When asked about whether we have a self or not, the Buddha remained silent. His silence served eloquently as an indication that both views (“I have a self” and “I do not have a self”) were inaccurate ways of viewing our experience. The real issue which he was interested in pointing out in that regard was how clinging to some notion of a separate and enduring self, some fixed identification with name and form, leads inevitably to suffering. Moreover, like all the great sages, he was not suggesting that we take that proposition as a matter of mere belief, but rather taught that we needed to test it in our own lives, to see if it is true.
Certainly, with the benefit of earnest and conscious investigation, the person we take ourselves to be — the one we conventionally consider to be “our self”, or “me” — can be recognized as a fabrication, a mental creation, that almost everyone nevertheless bases their whole life around. Our dominant priority is the care and survival of this person, and such an attitude is seemingly hard-wired into the human animal at a very primal level.
When we characterize someone as “selfish”, all it really means is that they are identifying with and absorbed in their own sense of self, usually to the detriment of their fellow beings. However, just about everyone is selfish to one degree or another, short of true awakening. In fact, without a properly operating self-sense, we would be very nearly rendered dis-functional in terms of our ability to navigate the objective world.
In spiritual terms, the direct recognition of the insubstantiality of that imaginary creation qualifies as “awakening” (unless it is merely intellectual, in which case it is just more borrowed information that must be discarded so that true realization can eventually emerge). In any case, with such an awakening to the unreality of the person, liberation from the earthly vexations can eventually pertain, but a sense of individuality will continue to persist, even beyond physical incarnation.
Certainly, this sense of individuality may be expanded greatly, as one deepens in cosmic consciousness through the levels of awareness, but it will ultimately be superseded by the recognition of one’s true or absolute nature as Source Itself, the same ineffable nature of the totality of the universal manifestation. Nisargadatta Maharaj puts it this way: “Freedom from self-identification with a set of memories and habits, the state of wonder at the infinite reaches of the being, its inexhaustible creativity and total transcendence, the absolute fearlessness born from the realization of the illusoriness and transiency of every mode of consciousness — flow from a deep and inexhaustible source. To know the source as source and appearance as appearance, and oneself as the source only is self-realization.”
What is recognized is that there has never been any actual separation, but only dream-like illusions arising and dissolving in consciousness, like a video game’s virtual reality in which the player gets totally identified with this or that game character, literally forgetting themselves in their absorption in the game. In reality, of course, the characters are simply expressive figments, thoughts, in the mind of the player. They only possessed the sense of individuality that was granted to them so as to make the game viable and interesting.
Recognizing the real nature of the play is called “Moksha” in systems such as Kashmir Shaivism, in which Shiva (the practitioner) realizes that it has been he all along, playing the game of duality in all the various multiplicity of forms, forgetting himself in order to experience the joy of remembering himself. Of course, that is all just human poetic metaphor for a process far beyond the human pay grade in terms of comprehension. This is why the sages will typically revert to silence, rather than confusing minds with more conceptions that only vaguely reflect the true situation.
For example, we might hear the phrase “entering Nirvana”, but that is again just a human characterization of something far beyond the human perceptive and descriptive capacity. Is it true “Self-Realization”? One might say so, depending on their cultural/religious conditioning. However, it is not really like acquiring some sort of Supreme Personality, but more like letting go of all limitation or sense of separated individuality that has been temporarily contracted into either a personal or Universal “I”. Buddhists might employ the term “Tathagatagarbha”, or Buddha Nature, which is inherent in all sentient beings (although still dormant and unrecognized by those who are yet deluded by the amnesia accompanying the separate self-sense).
Nevertheless, paradoxically, nobody has actually entered into nor exited anywhere, nothing has happened in Reality, which is why some sages use the analogy of the dream to point to this great Mystery. In that regard, both “self” and “Self” are to be equally recognized as mere fantasies of interpretation on perception, and not really applicable in the end to the fundamental and ineffable Reality, the ground of Awareness, of which all manifestation is a luminous expression, an expression of unconditional Love.
“The state of Self-realization, as we call it, is not attaining something new or reaching some goal which is far away, but simply being that which you always are and which you always have been. The state we call realization is simply being oneself, not knowing anything or becoming anything. If one has realized, one is that alone which ‘is’ and which alone has always been. One cannot describe that state. One can only be that.”
For further exploration of this subject, see: