Who Is Selfless?

More and more I am wondering how accurate the Buddhist notion of annata, or “no self,” really is in the context of Buddhist philosophy and ethics. Metaphysically, it can make sense to attribute some beings as not a part of our conventional understanding of a self; after all, the self/other dichotomy in all its forms is our most common and prevalent view of reality. However, if the notion of “no self” in Buddhist literature is supposed to act as a guide toward understanding interconnectedness between all beings, than might it make more sense to consider this new self a rich and “expansive” self, rather than an empty one? And if this “expansive self” is a more accurate description than “no self,” perhaps anatta should be appreciated more as a stepping stone to truth (or even a thought experiment), rather than an accurate explanation of reality [1].

If it is metaphysically true that no self exists, then Buddhist ethics, free will, and karma seem to evaporate. To act selflessly would be to act without a mind and without intention. Yet, Buddhists often attribute the accumulation of karma to “right understanding” and “skillful volition” [2] – neither one possible without some self to process it’s environment and consciously act on it.

If I can truly act selflessly, then who or what accumulates karma for this deed? It can’t be me, since I don’t exist – so is it someone else? What if we had a Buddhist utopia and everyone acted selflessly – would any of us be conscious at all, or just cogs in a machine? In what other form can selflessness take besides self-annihilation – a rejection of consciousness itself – which, taken to its logical extreme, sounds principally anti-Buddhist.

Buddha never specified whether or not a self does or doesn’t exist. He refused to answer the question, presumably because it gave power to the self/other dichotomy, which he consider illusory and the source of all suffering.

I admit by contemplating these things I am to some degree falling for this dichotomy myself, but I thought this was worth philosophizing about; I so often see people preach “no self” as the ultimate ideal, end-goal, or enlightenment of Buddhist practice, yet I find it to be misleading, nihilistic, and potentially self-destructive. At best “selflessness” is a concept that serves as a means to a goal – a technique, a strategy, a stage, or a stepping stone – not an end to be achieved. I think the idea of “selfless” is intended to break apart our conventional understandings of a self, not to be a claim of something that is true.

The problem with the self is that we often think of it too narrowly. It becomes a prison, instead of something expansive, creative, and resourceful. Helping others should be viewed first and foremost as not something self-less but something self-evolving. In this light, Buddhist morality – the drive to be compassionate and kind to others – becomes strengthened rather than diminished. Interconnectedness is the nature of the self, not selflessness.


[1] “Not self” as a strategy in Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s “No self or Not-self

[2] The Theory of Karma by Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw

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