The limiting language of "no-self"

People laughing together
“Why do you meditate?” Photo by Meenakshi Madhavan

This page questions some terms commonly used when describing the purpose of meditation.


The point of Buddhist meditation has always been to change your perception of how things are. This is true across diverse Buddhist histories and cultures. However, the kind of perceptual change described as the result, or goal, differs according to “yana.”

“Yana,” as in “Vajra-yana,” is the Sanskrit word for “vehicle,” often loosely translated as “path.” Vajrayana, the “thunderbolt” path is defined relative to Mahayana (the “great” path) and Hinayana (the “lesser” path).1

Buddhist vehicles differ in substance; they are not stylistic alternatives. Their starting points are diverse. They apply different methods, which lead to distinct end points. Each of these three broad vehicles of Buddhism contain further subdivisions, and every one has its own way of describing itself in relation to the rest of Buddhism.

This beautiful diversity is mostly invisible in contemporary English language descriptions of Buddhist meditation. As one example, the term “no-self,” a translation of the Sanskrit word “anatman” (Pali: “anatā”) is used to describe the intended result of many meditations, regardless of which yana they derive from.

In early Buddhism, “anatman” meant the absence of a permanent self or “soul.” Later it came to refer to the absence of any essence, or “self-ness” in all phenomena. Although it featured prominently in Hinayana and early Mahayana discourse, it encapsulated the entire result only in Hinayana. An “arhat,” an enlightened being who has realized no-self and is liberated from this world, is the endpoint of Hinayana.

The concept and experience of no-self comes from a soteriology that relies on reincarnation. No-self expresses a desire to cease to exist. The ideal is to separate from all relationship, to leave connections behind, in order to avoid rebirth. Its methods aim to perfect detachment from desires and aversions.

Buddhism came to the West through various geographical and historical routes. The most influential was Theravadan Hinayana, which brought with it the language and aim of “no-self.” In particular, Mahasi Sayadaw “reinvented” Buddhist meditation with tremendous impact. Many meditations available today, in both their instructions and the description of their result, evolved from Mahasi-style vipassana. It’s likely that meditation teachers from other traditions picked up already established English vocabulary to describe their techniques as other Buddhist lineages from China, Tibet, and elsewhere spread to the West in the late 20th century.

Adopting the same English terms across different Buddhist yanas leads to:


We’ve inherited a limited pattern of meditation-speak, one that centers around ideas of the self. Meditation often does change self perception. However, focusing only on the self impedes other purposes. A narrow focus reduces meditation practice to a sometimes obsessive preoccupation with discovering “no-self” or, watered-down: “egolessness.”

It doesn’t take many thousands of hours of meditation to understand that we don’t have a solid, coherent, fixed self. This may be conceptually obvious to you even if you have never meditated. The experience of complete self disintegration in Buddhist practice historically was specific to the Hinayana path. Mahayana emphasized the logics of the emptiness of phenomena, including self-emptiness, but the end point of the Mahayana path was the realization of bodhicitta (“awakened mind”), not anatman (“no-self”.)

Increased awareness through silent meditation of any sort is likely to change your perception of how things are, including your experience of self. Describing these nuanced changes in perception only using renunciative vocabulary, such as the language of the “no-self,” limits the understanding of what meditation is and does. I suspect it may prevent some people from approaching meditation altogether. They might, rightfully, ask:

Some questions commonly suggested by meditation instructors working in a renunciative framework are:

I find those questions uninteresting and misleading.3 

Questioning language

In Vajrayana, no-self is not a goal. Meditation tends to lead towards connectedness, vivid experience of the world, and a lively, changing self, responding fluidly in context.

In a life-affirming, Vajrayana framework, you might ask, instead:

Accepting the limited language of the no-self without questioning could lead to confusion in your meditation. The context in which you might want to use this specific, renunciative vocabulary is only that in which you want to experience disintegration of the experience of self.4

Western religions have no yanas, so when Westerners first encountered Buddhism, they failed to understand that it contains multiple paths with differing principles and aims. Westerners took Hinayana as the prototype, and misapplied its renunciative conceptual structure and language to the other yanas, resulting in extensive confusion that persists to the present.

Language and experience are both distinct and intimately bound. The language we use to describe our meditation is likely to influence how it goes. We can choose fresh descriptions congruent with the range of meditations that we’ve inherited and the new ones we’ve created. Language about meditation does not need to be prescriptive—finding a shared language can be fun, too!

As a meditator, I think it’s worth being clear what you want from your practice. Do you want to live a fully expressive, emotionally textured, connected, and pragmatically-oriented life? How does your meditation, and the language you use to describe it, help or hinder your intention?

Questions for readers

How would you describe your worldview?

What is the language you use to describe your meditation?

Where did you first encounter that language?

What ideas do you have about the relationship between your meditation practice and your lifestyle?

Does the language you use to reflect on your meditation experience fit well with your worldview?

  1. 1.Some avoid using the word “Hinayana” because it has been used to demean practitioners on the path of solitary enlightenment. It’s widely accepted by scholars as descriptive of the first of three broad categories in the historical development of Buddhism.
  2. 2.Spoiler: it doesn’t!
  3. 3.Ymmv. I am a disagreeable self.
  4. 4.You may hear this referred to as “equanimity.” This can be confusing too. “Equanimity” is used prolifically across different meditation systems to refer to different experiences, including peace, calm-abiding, nonduality of emptiness and form, and nonduality of self and other.