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The "I" in "Thus I Have Heard..."

The selection below is taken from the works of Nagarjuna titled Exegesis on The Great Perfection of Wisdom (Mahaapraj~naapaaramitaa Upadesha), an immense exegesis to the Mahaapraj naapaaramitaa Sutra in 25,000 lines.

(T25.64a14-b18 [fasc.1])

the Wanderling

If the speaker brings no personal, egotistic delusions into their expression, the occasion speaks for itself, the total situation alone determines what is said or done. Thus, in the case of the Zen master, what-is-said is simply what-is. In the case of the deluded person, however, the "what-is" includes his excess conceptual baggage with its affective components, the deluded ideas about the nature of "self," "thing," "time," and so on that constitute the person's own particular distortion of what actually is. (source)

Question: If within the Buddha's Dharma it is said that all Dharmas are empty and nowhere is there a "self", why then is it declared at the very beginning of the Buddha's scriptures, "Thus `I' have heard ...?" [1]

Reply: Although the Buddha's disciples are aware that there is no self, they accord with common practice in speaking. The "I" thus used is not an actually-existent "I". This is just as when one uses gold coins to purchase copper coins. Nobody laughs at this. Why not? Because the protocols of commerce dictate this way of doing things. Saying "I" is just the same as this. Within the Dharma of no-self, one nonetheless says "I" in conformance with worldly convention. Therefore one need not call this practice into question. This is as referred to in a verse from The Questions of the Gods Sutra:

If there be an Arhat Bhikshu Who has forever ended outflows And who dwells in his very last body, May he speak of an "I" or not?

The Buddha replied:

If there be an Arhat Bhikshu Who has forever ended outflows And who dwells in his very last body, He may speak as if there were an "I"

When in accordance with worldy convention one speaks of a self, it is not spoken from the standpoint of the supreme and actual meaning. For this reason, although Dharmas are empty and devoid of a self, there is no fault in speaking of an "I"; [simply] to take into account [the dictates of] worldly convention.


Moreover, worldly discourse has three bases:

  • First, false views.

  • Second, conceit.

  • Third, names.

Of these, two are impure and one is pure. The discourse of all common people is characterized by three types: false views, conceit and names. The discourse of those with more to study on the path of seeing is characterized by two types: conceit and names.

The discourse of the sages is characterized by one type: names. Although in their minds they do not contradict the actual Dharma, because they go along with the practice of worldly people, they participate in the perpetuation of this type of discourse. Because they have gotten rid of the worldly man's false views, in their going along with common practice, there is no disputation. On account of this they have gotten rid of both kinds of impure bases of discourse. Because they go along with the worldly convention, they employ one of the types of speech. Because the disciples of the Buddha go along with common practice, their speaking of an "I" is without fault.

Moreover, if a person becomes attached to the characteristic of no self, saying, "This is actual; everything else is false discourse," he should be challenged with a difficulty: "If for you the actual characteristic of all Dharmas is devoid of a self, why do you say, `Thus "I" have heard;'

Now, for all of the Buddhas disciples, all Dharmas are empty and devoid of anything which exists. Their minds are not attached herein. Nor are they attached in their speech to the actual characteristic of all Dharmas. How much the less are they attached in their thoughts to the Dharma of no self. On this account one need not challenge with the difficulty; Why do you say "I"; This is as referred to in a verse from The Treatise on the Middle:

If one has something which has not been rendered empty, Then one ought to have that which is rendered empty. Non-emptiness has still not been attained, How much the less has emptiness been realized?

The views of the common person have not been rendered empty. And so they also have a view of emptiness. To have no view of either views or absence of views: This is truly what is known as Nirvana.

The gate to the security of non-duality Is able to shatter all false views. The place where all the Buddhas course,--- This is known as the Dharma of no self.


Hearing from the likes of Nagarjuna, et al, adds a certain credibility to the OK-ness of the use of "I." However, that OK-ness did not start with Nagarjuna nor did it end there. So said, from the pen and mind of a modern-day American, Edward Muzika, whose Fully Attained spiritual advisor was Robert Adams who was an ardent follower of the Bhagavan Maharshi Sri Ramana ---Adams having studied under the grace and light of the Maharshi in the years just prior to Ramana's death --- is presented:

"There is a lot of fake spirituality wherein a supposedly enlightened person, recognizing they do not exist, stops using the word 'I' and substitutes phrases like: 'this person', 'this body/mind mechanism', or 'we', or a referral to themselves as Zero, M.T. Mind, or in the third person, such as 'Charlie'.

"I have no idea why they do this. Though one sees I and the world as illusory, non-existent, who is this person announcing his/her nothingness to? That is, why announce non-existence to a non-existent audience? There is a posture of teaching, of another to which you are teaching by eliminating self-referral. But this is a game. In real life, that is, the dream we appear to live everyday, this kind of pretense only creates confusion.

"Robert (i.e., Robert Adams) referred to himself in private as I, as did Ramana and Nisargadatta."



Fundamentally, our experience as experienced is not different from the Zen master's. Where
we differ is that we place a fog, a particular kind of conceptual overlay onto that experience
and then make an emotional investment in that overlay, taking it to be "real" in and of itself.







    See also:

  1. NO-SELF

  2. AWAKENING 101


  4. TE SHAN



Almost all suttas in the Pali Canon open with the words Evam me sutam ("Thus [was] heard by me"), usually rendered "Thus have I heard". These words are invariably followed by Ekam samayam ("at one time" or "on one occasion"), after which comes either Bhagava ("the Lord") or the name of a leading disciple, and a statement of where he stayed or what he did. In fact these words "Thus have I heard" are so well known as an introduction to Pali suttas that Wisdom Publications gave this title to my translation of the Digha Nikaya which they brought out in 1987. More rarely, a corresponding phrase is used in Sanskrit texts, and in 1950 John Brough suggested, on the basis of Tibetan translations, that the words "at one time" referred backwards, not forwards, so that the opening of Sanskrit-Tibetan sutras concerned should be rendered "Thus have I heard at one time" or the like. While this is doubtless correct as far as the latter texts are concerned, it is by no means clear that the same goes for the Pali suttas, and in 1968 O. von Hinüber (Studien zur Kasussyntax des Pali, 147) firmly rejected Brough's view with, I think, justification.

Maurice Walshe, Middle Way (Volume 69:3 p. 167) November 1994