As strange as this sounds to the average Buddhist, if they do not believe in a transcendent self they cannot become enlightened. If one reads the Buddha's discourses in the Samyutta-Nikaya and the Majjhima-Nikaya including the Digha-Nikaya, which are part of the Pali canon, it soon becomes apparent that the overarching strategy of the Buddha is to get us to abandon our belief in dependently originated existence because redemption is not in the originated; it's found by transcending it—and that takes a self. This dependently originated existence includes nâma-rûpa (the 4th nidana) that is, the Five Aggregates (i.e., the psychophysical body).
“And what, your reverences, is mind-and-matter [nâma-rûpa], what its uprising, its stopping, what the course leading to its stopping? Feeling, perception, volition, sensory impingement, reflectiveness [manasikâro], this, your reverences, is call mind [nâma]. The four great elements and the material shape derived from the four great elements [mahâbhûtâna], this, your reverences, is call matter [rûpa]” (M. i. 53).
What is not mentioned in the standard twelve nidanas beginning with ignorance (the 1st nidana) and ending with old age and death (jarâmârana, the 12th nidana), which have to do with dependent origination, is the self. The self is not in the scheme of the twelve nidanas but the five aggregates are, because they are nâma-rûpa (the 4th nidana) that is, the psycho-physical. These same aggregates are beheld to be “impermanent, suffering, as a disease, imposthume, a dart, misfortune, an affliction, as other, as decay, empty, not the self” (M. i. 435).
Finally, in several passages we learn that the self (paccattam, intrinsic self) attains nirvana.
“He [thus] dwelling contemplating impermanence in those feelings, contemplating dispassion, contemplating cessation, contemplating renunciation, does not grasp at anything in the world, and not grasping he is not perturbed, not being perturbed he attains utter nibbana in his very self (paccattamyeva parinibbâyati). He knows ‘Destroyed is birth, lived is the holy life, done is what was to be done, there will be no more of being such and such” (M.i.255-256, trans. Joaquin Perez-Remon).
Logically speaking, if there is no self how is it possible to attain nirvana? How can one wisely discern, like the Buddha, that their self is not any of the Five Aggregates consisting of material shape, feeling, perception, habitual tendencies and consciousness? Without the self how might one “abandon desire for whatever does not belong to self” (S. iii. 78)?
Are modern Buddhist so deluded that they are unable to understand the Buddha’s teaching of no-self? It is not a denial of the self—far from it—rather the Buddha teaches that the psychophysical body that we cling to is not our self. Nirvana can only mean that the self finally realizes itself and its freedom, moreover, that it transcends the Five Aggregates—it is not what they are.