When the wanderer Vacchagotta asked whether there is a self, Buddha (480-400 BCE) remained silent. After Vacchagotta had gone away, Buddha explained to his disciple Ananda that to have affirmed or denied the existence of self would have led to a metaphysical dead end (from Samyutta Nikaya).
Buddha made and acted on decisions that made a profound difference in his life. Had he not believed this was possible for others, too, there would have been little point to spending forty-five years encouraging people to pursue a path of moral responsibility, contemplative practice, and philosophical reflection. The self may not be an aloof, independent “ruler” of the body and mind, but neither is it an illusory product of impersonal physical and mental forces. Buddha is interested in what people can do, not with what they are. The task he proposes entails distinguishing between what is to be accepted as the natural condition of life (the unfolding of experience) and what is to be let go of (reactivity).
The ambiguity and elusiveness of self is captured in a verse from Nagarjuna (150-250 CE) :
If the self were the bundles,
It would be something that arises and passes away;
If it were other than the bundles,
It would not bear their characteristics.
Were I reducible to my body, feelings, perceptions, inclinations, and consciousness, then, since they are constantly changing, I would be constantly changing. But, that is clearly not the case. Nagarjuna takes it for granted that to be a self means to have a perspective on experience that remains constant while the feelings, perceptions, and inclinations that make up one’s experience arise and pass away. At the same time he recognizes the absurdity of thinking of the self as something different from what makes up its experience. Why? Because the only way “I” or “you” can be known is through our features: our name, our physical appearance, our moods, our thoughts, our acts. Remove these features, and the self to whom they belong vanishes as well.
After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age
Background on Stephen Batchelor