The Practice of No-Self

AUTHOR:Khenpo Tsultrim Lodrö

Although the practice of no-self and the practice of emptiness are treated separately here, the practice of no-self is actually a part of the practice of emptiness.

The main point in the practice of no-self is to overturn self-attachment, since self-attachment is the source of all our afflictions – desire, anger, delusion, etc. However, this need not be emphasized here, because one will not form an attachment to the self if the prior three practices are undertaken successfully.

There is no need to repeatedly contemplate the point about no-self in this practice. When the three practices are completed, simply reflect on whether the self exists or not. At that time, it will become quite clear: if dust particles do not exist and are empty, how can I exist? It is not possible. Once we have this profound realization of no-self, let the mind rest in this state. When the mind gets distracted, start the practice over again.

These four practices of emptiness, impermanence, suffering, and no-self should be undertaken as a set, repeated over and over again. It is essential to dedicate the merit of the practice after coming out of meditation.


After meditation sessions, we should apply these concepts and experiences to our everyday life. At all times, it is important to remember everything in life is illusory, impermanent, and non- substantial; this way we will ultimately come to a profound realization there is nothing to be attached to. Such is the right kind of non-attachment.


What is the wrong kind of non-attachment? If we do not practice this contemplation or experience a feeling of emptiness, just casually proclaim to let go of things at random or arbitrarily, that is the wrong kind of non-attachment.

The Ch’an monk Moheyan stirred up a well-known dispute in Tibet during his time. This is not to say Ch’an Buddhism is wrong; Ch’an is a very good practice. Moreover, we cannot be sure if Moheyan attained enlightenment or not, but what he said is incorrect.

In his instruction to many beginners, he said: “It is not necessary to contemplate this way; the mind should be empty of all thoughts, whether good or bad. If you cultivate good thoughts, you will take rebirth in the higher realms; if you harbor evil thoughts, you will take rebirth in the lower realms; if you are completely free of thought, it is liberation.” In this explanation, one cannot find any of the following elements: the logical reasoning of the Middle Way, the practice of subtle energy and channel in Vajrayana, or the pith instructions of Dzogchen. To let go under these circumstances is merely letting go; nothing more is attained. Accordingly, this approach gave rise to an intense debate in Tibet.

A practitioner should stay detached when circumstances so require, and remain attached if attachment is called for. When cultivating bodhicitta, attachment is essential. Sakyamuni Buddha said that at that point our self-attachment should be bigger than Mount Meru — I want to attain Buddhahood, I want to free all sentient beings from suffering, I want to undertake actions that are beneficial to others, etc. This kind of self-attachment is indispensable at the beginning; with practice, one gradually dispels the wrong kind of self- attachment, creates the conditions for realizing emptiness and compassion, and ultimately eradicates all forms of attachment. Thus, the delineation between attachment and non-attachment must be very clear.

At times this investigation can be challenging. When we do not want to continue with the investigation, let the mind rest. Do not engage in contemplation of any kind; do not reflect on precious human birth, samsara is suffering, and so forth; stay completely relaxed. This is actually the method the monk Moheyan advocated; we can rest the mind in the same way.

If our practice of the preliminaries is good and we have strong faith in the Three Jewels, Vajrayana, and Dzogchen, we may experience realization at this moment. It is a very special moment because the mind, fully relaxed after an exhausting period of contemplation, is capable of sudden awareness of the voidness of its own nature.

Our final goal is to produce a very strong and precise feeling of emptiness or impermanence each time we meditate. When not meditating, our temporary objective is to be able to experience emptiness and impermanence naturally without having to think specifically about these concepts in everyday life.

Mipham Rinpoche said this is the practice of exoteric Buddhism which anyone can undertake. The emphasis in the method is on practice, not on exposition; although not much is said on the concepts, realization is indeed possible. If we do not practice, we will never experience anything even if the concepts are explained in great detail. Like a parrot repeating the words of others, it is meaningless.

If this method is practiced well, the essence of all of the 84,000 methods of practice is also realized. Hence, this is a critical practice that must be undertaken. Apart from the practice of no-self and emptiness, the other two practices are already included in the outer preliminaries; this practice can also be combined with the five inner preliminaries. Practitioners of the five preliminaries who are interested in training in no-self and emptiness can do so simultaneously on their own time; however, it is best to complete the inner and outer preliminaries first. When we have taken this practice to a certain level, we can move on to Dzogchen.

There is no specific practice for nirvana other than the practice of no-self and emptiness. Nirvana is the final outcome – the state of Buddhahood.