Buddhism - The Concept of Anatta or No Self

Buddha, the Founder of Buddhism

by Jayaram V

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.

Buddhism differs from other conventional religions in respect of its stand on the concept of soul or atman. Unlike other major world religions, Buddhism does not believe in the existence of an eternal and fixed entity called soul.

From a Buddhist perspective, there is nothing permanent or fixed in our existence. Everything is subject to decay and destruction.

Therefore, the Buddhists argue that it is safer to look for solutions in the current reality of the present moment, rather than in some metaphysical notion of some inexplicable state that cannot be experienced through our minds and bodies. Speculating upon it is a mere intellectual effort and waste of time.

The Buddha taught the existence of neither Soul nor God.  According to early Buddhism there is no such thing as eternal soul in man. The world is empty of self. So does a being.

It is not possible to believe that a soul, that is permanent and stable can exist in a being, because all beings are subject to continuous change, death and decay. They are "becoming" continuously.

In a sermon delivered to his first five disciples, the Buddha provided a clear reasoning in favor of his No-self argument and advised them to renounce all sense of ownership and possessiveness to end attachment, suffering and the process of becoming. "O monks, the well-instructed noble disciple, seeing thus, gets wearied of form, gets wearied of feeling, gets wearied of perception, gets wearied of mental formations, gets wearied of consciousness. Being wearied he becomes passion-free. In his freedom from passion, he is emancipated. Being emancipated, there is the knowledge that he is emancipated. He knows: 'birth is exhausted, lived is the holy life, what had to be done is done, there is nothing more of this becoming.'" (Samyutta-Nikaya 22.59).

On another occasions, as recorded in the same text, he explained the concept of Anatta to another disciple, who asked him what anatta meant. “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."

In short what the Buddha meant was that the body was not the self, the mind was not the self, the feelings were not the Self, or anything possessed by them was not the Self. The notion of Self, the belief that something was mine or yours, was a mere illusion arising from the coming together of aggregates.

From the teachings of the Buddha we understand that  if you study the individual components of a being and if you separate each of them, you will realize that nothing exists beyond them that is permanent and stable.

The human personality is an aggregate of several individual components. If you separate the components, can you say that the individual still exists? The notion of self is therefore an illusion and also an obstacle to the realization of Truth.

Thus early Buddhists believed that man should not identify himself with any name or form (nama and rupa), but should become aware of the process of continuous change and of "becoming". Through this process he can gradually get rid of sorrow that arises out of the notion of fixation and clinging to things."

It is like the identity of a river which flows continuously and maintains a semblance of an entity, though not a single drop of yesterday's water remains at the same place today. When a man realizes that he has been changing continuously every moment, he grieves neither for what he has lost nor for what he has not gained.

It is interesting how Buddhism reconciles itself to  a concept like "anatta", without refuting the fact of reincarnation of soul and the evolutionary nature of soul as integral parts of our journey into expanded awareness.

According to Buddhism, existence is ephemeral and there is nothing permanent about it. The constantly changing and evolving nature of things brings in suffering and out of this suffering emerges the need to escape from suffering and find an everlasting solution to the problem of suffering.

The solution to suffering, however, does not lie in the perpetuation of self or awareness of self, but in its dissolution and transition into an inexplicable state of nirvana or non existence or non movement.

It is on this primary premise that Buddhism holds its ground, differs radically from Hinduism and many other religions and presents to its practitioners an immense opportunity to explore Truth in a different way.  In the words of Sister Khema1:

"Non-self is experienced through the aspect of impermanence, through the aspect of unsatisfactoriness, and through the aspect of emptiness. Empty of what? The word "emptiness" is so often misunderstood because when one only thinks of it as a concept, one says "what do you mean by empty?" Everything is there: there are the people, and there are their insides, guts and their bones and blood and everything is full of stuff — and the mind is not empty either. It's got ideas, thoughts and feelings. And even when it doesn't have those, what do you mean by emptiness? The only thing that is empty is the emptiness of an entity.

"There is no specific entity in anything. That is emptiness. That is the nothingness. That nothingness is also experienced in meditation. It is empty, it is devoid of a specific person, devoid of a specific thing, devoid of anything which makes it permanent, devoid of anything which even makes it important. The whole thing is in flux. So the emptiness is that. And the emptiness is to be seen everywhere; to be seen in oneself. And that is what is called anatta, non-self. Empty of an entity. There is nobody there. It is all imagination. At first that feels very insecure."

The Buddhist view of self is not the same as the Hindu view of self. According to Hinduism, the self exists in various planes and the highest self is permanent and indestructible.

Buddhism believes in the existence of ordinary self, but does not concur with the Hindu view that the self is indestructible or immortal. The ordinary soul may outlast a life time and take birth in another form or another life, but is still the same ordinary self, made up of several components and subject to pain and suffering, illusion and ignorance.

The Buddhist view of self is that it is made up of five distinct parts or khandas, namely: feeling, corporeality, consciousness, perception and mental formations. None of these are permanent as they are subject to change and decay. These khandas do not continue into the next birth as the individual consciousness remains in a state of flux and change throughout ones existence. The Buddha taught his followers to constantly detach themselves from the illusion of the involvement of self  in their perceptions and experiences to attain truth and emancipation from suffering.

List of related articles 

The following articles throw further light on the concept of anatta.

The Buddha on Self: According to the Buddha, self is not truth. He declared," Where self is, truth is not. Where truth is, self is not. Self is the fleeting error of samsara; it is individual separateness and that egotism which begets envy and hatred." He defined self as "that yearning which seeks pleasure and lusts after vanity where as Truth is the correct comprehension of things, which is the permanent and everlasting, the real in all existence and the bliss of righteousness." The very existence of self is an illusion,. It is the Self, which through its activity, produces all the wrongs, vice and evil in the world. One can attain truth only when one accepts the self as an illusion. Righteousness can be practiced only when the mind is freed from the influence of egotism. Perfect peace comes only when all the vanity of the self has disappeared. More...

No-Self or Not-Self : One of the first stumbling blocks that Westerners often encounter when they learn about Buddhism is the teaching on anatta, often translated as no-self. This teaching is a stumbling block for two reasons. First, the idea of there being no self doesn't fit well with other Buddhist teachings, such as the doctrine of kamma and rebirth: If there's no self, what experiences the results of kamma and takes rebirth? Second, it doesn't fit well with our own Judeo-Christian background, which assumes the existence of an eternal soul or self as a basic presupposition: If there's no self, what's the purpose of a spiritual life?. More...

Anicca, Dukha, Anatta: Investigation of Dhamma for full liberation also must include, in addition to the Four Noble Truths, a study of the Three Universal Characteristics or Signata of existence, (ti-lakkhana): anicca — impermanence, dukkha — suffering, and anatta — essencelessness. Everything in the universe, mental or physical, inside or outside of us, real or imaginary, that comes into being due to causes and conditions, has these three traits as its nature. And since there is nothing that exists without depending on other things, there is absolutely nothing which we can determine to be permanent, full of happiness only, or having any real substance. We must examine these three truths very carefully to know how thoroughly and totally they apply in all cases. Once there is this deep insight into the nature of reality, detachment and thereby liberation follow. The first of these to be investigated and in some ways the characteristic that underlies the other two is anicca — the utterly transitory, ephemeral, unstable nature off all mental and physical phenomena. More....

Vipasana Meditation: Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta — Impermanence, suffering and Egolessness — are the three essential characteristics of things in the Teaching of the Buddha. If you know Anicca correctly, you will know Dukkha as its corollary and Anatta as ultimate truth. It takes time to understand the three together. Impermanence (anicca) is, of course, the essential fact which must be first experienced and understood by practice. Mere book-knowledge of the Buddha-Dhamma will not be enough for the correct understanding of Anicca because the experiential aspect will be missing. It is only through experiential understanding of the nature of Anicca as an ever-changing process within you that you can understand Anicca in the way the Buddha would like you to understand it. As in the days of the Buddha, so too now, this understanding of Anicca can be developed by persons who have no book-knowledge whatsoever of Buddhism. More...

Meditating on No-Self: In Buddhism we use the words "self" and "no-self," and so it is important to understand just what this "no-self," anatta, is all about, even if it is first just an idea, because the essence of the Buddha's teaching hinges on this concept. And in this teaching Buddhism is unique. No one, no other spiritual teacher, has formulated no-self in just this way. And because it has been formulated by him in this way, there is also the possibility of speaking about it. Much has been written about no-self, but in order to know it, one has to experience it. And that is what the teaching aims at, the experience of no-self. More...

The Burden of the Aggregates What is the heavy burden? The khandhas3 are the heavy burden. Who accepts the heavy burden? Tanha, craving, accepts the heavy burden. What is meant by throwing down the burden? Annihilation of tanha is throwing down the burden. Heavy is the burden of the five khandhas. Acceptance of the burden is suffering; rejection of the burden is conducive to happiness. When craving is uprooted from its very foundation, no desires arise. An old burden having been laid aside, no new burden can be imposed. Then, one enters Nibbana, the abode of eternal peace. More...

The Self in Buddhism and Christianity: All this touches on anatta, the Buddhist concept of no-self or no-soul. Anatta was seized on by nineteenth century Christian missionaries to Sri Lanka as something which proved Buddhism was absolutely nihilistic. For instance, Rev. Thomas Moscrop, a Methodist missionary, claimed in 1889 that Buddhism "is too pessimistic, too cold, too antagonistic to the constitution of human nature to take the world captive" (The Ceylon Friend, 16 October 1889). But I have not found nihilism in what Buddhists have said to me about anatta. Some years ago, one friend said, "If there is no belief in self, there is no worry; there is no reason to become angry or hurt." To her, the idea was liberating. It was freedom from being tied to self-promotion and self-protection. More...

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1. Meditating on No-Self A Dhamma Talk Edited for Bodhi Leaves by Sister Khema)

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