When the Buddha in the Alagaddupama Sutta, which is found in the Majjhima-Nikaya (Sutta 22), speaks about grasping a theory of self (attavâdupâdânam) he has in mind those who think “what is the world, that is the self” (so loko so attâ) (M. i. 135). Of this particular type of person they believe:
“This the world this the self; after dying I will become permanent, lasting, eternal, not liable to change, I will stand fast like unto the eternal, he regards this as: ‘This is mine, this am I, this is my self’” (M. i 135-36).
Such a theory believes that the world and the self were a possession, that is, a something. The Buddha specifically addresses this to his monks.
“Monks, could you take hold of some possession, the possession of which would be permanent, lasting, eternal, not liable to change, that would stand fast like unto the eternal? But do you, monks, see that possession the possession of which would be permanent, lasting, eternal, not liable to change, that would stand fast like unto the eternal? (M. i. 137).
The answer the monks give the Buddha is, “No Lord.” The reason for this is somewhat subtle. The theory of self or attavada the Buddha regards as a view which is a possession. So the Buddha’s logic follows that if one depends on a view (a possession), like attavada, from this dependence would arise nothing but grief, suffering, anguish, lamentation, and despair.
A theory of self, attavada, is simply, eternalism in which self and world are considered to be eternal. In the commentarial literature of the Udana, about this particular subject, we are to understand that the eternalist takes some particular aggregate among the Five Aggregates, for example, material shape, to be the self and the world. This he believes to be “eternal, permanent.”
The Buddha’s understanding of self is more a via negativa self, for want of a better term. The Buddhist self doesn’t have to be fabricated or established (this then would be via positiva). The disciple does not regard any of the Five Aggregates to be the self, or my self. The standard refrain is generally:
“But monks, an instructed disciple of the pure ones...regards material shape as: ‘This is not mine, this am I not, this is not my self;’ he regards feeling as: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self;’ he regards perception as: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self;’ he regards the habitual tendencies as: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self;’ he regards consciousness as: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’ And also he regards whatever is seen, heard, sensed, cognised, reached, looked for, pondered by the mind as:’ This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self’” (M. i. 136).
As expected the Theravadins go almost bonkers with even the slightest suggestion that the self is implicit with any kind of negation process such as, a, b, c, d, e are not my self. But philosophically speaking, the via negativa demands an absolute. It is the only means of approaching it. Here is an example of what I mean.
“Monks, there is a not-born, a not-become, a not-made, a not-compounded. Monks, if that unborn, not-become, not-made, not-compounded were not, there would be apparent no escape from this here that is born, become, made, compounded. But since, monks, there is an unborn ... therefore the escape from this here is born, become ... is apparent” (Udâna 80).
This is a negative description of nirvana which nevertheless points to a real attainment; a real gnosis.