We now come to a very important characteristic of the five clinging-aggregates: the constant pressure for recognition as a self (attā) or as a soul. The notion of a self or soul is the concept of a self-same subject; and the concept ‘my self’ is the notion of a self-same ‘I’, an eternal ‘I’, an ‘I’ that remains unchanged in time eternally. And just as much as ‘I’ is conceived as a master over the object, the notion of ‘eternal I’—the fundamental notion of self—is a notion of permanent mastery (vasa). It means that whatever is considered to be self is assumed to behave in the manner required by itself of itself, and for all time.
Self (soul, ego, etc.) refers to an irreplaceable subject that is beyond change, and therefore also extra-temporal—an unmoved mover, an absolute timelessness or eternity closed up within itself. Thus, a self would be a being that is its own foundation, and therefore could not suffer the slightest discrepancy between what what it is and what it conceives, for it would produce itself entirely in conformity with its conception of being, and could conceive only what its being is.
If, monks, this matter… feeling… perception… determinations… consciousness were self, then consciousness would not lead to affliction, and one would obtain of consciousness, ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness not be thus’.
“As indeed, monks, this matter… feeling… perception… determinations… consciousness is not-self, so consciousness leads to affliction, and one does not obtain of consciousness, ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness not be thus’.”
— Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 22.59)
The actual situation is just the opposite. And this can only mean that what is taken as self is really not-self (annatā). The assumed mastery is a deception, a mockery.
Nevertheless, this false notion of a self persists because it is associated with the perceptions of pleasurableness and permanence. In fact these perceptions are more explicitly associated with the notion of self than with the conceit ‘I’, because the self claims to be an eternal self-same I.
The most important significance of the five holding-aggregates is the pressure for recognition as self. The puthujjana cannot withstand this pressure. So in one way or another he regards the five clinging-aggregates, or part of them, as self.
Whatever recluses and divines there may be, monks, who in various ways regard self, they all regard the five clinging-aggregates or a certain one of them.” — Samanupassanā Sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 22.47)
Strictly speaking, the assemblage of the five clinging-aggregates has the tendency to regard itself (or a part of itself) as self; and this assemblage, in the case of the uninstructed puthujjana, is incapable of voluntarily curbing that tendency; consequently it regards itself (or a part of itself) as self.
Although it is impossible to find anything that could rightly be called a self, the puthujjana creates a false self when he reflects on himself, and he refers to it as ‘my self’. So, although actually and in truth there is no self to be found, there is an inauthentic ‘self’ to be found. ‘Self’ is always understood as ‘the thing taken as self’, or ‘the thing regarded as self’ or ‘the thing considered as self’.
This ‘self’ should not be confused with the self-identity of the thing that is taken as self, or with the self-identity of anything for that matter. ‘Self’ has nothing to do with the self-identity of a thing—its endurance as the self-same thing. ‘Self’ concerns the subject ‘I’. ‘Self’ is ‘I’ itself, or the ‘I’ that appears in reflexion.
What appears to the puthujjana when he reflects upon himself is the five clinging-aggregates, the five aggregates associated with ‘I’ and ‘mine’. And he attempts to answer the question ‘What am I?’ by asserting that “It is just ‘my self’, or the self-same subject (’I’) that was, is and will be, that I see.”
‘Self’ indicates a more inflated sense of subjectivity than ‘I’ does—a more voluntary or deliberate subjectivity. For this reason ‘self’ is referred to as a notion, rather than a conceit as in the case of ‘I’. But because the Suttas speak of ‘self’ as a notion does not mean that it should be assumed that it is just an abstract idea based on some faulty reasoning. The puthujjana does not experience his ‘self’ as an abstraction; he is affectively and securely bound by it. If reason does come in, it does so in second place, to make whatever it can of a fait accompli—a thing that has already happened or been decided before those affected hear about it, leaving them with no option but to accept.
Nor is ‘self’ indefinite. It is a deception, and a deception like a mirage can be quite definite. The important thing is that it is not what one takes it for. When the sun shines on sand, there is a appearance of water; one can therefore be deceived into taking the phenomenon as water. The deception ‘water’ is there all right, though the phenomenon is actually not-water. The appearance is real; the actuality is not. So it is with ‘self’. The deception ‘self’ is really there, though it actually is not-self. In other words, ‘self’—the thing falsely taken as self—is not-self (anattā).
Since ‘self’ involves a higher or more complex degree of reflexion than ‘I’, the perception of pleasurableness and permanence are more explicitly associated with ‘self’. ‘My self’ is more explicitly and more voluntarily considered to be permanent and pleasurable than what is taken as ‘I’. We can therefore define ‘(my) self’ as ‘the pleasurable self-same I’ or ‘the pleasurable permanent I’, or as ‘that pleasantly-eternal and irreplaceable subject that I am’. Thus, ‘self’ is a coarse layer that stands over the more subtle conceit ‘I’.
‘Self’ is something necessarily ambiguous to the puthujjana; it makes him think that or him there is really and truly a self, but if he ever tries to make certain precisely what it is, he fails. The deer thinks there is water when the sun shines upon the sand, producing the appearance of ‘water’ before his eyes; but when he runs after the ‘water’ he fails to find water. If the deer is told, “There is water,” he will reply, “But I cannot find the water however much I run after it.” If on the other hand the deer is told, “There is no water,” he will reply, “But I see water.”
In the face of this ambiguity it would be very unwise to give direct answers to the puthujjana’s primary questions concerning self: “Is there self? Is there no self?” If the puthujjana is told, “There is self for you,” he will reply, “But I cannot find precisely what or where it is.” And if he is told, “There is no self for you,” he will reply, “But I see my self.”
As seen earlier in the discussion of the root-structure of the puthujjana’s reflexive experience, the tendency to the conceit ‘(I) am’ creates an apparent separation of ‘I’ from the object (Stage 4); and repeatedly reckoning successive experiences as being ‘for I’ (Stage 5) confirms to him in reflexion the view that there actually is a permanent and independent ‘I’—’my self’—existing separate from all experience. The persistence in time of a series of created ‘I’s is perceived by him as the persistence in time of a separate self-same ‘I’—a ‘self’. But what does exist is the perception of ‘self’—something wrongly considered to be self.
‘Self’ is therefore neither positive not negative; it is an ambiguity. It is as if something that in truth is not, somehow or other is. The notion of ‘self’ along with its inseparable companions—the notion of permanency or eternalism and pleasurableness—arises, and is stamped as ‘self’. But nothing can be found that corresponds to self; for anything that corresponds to self, that can rightly be taken as self, must necessarily be permanent, be eternal. And there is nothing pertaining to the individual that can be rightly considered to be permanent or eternal.
Self is positive to the extent that it appears—to the extent that something or other is taken or regarded as self—but negative to the extent that there is nothing that can be taken as really self. What appears as self is always not-self, simply because it is, among other things, not permanent. As the deer gazes on the sun shining on the sand, he sees water; therefore the appearance of water is definitely there; but there is no actual water corresponding to the appearance. In the same way, when the puthujjana practices reflexion, something or other actually appears to him to be self—which he then refers to as ‘my self’—but there is definitely nothing that can be rightly be regarded as self. So to the puthujjana, there is ‘self’, but no self.
Incidentally, our simile of the deer gazing at the sun shining on the sand must not be taken too far, because though there is real water to be found elsewhere, there is no self to be found anywhere.
Thus any experience has a positive aspect: the thing experienced, or the object, the ‘world’—and a negative aspect, which is the apparent (self-same) subject: ‘self’. So we have “the self, the world” (attā ca loko ca), each the inseparable correlative of the other, together forming the combination referred to by the compound word ‘myself’, or rather by ‘myself determined by the whole situation’. But this self-same subject is positive in the sense that it appears; it is negative only in the sense that there is really nothing to correspond with it.
Thus the puthujjana, defining himself by the compound word ‘myself’, finds himself to be as negative as he is positive: the existential ambiguity. He experiences anxiety when confronted with the possibility that the positive foundation upon which his irreplaceable ‘self’ rests will not be there; in other words, when he finds that what he took to be actually self will not be there. The contradiction that constantly threatens him whenever he reflects upon himself is the agonizing possibility that he is void (suñña) of an actual self, and so in the end, that ‘my self’ will not be.
Heidegger and Sartre interpret the anxiety in the face of nothingness as merely fear of impending death. But the nothingness that determines ‘objectless anxiety’ is not merely the assumed nothingness of death, which is a somewhat imaginable radical change; but the possibility that ‘I’ am not a ‘self’, that ‘I’ do not exist. Existential anxiety is determined by the possibility of personal nothingness, subjective emptiness, and this is the matter that arises whenever the puthujjana reflects upon himself.