Thoughts on Self and No Self

“Mahamati, words are not the highest reality, nor is what is expressed by words the highest reality. Why? Because the highest reality is an exalted state of bliss, and cannot be entered into by mere statements”

The Lankavatara Sutra

“Verbal knowledge devoid of any substance is only conceptual.”

Patanjali Yoga Sutras

“The ignorant think the self can be known by the intellect, but the illumined know it is beyond the duality of the knower and the known. The self is realised in a higher state of consciousness. When you have broken through the wrong identification that you are (the body), subject to birth and death. To be self is to go beyond death.”

The Upanishads

“There are some who would like to draw a sharp line separating different schools of eastern thought, yet there are arguably convergences where the language and the form of expression is different but the meaning is the same, pointing at the same aspect of reality.”

Reflections on the self - Jim Tarran

“A symbol is not the same thing as a sign; it is not simply something that stands for something else. The various signs that we see on the road, for instance, have their specific meanings; no right turn, no parking, or construction work ahead. But a symbol suggests or infers an aspect of life which is inexhaustible in interpretation and ultimately eludes all the intellects efforts to contain and fix it.”

Liz Greene

The Vedas contain mostly ritual and formalized acts of devotion, some of which degenerated into ethnic habit, so the Upanishads try to restate the spiritual essence of life. The Mundaka Upanishad says:-

“Such rituals are unsafe rafts for crossing the sea of samsara, of birth and death. Doomed to shipwreck are those who try to cross the sea of samsara in such poor rafts. Ignorant of their ignorance, yet wise in their own esteem, these deluded men proud of their vain learning go round and round like the blind being led by the blind.”

The renowned Zen teacher Hui Neng said, “The profundity of the teachings of the various Buddhas has nothing to do with written language.”

And Sangharakshitta, a contemporary teacher of Buddhism, makes a point about some degeneration in parts of the Hinayana Buddhist movement that can be easily extrapolated to a more general principle, when he says:-

“The literal-mindedness of the Hinayana consists of its habit of regarding intellectual formulations of the doctrine as valid in the ultimate sense, as being not merely conceptual symbols of reality and thus the theoretical support for it’s practical realisation, but as constituting a fully adequate description of reality.”

The Upanishads represent both a link to the pre-Aryan civilisation Indus Valley and as such are refinement of the Aryan influence. Buddhism in a way refines these conceptual pointers further. So the development from the idea of Atman to Anatman (p-Anatta) – respectively self and empty of self – can be seen as replacing one system of pointing to a more expedient one still. This does not mean that the concept of Atman cannot be used to draw one into connection with ultimate universal principles in the hands of the creative, non-literally minded. But one can see the potential confusion of using such terminology.

Then Hindu terminology talks both of Self in the positive, ultimately expansive sense but also of Self as one of the ‘kleshas’, or causes, of suffering as in ‘asmita klesha’ or suffering caused by attachment to a sense of self. It is important to understand what we are doing by reading these kinds of work as symbolic allusions to reality. Then we can discern if a teaching is more or less conducive to this end.

In the words of the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama (p-Gotama),

“Whatever teachings conduce to dispassion, to energy, to delight in the wholesome, to freedom-of these teachings, thou may with certainty affirm this is the Dharma (truth) this is the Vinaya (law). This is the master’s message.”

Further reading:
A Survey of Buddhism: Its Doctrines and Methods Through the Ages by Sangarakshitta
Yoga Explained by Mira Mehta
The Upanishads by Eknath Easwaran
Relating: An Astrological Guide to Living with Others on a Small Planet by Liz Greene