12. Rupert Gethin on Buddhism and the Self

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Peter speaks to Rupert Gethin about the no-self theory, and its implications for Buddhist ethics and meditation practices.



Further Reading

• R.M.L. Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism (Oxford: 1998).

• R.M.L. Gethin, “He Who Sees Dhamma Sees Dhammas: Dhamma In Early Buddhism,” Journal of Indian Philosophy 32 (2004), 513-42.

• R.M.L. Gethin, Sayings of the Buddha: A Selection of Suttas from the Pali Nikāyas (Oxford: 2008).

• R.M.L. Gethin, “On some definitions of mindfulness,” Contemporary Buddhism 12 (2011), 263-79.

• R.M.L. Gethin, “Buddhist conceptualizations of mindfulness in K.W. Brown et al. (eds), Handbook of Mindfulness: Theory, Research, and Practice.  (New York: 2015), 9-41.


Jojy Michael on 8 August 2016

Good discussion

I've been a fan of Prof Gethin for some time now, ever since I encountered his book 'Foundations of Buddhism' while taking the Buddhism and Modern Psychology course on Coursera. The book is the unofficial text book for the course. It's an extremely well written book, put together with knowledge and understanding. Now I'm glad to hear the Prof's voice in this interview.

The no-self concept is a big topic on the Coursera course disussion board (I have stayed in touch  with the course since I've been one of the mentors for the course for over an year). And it is a challenging one for me. I have  come to think that the idea should be renamed 'self is not what you think' instead of no-self. Like the Prof says in the interview, Buddha was offering (a) a rationale for detatchment and (b) a refutation of the atman-Brahman precepts of the Vedas. But since the Vedas themselves say the self (atman) is imperceptible (avyaktham), inconceivable (achinthyoyam) and immutable (avikaryam) - Bhagavad Gita 2:16 - I believe the Budhha is only pointing out with this analysis of the five aggregates that they don't mee the characteristics of atman, so the atman is none of those. The Buddha does not offer what the self is not does he propose that there is no self. Hence my thinking that the no-self principle should be renamed 'self is not what you think it is'. 

In reply to by Jojy Michael

Steven C on 11 December 2020

No Self

When was the earliest recorded text of the concept of No-Self?

In reply to by Steven C

Peter Adamson on 12 December 2020

No self

I'm going from memory here (ironically, given the topic) but it is already in the Buddhist Pali canon so we are talking about texts written down in Sri Lanka in the first century BC, unless there are even earlier textual witnesses. But it would go back earlier than that as a concept.

Carroll Boswell on 22 February 2022

Epicurus and the Buddha

If I understand the Buddhist conception of the self, it seems to be a confluence of experiences, which evolve over time, new experiences entering the mix and older ones leaving,. This seems similar to the way Epicurus described the individual as a confluence of atoms, which evolve over time, new atoms entering the mix through food, and old atoms leaving the mix. Epicurus then concluded that the soul (aka the self) does not exist beyond death, though the Buddha wants to retain reincarnation, etc. It is just curious to me that the two seem similar in approach. Is this apparent similarity illusory? (tongue in cheek here)


In reply to by Carroll Boswell

Peter Adamson on 22 February 2022

Epicureans and Buddhists

I think there is a big difference between them actually since the Buddhists deny identity over time, so they deny that there is a self (or indeed that there is any object, like, even a stone) that survives from one instant to the next. There is no trace of that idea in Epicureanism: indeed their point when they deny the afterlife is that we DO continue existing until death, but then at death, we stop existing. To put it another way, the Buddhists have a more radical view: you are not a persisting but changing entity, as the Epicureans would say, but not a persisting entity at all. In fact, there is no "you." Of course you might then say "then in what sense can we say that we will have an afterlife" and the answer is, in the same sense that "you" were alive yesterday or will be tomorrow, i.e. there is a causal chain connecting these aggregations together.

hydr on 30 May 2023


I think there is some confusion here between the last two comments and the overall point of the lecture. (Not unexpected. It is a very complicated subject and these short comments are so easily vulnerable to misunderstanding.) Perhaps a later clarification may someday be in order. 

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