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Where is the "Self"? A Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic

A few months ago I decided I was going to educate myself on the traditions and ancient text of all religions where in which mindfulness and meditation are a key component. For many people, the cornerstone of mindfulness usually starts with Buddhism so for me, this seemed like a great place to begin my education.

By learning the traditions of these ancient cultures and religions, my hope is to pass the benefits along to you!!!

The more I understand mindfulness and meditation in their entirety, the better I can serve you and future meditation enthusiasts.

So with that in mind, I want to tell you about a book I’m reading and more specifically, about a sermon that was discussed in this book that really got me thinking.

Right now I’m reading an amazing book called “Why Buddhism is True” written by Robert Wright. If you’re relatively new to meditation and the Buddhist tradition this is an excellent introductory reading.

Mr. Wright focuses on the science of meditation and empirical evidence to make his claim that the core fundamentals of Buddhism, when compared to the observation of science, are indeed the closest we can get to the true nature of reality.

This book is a mix of new age scientific thinking and ideas that have been around for millennia. In one particular chapter, Mr. Wright discusses a pivotal and foundational sermon the original Buddha gave to five of his students hundreds of years ago titled, “Anatta-lakkhana Sutt.” Often translated as “The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic.”

The Buddha’s teaching that day is said to have been so powerful that all five disciples were instantly enlightened after hearing the lecture—the first of their kind to reach enlightenment after the Buddha.

In the lecture, the Buddha encourages the students to look within themselves to see if they were able to spot exactly in the mind or body where the “I” or “self” resides. As the sermon goes, there are five aspects of being that people confuse as “the self” or “mine”:

  1. The physical body or the physical form

  2. Basic feelings (tired, hungry, etc)

  3. Perception (what you see, feel or smell)

  4. Mental formation and high-level complex thinking and emotions (jealousy, strategic thinking, planning, resentment etc)

  5. Consciousness (or awareness of a consciousness)

As a precept to the discussion on “no-self,” the Buddha and his students agree that the “self” would be defined as a place or instance in which the subject has complete and autonomous agency.

With this definition in mind, the Buddha asked his students to consider their bodies and question the validity of the body as “self” by asking them to question why the body was subject to decay and illness. If you indeed retain complete agency over the body, then would you not simply “will” the body back to a state of equilibrium should it become ill?

Or, in the words of the Buddha as translated from this sermon:

Were form self, then this form would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of form: 'Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.' And since form is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of form: 'Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus”

The Buddha then goes on to dispel the notions of feelings, perceptions, thinking, and consciousness as “self” by questioning the autonomy and control we have over each.

As the translation goes:

"Any kind of consciousness whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near must, with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: 'This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.'

"When a noble follower who has heard (the truth) sees thus, he finds estrangement in form, he finds estrangement in feeling, he finds estrangement in perception, he finds estrangement in determinations, he finds estrangement in consciousness.

"When he finds estrangement, passion fades out. With the fading of passion, he is liberated. When liberated, there is knowledge that he is liberated. He understands: 'Birth is exhausted, the holy life has been lived out, what can be done is done, of this there is no more beyond.'"

So what the heck is the Buddha trying to get at here?

To me, the thesis of this sermon is non-attachment and acceptance (or non-resistance).

It is only when we realize that we are not our minds that we can be freed of our dreadful thoughts.

It is only when we realize that we are not the body that we will stop resisting attrition and the natural aging of the physical form.

It is not until we realize that we are not our perceptions or feelings that we will overcome our anxieties and our fears.

When you see there is ultimately nothing to hold onto in this world, you free yourself from the disease of insatiable desire and want. You free yourself from a me vs. you mentality and you become one with what is and what has always been. By seeing that you are nothing you realize at the same time you are everything and that is incredibly powerful.

When you see this truth, you realize that the light in you is the same light in the everyone you meet. Once you see the light, you see reality in its truest sense—a sense of interdependence and connectivity.

So, the next time you meditate ask yourself,

“Who, or what, am I?”

“Where is the 'me' that is supposed to exist?”

Hold these questions in your consciousness while you meditate and you might, as the students of the Buddha did centuries ago, see that there is truly no “self”-- only “us” and “what is”

Thank you as always for reading! We hope you enjoyed this weeks teaching!!

If you want to check out the full discourse on the Not-self Characteristic check out the translation I used for this post from

Until next weekend,

Many Many Blessings!

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