SN 44.10 Ananda Sutta: To Ananda (On Self, No Self, and Not-self)
Then the wanderer Vacchagotta went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, exchanged courteous greetings with him. After an exchange of friendly greetings & courtesies, he sat to one side. As he was sitting there he asked the Blessed One: "Now then, Venerable Gotama, is there a self?"
When this was said, the Blessed One was silent.
"Then is there no self?"
A second time, the Blessed One was silent.
Then Vacchagotta the wanderer got up from his seat and left.
Then, not long after Vacchagotta the wanderer had left, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, "Why, lord, did the Blessed One not answer when asked a question by Vacchagotta the wanderer?"
"Ananda, if I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, that would be conforming with those brahmans & contemplatives who are exponents of eternalism [the view that there is an eternal, unchanging soul]. If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, that would be conforming with those brahmans & contemplatives who are exponents of annihilationism [the view that death is the annihilation of consciousness]. If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, would that be in keeping with the arising of knowledge that all phenomena are not-self?"
"And if I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, the bewildered Vacchagotta would become even more bewildered: 'Does the self I used to have now not exist?'"
See also: other suttas in the Avyakata Samyutta (and the translator's Introduction); AN 4.42.
Whatever one tries to extrapolate from this, the TathÄ�gata’s silence does not represent a position. However, the exchange between Ä€nanda and the TathÄ�gata after Vacchagotta departed does tell us that his silence was provisional to Vacchagotta’s own confusion and misapprehension over a ‘self’ as understood by eternalist (sassatavÄ�dÄ�) or annihilationist (ucchedavÄ�dÄ�) doctrines that were current at the time. Vacchagotta’s state of mind would also be a factor as he had come to the TathÄ�gata and his disciples several times on these topics that can be read in the Vacchagottasaá¹ƒyutta. And these preoccupations of Vacchagotta would reflect on the ‘improper attention’ (ayoniso manasi karoto) of the untaught commoner (assutavÄ� puthujjano), as mentioned in the SabbÄ�sava Sutta. The ‘thicket of views’ in the SabbÄ�sava Sutta (MN.2), are those views on self of the puthujjana, who wrongly considers a personal existence ‘for me’ – ‘Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? (ahosiá¹ƒ nu kho ahaá¹ƒ atÄ«tamaddhÄ�naá¹ƒ, na nu kho ahosiá¹ƒ atÄ«tamaddhÄ�naá¹ƒ) … ‘I have a self’ … I do not have a self’ (atthi me attÄ�’ti … natthi me attÄ�’ti).
However, the noble disciple is not on the same footing. When the TathÄ�gata did give instruction on views of self as held by the world, it was to a suitable audience informed with a contemplative understanding of dependent origination and of the habits of volitional processes which cause false reification of sentient experience. In other words, they, the noble disciples, understood what props-up the illusion of substantiality. Thus they appreciated entirely the falsity of an enduring attÄ�, both in contexts of doctrinal claim and contemplative knowledge. Otherwise, there would be no utility in simply denying the ‘Self’ to someone who is ignorant of causal processes, devoid of contemplative understanding, and who’s awareness is only informed with either the dogma of a ‘Self’ (Ä€tman) or at least with an infatuation over sentient experience born of this ignorance – as this would only lead to vexation.
A helpful reference on this topic is Bhikkhu Bodhi’s footnote to the Ä€nanda Sutta:
384 “Probably this means that Vacchagotta would have interpreted the Buddha’s denial as a rejection of his empirical personality, which (on account of his inclination towards views of self) he would have been identifying as a self. We should carefully heed the two reasons the Buddha does not declare, “There is no self”: not because he recognizes a transcendent self of some kind (as some interpreters allege), or because he is concerned only with delineating “a strategy of perception” devoid of ontological implications (as others hold), but (i) because such a mode of expression was used by the annihilationists, and the Buddha wanted to avoid aligning his teaching with theirs; and (ii) because he wished to avoid causing confusion in those already attached to the idea of self. The Buddha declares that “all phenomena are nonself” (sabbe dhammÄ� anattÄ�), which means that if one seeks a self anywhere one will not find one. Since “all phenomena” includes both the conditioned and the unconditioned, this precludes an utterly transcendent, ineffable self.” (B. Bodhi p. 1457)