The self like the Tathagata in Buddhism transcends the Five Aggregates of material shape, feeling, perception, habitual tendencies, and consciousness. This self or attâ is the noble witness (A. i. 149) by which we discern material shape, feeling, etc., but which is not included in the aggregates. So using the aggregates to cognize the self or deny it is basically a fool’s errand.
The other problem—perhaps more subtle—is how do we really know that material shape is not the self or anattâ as the Buddha teaches? According to the Buddha the average person (puthujjana) doesn’t know that material shape is not the self. The average person believes otherwise.
"But how, lady, does there come to be (wrong) view as to own body [sakkayaditthi]? In this case, friend Visakha, an uninstructed average person [puthjjana], taking no count of the pure ones ... taking no count of the true men ... regards material shape as the self, or the self as having material shape or material shape as in self or self as in material shape ; he regards feeling as self ... he regards perception as self ... he regards habitual tendencies as self ... he regards consciousenss as the self, or the self as having consciousness, or consciousness in the self, or the self in consciousness. Thus, friend Visakha, there comes to be (wrong) view as to own body [sakkayaditthi]" (M. i. 300).
Let me be blunt, the average person is really a spiritual ignoramus when compared with the Buddha’s disciple (ariya-savaka). The Buddha’s disciple, on the other hand, knows that an aggregate is not the self, or not my self (na meso attâ).
“In this case, friend Visakha, an instructed disciple of the pure one ... taking count of the true men ... does not regard material shape as self nor self as having material shape nor material shape as in self nor self as in material shape; he does not regard feeling as self ... he does not regard perception as self ... he does not regard the habitual tendencies as self ... he does not reard consciousness as self nor self as having consciousness nor consciousness as in self nor self as in consciousness. Thus, friend Visakha, does there not come to be (wrong) view as to own body” (M. i. 300).
If, today, the Buddha were to ask a member of a Dharma center this question: “Exactly, how do you know that material shape is not yourself as I have taught?” the person being asked this question would be dumbfounded. The same goes with the rest of the aggregates. To discern that I am not the aggregate of material shape logically implies that I transcend all the aggregates. There is no way to escape this conclusion. On the other hand, to deny that there is a self that transcends the Five Aggregates, by which the aggregates are discerned and rejected, can only mean that one regards all the aggregates as, so to speak, the measure of all things.
Buddhists who believe that the Buddha actually denied the self are standing at the level of a puthujjana—not a disciple. Their psychophysical body is their yardstick for judging whether or not there is a transcendent self. Here is an example of what I mean. This passage is from a typical Buddhist puthujjana who is a self-denier. I have edited this passage for clarity.
“There is no self beyond the aggregates. If there were, how might one touch it, feel it, think about it, or experience it? If there is something beyond the aggregates it is beyond perception, beyond our normal reality. It would be, therefore, unreal; only a mental fabrication, an idea only. A self beyond the aggregates has no function, therefore no real existence.”
As The Zennist reader can plainly see this person doesn’t understand that the Five Aggregates are the bad boys whereas the self or attâ is the good guy. This person, in fact, is using the Five Aggregates for their yardstick who, in addition, seems unaware that the Five Aggregates belong to Mara, the demon. Essentially, this person is saying the five Mara aggregates are the yardstick for determing whether or not a transcendent self is actual! One has to wonder about the mental sobriety of such people. Didn’t the Buddha say: “Bhikkhu, you should abandon desire for whatever does not belong to self” (S. iii. 78, trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi)? Not a single aggregate belongs to self. This should be obvious from the canon. How can anyone be so deluded so as to not see this fact? So let us abandon desire for the aggregates and all that which is connected with them—not our self.