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We know that the Buddha often talked about not-self, but he also talked positively about self. He said that the self should be its own mainstay, that it should observe itself and reprimand itself when it's gone astray, and that there's a need to learn not to harm oneself. Here are some passages from the Dhammapada that speak positively of the role of self on the path.
"Your own self is your own mainstay,
for who else could your mainstay be?
With you yourself well-trained,
you obtain a mainstay hard to obtain."
— Dhp 160
"Evil is done by oneself.
By oneself is one defiled.
Evil is left undone by oneself.
By oneself is one cleansed.
Purity and impurity are one's own doing.
No one purifies another.
No other purifies one."
— Dhp 165
"You yourself should reprove yourself,
should examine yourself.
As a self-guarded monk with guarded self,
mindful you dwell at ease."
— Dhp 379
These passages show that a sense of self is an important part of the practice — especially a sense of self that encourages responsibility, heedfulness, and care. The question is: Why would it be necessary to create this skillful sense of self? If ultimately you're going to develop the perception of not-self, why spend time developing a perception of self?
The short answer is that the path is a skill, and, as with many other skills, there are many different stages in mastering it. Sometimes you have to do one thing at one stage, and turn around and erase it at another. It's like making a chair. At one stage you have to mark the wood with a pencil so that you can cut it properly, but when you're ready to apply the final finish, you have to sand the pencil marks away....
"This is how he attends inappropriately: 'Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what was I in the past? Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what shall I be in the future?' Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the immediate present: 'Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where is it bound?'
"As he attends inappropriately in this way, one of six kinds of view arises in him: The view I have a self arises in him as true & established, or the view I have no self... or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive self... or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive not-self... or the view It is precisely by means of not-self that I perceive self arises in him as true & established, or else he has a view like this: This very self of mine — the knower that is sensitive here & there to the ripening of good & bad actions — is the self of mine that is constant, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and will stay just as it is for eternity. This is called a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is not freed from birth, aging, & death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. He is not freed, I tell you, from suffering & stress.
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