In West, self is seen as a precious concept, central to everyday life decisions. On the opposite, Western stretches the illusory nature of a permanent entity. It seems to be there such an huge difference, and the understanding of it seems difficult, producing the most emotional reactions. Why is it so, if there are no any scientific prove of the existence of a permanent self, except in religions?

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    Can you say more/provide more examples? Which "emotional reactions" are you referring to? Where is the "no-self" concept claimed to be "weird"? Apr 30, 2014 at 16:33
  • Sure. I'm referring to reactions I use to see in social networks and forums. For example, if some question arises questioning the existence of a separate self, or thinker, ou doer, it would probably receive a negative feedback.
    – Di Ana
    May 1, 2014 at 23:54
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    From my experience, that is hardly a unique reaction to Eastern ideas. Internet forums are basically a mechanism for gathering unhinged, emotional responses to ideas. May 2, 2014 at 12:55
  • You are right, it is doesn't happen only with Eastern ideas, but I think we have to agree that the non-existence of a self is something difficult to accept. What do you think?
    – Di Ana
    May 4, 2014 at 21:46
  • Might we persuade you to either supply an example or alter the question to be more functional / answerable for an SE? As written, it seems to be asking us to speculate as to motives and claiming something about the Western account of self that would be difficult to support in contemporary philosophical literature...
    – virmaior
    Mar 20, 2016 at 9:23

6 Answers 6


Noting a specific definition of self, akin to ego.

ref. Basic Facts of Existence, III. Egolessness

The diverse renderings chosen by the individual authors for the key term anattaa or nairaatmya (Skt.) have been retained. Hence it should be understood by the reader that egolessness, soullessness, impersonality and not-self all stand for the Pali term anattaa (Sanskrit: anaatma or nairaatmya).

In this context, being selfless or non-egocentric is quite unmysterious. By not being egocentric or selfish one simply does not prioritise one's own needs or importance over the needs of others.

Why this should have been so hard to discover shows that there are plenty of confused ideas around, not least due to misinterpretation of sublime sutras like the Diamond-Cutter.

Vagrakkhedikâ or Diamond-Cutter XXII & XXIII

'What do you think then, O Subhûti, is there anything which has been known by the Tathâgata in the form of the highest perfect knowledge?' The venerable Subhûti said: 'Not indeed, O Bhagavat, there is nothing, O Bhagavat, that has been known by the Tathâgata in the form of the highest perfect knowledge.' Bhagavat said: 'So it is, Subhûti, so it is. Even the smallest thing is not known or perceived there, therefore it is called the highest perfect knowledge.'

'Also, Subhûti, all is the same there, there is no difference there, and therefore it is called the highest perfect knowledge. Free from self, free from being, free from life, free from personality, that highest perfect knowledge is always the same, and thus known with all good things. And why? Because, what were preached as good things, good things indeed, O Subhûti, they were preached as no-things by the Tathâgata, and therefore they are called good things.'


On the opposite, Western stretches the illusory nature of a permanent entity.

As far as I know, there is the permanent entity thought in the "eastern thoughts" too, such as 輪廻転生。

Since I do not know the corresponding English word, I looked up the dictionary, and there in the link, there I found already one example.

At the root of Indian society, there is the principle of Rinne Tensho (all things being in flux through the endless circle of birth, death and rebirth, or the circle of transmigration) in Hinduism.

Even in our country, the Zen master Dogen, describes such as


-- Translation --

We human being are such existence to die and reincarnate, change the world and place to be born and produce and gain the virtue in each life, and in the forecoming future, will attain to be at the height of Buddha.

Here, unfortunately and on the contrary to your claims, there is a "self" even in so-called "eastern thoughts" and "permanent self".


Your question reminds me of the Korean nun Daehaeng, who I read about in Park's Makers of Modern Korean Buddhism. She emphasised that son (zen) is grounded in our teartment of others. Wikipedia says e.g.

She exhorted people to work on letting go of thoughts such as "I," "mine," and "I did," as well as to be careful to interpret events positively. In addition, she warned about getting caught up in blaming others for the things one experiences. Instead, she said, understand that we've had a role in creating everything that we experience. So if we can handle them wisely, if we can entrust them to our foundation, even those will change and move in a more positive direction.

She didn't emphasize fixed periods of sitting meditation, nor did she encourage the systematic study of hwadus(kong-an). She wanted people to get used to listening inwardly and discovering what they needed to do at any particular time to brighten their own hearts, as opposed to getting caught up in other's fixed forms and traditions. To this extent, she taught people to take the issues of their own daily life as the material of their spiritual practice, and to practice entrusting that to one's inherent Buddha-nature.

Different Buddhists will have different interpretations of their beliefs or doctrines, but it is not just in the West that words like "fixed" or "permanent" occur. To answer your literal question, it may be because we in the West have to rely more on scholarship, as opposed to general religious practice, to embrace the religion; and the cult of individualism in the West.


Why does the eastern teaching of no-self be so difficult to accept, as an actuality and not as a weird claim, by western thought?

In the West, the word "self" has a different cultural and philosophical meaning than in the East. It's subtle, but because the process of reasoning through the idea of "no self" is so nuanced, it is very important that one has the right idea when thinking through things. Unless someone learns the Eastern idea of "self," and the subtle way it's different from the Western idea, then they will necessarily have a hard or impossible time trying to accept "no self." It would be like trying to hammer a nail in with a piece of tape -- it fails, because the wrong tool is being used for the job. In this case, the tool is the idea of "self."

In West, self is seen as a precious concept, central to everyday life decisions. On the opposite, Western stretches the illusory nature of a permanent entity. It seems to be there such an huge difference, and the understanding of it seems difficult, producing the most emotional reactions. Why is it so, if there are no any scientific prove of the existence of a permanent self, except in religions?

First of all, you are mistaken when saying, "there [is not] any scientific [proof] of the existence of a permanent self, except in religions..." There is a law in physics called "conservation of energy" and it states that energy is neither created or destroyed, it is merely transformed.[1] This is science, and what it essentially means is that the substance of the universe, on a base level, is the same as it's always been, it is simply its appearance which changes as a result of various combinations, interactions, etc. The energy that makes up the atoms in our bodies were once in plants and animals, and so on, back through time. This is not religion, it is scientific fact.

You may wonder what this has to do with the idea of "self." Well, in Vedanta (sometimes taken as a religion, though often said to be a philosophy), there is the notion of the Atman (individual self) and the Brahman (the universal self, or universe). One is taught that the Atman is part of the Brahman, that they are made of the same thing, and it's a mistake to see them as different. This can be compared to how a wave of the ocean may seem separate even though the wave is just the ocean:

"Like waves arising in the sea, this universe springs forth, into its show of many changing things." [2]

By recognizing this, one can begin to identify not with the small set of atoms that compose one's body, but as part of the universe, and so, as the universe. By identifying oneself in this way, the notion of "self" becomes dependent not upon one's own individual life (which will pass), but on the life of the universe as a whole (which will live on). So, there is, in a sense, permanence. It is all in how you define it. While it is true that one's individual mind, thoughts, preferences, and body will cease to exist, the substance they're made of will continue on, and by identifying with that, by choosing to call that "self," a sense of permanence does exist. This is entirely supported by science.

In regards to your asking why people have emotional reactions to the idea of "no self": when you say "self" to someone in the West, it can mean "life." Here is a definition from an American English dictionary: "...a person's essential being..."[3] Asking someone who feels that "self" is their "essential being" to give that up, is like asking them to commit suicide.[3] It is understandable that people will be emotional when proposing such a thing. There are many nuances to the meaning of "self" in various Eastern philosophies, and these definitions are not the same as they are in the West. If you still believe that there is no permanent "self" and seek to convince other people of this, it would serve you well to define "self" as you mean it, so that they don't take what you're saying as insulting.


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservation_of_energy
  2. The Astavakra Samhita, 15.7, http://www.advaitin.net/Ananda/Ashtavakra.pdf
  3. "self," American English Dictionary
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    The Atman is not the "individual self". Atman is often translated into English as Self with a capital S to distinguish it from the psychological self. The Atman has nothing to do with what is traditionally understood in the west with the world self. It is transcendental to it. In particular there can be no no-Self, since Atman is understood to be imperishable. there can only be no-self, whatever that means — probably detaching oneself from the belief in a substantial psychological self, by way of meditation.
    – nir
    Apr 19, 2016 at 9:26
  • typo above: the world self = the word self
    – nir
    Apr 19, 2016 at 18:36

The most basic answer to this question is that it presents a threat to the ego, which lives from the endless quest to control the world and secure itself with comforting narrative (confabulations) about existence.

The buddhist concept of no-self is very simple: it is the idea that the thing one calls "self" is no more than the minds artificial construction of a narrator for the five aggregates (skandhas) of form (or matter or body) (rupa), sensations (or feelings, received from form) (vedana), perceptions (samjna), mental activity or formations (sankhara), and consciousness (vijnana).

No-self (anattā) and emptiness (sunyata) are concepts that represent the Heraclitian nature of existence, meaning empty of intrinsic existence and nature. It is the mind that gives self and form permanence and specific "natures". And much as Hume saw in the breakdown of internal and external impressions the mechanisms of the formation of habit, buddhist thought breaks down experience to its fundamental components as a way to free mental representations of false impressions about the of one's existence and causal attributions we make of the external world.

But ironically, from a western (abrahamic) perspective, one may not see such a concept as being something promoting of freedom. The very idea of letting go of the self provokes anxiety for many, so the idea of non-self implies for them a void/nothingness, which is not at all what the concept of Anatta refers to. Anatta is not so much a non-existence. It is more a concept of non-adding-to.

This Thanisarro Bhikku quote sums it nicely:

Emptiness as a mental state, in the early canons, means a mode of perception in which one neither adds anything to nor takes anything away from what is present, noting simply, "There is this." This mode is achieved through a process of intense concentration, coupled with the insight that notes more and more subtle levels of the presence and absence of disturbance

While he's using the term "emptiness" here, suññatā, it is the very same principle only applied to the activity of the skandas (the breakdown of mental and sensory experience that one calls and considers a solidified "self").

Perhaps another parallel one could make is with constructivism and the contemporary reaction to the "Death of Man" in the work of Foucault. By deconstructing the idea of an ahistorical, autonomous subject as sovereign originator of meaning, untainted by his own particular historical and socio-political context, he made a lot of people upset. Self ideas are the most sacred ones we have. I think it's perhaps only natural that the challenging of them (whatever ones socio-cultural background) be somewhat sensitive.

I'm not sufficiently familiar with the use of the concept's use in Hindu/Vedic thought to comment on it, but in buddhism it is applied to literally everything as a means to combat the human tendency to cling to representations and ideas.


The notion of self is fundamental to the notion of freedom. Freedom, in essence, consists of following one's own desires, not someone else's. This explains why politicians in the West talk about such "trivial" stuff like health care, unemployment, poverty, security, whereas politicians in the East talk about great things like glories of the state, national dream, national humiliation, national interest, etc. My first impression of American political discourse was that powerful American statesmen were preoccupied by the kind of topics that preoccupy housewives. In the West, the purpose of the Government is to serve the individuals; in the East, the individuals are supposed to serve the state. Underlying the conflict between self and no-self is the conflict between freedom and slavery.

The notion of self is also essential to compassion and empathy. The ability to understand or share the feelings of others presumes analogy: What is undesirable to oneself is very likely to be undesirable to others. In other words, one needs to feel for himself first before he can imagine how others feel. It does happen very often that self-respecting people also spontaneously respect others; and what is undesirable to themselves - be it loss of property, privacy or dignity - they do not want to inflict on others. On the other hand, those who were brought up in no-self philosophy, while instinctively holding themselves dear in the subconscious but consciously despise the notion of self, end up being more enthusiastic in preaching no-self to others than to themselves, and, not infrequently, use fine phrases such as karma, yoga and religion to justify the infliction of cruelty upon others. Love of power is a human instinct; sadistic pleasure is also a human instinct; no-self philosophy creates harmony between holders of power, who are desirous to indulge in the love of power and sadistic pleasure, and those who have to put up with bullying.

Being selfish does not necessarily imply lacking concern for others. Some saints, whose feelings are very expansive, actually have very selfish motives: Robert Owen tried to improve industrial workers' living condition because he wanted to relieve his own sympathetic pain.

The no-self doctrine is not totally rejected in the West; the struggle between freedom and slavery transcends national borders. Depending on how regimented an organization is and how desirous the holders of power are to enjoy power, such demands as "selfless service," "leave your ego outside," or "practice yoga in day-to-day business" do circulate at workplace. In the West, the holders of power may find no-self doctrine useful to cultivate obedience in their employees, but they fail to realize that the price of such convenience is a generation of degenerates who have neither the instinct for freedom nor the ability and will to defend themselves - this is no fiction - Tibet and Mongolia used to be powerful and energetic.

In this age of organizations, self-respect is even more important. Simply by standing his own ground, the individual is also helping others to defend their living standards.

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    I am sorry to say, but this seems to me to be dogmatic opinionated BS with no references. For example, in some eastern philosophies and religions, compassion to others is what one finds in said emptiness or no-self: "The antidote for attachment is emptiness, and the remedy for emptiness is compassion." - The Royal Seal of Mahamudra. Compassion is what happens when you actually start to listen to others (with all your senses) rather than to the endless noise that your ego (self) produces as you stare at them.
    – nir
    Mar 21, 2017 at 16:12
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    @nir see quote azquotes.com/quote/1288960 Mar 21, 2017 at 16:37
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    @nir This partially explained why India had small pox epidemic as late as 1974: skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/26525/… Mar 21, 2017 at 16:52
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    @GeorgeChen The OP's question refers to "no-self". It is very specific concept arising from the concept of anattā. If you don't know what the OP is referring to but you respond discussing the western concept of "self" are you having the same conversation? Are you addressing her question? Or are you talking past her question with something else that wasn't asked? Mar 21, 2017 at 19:40
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    @JohnAm We are not discussing "self-consciousness" here, but the concept of "no-self". The concept of no-self has absolutely nothing to do with self-consciousness except in discussion of raising the level of consciousness awareness of the attributes of sense and their objects and the causal connections one can make between processes and products (actions/non-actions and results). If you would like to ask a separate questions let's do so by opening a new one. That allows for less people getting confused by discussion irrelevant to the topic at hand. Mar 21, 2017 at 19:56

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