Perception of Selflessness Part I

Meditation on Perception (pp. 55-57)

“And what, Ananda, is the perception of non-self? Here, having gone to the forest, to the foot of a tree or to an empty hut, a bhikkhu reflects thus: ‘The eye is non-self, forms are non-self; the ear is non-self, sounds are non- self; the nose is non-self, odors are non-self; the tongue is non-self, tastes are non-self; the body is non-self, tactile objects are non-self; the mind is non-self, mental phenomena are non-self.’ Thus he dwells contemplating non-self in these six internal and external sense bases. ‘This is called the perception of non-self.”  –The Buddha

Perception of Selflessness

The Buddha noted that all of the six internal and the six external sense bases are devoid of self (non-self). He mentions each one in matching pairs:

  • Eyes/forms
  • Ears/sounds
  • Nose/odors
  • Tongue/tastes
  • Body/tactile objects
  • Mind/mental phenomena

Since all of these internal sense bases are part of the makeup that we call our body, there is nothing that is not changing, that we can call permanent. Therefore there is no “self” in the sense of a permanent being, no matter how small.

The Buddha’s teachings on selflessness is called the Doctrine of Selflessness. The Buddha also addressed self in four of the Ten Fetters or unwholesome states: belief in the existence of a permanent self or soul, subtle desire to exist in fine material form, subtle desire to exist in immaterial form, conceit or the underlying perception of self-identity.

In No-self or Not-selfexternal_link, Thanissaro Bhikkhu notes:

“So, instead of answering “no” to the question of whether or not there is a self — interconnected or separate, eternal or not — the Buddha felt that the question was misguided to begin with. Why? No matter how you define the line between “self” and “other,” the notion of self involves an element of self-identification and clinging, and thus suffering and stress. This holds as much for an interconnected self, which recognizes no “other,” as it does for a separate self. If one identifies with all of nature, one is pained by every felled tree. It also holds for an entirely “other” universe, in which the sense of alienation and futility would become so debilitating as to make the quest for happiness — one’s own or that of others — impossible.

For these reasons, the Buddha advised paying no attention to such questions as “Do I exist?” or “Don’t I exist?” for however you answer them, they lead to suffering and stress.

The questions that occur to the mind are not “Is there a self? What is my self?” but rather “Am I suffering stress because I’m holding onto this particular phenomenon? Is it really me, myself, or mine? If it’s stressful but not really me or mine, why hold on?” These last questions merit straightforward answers, as they then help you to comprehend stress and to chip away at the attachment and clinging — the residual sense of self-identification — that cause it, until ultimately all traces of self-identification are gone and all that’s left is limitless freedom.

In this sense, the Doctrine of Selflessness is not a doctrine of no-self, but a not-self strategy for shedding suffering by letting go of its cause, leading to the highest, undying happiness. At that point, questions of self, no-self, and not-self fall aside. Once there’s the experience of such total freedom, where would there be any concern about what’s experiencing it, or whether or not it’s a self?”

In other words, self is a concept that only arises when there is clinging to an object. And since the object is always changing, so too is the “self.” The self does not have to be invoked to deal with experiences. “Anger is arising” is more accurate than “I am angry.” Anger is merely being observed as experiences (sensations in the body, thoughts) which are impermanent.

Often when we communicate an emotion that is arising by saying “I am _______”, we attach more closely to that emotion than when we say, “I am having the experience or feeling of ______”.  What need is there of the “I” or self? The emotion is simply arising.

Liberation: the three paths

Signlessness, wishlessness, and emptiness are often called the three gateways to liberation.

Signlessness is what we discovered in the Perception of Impermanence (anicca in the Pali language). Everything is changing. And once we know impermanence, we don’t desire anything and thus can enter the state of wishlessness or desirelessness instead of suffering (dukkha). When we are desireless, there is no self desiring which leads to emptiness (annata) and liberation.

To repeat Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

“Once there’s the experience of such total freedom, where would there be any concern about what’s experiencing it, or whether or not it’s a self?”

In the next talk we will discuss the healing nature of the purified perception of selflessness. 


  • Reflect on this talk daily. Can you find an example of the self arising in you that is not connected with an object such as desire or aversion?
  • Reflect every time you say, “I”, “me”, “my”, or “mine”. Look to see what you are attached to, even if just a little bit.
  • When emotions arise, try communicating with “I am having the experience or feeling of ______” rather than “I am ______.” See if this makes a difference in your perception and reaction to this emotion.


  • Meditate on the perception of selflessness.
  • Can you discover a self – something that is permanent and not changing?

NextPerception of Selflessness Part II
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