It doesn’t matter how many Dharma centers a person attends, or how many Buddhist chat forums they’ve contributed to, the overarching tenor of modern Buddhism in the West is materialism. Buddhism in the West only wears an Asian robe. Beneath the robe is the heart of a materialist.
One of the cardinal tenets of materialism, going back to the time of Gautama, is the nonbelief in a spiritual absolute which survives the death of the human being; which is unconditioned. This dogma appears in Buddhism as the doctrine of ‘no self’. Oddly, this dogma arises, supposedly, from statements made by the Buddha which simply cannot be construed as no self. Here is one example.
“Bhikkhus, form is nonself [anattâ, lit. not the self]. What is nonself should be seen as it really is with correct wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’ Feeling is nonself... Perception is nonself ... Volitional formations are nonself ... Consciousness is nonself. What is nonself should be seen as it really is with correct wisdom: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self [na meso attâ].’” (S. iii. 22–23). (trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi. Brackets and emphasis are mine.)
Towards the end of this passage, we learn that not a single aggregate mentioned (there are five) is the self (attâ) of the Buddha! This leads to an important question: How does the Buddha know that each aggregate is clearly not his self? It would be one thing to be a materialist who could not care at all about self or its survival; who assumes that when the body dies, that’s it. But in the passage, the Buddha sees that it is very important to be able to distinguish his self from nonself (i.e., each one of the five aggregates).
At least we can say that for a Buddha he is able to distinguish his self from what is not his self, namely the Five Aggregates which comprise a human being. The ability to discern between the self and what is not the self first requires that we fully know what the self is! How else might we distinguish self from nonself without first knowing the self or attâ?
A materialist could not distinguish self from what is not the self. The idea of self has no interest for the materialist, in fact. The self is regarded as an epiphenomenon of the human body. For the materialist, nothing survives at death. Buddhism does not teach this. It runs counter to it.
Every discourse in which the Buddha teaches that the Five Aggregates, that make up the human body, are not his self, presupposes a self. It is impossible to claim objects a, b, c, d & e, are not x, or non-x, without an accurate foreknowledge of x. Without foreknowledge of self the discernment of what is not the self is impossible.