Buddhism and the concept of self

Introduction

I have been recently reading Digha Nikaya and Samyutta Niyaka, the Buddhist Pali scriptures. One reason for reading it is to see for myself what Buddha says about the self and rebirth, at least as recorded in the Buddhist Pali scriptures. Buddhist position seems to me to be contradictory.

Buddhist scriptures on the self and rebirth

I have given below two examples from Samyutta Niyaka on self and rebirth:

On Rebirth

Vacchagotta: And, Master Gotama, when a being has laid down this body but has not yet been reborn in another body, what does Master Gotama declare to be its fuel  on that occasion?

Gotama: When, Vaccha, a being has laid down this body but has not yet been reborn in another body, I declare that it is fuelled by craving. For on that occasion craving is its fuel.

(Samyutta Nikaya   IV.44.9)

On self

Gotama: If Ananda, when I was asked by the wanderer Vacchagotta, ‘Is there a self?’ I had answered, ‘There is a self,’ this would have been siding with those ascetics and Brahmins who are eternalists. And if, when I was asked by him, ‘Is there no self?’ I had answered, ‘There is no self,’ this would have been siding with those ascetics and Brahmins who are annihilationists.

 If Ananda when I was asked by the wanderer Vacchagotta, ’Is there a self?’, I had answered, ‘There is a self,’ would this have been consistent on my part with the arising of the knowledge that ‘all phenomena are nonself’?

Ananda:  No venerable Sir.

Gotama: And if, when I was asked by him, ‘Is there no self?’ I had answered, ‘There is no self,’ the wanderer Vacchagotta, already confused, would have fallen into even greater confusion, thinking, ’It seems that the self I formerly had does not exist now’.

(Samyutta Nikaya  IV.44.10)

Contradiction

The first quote from Samyutta Nikaya seems to suggest that there is some kind of rebirth. If there is rebirth then there has to be something that is common between the two births. That would suggest that there is a self. However, the second quote from Samyutta Nikaya seems to suggest that the self exists at the level of phenomena since the self is really nonself! (It is curious that the Samyutta Nikaya talks of Brahmins being annihilationists. Did some Brahmins at that time claim that there is no permanent self? Upanishads do say that it is the Kshatriyas who introduced the doctrine of the Atman. ) Since the self is nonself i.e. phenomenon, there is really no such thing as a self in the Buddhist scheme of things. 

Can one make any sense of the Buddhist position? What is the relation between A and B when A dies and B is born? The Hindu position is that B=A if their karmas are identical. The Buddhist position seems to be that although B is born with the karma of A, B is not related to A since there is no self.  This position is contradictory on two counts:

1. Suppose A was a murderer. Poor B is saddled with the murderous karma of A for no reason at all. This seems to be thoroughly unfair.

2. Buddhist schools say that there is no relation between A and B. Yet Buddhist scriptures talk of Buddha Jataka stories where Buddha’s past 500 births are related. If there is no relation between 2 births except for karma then how can Buddha’s 500 rebirths be traced?

Some Buddhists suggest that the Buddhist position is more subtle than that stated above that B is not related to A. They say that when B is born with the karma of A, B is neither A nor not A. In other words, the self of B is not the same as A nor is it different from A. Even this curious position that the self of B is not the same as A nor is it different from A does not make the Buddhist position palatable. Let me revisit my example of A being a murderer. Clearly the self of B, both that is not the same as A and that which is not different from A will suffer the Karmic consequences of A being the murderer. It seems fair that the self of B that is not different from A should suffer from the karmic consequences of A being the murderer. It seems highly unfair that the self of B that is not the same as A should suffer from the karmic consequences of A being the murderer.

The nonexistence of self in Buddhist scheme of things seems to contradict Buddha’s famous deathbed words to Ananda , ’Atma deepa bhava’ (Be like a lamp). Can one be like a lamp if one does not have a self? Some Buddhists seeing this difficulty say that Buddha’s deathbed words were, “Atma dweepa bhava’ (Be like an island!).

Selflessness?

It is clear that a straightforward reading of the Buddhist scripture does not make any sense. So is there any other way to interpret the Buddhist teaching on the self? Can it be that Buddha wanted all to behave in a selfless manner and be compassionate. Is this why he taught that there is no self? Such an interpretation would of course imply that it would not be correct to compare the Buddhist idea of the self with the Hindu Atman.

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