Sunday, March 31, 2013

Anatta or the concept of 'no-self'

Image by Bhikkhu Samahita on
In your opinion, what would be the best way to explain the concept of “no-self” (anatta)?

Particularly in the West, people have been strongly influenced by Judeo-Christian teachings concerning the soul and its existence beyond this lifetime. This soul is the essence of the individual, created by a God, providing each with their uniqueness and subsequently going forth into eternity based on the state of the person at the time of death. According to this same “soul theory” while the individual and what constitutes them may change, the soul does not - it remains eternal and unchanged.

The grip of this idea of “self” or “soul” has been so strong, that Watson, a distinguished psychologist, stated: "No one has ever touched a soul or has seen one in a test tube or has in any way come into relationship with it as he has with the other objects of his daily experience. Nevertheless to doubt its existence is to become a heretic and once might possibly even had led to the loss of one's head."

These ideas are not unique to the era, but also formed part of the metaphysical teachings of the Upanishads dominant in India around the same time as the Buddha. According to them, the individual soul (Atman) was identical to the universal soul (Brahma) and final liberation meant merging the individual into the cosmic through meditation.

In stark contrast, the Buddha declared that clinging either to a notion of “self” or of “no self” leads to sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. In other words, they are not conducive to liberation. When these views are finally dropped, one can be freed of agitation and unbound.

Buddhism does not deny the personality or individual. Rather it analyses them into various material and psychological aggregates (such as the five khandhas). However, each of these aggregates changes, so cannot be themselves be the unchanging “soul”. Further, there is no other unchanging substance (soul) to which the aggregates adhere or to which they relate, since such a substance would also need to constantly change. 

If such a “soul” were to exist it would need to be independent. According to the Paticca Samuppāda, nothing is independent or arises without causes and conditions. The Buddha includes here not only living beings, but also the cosmos as a whole, since there is nothing in the experience of the cosmos which is eternal or unchanging. Based on this empirical approach, (there is nothing within or without that can be called “I” or “me”) there can never be an independent soul.

Narada Thera explains it well (in “Buddhism in a Nutshell”) when he states that the Buddhist philosophical term for an individual is santana, that is, a flux or a continuity, which includes both their mental and physical elements. These elements are bound together by the kammic force of each individual. “This uninterrupted flux or continuity of psycho-physical phenomenon, which is conditioned by kamma, and not limited only to the present life, but having its source in the beginningless past and its continuation in the future — is the Buddhist substitute for the permanent ego or the immortal soul of other religions.”

So, as Narada Mahathera states (in “The Buddha and His Teachings”) it is more appropriate to think of the so-called “self” as a process, not an identity.

(Written by Gregory Quinlivan for a course entitled 'Early Buddhism Basic Doctrines' in 2009 through the International Buddhist College, Thailand.)