that we cannot say anything. This is spelled out in the Kaccānagotta Sutta (Saṃyutta Nikāya 12.15) and picked up in the 8000 Perfection of Wisdom text and by Nāgārjuna. In other words "real" and "unreal" are not terms that can be applied to experience. And experience is all we have to go on (Sabba Sutta SN 35.23).

Crucially the first person perspective is also an experience. The feeling that "I am someone" or that "this is my thought" is also an experience. And like all experiences neither real nor unreal. Nor indicative of any noumenal reality (as far as Buddhists are concerned). So "reality" doesn't really come into it. Nothing about experience could help us to understand reality, though it can help us to understand experience!

From this Buddhist point of view, therefore, your questions are not well formed. However, I still think of them as interesting questions because they highlight the kinds of assumptions we make when trying to think like a Buddhist. We have to keep asking these questions in this way until we become much more familiar with thinking like Buddhists.

Now Peter Harvey made a good contribution to the field of Buddhist studies, but one must always read his work with a critical eye. He is not without his biases and presuppositions. As encyclopedic as his work tends to be, particularly his book on Self, he never quite thinks like a Buddhist in the way I've outlined. He collects all the relevant quotes from suttas, which is very useful, but he doesn't get them in the way that say, Sue Hamilton, did. Her books on the Khandhas and Early Buddhism are revelatory (and every bit as difficult to read as Harvey unfortunately). Early Buddhism a New Approach ought to be on every Buddhist intellectual's reading list.

By examining experience we can understand the nature of experience. And this is all that suchness and other terms refer to in my view. We have no faculty that would give us access to other kinds of knowledge and certainly not knowledge of "reality".

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    Just to pick up on - It is never right to say that all Buddhists believe anything. Buddhism is very pluralistic. There must be some kind of commonality in Buddhist thought. Is it true to say that all Buddhists go to refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha or can't we even say that. Or it that just jargon really? Thanks – Crab Bucket Aug 17 '15 at 12:15
  • In my experience if one Buddhist asserts that something is absolutely the case in "Buddhism", another Buddhist will deny this. Zen Buddhists for example will sometimes argue that rather than going for refuge to the Buddha, that one ought to kill him instead. – Jayarava Aug 17 '15 at 13:18
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    I very much like the description / distinction of "reality" and "experience". In my picture of "reality", there are only two real things: The Void, and Experience. People, places, etc are not separately real. But saying that we cannot "get to" reality in any case, only our experiences, is the crucial point. I am also glad that you said that First Person experiences are not real either. This is the answer to this question, as far as I can tell. – user2341 Aug 18 '15 at 20:32
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Some answers have said that the empirical self is best not believed in the sense of identifying or obsessing with it.

Also, it does not exist because the empirical self is not substantial. Contrary to my question, it is atman proper, the Self, which does not exist in Reality, as something outside the empirical self.

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    IMO nobody says that the skandhas (etc.) "do not exist". Instead, they "do not have independent, unconditioned existence" and they "do only have dependent, conditioned existence". – ChrisW Jan 15 '15 at 9:07
  • so the OP, long story short u both misread my answer are wrong heh – user3293056 Jan 15 '15 at 9:15
  • You seem to be having an argument with your empirical self over its existence? – user2341 Aug 18 '15 at 20:34
  • i like the idea, but it's not clear how to apply it – user3293056 Aug 18 '15 at 20:42

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