Buddhism - The Concept of Anatta or No Self

Buddha, the Founder of Buddhism

by Jayaram V

What is Anatta?

Anatta is a corrupt form of the Sanskrit word Anatma, meaning no-soul or not-self. It is an important doctrine in Buddhism which explains the nonexistence of an identifiable, definitive eternal Self. The concept is based on the teachings of the Buddha himself, some of which are reproduced below.

At one time in Savatthi, the venerable Radha seated himself and asked of the Blessed Lord Buddha: “Anatta, Anatta I hear being said, Venerable. What, pray tell, does Anatta mean?” “Just this, Radha, form is not the self (Anatta), sensations are not the self (Anatta), perceptions are not the self (Anatta), assemblages are not the self (Anatta), consciousness is not the self (Anatta). Seeing thusly, this is the end of birth, the Brahman life has been fulfilled, what must be done has been done." - Samyutta Nikaya

"Wherefore, monks, whatever is material shape, past, future or present, internal...thinking of all this material shape as ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self,’ he should see it thus as it really is by means of perfect wisdom. Whatever is feeling...whatever is perception...whatever are the habitual tendencies...whatever is consciousness, past, future or present, internal...thinking of all this consciousness as ‘This is not mine, this am I not, this is not my self,’ he should see it thus as it really is by means of perfect wisdom. Seeing it thus, monks, the instructed disciple of the pure one turns away from material shape, he turns away from feeling, turns away from perception, turns away from the habitual tendencies, turns away from consciousness; turning away he is detached; by his detachment he is freed; in freedom there is the knowledge that he is freed and he comprehends: Destroyed is birth, brought to a close the Brahma-faring, done is what was to be done, there is no more being such or so. " - Samyutta Nikaya.

There are three different views of the ego or self. The first is the belief in self as the soul-entity. The second is the view of self based on conceit and pride. The third is the self as a conventional term for the first person singular as distinct from other persons. The self or "I" implicit in "I walk" has nothing to do with illusion or conceit. It is a term of common usage that is to be found in the sayings of the Buddha and arahants. — Discourse on the Ariyavasa Sutta.

In short, the concept of Anatta or not-Self means the mind, the body, the feelings, the organs, and any of the aggregates present in them do not represent a permanent entity called the Self. They are temporary aggregates, which disperse or become destroyed when the beingness itself is destroyed. When you remove everything from the components of the mind and body, nothing remains.

The concept drives home clearly that your individuality is a temporary formation, a coming together of various impermanent things. You hold them together out of desires and attachment. They are the glue. Once you remove them from the equation, you become a mere assemblage of things and you cease to exist as an individual.

What is the significance of Anatta?

Anatta has a great spiritual significance in Buddhism and for that matter in any spiritual practice. It is immensely useful to overcome the illusion of personality and personal identity and cultivate detachment.

It is a great way to cultivate indifference to the attractions of life and become equal to the pairs of opposites.

The best way to realize the significance of Anatta is to focus on the individual component of the body with mindful attention and contemplate upon them individually and as aspects of the body.

By realizing how they rise and fall, appear and disappear in the cycle of births and deaths and in the life of an individual, one develops a great insight into the Four Noble Truths and comes to terms with himself and his existence.

How to make use of the concept of Anatta

The concept of Anatta is meant to help you realize the futility of clinging to things or your own identity. It is not meant to dispute the existence of the Self as such, but to look for evidence in contemplative practices to see whether there is anything in your being that may outlast and live forever. In your search for liberation, you pay attention to every aspect of your personality to understand how thoughts, desires, feelings are triggered in your consciousness and why you experience attraction and aversion towards the dualities of life. When you realize through your mindful observation that you are a temporary construction or a mere aggregation of selected physical and mental components, you develop dispassion and detachment.

Anatta in Hinduism

The Anatta concept in Buddhism is similar in its aim with that of Neti Neti (not this, not this) approach mentioned in the Upanishads with regard to the nature of the Self. The Self is none of the things that your mind can conceive or your senses can grasp. When you let your mind realize that by doing its own discernment, it comes to terms with its limitations and falls silent. In that silence, you will find a great opportunity to see the reflection of your true Self and know who you are.

In Hinduism also we believe that the mind and body are impermanent and that one should not develop attachment to one's physical personality. In our search for truth, we focus upon the various components of the mind and body and realize that in the end they do not last. By cultivating detachment with the external world and our own minds and bodies, we reach the state of self-absorption.

Thus, in both Hinduism and Buddhism the aspirants begin the practice with the same approach to silence their minds and bodies and enter into a state of peace and calm. In this endeavor, while the Buddhist do not go beyond the silence of their minds, the Hindu ascetic advance further into the transcendental realm to find the true nature of existence. In other words, the Buddhists end their quest with deep sleep.

The Hindu ascetics go beyond. For a Buddhist the cessation of desires resulting in absolute peace is the final goal, an end in itself. For a Hindu, cessation of desires resulting in equanimity and total silence of the mind and body is the foundation upon which one should explore one's own essential nature and one's relationship with God.

The concept of no-Self is also similar to the argument held by the Advaita School of Hinduism that Brahman or the Supreme Self alone is true and the individual Self is a mere illusion or a mere projection of Brahman only. When a person is liberated, the notion of the individuality totally disappears as one merges into Brahman like a raindrop or a wave falling into the ocean.

Conclusion

It is difficult to state whether the concept of Anatta qualifies Buddhism as an atheistic tradition. There are scholars supporting and disputing both approaches. It is difficult to believe that the Buddha broached the subject of Anatta without knowing its implication upon the prevailing notions of Self in other traditions such as Jainism and Brahmanism. Both these traditions categorically emphasize the existence of eternal, immutable and indestructible Selves.

The Buddha never suggested anything even remotely to confirm their existence. He clearly alluded to the truth that the individuality of the beings existed so long as they remained in bondage. When they Nirvana, they ceased to exist as individuals.

His Nirvana was not meant to leave behind impermanence and enter permanence, but rather to free oneself from the troublesome and unreliable state of impermanence and its modifications. He did not suggest that those who escaped from the cycle of births and deaths entered an all knowing the pure state of bliss.

It was Buddha's style not to indoctrinate his followers with specifics, but to keep everything open and indeterminate just as existence is and to let them explore truth on their own. He wanted them to find the true nature of the final state of existence on their own rather than explain it to them.

Whatever may be the reason, the concept of Anatta is very useful for every spiritual aspirant to cultivate dispassion and detachment towards the world of dualities. It is up to each of us to know the truth regarding the Self, by calming the surface personality of ours to see whether there is any center of permanence located deep within or everything is a mere illusion.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Image Attribution: The image of the Buddha used in this article is either in public domain or licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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