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The Non-Self and the True Self in the Buddha's Teachings

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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If you ask most Buddhists whether there is any doctrine of a soul or eternal Self within the teachings of the Buddha, they will reply with a very definite "no!"

And yet a closer study of Mahayana Buddhism (one of the two main divisions of Buddhism) reveals that this is quite simply inaccurate. The Buddha teaches both the non-Self and the Self. Let us look at these two facets of his "Dharma" (Truth).

The misunderstanding by most Buddhists arises from the fact that the Buddha usually places the greatest emphasis on what is NOT the Soul or Self. Thus, the physical body, feelings, thoughts, impulses, and ordinary consciousness are labelled as "non-Self" or "non-Soul" (anatman). These elements of our worldly being are impermanent and subject to change and dissolution, so cannot sensibly be deemed our Soul. They make up our "mundane self", and that mundane self is dismissed as "a lie" by the Buddha. This fictitious worldly self or ego has no enduring reality - it is a constantly mutating stream of reincarnating desires which never find lasting satisfaction. Our worldly self is one big and painful illusion.

Most Buddhists stop here and preach this as the highest truth about selfhood. This, however, is only half the story. In the final phase of his teaching career, the Buddha revealed that there exists within each sentient being an innermost essence, which knows of no change and no death. He called this "the True Self" or "True Soul" (satya-atman). He also termed it the Buddha-Dhatu - the "Buddha-Principle" - or the tathagata-garbha, the "embryonic Buddha" latent within us.

In his last sutra (scripture), the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, as well as in other sutras of a similar nature, he tells of how this Self is within all beings, but unknown to them, like some cache of hidden treasure. He says of this Self:

"It is not true to say that all phenomena are devoid of a Self. The Self is Reality (tattva), the Self is eternal (nitya), the Self is virtue (guna), the Self is everlasting (sasvata), the Self is stable (dhruva), the Self is peace …" (Tibetan version of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra).

These qualities of our True Self are diametrically opposed to what we normally think of as "ourselves". Our worldly self is not truly real, as it is always changing into something else - it can never just "be"; the True Self, by contrast, is ultimate, unchanging Reality. It is immovable, unshakeable (dhruva) and full of peace. Moreover, it endures forever. No death can touch it, no harm can befall it, no unhappiness can blight it. It is as indestructible and radiant as a diamond. It is what the Buddha terms the realm of Nirvana - highest and everlasting happiness.

It is absolutely vital, however, that we should not mistake our worldly self, our ego, for this True Self, which lies buried beneath all our emotional and mental "defilements" (such as desire, hatred and spiritual delusion). In no way must we think that we can understand our Soul by thought and reasoning alone. It is, in fact, "unthinkable" (acintya). It can only be contacted and "seen" when we have cleared away all the obscuring thoughts and emotions which screen it from our view. Only through the cultivation of a moral lifestyle (e.g. avoiding killing, avoiding lying, avoiding stealing, avoiding the eating of meat) and through the practice of meditation can we clear away the nasty clutter of our minds and see the Self, which the Buddha says is "radiantly shining". Our task then is to lead all other beings to this inner realm of Nirvana, enshrined within each being's Soul.

If you are one of the vast majority of Mahayana Buddhists who have not been exposed to these teachings, you might feel quite shocked. You may even dismiss these doctrines as un-Buddhistic. And yet it would be a mistake to do so. The Buddha, in some of his most deep-reaching sutras - such as the Tathagata-garbha Sutra, the Srimaladevi Sutra, the Surangama Sutra, and the Mahaparinirvana Sutra (amongst others) - insists that this teaching of the "Buddha-Principle" within all beings is ultimate Truth and must not be rejected. To dwell in one's thoughts and meditation only on what is NOT the Soul, and to teach others only that, and to fail to cultivate the notion of the reality of the True Soul, is to unbalance the Buddhist doctrine and lead people into error. The Buddha says in no uncertain terms in his last sutra, the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra:

"Those who abandon the teaching given in this sutra concerning the tathagata-garbha [i.e. the Buddha-Essence in beings or True Self) are just like cattle. For example, just as people who intend to commit suicide will cause themselves extreme misery, similarly you should know that those ungrateful people who reject the tathagata-garbha and teach non-Self cause themselves extreme misery."

So, respecting and following the final teachings of the Buddha on the True Self is extremely important. It would be an unwise Mahayana Buddhist who dismissed these doctrines out of hand or tried to minimise them as "tame Buddhism" for those of a less robust spiritual disposition! The teaching of the eternal Buddhic Principle within us, which when once glimpsed transforms us into a Buddha, is declared by the Buddha to be the "absolutely final culmination" of his Doctrine.