If the Buddha categorically denied the self he would not say, for example, that material shape is not the self (anattâ) or say, "Regard material shape as 'this is not mine, this am I not, this is not myself'" along with the other four aggregates or skandhas. The Buddha is speaking about a self or âtman that should not identify with the five aggregates, the sensory fields and their objects—in fact, should not identify with all conditioned things!
It is when we identify with conditioned things like our five skandhas consisting of material shape, feeling, perception, volitional formations and consciousness that we fall into the cycle of birth and death this being samsara.
Very clearly, the Buddha is speaking about a self or âtman which is most primordial, but which is unconditioned. By comparison, the self we normally talk about is conditioned which is satkâya (P., sakkâya). The satkâya self, if we can call it that for now, is the empirical human being with its anatomy and physiology. It is when we identify our transcendent self with the five skandhas, or the empirical human being, that our problems begin and seem only to get worse. This is the false view of self which the Buddha wants us to dis-identify with.
The Buddha doesn't want us to negate the self but merely stop glomming on to what is not our true self which is never itself since it is conditioned. This becomes more obvious as we age and change. We left the toddler satkâya self and now we are an old satkâya self. All the time, and after many transformations of the five skandhas, our true self has not changed one bit. Why? Because it is unconditioned. It is only conditioned things which change and suffer—never the unconditioned.
Our problem then becomes discovering our unconditioned self in the turmoil of the conditioned. This is what Siddhartha did before he became a Buddha, a being who awakened to the unconditioned. Everything a good teacher teaches has to do with getting us to see the unconditioned in the midst of the conditioned. It is no easy task. It takes a lot of commitment on our part but we are capable of it. We can even do it as laypersons.