The Goal of Selflessness in Buddhist Philosophy.


Mark Maxwell






This essay wishes to explore the goal of realisation of selflessness in Buddhist teaching. I shall explore theories of ontology, perception and soteriology in relation to this aim, in three areas of Buddhist literature – Theravada, Mahayana, and The Abhidharma. The philosophical concerns I wish to address are non-essentialism, and process ontology/metaphysics, concerns that become problematic when delineated within the limitations of a subject-predicate language structure. But as the goal of Buddhism is to realise selflessness, these limitations become the very obstacles that must be surmounted in order to achieve the aim.

I shall follow a chronological order in my essay with regard to developments in thought, beginning with Theravada textus receptus, early commentators lived eight or nine centuries after the Buddha, and five hundred years after tradition indicates the first orally transmitted texts were written down for the first time. The most recent texts end with Nagarjuna and the Mahayana or middle way.





Theravada tradition.


The early Pali canon of Buddhist texts, the sutras, or aphorisms, talk about things as though they are merely conceptualisations or labels – prajnapti-matra. It may be a mistake to regard this view as Idealist, because it may also be argued that the Pali canon also discusses a pluralist and realistic ontology. The Buddha appears to have been more concerned with the how of relationships, not with the, what of perceptual phenomena. Therefore, we may regard the ontology of early Buddhist thinking as process ontology – things that may said to exist are in an ever changing and continuous flow.


This view is applied to the conception of self or atman. The Buddha denies that there is a self and therefore advocates a view of anatman or no self. The illusion of an abiding self is the very source of all Human dissatisfaction, and therefore must be removed. Such is the goal of Buddhist teaching, the teaching of Anatman.

There is an argument from impermanence to support the notion of no self. Here, the personality is analysed and described as a series of five psychophysical elements or Skandha. It is argued that non of these skandhas is permanent – none of them, as with individual desires, last a whole lifetime. There is an immediate problem with this view with respect to the pre-supposed Buddhist doctrine of re-birth.


The problem of re-birth was inherited from a prevailing contemporary Brahminical view, and dealt with in the sutras the following way:

In discussing how the Buddha viewed his reality, language itself becomes problematic because of its limiting subject-predicate form. However, the Pali canon displays the Buddha using skill in means, and clever allegory to overcome innate linguistic constrictions, imagery and cultural beliefs of competing views, whether they be religious or philosophical. This skill creates problems for those who adopt a literalist approach to the sutras. As Gombrich argues, we must be clear about when and how the Buddha – taken as an individual who may represent a received body of texts – is using skill in means and allegory to explain and transform the conceptions of a myriad of listeners. The prime example of this is the Buddhist use of the doctrine of re-birth - karma.


Karma is transformed in the Pali canon from its Brahminical origins of ceremonial sacrificial obligation to the process of becoming oriented away from that very Brahmin doctrine and towards an understanding of impermanence. Thus, in the fire sutra for example, the language, imagery and cultural beliefs of the Brahmin are replaced by a competing description of the five skandhas. Thus, the problem of a pre-supposed self, undergoing the round of re-birth may be explained as a complex causal series of psychophysical elements.

The series may be viewed as one thread or stream with old elements being replaced by new ones continuously. It is now possible to replace any stream imagery in competing Brahminical texts with a reifying Buddhist doctrine of no self – a skandha stream.

With an understanding that there is a rational explanation for no self, it is now possible to move from a state of re-orientation away from previously held views and towards a determined effort of conceptual change on the part of the pupil Buddhist.


This challenge emphasises the role of language in the way we understand our perceptions of phenomenon. The way our language works is fundamental to the way in which we conceptualise phenomenon – an area much explored by the Abhidharma.


While a nominalist may argue that there are no Universal essences in the Buddhist corpus, it is also arguable that each individual has the potential to experience the Buddha state for him/herself, and then be unable to use language to convey exactly how the unconditioned is. Thus, grasping at an explanation merely adds to the problem of a conceptualised self rather than helping remove it as an illusion. Such grasping has lead to the literal interpretation of sutras in an inappropriate way. For example, the allegory of the raft as a method towards understanding the Buddha’s teaching which is then not required once enlightenment is gained has generated some confusion. The question may be asked if there is an abiding self, which exists beyond the five skandha of personality analysis. The Buddha refused to answer this question directly because no answer can be delivered without using a language inherently conditioned with inappropriate conceptualisations. It is the inability to recognise that personality analysis is but a tool used to dismantle deeply embedded notions of self that leads to questions of a self beyond its psychophysical elements.


Abidharma tradition.


The Abhidharma tradition extended the analysis of personality to include all phenomenal experience. Thus, language becomes that from which social fictions arise – we use language to navigate the conventional world of inter-subjectivity, but there is a correspondence with the unconventional world of the Buddha that must be explored through analytical categorisation of basic things. It may be argued that this approach begins a long and arduous process away from the spirit of the Theravada. As explained in the last section, analysis was intended to be used as a means to an end – an end which justified using skill in means to root out inappropriate views.


The Abidharma suggest that there are no wholes. Thus, if we take as an example that of a motorcycle, we recognise that we use one word to describe a complex series of relationships that may be explained in a vast number of different ways. The working motorcycle has one configuration that works best and that is a motorcycle in good running order. But the same motorcycle may be configured in a bad way – one that will not work. The question of which motorcycle is fundamentally real is independent of our personal wants, needs and interests. In Buddhist analysis we see reductionism at work – there is a concerted search for that which may be said to be fundamental.


There are two truths in Buddhist reductionism: A statement is ultimately true if and only if it corresponds to the facts and neither asserts nor entails the existence of any conceptual fiction. A statement is conventionally true if and only if it is assertable in accordance with the standards of common sense (with common-sense standards understood as deriving from successful practice).

An example of these two truths is explored in, Milindapanha. 40. Here, King Milinda feels he understands well that there are no persons. However, the King still asks the question of Nagasena if the same persons cohere over time? Nagasena answers ‘neither.’ Milinda reasons that the baby and the adult are two different people. But if this is so, the student and the graduate would be two different people also, and so the graduate would not be deserving of his/her qualification. Also, there would be a problem prosecuting a criminal if the same person did not both commit the crime and serve the administered sentence.

The apparent contradiction is explained in terms of the two truths: There are new skandhas in the phenomenal stream and not new persons. Conventional truth indicates that the law must apply to both as a continuous entity. Unconventional truth says there are different states of one body. Thus, process ontology can explain phenomena as existing in terms of continuous, analysable processes and not essential natures of permanent substances.


Another example of process ontology is that of the oil lamp – the oil lamp shines all night long, but, the flame is not one continuous flame throughout that duration, rather, it is a causal series between a succession of flames - a process. However, it is convenient to speak of one light. In this way, Ultimate truth explains conventional usage, and this explanation may be equally applied to persons – there are no persons, merely a skandha stream.


The Abhidharma regard dharmas to be the part-less parts or fundamental aspects of acquaintance. Dharmas are therefore the fundamental category of analytical reductionism. For the dharmas to fulfil their proposed function, it is clear that they can not be broken down into more constituent parts. It is also clear that they must have no borrowed properties and be intrinsic to them - Svabhava. (Sva – self. Bhava – nature.) Thus, returning to the example of the motorcycle, the term motorcycle refers to an ordered arrangement or configuration. Therefore, the term motorcycle is not indicating a real entity for the Abhidharma. Conceptual fictions are open to inter-subjective verification, but dharmas, being Svabhava, and therefore nominal by definition, must only be known by acquaintance.


Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmamoko-sabhasya, or treasury of metaphysics. 4.2b – 3b illustrate the subject. Here, Vasubandhu explores a version of representationalism that states that our perceptual experience is of rupa dharmas, (The Buddha spoke of five skhundas – four rupa dharmas – physical, and one nama dharma - mental.) We are aware of mental representations and then infer external reality from them. A rainbow is a good example of what Vasubandhu’s representationalism entails; the representations we are aware of would be the rainbow itself as externally existing – however, all we are really aware of is the refraction of light waves, or, in the analogy, rupa dharmas. Therefore, the rupa dharmas (water droplet refraction) we are aware of generate the representation of an external reality (rainbow).


There is a theory of impermanence, which negates a causal link between objects in Vasubandhu’s representationalism. The theory itself relies upon the assertion that nothing really moves because conditioned things are momentary. Assuming this is correct, Vasubandhu then feels it is appropriate to further assert that nothing lasts long enough to be able to move. If this assertion itself is correct, then our perceptions would be of a static succession of representations of physical objects which then give rise to the appearance of motion.


If this is so, then a further time lag argument suggests that the representations we experience, and the dharmas generating that experience are not the same. Therefore, we are living in a world of mental awareness or representations of what once was.

As it is not possible for us to causally influence the world of our perception – we are living in a mental awareness of the past – the absence of objects are not caused but come into being as new dharmas. Thus, if we smash a pot with a stick, we experience NOT the absence of a pot, rather the rise of potshards. The moral consequences of the series of dharmas we experience are due to karmic influence of our conditioned genesis.


Vasubandhu later developed a form of subjective idealism as a move towards achieving nirvana or selflessness. In this move, the nama dharma is dropped and only the remaining four rupa dharmas remain. Thus, the relationship between representations and an external reality is negated. However, a problem immediately arises with regard to thirst. If the thirst or desire for an external object is replaced by an indistinguishable thirst for a representation, then nothing has been achieved.


Vasubandhu uses a contrast notion of ‘me’ to distinguish between out there and in here to remove this objection. It may be argued that knowledge of the real situation reveals that the idea of the grasped, (the object thirsted or desired) may be denied. Thus, it is possible to deny the grasper also. Thus, a false belief in me is undermined.



Mahayana - Madhyamaka tradition.


The Mahayana or middle way tradition begins to challenge the Abhidharma extreme analytical account. However, the analytical approach is still valued for its soteriological project in that it is believed a thorough understanding of the dharmas will help overcome the illusion of self.


Nagarjuna’s primary text, Mulamadhyanakakarilkas, or fundamental verses on the middle way presents a doctrine of emptiness as the negation of essential natures. Sunyata, nisvabhava – devoid of intrinsic nature or nothingness - is a radical alternative to previous interpretations regarding nirvana, because according to the Abhidharma for example, there is a two tier ontology at work – dharmas with svabhava, and conventional description. However, Nagarjuna suggests that nothing is ultimately real.


It must be stressed that Nagarjuna’s position does not imply metaphysical nihilism. However, this misconception regarding svabhava is important for reasons that are associated with the argument that there is no one argument which may be presented for all things being empty: If nothing is ultimately real, then there cannot possibly be one argument to prove svabhava. Thus, all competing views regarding ultimate reality can be shown to be unworkable according to the Madhyamaka.


This view, if it may be correctly referred to as a view, suggests that there is no ultimate reality independent from conventional reality. In chapter V of Mulamadhyanakakarilkas there is an analysis of the Dhatus. There are said to be six Dhatus, the first regarding space, and analysis of space is said to be applicable to the other five. Verse 1 states the defining characteristic prior to concept. Verse 2b states that nowhere does there at all obtain an existent without a characteristic. This suggests that all defining characteristics be supplied, because the idea of a blank existent is logically incoherent.

Verse 3 states that if a defining characteristic already exists for a Dhatu, then we cannot supply another one, as this would lead to an infinite regress explaining how the additional defining characteristics work upon their bearers.

Verse 4 concludes that both defining characteristic and bearer are impossible, therefore, in verse 5 Nagarjuna concludes that there are no intrinsic natures.


A realist may counter that Nagarjuna’s position relies on linguistic distinctions. If the relationship between linguistic constructions and ultimately real things is disrupted, then there is no hope of talking about ultimate reality.

However, Nagarjuna illustrates that this is not so. In an analysis of atoms, space does not obstruct while atoms do. Therefore, in order for atoms to obstruct each other there must be a non-obstructing space between them, and this space is part of the definition of solidity. Therefore, we provide the definitions and there are no intrinsically definable natures by reason.


In chapter I of Mulamadhyanakakarilkas there is an analysis of the conditions or causation. Here, Nagarjuna states that things that exist did not cause themselves, nor from another, nor from nothing.

As an example, one may understand that a seed sprout is not revealed in prior soil, seed, warmth, moisture, etc. – and these are the conditions. Candrakirti and Bhavaviveka comment upon this argument in the following way:

Perhaps one of the prior conditions is the same as the seed sprout? But then this would already be the svabhava of the seed sprout, and experience shows us this is not the case.

Are we dealing with magic - there must be an explanation for future expectations - thus, action, kriya may proceed when appropriate conditions are assembled. Nagarjuna asks if the causal power has conditions, and this is the same question that began the analysis. If another causal power or necessary connection is called for, then there is the beginning of an infinite regress.


This position is very similar to that of Hume – all we have are our expectations from previous experience. Nagarjuna suggests that causation is a construction and convention not sensible in terms of ultimate truth. Therefore, the conclusion is that we are projecting our own wants, needs and desires onto experience.


In chapter XV of Mulamadhyanakakarilkas there is an analysis of svabhava. Svabhava is shown to be dependent upon causation, but causation is a construction. The conclusion to be drawn is that there cannot be any dharmas with their own intrinsic natures. From verse 18 onwards of chapter XV, the middle path is declared to be emptiness. Thus, it is possible to say that samsara is just as empty as ultimate reality and therefore the same as nirvana in being another aspect of one thing: emptiness.



He who sees dependent co-origination sees this: The co-arising and the destruction of suffering, and the path.






This essay has explored some of the philosophical concerns regarding the goal of selflessness in Buddhism. Initially, concerns regarded the psychological re-orientation of competing religious and philosophies away from notions of an essential self, and towards counter intuitive views regarding no self and theories of impermanence.

With the systematising of the Pali cannon came an increase in the conceptual analysis of texts and a move towards reductionism. This move lead to forms of representationalism and phenomenalism, as seen in the texts of Vasubhandu, with a danger of re-asserting an essential dharma. The eventual move towards Nagarjuna’s idealism may be viewed as a move towards the original Buddhist position of non-essence, while avoiding possible charges of metaphysical nihilism.







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Steven Collins (1982).  Selfless persons. Cambridge University Press.

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Richard Gombrich (1996).  How Buddhism began. Athlone.

Walpola Rahula (1974).  What the Buddha taught. Grove press.

Paul Williams (1989).  Mahayana Buddhism.  Routledge.