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Selflessness as a Reality, not a Character Trait

The famed “three hallmarks” of the Buddhist teachings consist of the Buddha’s, and Buddhist traditions’, descriptions of the realities of suffering, impermanence, and selflessness. It can be helpful to remember that all three of these terms are translations, and that all translations come with inevitable shifts from the original languages’ words in terms of perspective, tone, and emphasis. For each of these translations, there are effective alternative translations, and there has been much beneficial discussion (discussion that should continue) around which English words are the best fit for each term (if indeed there is a single “best fit” for each one).

Each of these three topics can be a launching point for profound investigations. Today I would like to share a few brief paragraphs (as a very general overview) on “selflessness,” its main meanings in Buddhist thought, and, in particular, some misunderstandings that can arise through using this multifaceted word. The other two of the three hallmarks are equally important topics, though, so I hope to have an opportunity to focus on them separately in the future.

The basic gist of the Buddha’s teachings on selflessness is that, if we calm our mind and deeply examine our experience, we will find that there is really no single, solid, pinpointable “thing” that corresponds to the concepts of “I,” “me,” and “mine.” The proposition is that we can search through the entirety of our bodies and minds, and we won’t find anything that isn’t subject to change or dependence on a thought or concept in order to exist. The sense of “I” or “me” feels very real and solid, but it doesn’t seem to reveal itself in an earnest investigation.

Some Buddhist teachings on selflessness isolate certain aspect of our bodies and minds and point out how, by themselves, they cannot constitute a true or full self. Other teachings encourage us to search throughout all of our experience until certainty arises that such a solid self cannot be found because it was never real.

It is one thing to understand this point intellectually, but working with our relationship to the notion of “self” or “me” is not fundamentally or at its core an intellectual project. Rather, the intellectual and meditative analyses connected to selflessness form one method for addressing what we could be called a cell-level disconnect that has been causing us problems for a long time. The Buddha’s teachings on selflessness are difficult to understand deeply, and are meant to be approached gradually and repeatedly. Over time, and with some heartfelt persistent curiosity, we can come to appreciate how these teachings may apply to ourselves personally, and what they have to say about ourselves that is meaningful.

Terms like selflessness point to a reality that the Buddha said is there all the time but that we don’t recognize. I think that is the most important point to understand at the outset. Sometimes we may think that in order to understand or realize selflessness, we are going to have to change who we are so that we can “become selfless.” But actually, the whole point of all of Buddhist meditation is simply to get to know who we already are, and to allow ourselves the chance to see that clearly. So if the thought of selflessness seems uninviting at times, it might be helpful to remember that the word “selflessness” is simply an encouragement to find out what and who we really are — nothing else.

Few translations of key Buddhist terms are perfect in conveying the full range of the source terms while at the same time being free from having other meanings that could be distracting. Using the English word “selflessness” can sometimes be misleading when discussing Buddhist inquiries into the nature of reality. This is because, although the Buddha taught “selflessness” in the sense that there is ultimately no solid self, a common usage of “selfless” in English points us to being “concerned more with the needs and wishes of others than one’s own.” (Oxford American Dictionary.) If we grafted that definition of selflessness to the Buddha's teachings on the true nature of the self, we would think that selflessness was a character trait to develop, a process of training whereby we become less selfish.

While there are definitely a wealth of Buddhist contemplations devoted to expanding the circle of our care and concern beyond our narrow patterns of habitual thought, the “selflessness” discussed in Buddhism does not refer to a character or personality trait. In the context of the Buddhist training in wisdom, there is no way we could possibly become more selfless than we are now. Selflessness is simply a fundamental reality that we can realize; and realizing it leads naturally to a more expansive and loving way of being in the world.

The Buddhist investigations related to selflessness are in no way a type of self-denial or suppression. At no point in our meditation journey are we asked to stop using the first-person pronoun in conversation, or to not have a sense of care and respect for our precious human life, or to dim down our personalities to become something less vivid. The aim of the exploration here is to become free from the tendency to bind ourselves up in confused thoughts.

Alternative English translations for the source terms of “selflessness” (anattā in Pali; anātman in Sanskrit; bdag med, pronounced dak-mé, in Tibetan) include “no-self,” “not-self,” and “egolessness.” Each of these has its strengths, and each translation will resonate in its own way with different individuals based on their backgrounds and dispositions. My main intent here has not been to analyze the merits of particular translation choices, but rather to clarify the sense of a common Buddhist-English word that is sometimes misunderstood.

What language challenges come up for you in discussions of selflessness, no-self, and egolessness? Which terms have most helped you in developing a sense of getting at what the Buddha was talking about?

I find that what most often interests me about the process of translating Buddhist thought into English isn’t necessarily choosing the right terms: no matter what words we choose to translate key terms, we are going to have to work on our understanding of what those words mean, and refine that understanding again and again.



Tyler Dewar is a Mitra, or senior teacher, in the Nalandabodhi Buddhist community. He can be found on Facebook and Twitter, and at his blog, Parijata Press.

Photo credit: "The Rent," by SB Archer.

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