I have read a goodly portion of the Pali Nikayas such that when I read them now I generally look for anything that I may have overlooked. I rely heavily on Buddhist scholars, also, in the hope that they can show me something I’ve overlooked.
I have noticed over the years that such study helps me to form a pattern of Buddhism from which I can make, sometimes, a great leap forward seeing more of the forest of Buddhism than individual trees and shrubbery.
Just recently, I made one of those great leaps. It concerns the Buddha’s notion of self or atman. The kernel of it is this: the self or atman in Buddhism always refers to what is not an illusion and finite, or the same, what is real in contrast with what is false, impermanent, and suffering. When the Buddh said, with regard to the Five Aggregates, “This is not mine, I am not this, it is not my self” it was from the side of non-illusory self that he was speaking. Directly, he saw the world, including his physical body, to be an illusion and his self as being real and non-illusory.
Virtually, without exception, the Buddha’s discourses in the Pali canon that have to do with the Five Aggregates treat, invariably, the aggregates as being illusory; and something to be rejected since they are not the self.
For example, form, which is the first aggregate, is said to be like foam. Feeling, the second aggregate, is like a bubble. A mental perception, the third, is like a mirage. Latent volitions (samskâra) are like a plantain-tree (i.e., when the leaf-sheaths are taken away, no core remains). Finally, consciousness is said to be like a juggler’s creation. It is important to add to this that Five Aggregates are always impermanent and in a state of suffering in contrast to the self which is not fundamentally connected with the aggregates.
Never once did the Buddha deny the self, the self that he recognized to transcend the Five Aggregates. But, on the other hand, the Buddha was also aware that many people lacking his insight might mistake one or more of the illusory Five Aggregates to be the self such that consciousness (i.e., sensory awareness), for example, might be taken to be the true self. This is why, in one discourse, the Buddha said, “Those recluses and Brahmanas who while seeing in various ways see the self (atman), they actually see the five aggregates of attachment” (S. iii. 46).
The Buddha never departed from treating the atman or self as standing for what is non-illusory and real. His views are entirely in accord with Hinduism which also treats the Atman in the same manner, i.e., as being completely non-illusory. One could almost say that the Buddha was more thorough than any of his predecessors in removing the notion of self from any possibility of mistaking it for a finite mental condition or state such as consciousness. On this score, the Five Aggregates covered every possible type of illusion from physical illusion such as form, to the most subtle of all, namely, the illusion of sensory consciousness or vijñâna.