One of the most difficult notions to understand in Buddhist theory and practice is “no-self,” “selflessness,” or “egolessness.” Experientially, “no-self” becomes realized at the deeper stages of practice, leaving most practitioners trying to grasp the import of the concept cognitively. For this, we need clear analytical explanations of what these key words mean.
Part of the difficulty in understanding these terms in English is that people are not aware that the range in meanings of these concepts in the source languages of Sanskrit, Pali or Tibetan is very different from their range in the target language, English.
All of these terms are concepts whose meaning is contextually determined. Much as the word “habit” means something different to a nun and to a smoker; so too, the words atman (atta in Pali; bdag in Tibetan), “self,” “ego,” or “I,” mean exceedingly different things in different contexts. Confusion can occur when we are not mindful that we are taking concepts out of a Buddhist historico-linguistic context, translating them, and depositing them into our own cultural-linguistic framework. If I tell you, “She’s picking up the habit,” you had better understand the context of my statement or much confusion can ensue.
Historically, the notion of atman can be found developing in the Hindu Upanishads. There it seems to be best translated by the word “soul” or “inner self.” Without doing a nuanced analysis of the various meanings of atman in the Upanishads, we can minimally say that it is used there as a philosophical term, not psychological, and it refers to the ontological issue of the substantial or metaphysical substratum of the individual. (Ontology is the study of the fundamental nature of things.) In the Upanishads, atman is discussed in terms of the ultimate substance or essence of the person.
In the early Buddhist scriptures, represented by the Theravada tradition, it is this atman that is being discussed and rejected. The Theravada tradition has Buddha attacking the idea of a persistent substratum of the individual, hence the Pali term anatta—absence of self. Sabbe dhamma anatta ti—all phenomena lack self. It is through understanding this in a deep and profound manner that one can become enlightened.
Recent translators, for the most part, translate anatman/anatta as “selflessness” or “egolessness.” In English usage, self/ego are not necessarily cognate and each has a broad range of uses. Each, however, has (a) a technical psychological use, (b) a meaning associated with pride, (c) a usage referring to “I.” One confusion occurs when people mistakenly think that Buddhism is negating “ego” or “self” in their technical psychological sense. As to ego, Freud in the early twentieth century began to employ das Ich (“the I”) as a description of one part of his tripartite psychological structure of ego, id and superego. In this usage it refers to the structure of consciousness that cognizes, discriminates, assesses and operates in the real world. It is an accident of translation history that Freud’s translator chose “the ego” rather than “the I” as his equivalent of das Ich. Nonetheless, ego in this sense refers to a “hypothetical structure” which has no physical correlates. Instead it describes psychological functions and entails no ontological claims as to the subsistence or essential nature of these psychological functions. The operative metaphors in these discussions are structural and functional.
If we look at the Theravada record, it seems evident that in its version of his life story, Buddha seems capable of cognizing, discriminating, assessing and operating in the real world. There is no indication that he lacks “ego” in the sense of healthy psychological functioning. Confusion arises when we understand the healthy functioning “ego” to be negated through the realization of anatta. According to Theravada psychology, no enlightened person gives up “ego” functions in the psychological sense. One continues to function in a healthy manner and, at the same time, to understand that “self” in the ontological sense of an independent enduring substratum does not exist. This is the core task of meditation practice, according to Buddhist teachers. In fact, we can say that, according to Buddhist practice texts, there are psychological benefits that accrue to the wholesome minds that achieve deep insight. In some sense, as one realizes that the self/ego is ontologically less, one becomes psychologically more (the psychological ego is enriched).
“Ego/self” in the sense of pride is part of the Buddhist discussions of selflessness. It seems clear that it is a goal of practice to give up pride. It is in the standard lists of things to abandon. However, in the Pali/Sanskrit texts, pride is referred to by the word mana and not by the terms atta/atman. In English, however, the concept of pride is also often referred to as ego. Therefore, two Buddhist teachings are mistakenly covered by one English translation equivalent. A subsidiary cultural issue is that Westerners meditating on absence of self (absence of an ontological ego) often develop spiritual arrogance (ego in sense of pride). This raises questions about our mode of practice, our culture and the relationship between insight into lack of self (ontology) and sense of self (psychology of pride).
Finally, how do Buddhist teachings of “selflessness/egolessness” relate to “self,” “oneself” or “I.” The Hindu-Buddhist debate was really about the ontological existence of a persistent independent substratum of personality. Simply put, Upanishadic Hinduism asserts the existence of such a self under the term atman, while Buddhism denies it. When we use terms such as “ego/self” to refer to ourselves, there may be several connotations. One relates to the sense that we have an inner core that subsists, even beyond death. Another relates to our psychological selves. In fact, for the most part, when we in the West today talk of “self,” we are usually talking primarily about a highly differentiated, historical, psychologically complex individual. There is even a rich branch of psychoanalytic psychotherapy entitled “self psychology” which explores the growth and development of the self. For professionals in that field, healthy selfhood is the psychological ability to effectively connect one’s actions to one’s goals and ideals. Here the metaphors are of function.
What is denied in Buddhist texts is the perdurable substratum of an identity. Any holding on to an independently existent, or unchanging, identity is seen as a source of bondage. Undoing this attachment is the ultimate focus of most Buddhist meditations. The Buddhists texts do not indicate that one is to abandon healthy psychological functioning or that the enlightened lack this type of “selfhood.” Au contraire. The intelligent, tireless, compassionate functioning of Buddha is clearly held out as an ideal to be emulated. According to Theravada Abhidharma, after enlightenment Buddha still had a functioning body/mind (namarupa) and within the mind, operative mental factors (citta/caitta). (Mahayana is a bit more complicated because at least some schools hold that Buddha gave up all ordinary conceptual operations. Buddhas, however, do not lose their ability to function effectively in the world!)
What often has happened to Westerners who have heard about “selflessness” and “egolessness,” is that we hear meanings associated with “pride” and “psychological autonomy.” If we have had difficulty in our family of origin that has impaired our ability to act meaningfully toward our goals and ideals, we may wrongly interpret the Buddhist teachings of “no-self” as undermining “psychological autonomy.” Buddhist teachings can then become a support for lack of engagement with life, that at its roots has psychological underpinnings in our personal history. For those who would say to such practitioners, “You have to have an ego before you can give it up,” I would translate this and say, “In order to do the meditative/philosophical work of realizing there is no persistent independent substratum to the person (ego in the sense of atman), you need to be endowed with a healthy ego (in the sense of psychological self).”