Permit me to rephrase something the German Theravadin monk Nyanatiloka once said: "Thus with this doctrine of egolessness, or anattâ, stands or falls Theravadin Buddhism.” His original statement went as follows: “Thus with this doctrine of egolessness, or anattâ, stands or falls the entire Buddhist structure” (Steven Collins, Selfless Persons, p. 5).
Okay, why am I blogging this? It’s because Theravada Buddhism is losing or has lost a good portion of its academic credibility insofar as it has been unable to sustain the argument that the Buddha categorically denied the self in the Pali Nikayas. Buddhism has never stood on such a doctrine, but the Theravadins have.
While it is true that the argument can be sustained with ample evidence that the five khandhas or aggregates consisting of material shape, feeling, perception, volitional formations and consciousness, are not the self, or anattâ, or in everyday English, they are not my self, this is not a categorial denial of self. It is just saying, I am not these aggregates.
The position the Buddha condemns is the belief that the five khandhas or aggregates are my self, this being the so-called personality view or sakkaya-ditthi. In the Pali Nikayas, personality view then morphs into eternalism which is the belief in the eternality of the aggregates which I believe to be my self. Again, this is condemned by the Buddha.
This takes us to the most critical and weakest part of the Theravadin argument. Theravadins have to explain, without mincing words, where the Buddha stands when he says of each aggregate: “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self” thus abandoning all of them.
The reasoning that underpins this demand is that if there is nothing beyond the sphere of the aggregates, then it is impossible to transcend or abandon them. In that case, there can be no self, self in the sense of being transcendent. However, the Buddha could not have said the following without transcending the five khandhas, completely.
“This Noble Eightfold Path is to be developed for direct knowledge of these five aggregates subject to clinging, for the full understanding of them, for their utter destruction, for their abandoning” (S. v. 61).
Considering this logically, I can only abandon what is not actually mine. With regard to the aggregates, I can abandon each one of them because they are not mine. I am really independent of them. So, what does it mean to be independent of the aggregates by having abandoned them? Are we speaking of a higher self than the personality (sakkaya)? The Theravadins would argue, no. But where does that leave them? In sort of a limbo region? How can the Buddha abandon the aggregates but not be beyond them, transcending them, completely? If I abandon a burning house with five rooms, how can I not be somewhere else than in a burning house?
The Theravadins and those who help champion their cause cannot argue that the Buddha did not abandon the five khandhas or aggregates because the canon says otherwise. But they can dodge the question of where is one who has abandoned the aggregates? Indeed, they have to dodge the question because they know that the Buddha’s self is the self that is transcendent, that is, the higher self which he says is a refuge (attasaranâ); that stands above the impermanence and suffering of the aggregates.