If Buddhism teaches non-self (anatta), then who meditates?


buddha statueI was asked, “If Buddhism teaches non-self (anatta), then who is doing all this that happens in my life; who meditates?”

There is meditation taking place. There is stuff happening in life. There is the thought, “Someone is doing this.” But that thought is a bit like the idea primitive man may have felt, looking at nature. The wind blows, the leaves rustle, the rain falls. There must be “someone” making this all happen! And so they imagined a god or gods who were doing these things.

Nowadays we talk about all this being an “ecosystem.” But we don’t think of “Ecosystem” as a god who hides behind the scenes, making everything happen. There’s just a bunch of stuff happening, quite beautifully. It doesn’t need a central controller. Nor do we.

A thought or feeling arises within us, or an action takes place, and part of us thinks, “Who did that? Why, it must have been me!” We invent a sort of “inner god” who rules a very small universe, and who is in charge of “us.”

If this is still confusing, you might want to check out an article I wrote recently, “The empty room, the plagiarist, and the boys in the basement.” I hoped to make this topic more easily understandable.

14 Comments. Leave new

  • I was reading about how the Buddha mentioned that we all have been stuck in samsara for such a long time that anyone we meet, was a mother, father, brother, etc. to us at some point in the past. It makes sense.

    I don’t believe in nihilism but what I find interesting is that we keep talking about the lack of self, yet how could have we been related to someone, when there has never been a self? I never existed in order to be related to someone. For that to happen does something not need to survive from each life cycle? Am I over analyzing this or am I missing a critical point here?!

    • The teaching is not that you don’t exist, Sam, but just that you don’t have the kind of self you think you have, or any kind of self that can be defined in any way. The indefinable something you have been (and that has never been the same indefinable something for two moments in a row) has always been related to an uncountable number of other indefinable somethings. Does this help?

  • Yes it sure does help. Thank you.

  • how do bodhipaksa.

    your artical was forwarded by a mitra at our leicester sanga. i keep harping on about no self and they having none of it. your line of thinking is very close if not idendical to mine. boys in the basement a great method of explaining it. very subtle is the “I” maker. i like this advaita quote “what must i do, to realise i am not the doer”.

    be good to talk to you my friend as this realisation has changed my life and i would be interested in how it has changed yours. be good to push the concept further also.


  • Once you’ve seen through the illusion of the ‘I maker’, would expect the illusion to continue in daily life. Otherwise how are we meant to operate by walking around pretending we don’t exist.

    We need a sense of ego and sense of subject/object in order to be able to navigate the apparent reality. Yes, everything is ‘just happening’, but conscious choice is also ‘apparently happening’.

    As Advaita teacher James Swartz says, ‘the illusion continues, as it must, but the difference is that you *know* it’s an illusion. Life becomes something akin to a lucid dream.

    I think it’s important to emphasise this, otherwise, you end up with all kinds of nonsense and misinterpreted ideas, and people wandering around pretending they don’t exist, there’s nobody here to pass the salt etc. The Neo-Advaita community is full of these advaita police, who have misunderstood the teachings.

    When it comes to Buddhism, it’s good to remember Nargajuna’s doctrine of the two truths to clarify things. It’s important to distinguish which level any statement is coming from, either from the truth level or from the conventional/relative level. When you mix the two levels up you get into all kinds of trouble.

    • “how are we meant to operate by walking around pretending we don’t exist”

      But that’s not what the loss of the belief in a self involves, Douglas. There’s no “pretending” and there’s no sense that “we don’t exist.” Anyone who has a sense that they don’t exist probably has some kind of depersonalization disorder and should seek treatment.

      As for how we operate for without a sense of having a self, nothing changes.* The self is just a story about an inner “god” who is supposed to be the creator of all our actions and thoughts, but who doesn’t actually exist. Since this god doesn’t actually exist, he doesn’t actually do anything, and therefore his loss doesn’t impact anything on a practical level. But it’s hard to understand this when you still believe in this inner god. It’s like when you tell a theist that you don’t believe in god and they object, “Well, if there’s no god who makes the sun rise in the morning?” To the non-theist, the sun just rises (due to causes and conditions, of course).

      After the loss of belief in the self, as the quote above from Schwartz says, the illusion persists as a kind of habit, but whenever you turn your attention to this illusion of a self, it’s seen as an illusion. But I suspect that even that disappears as further fetters are broken.

      One of the things you realize after the illusion of self has been seen through is that you can have no self but still have an ego — by which I mean that there are deep-rooted habits of clinging and aversion that still have to be dealt with. They function to protect a self that no longer exists. It’s the winding down of clinging and aversion that are the next task after the illusion of self has been penetrated.

      As for people who say things like “there’s nobody here to pass the salt,” assuming there are such people then I assume they’re poseurs, attached to thinking that people regard them as “spiritual” or “enlightened.” They may or may not have genuine insight, but either way they’re very much caught up in the clinging and aversion of the ego.

      • * When I say “nothing changes,” I mean on the level of practical, day-to-day functioning. Internally, though, there’s a sense of freedom and relief. As long as we believe in the “god” of self, we worry about whether it’s a good god or a bad god. And much of the evidence points to in being deeply flawed, and perhaps irreparably so. When we lose our belief in a self we lose this burden of doubt.

  • Douglas Eckhart
    November 2, 2017 3:58 pm

    Thank you for the clarification.

    I found this quote which seems to be along similar lines to what you are describing:

    “People often get too quick to say ‘there’s no self. There’s no self…no self…no self.’ There *is* self, there *is* focal point, its not *yours*. That’s what not self is.”
    Ninoslav Ñ??amoli
    Senses and the Thought-1, 42:53

    Regarding your comments re the ego, I would agree also. I think it depends on what we refer to as the ‘ego’, which of course is a term which can encompass various things.

    Although I agree that cravings and aversions should lesson their grip with time and practice, we will nevertheless always have preferences and aspirations. Indeed to have none would make an individual as useful as a sack of rice, as one zen patriarch said.

    However these preferences and aspirations are rendered non binding. We don’t suffer if we don’t fulfil them.

    In traditional advaita terminology, (which i recognise is a different tradition but it has some crossover here) it’s said that dispassion is non attachment to outcomes of actions.

    According to this view, cultivating dispasssion is not about not wanting something, nor is it about not working towards what you want. It’s about being ok with not getting what you want.

    Last point: advaita police. I believe you get them also. I think you know them as anatta nazis :-)

    • Yes, I often clarify that when I say there’s no self, I don’t mean there’s no self. I mean that there’s no self of the kind people think they have — a permanent and unitary “inner god” who owns a body, thoughts, feelings, consciousness, volitions, etc. That kind of self doesn’t exist. If in talking about a “self” that we don’t own, Nanamoli just means that there is all that stuff I mentioned, making its way through the world, changing in every moment, non-separate from the world around it and not owned by any “inner entity,” then yes, there is that sort of a self.

      When I talked about ego I defined what I meant by that, but too put it slightly differently it’s a collection of semi-autonomous patterns of clinging and aversion, reacting to the world. It corresponds mainly to the fourth and fifth fetters, with the remaining five representing subtler aspects of conceptualization of “being.”

      Ah, and yes: the anatta nazi! I’d forgotten.

  • Or maybe Buddha was wrong about it, same like he was wrong stating that Earth is flat

    • Fortunately Buddhism’s not a religious tradition where you’re supposed to assent to certain beliefs. It’s what the Buddha called “ehipassiko” (experiential) and “sanditthiko” (verifiable). So in meditation we can go looking for some unchanging phenomenon in our experience. If there seems to be something there that is unchanging then we keep watching, keep investigating.

  • …and there might be a permanent true Self in afterlife state, as explained in Journey of Souls book. Seems like buddhist meditation might use brain to it’s full potential, but it still only a limited tool. Once we are free of it’s boundaries and filtr, then we might perceive reality how it really is.

  • 🙏 thank you everybody. your words hit home like an axe.


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