What attains nibbana if there is no self?

A friend wrote to me today with this question.

Since we are not an I/self what is it that reaches nibbana. Who or what is not reborn? I know it is getting out of samsara but could you explain … I hope this question makes sense

Dear R.
This is a good question. Really it is what the Abhidhamma elucidates in such detail.
I reply in brief and hope it will encourage you to delve more into its depths.

As you know there is no self. Sabbe dhamma anatta - all phenomena are not self.

The Visuddhimagga XIX19
“There is no doer of a deed, or one who reaps the result. Phenomena alone flow on, no other view than this right.
“This is mere mentality-materiality, there is no being, no person

“The mental and material (nama rupa) are really here
But here is no human being to be found, for it is void and merely fashioned like a doll.

Sela sutta:

This puppet is not made by itself,
Nor is this misery made by another.
It has come to be dependent on a cause,
When the cause dissolves then it will cease.

As when a seed is sown in a field
It grows depending on a pair of factors:
It requires both the soil’s nutrients
And a steady supply of moisture.

Just so the aggregates and elements,
And these six bases of sensory contact,
Have come to be dependent on a cause;
When the cause dissolves they will cease

So the teachings are uncomprising, there are only conditioned elements arising and ceasing.
This, of course, is not easy to grasp.
Dispeller of Delusion p.60

243.The characteristic
of no-self does not appear owing to not keeping in mind, not
penetrating the resolution into the various elements (nänädhätuvinibbhoga) owing to its being concealed by compactness. […]. **When resolving of the **
compact (ghanavinibbhoga) is effected by resolution into the various elements, the characteristic of no-self appears in accordance with
its true essential nature.

Now back to your question. As well as anatta, there are also dukkha and anicca (impermanence) that apply to all conditioned phenomena. sabbe sankhara anicca and sabbe sankhara dukkha.

As regards dukkha(often translated poorly as suffering); In fact every moment - even the most happy and pleasant are classified as dukkha - simply because they are conditioned to arise and pass away. And one way to consider the teachings is that the Buddha taught about dukkha, and he taught the path to end dukkha.
In brief Nibbana is the end of dukkha. There is no more conditioned phenomena. Nibbana does not arise or cease.

see also this;
If all conditioned phenomena are dukkha, how can an arahant no longer have dukkha mentally? - General Theravada topics - Classical Theravāda (classicaltheravada.org)

Anatta and dukkha - it sounds like nihilism? - General Theravada topics - Classical Theravāda (classicaltheravada.org)

I add some more.
If taken wrongly learning about anatta may confuse or seem odd: “Before I had a self, and since learning Dhamma it disappeared”.

But actually life is just as it always was. Only there is a growing understanding of the real nature of the world.

The venerable
Moḷiyaphagguna couldn’t grasp this and eventually left the Sangha

Venerable sir, who consumes?’

But I do not speak thus. Since I do not speak thus, if one should ask me, ‘Venerable sir, for what is the nutriment consciousness a condition?’ this would be a valid question. To this the valid answer is: ‘The nutriment consciousness is a condition for the production of future renewed existence. When that which has come into being exists, the six sense bases come to be; with the six sense bases as condition, contact.’”

“Venerable sir, who makes contact?”

“Not a valid question,” the Blessed One replied. “I do not say, ‘One makes contact.’ If I should say, ‘One makes contact,’ in that case this would be a valid question: ‘Venerable sir, who makes contact?’ But I do not speak thus. Since I do not speak thus, if one should ask me, ‘Venerable sir, with what as condition does contact come to be?’ this would be a valid question. To this the valid answer is: ‘With the six sense bases as condition, contact comes to be; with contact as condition, feeling.’”

“Venerable sir, who feels?”


Dear R.
It occurs to me that you might also be interested in the actual processes that arise on the way to attainment and at the moment of attaining.

In the texts they explain different stages of insight, vipassana. Vipassana is not, despite what is sometimes believed, some technique that one should master. It is rather understanding of the nature of reality and its arising is dependent on clearly comprehending the subtle teachings of the Buddha. However it is much deeper than intellectual understanding as it is the direct insight, very briefly, into the namas and rupas of the present moment.

For the attainment of enlightenment.
This is a brief procees that occurs when wisdom is of sufficient strength and Nibbana is taken as object.

All of the understanding and processes happen without any self involved.

Visuddhimagga (about the
development of vipassana): >

is no removal of false view in one
takes it thus “I see with insight, my insight’…there is removal of
view in one who takes it thus 'only formations see formations with
insight, comprehend, define, discern and delimit them.” XX83

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