Yesterday, I was writing to a friend, responding to what he said about some Theravada Buddhists who insist, depsite the evedince to the contrary, that the Buddha denied the self or in Pali, attâ (in Sanskrit it is atmâ).
Out of the blue, this question suddenly came to mind, “How do these Theravada guys purify themselves without a self?” I recalled part of a verse from the Dhammapada (165) that went, “by the self (attanâ) is one purified (vissujjhati).” Of course the upshot of this is that Theravadins who deny the self are totally impure! It seems obvious enough that one cannot use nonself to purify oneself—one must use the self!
In the commentary to this specific passage, the commentator says that by such purification one proceeds to nirvana. This implies that the removal of impurity is necessary to win nirvana and the self is the instrument for doing this. But if there is no self, as some Theravadins insist (not all of course, especially in Thailand), aren’t we stuck with a lot of unremovable impurities which means we can’t win nirvana? It would seem the answer to this question is in the affirmative.
But in the Theragatha (Poems of the Theras) we get a different picture—not one that fits with the doctrine of nonself. We read:
“Go on the right path announced [to you] and never turn back, inciting the self by the self (attanâ codayattânam), one should win Nirvana” (637).
Bingo! The moral of the story is that the self is required to win nirvana. It is not something in Buddhism to be dismissed, easily, as being provisional or nonexistent. It is far too important to be given the bum’s rush especially if one does a close reading of the Pali canon as Pande, Frauwallner and others have. I hasten to add, it almost goes without saying that self is a big deal in the Mahayana canon—and not to be dismissed. The Mahaparinirvana Sutra is, for example, according to the Buddha the most supreme explanation of his teaching. In this Sutra the Buddha teaches the Self, the Eternal, the Bliss, and the Pure. But then there is a small cadre of nihilist Westerners who have never read this Sutra, telling everyone it is provisional, but never citing a single passage from the Sutra supporting such an assertion. All they can manage to do is accuse me and others (just about all Asian Buddhists) of being Vedantists!