Historically, Vedanta (Vedic or ‘Hindu’ religions) has been heavily influenced by Buddhism. Vedanta has developed a strain of “theism” that is called “non-dualism”. Adi Shankara was an 8th century [CE] yogi who developed the concept of non-dualism, Advaita Vedanta, to it’s highest degree. So depending on who you follow, there can seem to be almost no difference between Buddhist concepts of ‘ultimate reality’ or ‘buddhanature’ and “god” in non-dualistic Advaita Vedanta.
However, the big difference between Vedanta and Buddhism, is the self. In most forms of Vedanta, there is always an inner, essential self or ‘soul.’ They define it in many different ways, but all of them describe the spiritual path as one in which the practitioner must get to know the “true nature of the self.” In Buddhism, there is no essential self. Yet in Buddhism there are several ways of defining anatta which is variously no self or not self.
Similarly, there are many different concepts and arguments about shunyata or ‘emptiness’. Andy Karr’s book, Contemplating Reality, takes you through all the different schools of thought, arguments and interpretations of shunyata. Mingyur Rinpoche teaches that there are 18 forms of emptiness. All of them are valid in some way, based on Buddhist scripture and tradition, but none is the ultimate view of emptiness. What you learn from this process is that there are many ways that Buddhism defines shunyata, none of the are wrong, and each of them has something to teach you about reality and about your experience of reality.
I’m finding that this is true of the Buddhist concept of ‘no self’ too. I’ll limit it to three main types.
First, there is no self, period, that’s it. There just is no self, and there are many scriptures once can point to and arguments one can make to support that. There’s something to be learned from that line of thinking.
Second, there’s John Peakcock’s teaching on not self which is that, yes, there is a self, but it’s not essential or eternal. It’s a psychic faculty, culturally constructed and constantly changing. And he has many scriptures in the Pali cannon to support his argument. Again, much to learn from that point of view.
There is a third view of not self that I learned from David Loy’s book, The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory (“Ch. 1 Social Theory of Buddhism”, you can get it online as a PDF). He uses postmodern theory to devise a social theory of Buddhism, and a social theory of the self.
Loy examines the question, “Is there a self or not? Usually what we try to do is resolve the duality and the dilemma, or question, by resolving it one way or the other; either there is a self or there is no self or not self. What David says is the Buddha’s teaching is this: our real problem is that we don’t experience a real, truly existing solid self. We experience ourselves as socially constructed and therefore as not real. So we keep trying to do things to make ourselves feel real. We try to resolve the dilemma by objectifying ourselves into concepts or statuses that make us feel more real: professions, accomplishments, wealth, relationships, legacies, identities, group membership, etc. But none of these things help us to resolve the dilemma that we simultaneously feel real in the physical sense, because of our sensory experience of the world through the five skandhas—and the ego’s sense of being not real (not self), because it is fragmented, momentary, and socially constructed.
Trying to come up with the “right answer” or ‘ultimate truth’ about self or not self is another way that we try to solidify our not-quite-real sense of being. “I know the answer! There is no self! or you might choose the “yeah-but” version of not self. And that makes you feel ok for a while, like “I got it.”
What David Loy says is that the real problem is, not that we don’t know the true nature of ourselves, but that we cannot resolve the dilemma; it remains undecidable. And the answer is not to try to find an answer either way, but to let it be unresolved. Don’t try to resolve the dilemma one way or another, neither as self nor as not self. Learn to live with the lack of resolution.
In Loy’s postmodern perspective, the same is true for all other dualities that we experience and suffer from. We don’t have to resolve the paradox of shunyata. It’s not that we don’t know the true nature of reality, but that we cannot resolve the dilemma of whether the universe is full or empty. David Loy says (that Nagarjuna said) that shunyata doesn’t define reality, it is a heuristic device that helps us break down our fixed concepts of reality. Shunyata is itself only a concept that also must be discarded.
In the end, the question of the ultimate truth of reality, whether it is full of objects or full of emptiness, is an unresolvable paradox. That ‘form is emptiness and emptiness is form’ is an unresolvable paradox. The trick is to let it remain unresolved. This is true both on the scientific level and the philosophical/cosmological level. Science still can’t fully explain how “something comes out of the void.” One physicist explained that “Even the vacuum of space is roiling with virtual particles and quasi particles and new particles, continuously arising and dissolving in and out of the vacuum of space.” That’s as far as science has taken us.
Let go of answering the questions, and dwell in the questions, not the answers, because there are no final answers. “All views are wrong views” as Thich Nhat Hanh says. Our existential anxiety about ourselves is that we are always trying to resolve an unresolvable paradox. We cannot resolve the tension between self and not-self, between the five skandhas and the ego. We have to let go of having to resolve the paradox and learn to live with the tension.
We learn to live with the tension of a mind that is luminous clarity that is also teeming with thought. We don’t try to solidify thoughts, nor do we try to forcefully empty our minds. Our minds are already empty because thoughts arise and cease momentarily. That is the luminous clarity of our minds.
Loy claims that, from a postmodern perspective, the middle way is the unresolvability of dualisms. As one author put it, we are not trying to realize a ‘Oneness’ as in Chinese Dao (except for perhaps some Chinese Zen schools), but to live with the tension of unresolvable dualisms and even “polymorphous perversities”, as Foucault said.
So there is no right or wrong concept of no self or not self in Buddhism. I’ve been through this process enough times to know that this is true of just about every concept in Buddhist philosophy. There are three main branches of Buddhism, each with several sub-schools, and each one as a different take on no self, shunyata, and many other concepts. None of them are wrong, and there are no right or wrong answers. Some are weaker or stronger, more traditional or more controversial, but all of them have something to teach you about these aspects of reality. So there is no need to argue (in a belligerent way) about any of them. All dharmas are empty. In terms of practice, choose what works for you.
As DPR says, we have to learn to love the questions; the wisdom is in the questions, not the answers. We have to remain open to what is unanswerable, what is undecidable and unresolvable; that there are many possible answers, but no ultimate right answer to any of these things. The key is to stay open to the questions. That is the shunyata, the open space that allows wisdom to come forth.