The teaching of ‘no self’ or anatta in Buddhism can be a misleading one. There are many different views and interpretations on the subject and over the course of this essay, we will discuss the various understandings of anatta.
The first thing that is needed to do when examining this statement is to define exactly what ‘no-self’ or anatta in Buddhism is. Anatta literally means ‘no-self’. It is one of the key central teachings of Buddhism. What this doctrine means is that there is no ‘self’, in the sense of a permanent, fixed, integral being, within an individual existence.
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In some religions, a person has an individual soul, which after death, lives eternally on either in heaven or hell. Other religions teach that the soul gets purified, by going through many lives, before being united with its particular deity, in a higher state of consciousness. However, Buddhism is unique in that it denies the existence of a soul.
Another Buddhist teaching on ‘self’, is that an individual is a combination of five aggregates of existence, called the Five Skandhas. We will discuss what these mean in relation to anatta and ‘self’. This is an important aspect of understanding what Buddha taught about ‘self’.
In addition to the Five Skandhas, we will discuss the suggestions that Buddha taught the concept of anatta, not as a metaphysical assertion, but as a strategy for gaining release from suffering.
The third aspect of this which needs examination is the fact that the two main forms of Buddhism, differ in their interpretations of anatta. We will discuss in which ways and to what extent they differ.
A final aspect to be explored on this topic is the notion that ‘self’ is an illusion and also an obstacle to the realization of truth.
People often find the Buddha’s teaching of anatta or ‘not self’ a difficult and confusing doctrine to comprehend. The first thing needed to do to understand his teaching of ‘no self’, is to understand how the Buddha himself defined ‘self’. Buddha essentially thought of the ‘self’ in a metaphysical way. An example of what that fundamentally means is that he thought of ‘self’ as something,
“eternal, permanent, unchanging, perfectly pure, self-contained and not dependent on the body or the environment” (Denise Cush, 1983: 36).
It is a permanent abiding essence that survives death or a true self that is greater or more vital than the personality or the individual. This is in essence what most people would consider being a ‘soul’. With this definition of ‘self’, Buddha taught the concept of a soul or ‘self’ is false.
“According to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality”. (Walpola Rahula, 1974: 51).
In addition, The Buddha teaches that this false idea of ‘self’, is not only untrue but that it also leads to harmful thoughts of selfishness, egotism, hatred and other impurities and problems. This belief is a dangerous illusion. It could lead to dangerous consequences such as self-obsession in the quest to liberate one’s own soul, and it can also lead to a lessening of the importance of moral behaviour.
“It is the source of all worlds troubles from personal conflicts to wars between different nations” (Rahula, 1974: 51).
This is an interesting aspect of The Buddha’s teaching. People throughout the world have a very strong sense of ‘self’, and we attach ourselves and identify ourselves with absolutely.
We attempt to advance what appears to be in its interests. People look for ego affirmation constantly. Ultimately what this creates are people who are continually looking for confirmation that they exist and are that they are valued in this life. Thus it’s this sense of ‘self’, or a person’s own ego, which is actually preventing them from seeing the beauty in the world.
“Declutching from ego, if only for an instant, is to become aware of an unimagined vastness and beauty that is there all the time but which the blinkers of self-concern prevent us seeing.” (John Snelling, 2001: 50).
There is an interesting and somewhat related point made in Walpola Rahula’s book, What The Buddha Taught. It states,
“Two ideas are psychologically deep-rooted in man: self-protection and self-preservation. For self-protection, man has created God, on whom he depends for his own protection, safety and security, just as a child depends on its parent. For self-preservation, man has conceived the idea of an immortal Soul or Atman, which will live eternally. In his ignorance, weakness, fear and desire, man needs these two things to console himself. Hence he clings to them deeply and fanatically.” (Rahula, 1974: 51).
The Buddha sees these ideas of God and Soul as false and incorrect. His teachings are aimed at enlightening mankind to the falseness of these beliefs. It is only when man accepts this, that he can escape the ignorance, weakness, fear and desire which caused him to create these concepts in the first place. However, man cannot be taught or enlightened, when these ideas are still deeply rooted in his psyche.
The Buddha taught that an individual is a combination of five aggregates of existence, also called the Five Skandhas. The skandhas, very roughly, might be thought of as components that come together to make an individual. Everything that we think of as “I” is a function of the skandhas. The Skandhas are:
4. Mental formations
Various schools of Buddhism interpret the skandhas in somewhat different ways. Generally, the first skandha is our physical form. The second is made up of our feelings, emotional and physical, and our senses: seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling.
The third skandha, perception, take in most of what we call thinking, i.e., conceptualization, reasoning. This also includes the recognition that occurs when an organ comes into contact with an object. Perception can be thought of as “that which identifies.” The object perceived may be a physical object or a mental one, such as an idea.
The fourth skandha, mental formations, includes habits, prejudices and predispositions. Our preferences or willfulness, also is part of the fourth skandha, as are attention, faith, conscientiousness, pride, desire, vindictiveness, and many other mental states both virtuous and not virtuous. The causes and effects of karma are especially important to the fourth skandha.
The fifth skandha, consciousness, is awareness of or sensitivity to an object, but without conceptualization. Once there is awareness, the third skandha might recognize the object and assign a concept-value to it, and the fourth skandha might react with desire or revulsion or some other mental formation. The fifth skandha is explained in some schools as a base that ties the experience of life together.
Each of these Five Skandhas, is impermanent and constantly changing. What Buddha teaches about them in relation to ‘self’, is that they are empty. They are not qualities that an individual possesses, because there is no-self possessing them.
“The Buddha thus teaches that each one of these ‘elements’ of the ‘self’ is but a fleeting pattern that arises within the ongoing and perpetually changing context of process interactions. There is no fixed self either in me or any object of experience that underlies or is the enduring subject of these changes”. (Stephen J. Laumakis, 2008: 55).
Another important aspect that needs to be addressed on this subject is Buddha’s linkage between suffering and ‘self’. He identified that the notion of ‘self’, involves an element of self-identification and clinging, and thus suffering and stress.
“persistent character-traits are merely due to the repeated occurrence ‘mind-sets’………..a ‘person’ is a collection of rapidly changing and interacting mental and physical processes, with character patterns re-occurring over some time. Only partial control can be exercised over these processes; so they often change in undesired ways, leading to suffering. Impermanent they cannot be a permanentself’.” (Peter Harvey, 1990: 52).
To avoid the suffering implicit in questions of “self” he offered an alternative way of dividing up the experience: the four Noble Truths of stress, its cause, its cessation, and the path to its cessation. Rather than viewing these truths as pertaining to self, he said, one should recognize them simply for what they are, in and of themselves, as they are directly experienced, and then perform the duty appropriate to each. Stress should be comprehended, its cause abandoned, its cessation realized, and the path to its cessation developed.
These duties form the context in which the anatta doctrine is best understood. If you develop the path of virtue, concentration, and discernment to a state of calm well-being and use that calm state to look at the experience in terms of the Noble Truths, the questions that occur to the mind are not “Is there a self? What is my self?” but rather “Am I suffering stress because I’m holding onto this particular phenomenon? Is it really me, myself, or mine? If it’s stressful but not really me or mine, why hold on?” These last questions merit straightforward answers, as they then help you to comprehend stress and to chip away at the attachment and clinging, the sense of self-identification, that cause it, until ultimately all traces of self-identification are gone and all that’s left is freedom.
In this sense, the anatta teaching is not a doctrine of ‘no-self’, but a ‘not-self’ strategy for shedding suffering by letting go of its cause, leading to the highest, undying happiness. At that point, questions of ‘self’ fall aside. Once there’s the experience of such total freedom, where would there be any concern about what’s experiencing it, or whether or not it’s a ‘self’?
An additional facet that has to be included on this topic is the fact that the two main forms of Buddhism, differ in their interpretation of anatta. The two forms are namely, Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism.
One on hand, Theravada considers anatta to mean that an individual’s ego or personality is a restriction and a delusion. Once freed of this delusion, the individual may enjoy the bliss of Nirvana. The Mahayana, on the other hand, considers all physical forms to be void of inherent self. The ideal in Mahayana is to enable all beings to be enlightened together, not only out of a sense of compassion but because we are not really separate, autonomous beings. These two differing views on anatta are probably the greatest difference between these two forms of Buddhism and so it is their different understanding of ‘self’ that defines and separates them.
Overall, this was a very interesting and sometimes confusing topic. After covering the main topics of anatta, the main lesson that Buddha was trying to convey when teaching about ‘self’, was that before a man can reach enlightenment, he must first embrace the fact that his attachment to ‘self’, is the obstacle which he must overcome.
Man cannot take refuge in comforting illusions, which he has created as a form of security. If a man does not break these deep-rooted ideas and concepts, then he will be left in the dark and will never find the ultimate truth. That is the over-riding theme in what Buddha was trying to teach with ‘self’. Man must always strive for truth, and self is not the truth.
“Where self is, truth is not. Where truth is, the self is not. Self is the fleeting error of samsara; it is individual separateness and that egotism which begets envy and hatred”. (Harvey, 1990: 60).
Anderson, Tyson, ‘Anatta: A Reply to Richard Taylor’, Philosophy East and West, Vol. 25, No. 2, April 1975, pp 187-193.
Cush, Denise, Buddhism, Abingdon, Hodder and Stoughton, 1983.
Harvey, Peter, An Introduction to Buddhism; Teachings, History and Practices, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Keown, Damian, Buddhism-A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1996.
Laumakis, Stephen J., An Introduction To Buddhist Philosophy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Snelling, John, Way Of Buddhism, London, Thorsons, 2001.
Taylor, Richard, ‘The Anatta Doctrine and Personal Identity’, Philosophy East And West, Vol.19, No.4, Oct. 1969, pp359-366.
Walpola, Rahula, What The Buddha Taught, New York, Grove Press, 1974.
Woodhead, Linda, Religions In The Modern World, London; New York, Routledge, 2002.
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