There is no “I” in Dhamma

Speaking with another dhamma follower, we explored the concept of non-attachment and the practice of “non-self.” For most, this is the cornerstone of practice: the goal of Buddhism. We see dukkha (“suffering”) as something that must be eliminated to find happiness. We see anatta (the concept of “non-self “or “empty nature”) as the key realization needed to complete that process. This blog will hopefully elucidate that our Buddhist practice needs more than understanding of these concepts. The goal isn’t realizing anicca, anatta, and dukkha, but how we choose to live our lives once we do.


The Dhamma (or “dharma) is the guide to the true understanding of wisdom and the practice of Buddhism. With more than 45 years of teaching by the Buddha, and hundreds of years of commentary, understanding how to use this vast library of information can create more confusion than understanding.

The Buddha taught differently for each audience, catering to the knowledge and level of understanding of his followers. As the Zen teacher told a disciple who noted that the advice given to him was the contrary to the advice given to another novice, “When we walk the Middle Path, I tell those who stray right to turn left and those who stray left to go right.”

The teachings of the Buddha must be understood in the context of our lives. What may bring an awakened mind to a monk may not be what is needed for a lay person. What may bring deeper understanding to someone in Thailand may not provide illumination to an American. Each of us must strive to find the way to direct ourselves to the Middle Way.

With so many different traditions of Buddhism all entering the Western world, it is easy to be given too many directions and without wise discernment some will lead you further from the Middle Path rather than direct you to it: especially when our Western philosophies are the starting point of our understanding.

Studying the Buddhist message of impermanence, non-self, and suffering without understanding how to apply these concepts within our daily living has the possibility of creating more harm to our development than good.

If you ask me “where is the definitive dhamma located?” I cannot answer you. No one can. It is here, there and everywhere. It is not a handbook. It has no home. You might as well ask me “where does the wind live?” It is just a force that is there effecting all its contacts differently. You find seek it through introspection and meditation and develop it through practice and application.

My goal of this post is to offer some illumination how to understand and use these concepts: live without unnecessary suffering thus creating unconditional joy in our lives. But I can only illuminate my understanding to you—and you must then take that light and travel the path as you develop your own wisdom.


Certainly, there is dukkha (the “suffering” and unsatisfactory nature of life). The Pali term comes from “du” meaning unbalanced and “akkha” meaning wheel. The nature of life is always unbalanced because there is a constant need for survival: food, shelter, mating, social interdependence, etc. (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a great template to see this). But it is a fallacy that we should be looking for ways to remove the needs and efforts of living as we work to remove the suffering that is created by it.

There is no separation of the mind and body. The mind cannot form total nonattachment without creating suffering of the body. Just as the aggregates are interdependent, our physical forms are interdependent with the world. We are one more aggregate within the global structure. In order to find an awakened nature, the mind must see it is one part of the body just as the “person” must see that he is a part of the world around him. No separation.

Which is also why the concept of anatta must also be wisely discerned as a subcategory of anicca (impermanence). The idea that there is no “I” as a permanent entity is cornerstone to Buddhist thought, but it is not dismissive of the practical: the ego as a permanent concept is a delusion, but it is also a tool manifested by the five aggregates of the person to function.

The Buddha understood the temporal frailty of being, but did not deny its existence. The concept of “I” is a convention created the same way the letter “x” is created in an algebra equation: a marker used practically.


The great Kind Menander was a Greek king of Bactria (present-day Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan). He was one of a few rulers who turned to Buddhism and his discussions with the Buddhist sage Nagesana are codified in the Pali Canon. The discussions included great examples of the Socratic method of inquiry and explain a lot of Buddhist philosophy.

It was under Menander that the Yona (commonly believed to mean Greek) monks spread Buddhism throughout India and Sri Lanka, after Buddhism had been actively campaigned to be purged from India after the Buddha’s death.

In the discourses of the “Menander’s Questions” the concepts of anicca, anatta, and dukkha are discussed. In this blog post, I want to share a discussion that Menander had with Nagesana about the concept of “no self.”

“Who are you?” asked the king.

“I am Nagasena,” replied the monk. “But although my parents gave me this name,  there is no person to be found here.”

“But if no person can be found,” replied Menander, “who give you robes and alms? Who enjoys them? Who is it that keeps vows and realizes Nirvana? Could it be the hairs on your head that are Venerable Nagasena?”

“No sir,” said the monk.

“How about your nails, teeth, skin, flesh, bones, heart, urine or brains: Are they Nagasena?”

“None of them, sir” replied the monk

“If you are not your body, then might your feelings of pleasure and pain, perception, mental impulse or state of consciousness be the Venerable Nagasena?”

“Neither body or mind are me,” said Nagasena. “Being impermanent formations, forever changing, arising and passing nothing is mind. When the interdependent aggregates decay, there will be nothing left and no I will be found. These aggregates are not mine, these thoughts arising are not self, there is no ‘I.’”

“In that case, Venerable monk, you told me a lie when you said you were Nagasena. For I find no Nagasena. There is no Nagasena at all. Only a name,” said the king.

Venerable Nagasena then asked the kind, “How did you get here?”

“By Chariot,” replied the king.

“If you came by chariot, then what is the chariot? Is the axle the chariot?”

“No,” said the king.

“Are the wheels the chariot? Is the yoke the chariot? Are the reins the chariot?”

The kind answered, “none are the chariot.”

“Is there a chariot apart from the these aggregate things?” asked the monk.

“No, Venerable Nagasena.”

The monk then answered, “Then are you lying? You said you came by chariot but are unable to produce anything. What is a chariot but a name.”

The king bowed deeply to the monk and responded, “Oh wise sir, I am not telling a lie. For it is because of the parts of a chariot it exists, a label, a conventional usage.”

“Exactly,” replied Nagasena. “So it is for me. Because of my body, feelings, perceptions, mental impulses and consciousness—Nagasena exists. While there is no person to be found in any of these aggregates, the convention of Nagasena exists.”

The is story of the King Menander shows us that his understanding of the Buddha was not someone who realized that he was an illusion, but a person who awoke to see the very heart of the human condition and with clear vision saw how to live this life more fully.


Through our practice we embody the wisdom of anicca, anatta, and dukkha. We see the world as impermanent (anicca). We understand that our permanent aggregates make being a permanent concept of “I” impossible (anatta). The desire for things to be permanent, especially the “self”, creates the delusion of “I” and out of that ignorance we have suffering (dukkha).

An awakened mind walks the Middle Path. Like Menander and Nagasena, they understand the unconditioned nature of reality but also understand the existence of form. They use this wisdom, developed through practice and study, to engage with life and live life to its fullest. They make the most of their time knowing how fleeting and precious it is. With open eyes they see what has real value and what has not .

Whether your life is relational or renunciant, the quality of our life is not solely about non-attachment and believing that we are not “I”—that is only one half of the practice. Our life is about non-attachment balanced with non-aversion so that we are FULLY engaged and experiencing this life. It is not about denying being, but recognizing the true nature of what that means. It is about making choices mindfully to accept the suffering that cannot be avoided, avoid the suffering that is unnecessary and skillfully choosing the responsibility of suffering as we deal with the world around us.


Tags: , , , , , , ,

Categories: Buddha, Dharma, Ethics, Four Noble Truths, Kharma, Mahayana, Meditation, Noble Eightfold Path, Philosophy, Relationships, Theravada, Tibet, Virajana


Born Joshua Hudson, Reverend Sumitta (his ordained name) finished a twenty-year career as a military photo-journalist, and became a Licensed Social Worker with continuing studies in Mental Health, Healthcare Advocate, and Buddhist Minister. Currently, he works as the Director of Psychological Health and Primary Prevention of Violence for the U.S. Air Force. Previously, he served as the healthcare patient advocate for the Veterans Healthcare Administration, and is a License Clinical Social Worker, with a Master’s in Clinical Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh, working as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor, public speaker, trainer and personal/family advisor. His dharma name "Sumitta," which translates to "Good Friend" in Pali.


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2 Comments on “There is no “I” in Dhamma”

  1. September 2, 2010 at 10:26 am #

    Very well written blog post! Shows real understanding of of Buddhist practice, and the way to live Middlw way. A real keeper! 🙂

  2. Ert
    March 23, 2011 at 3:40 pm #

    Thanks for the post. Cleared some of my doubts!!!

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