I have come across several articles attempting to define the concept of no-self, not-self and self. These articles include

Self is described as processes in "No Self in Buddhism" which encapsulate

  1. Physical form: our physical bodies
  2. Sensation: the five senses plus our emotions
  3. Perception: thinking, conceptualizing, reasoning, etc.
  4. Mental formations: thinking habits, biases, willfulness, intention, desire, etc.
  5. Consciousness: awareness

The author goes to explain self and no-self and notes that it is a question that Buddha's proclaims to be misguided.

I do not understand the Middle path if the concepts of self and no-self are illusionary. For example if i am NOT my physical body, a composition of my senses, an aggregation of my perception, associations of my biases, judgements and my awareness of my experiences, who am i? How do i take a step back and be a spectator to these?

People often cite meditation and that is not what i seek. I am seeking is realization and actualization.

  • 2
    Note that we also have Buddhism. Your question is not strictly off topic here, but for future questions you may get better answers there.
    – user2953
    Mar 14, 2015 at 8:02
  • 1
    @Keelan - Thanks. I wasn't aware of the option. I shall certainly be it in mind for any other questions concerning Buddhism.
    – Motivated
    Mar 14, 2015 at 8:04
  • Meditation is not an end, it is a means to an end, the end being realization or self-actualization. Your question is a confusion of different ideas. I would suggest that you read a book entitled "Non-Duality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy" by David Loy. He explains these different concepts you are asking about and also how these different concepts compare across different Eastern philosophical schools. Mar 14, 2015 at 8:27
  • @Swami Vishwananda - Thanks. The objective isn't to compare concepts however to understand the self and no-self since the interpretations vary. For example, if i accept that the self is a composition of all 5 properties above, does the realization of these, the letting go of these mean no-self. If so, isn't that an extreme state? If we are not meant to be in extreme states, what is the middle path then in this example?
    – Motivated
    Mar 14, 2015 at 20:36
  • middle is an adjective as is extreme. You can't compare adjectives across concepts. An extreme temperature may lead a middle result, it doesn't have to lead to an extreme result. Mar 15, 2015 at 10:35

5 Answers 5


What are you seeking to realize or actualize?

"For example if i am NOT my physical body, a composition of my senses, an aggregation of my perception, associations of my biases, judgements and my awareness of my experiences, who am i?"

The question is where is your self? The idea is that the self must be somewhere in those 5 groups. Then they go through the arguments of elimination of the possibility of of "self" existing in any of the groups, one by one.

However this makes the assumptions that those 5 groups are all that is, why can there be no six or seventh groupings?

Why not have a sixth group called self that controls the other 5 Skandhas? Yet that answer is somewhat cheap, and really won't satisfy any curiosity on self or no self.

Self or no self though the question remains, what is this thing that thinks? What is this awareness? If not self then what?

  • I would appreciate it if you could join the conversation at chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/21927/buddhish-self-no-self
    – Motivated
    Mar 14, 2015 at 7:07
  • Thanks hellyale. I am not suggesting that the self must be contained in those 5 groups or any number of groups. I do not also challenge the question regarding what is self and what isn't. Does the middle path suggest that is a concept of between and betwixt? If so what does that mean? is that the realization i must attain? How do i actualize that realization?
    – Motivated
    Mar 14, 2015 at 7:24
  • Your usage of the term middle path is unlike what I have encountered. I don't think it has as much to do with self, as it does with behavior, although the two are related. I do not know what realization you need to attain. Remember, I am just a stranger on the internet. Perhaps the dharmakaya (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dharmak%C4%81ya) Or the six Paramitas may be of interest? (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P%C4%81ramit%C4%81) The Lam Rim, which is considered to be the complete spiritual journey from beginning to end mapped out, also might be a text of interest.
    – hellyale
    Mar 14, 2015 at 7:56
  • Thanks. I do not disagree it may have to do with behavior and that they may be related. I would presume that an understanding of either requires realization of the concepts. If so what are the realizations? For example, is the realization that i am a product of the aggregates? If yes, what then? A stranger yes but possibly one with more knowledge than i and i would be interested in learning.
    – Motivated
    Mar 14, 2015 at 8:01
  • The 5 'groups' is a common breakup in Eastern philosophy. In Hinduism it is called the 5 kosas - 5 'sheaths' or 'coverings' of the soul. Mar 14, 2015 at 8:32

I think you might be confused when you say:

How do i take a step back and be a spectator to these?

The root idea of no-self in Buddhism is that your entire process from your physical body to your psychological feelings, to your thoughts, to your intentionality, to your very self is an illusion and the source of your problems. Thus, the point for Buddhists, is not to to step back and observe these (though they may encourage stepping back and observing to realizing the fleetingness and impermanence of these things), because simply stated for orthodox Buddhists, these things don't exist.

Or to put it another way the central claim of the no-self doctrine is that there is no I. The I is just a complicated illusion. Thus, some draw parallels between Hume's bundle-theory and Buddhism. And Derek Parfit's view is sometimes called for this reason "Quasi-buddhism" because he denies that there are selves in moral philosophy.

  • I am curious about your comment - because simply stated for orthodox Buddhists, these things don't exist. Do you mean to say that life or reality don't exist?
    – Motivated
    Mar 14, 2015 at 4:58
  • confusingly worded.
    – user6917
    Mar 14, 2015 at 5:18
  • @Motivated it would mean -- life does not exist. Reality is a more complicated question, because ultimate reality is understood in Buddhism to be synonymous with non-existence.
    – virmaior
    Mar 14, 2015 at 6:09
  • @virmaior - When you say life does not exist, do you mean to say it is not real? The fact we breathe, eat, sleep, etc is not real?
    – Motivated
    Mar 14, 2015 at 6:11
  • @virmaior - It would be highly appreciated if you would join a conversation at chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/info/21927/…
    – Motivated
    Mar 14, 2015 at 6:23

The "middle way" is the way between two extremes, one extreme being hedonism and another being asceticism. I think there's a phrase in the West, "eat to live, not live to eat".

Hinduism includes a word atman which means more than just 'self': I think it means 'eternal self' or soul.

Buddhism includes a word anatman i.e. 'not atman'. I like to translate that not as 'no self' but as 'no eternal self'. There are a couple of things you ought to notice about the five skandhas which you listed:

For that reason a Buddhist might say, "I don't see an atman (i.e. an eternal and independent self or soul) in the skandhas, i.e. in the body or in the consciousness or in the sensations or etc."

Buddhism furthermore teaches that views about "self" are a source of dukkha (which means 'suffering' and/or 'unsatisfactoriness'): views like "this is me" and "this is mine" are unastisfactory e.g. because of illness and death etc.

The Dalai Lama said that he prefers to think of himself as being a human like any other; that if he thinks of himself as special, as being "the" Dalai Lama, as being "the" Nobel Prize winner, then that thinking "imprisons" him.

Buddhism recommends not being 'attached' to things (because the 'Second Noble Truth' is that attachment is the cause of suffering). Becoming detached from a view of self is part of the first stage of enlightenment.

  • that's not all the middle way has ever meant, but that's not a bad answer :)
    – user6917
    Mar 14, 2015 at 10:01
  • @ChrisW - From the discussions in chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/21927/buddhish-self-no-self, i am starting to think, this is only possible if Buddha or anyone else found a way to abolish mental models.
    – Motivated
    Mar 14, 2015 at 11:02
  • @ChrisW - What is the middle path? Do you have a real world example? If you are in a situation of having a weapon pointed to your head, the outcome is one of 2. Death or survival. Where is the middle path in this?
    – Motivated
    Mar 14, 2015 at 20:45

In Chinese Chán Buddhism the Middle Way describes the realization of being free of the one-sidedness of perspective that takes the extremes of any polarity as objective reality. In “Platform Sutra” Huineng enumerates 36 basic oppositions of consciousness and explains how the Way is free from both extremes: If one asks about the worldly, use the paired opposite of the saintly; if asking about the saintly use the paired opposite of the worldly. The mutual causation of the Way of dualities gives birth to the meaning of the Middle Way. So, for a single question, a single pair of opposites, and for other questions the single [pair] that accords with this fashion, then you do not lose the principle.

Neither Eternalism nor Annihilationism (something conditioned/unconditioned existent becomes non-existent) is a "way". The way to avoid these various extremes is "Emptiness", which means (i) a lack of inherent existence, (ii) a freedom from extremes, (iii) a lack of arising [non-arising], (iv) dependent co-origination. Dependent origination is the proper relative view which leads one to the realization of the ultimate view; which is "Emptiness", actual proper middle way view which avoids the extremes of existence, non-existence, both and neither.

The Middle Way view of Life & Death two extremes is: there is no real existence of Life or Death, life or death has no nature and can't exist by itself. If 'you' and 'wall' are illusion why don't you walk through the wall? Because in conventional truth, wall and you have their real functions. All matters are made of elements, all elements are made of electrons; electron is a form of energy, not a matter. When energy exhausts the planet collapses into a black hole; there is no 'wall no 'me' in ultimate truth, i.e "Dependent origination" (existence depends on other courses, not by itself). The Middle Way view of a robbery event is: the event is an effect after a cause: walking into a dark alley encountering a robber with a gun, its occurrence requires the robber, environment and you (Dependent origination), robbery (function of an event) is real and you acutually get killed, but the (nature of) event has no inherent existence, no arising or non-arising, or simply an illusion. This is the Chán way to use "Dependent origination" to realize "Emptiness".


This is a start:


Think of it like this. You think everything is pretty obvious, you live in your town in your country on Earth with other people and there's a Sun and a Moon and stars and video games and stack exchange. And that's reality.

One day, while meditating you realize all of that seems to be some kind of illusion. There is an Ultimate reality that's real.

Those are the two extremes.

The middle way is to deny neither. We have our relative reality and we know it's based on absolute reality.

  • I don't think common everyday reality is considered "based on absolute reality" in most sects of Buddhism.
    – virmaior
    Apr 26, 2015 at 15:11

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