The Buddhist view of Anatta (Not-self / No-soul)

10 December, 2011

Almost all of the popular religions including Christianity, Islam and Hinduism are based on concept of self or soul. Buddhism stand unique that it is the only philosophy that not only clearly reject the concept of “self/soul” as a false view, but also consider this false view as a major cause of suffering of individuals as well as one of the root cause of problems in the society as whole. 
The vast majority of people still believe in ‘self’ or ‘soul’ and therefore, almost all the economic principles, political views and other social aspects molded by people who believe in this false concept carry the same falsity. 

Most of the current marketing, advertising and even management concepts are highly based on accepting the existence of ‘self’ or ‘soul’. We can easily understand current world problems and unrest of people by clearly understanding the false concept of ‘self/soul’ in the light of the Buddha’s unique teaching of Anatta (not-self/no-soul).

The concept of self/soul
What in general is suggested by Soul, Self, Ego, or to use Sanskrit expression Atman, is that in man there is a permanent, everlasting and absolute entity, which is the unchanging substance behind the changing phenomenal world. According to some religions, each individual has such a separate soul which is created by God, and which, finally after death, lives eternally either in heaven or hell, its destiny depending on the judgment of its creator. According to others, it goes through many lives till it is fully purified, become finally united with God or Brahman, Universal Soul or Atman, from which it originally emanated. This soul or self in man is thinker of thoughts, feeler of sensations, and receiver of rewards and punishments for all its actions good and bad. Such a concept is called the idea of Self.

Doctrine of Anatta (Not-self/No-soul)
Buddhism stands unique in the history of human thought in denying the existence of such a Soul, Self, or Atman. According to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of the self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts of ‘me’ and ‘mine’, selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism, and other defilements, impurities and problems. It is source of all the troubles in the world from personal conflicts to wars between nations. In short, to this false view can be traced all the evil in the world.

The origin of false concept of self/soul
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 child depends on his parent. Foe self-preservation man has conceived the idea of an immortal Soul or Atman, which will live eternally. In this ignorance, weakness, fear and desire, man needs these two things to console himself. Hence he clings to them deeply and frantically.

The unique stand of Buddhism
The Buddha’s teaching does not support this ignorance, weakness, fear and desire, but aims at making man enlightened by removing and destroying them, striking their very root. According to Buddhism, our ideas of Soul and God are false and empty. Though highly developed as theories, they are all the same extremely subtle mental projections, grabbed in an intricate metaphysical and phraseology. These ideas are so deep rooted in man, and so dear and near to him, that he does not wish to hear, nor he want to understand, any teaching against them.

Acknowledged only by intellectuals
The Buddha knew this quite well. In fact he said that his teaching was ‘against the current’ (patisotagamini), against man’s selfish desires. Just four weeks after his Enlightenment, seated under banyan tree, he thought to himself: “I have realized this Truth which is against the current, which is lofty, deep, subtle and hard to comprehend.”

With this thought in his mind, the Buddha hesitated for a moment, whether it would not be in vain if tried to explain to the world the Truth he had just realized. Then he compared the world to a lotus pond: In a lotus pond, there are some lotuses still under water; there are others which have risen only up to the water level; there are still others which stand above water and untouched by it. In the same way, in this world, there are men at different levels of development. Some would understand the Truth. So the Buddha decided to teach it.

Conventional reality vs. ultimate reality
In order to avoid confusion it should be mentioned here that there are two kinds of truths: conventional truth (sammuti-sacca, Skt. samvrti-satya) and ultimate truth (paramattha-sacca, Skt. Paramartha-satya). When we use such expressions in our daily life as ‘I’, ‘You’, ‘being’, ‘individual’, etc., we do not lie because there is no self or being of such, but we speak a truth conforming to the convention of the world. But ultimate truth is that there is no ‘I’ or ‘being’ in reality.

In the Alagaddupama-sutta, of Majjima-Nikaya , addressing his disciples, the Buddha said: ‘O bhikkhus, accept the soul theory (Attavada) in the acceptance of which there would not arise grief, lamentation, suffering, distress and tribulation’. But do you see, O bhikkhus, such a soul theory in the acceptance of which there would not arise grief, lamentation, suffering, distress and tribulation?’

‘Certainly not Sir’

‘Good, O bhikkhus. I too do not see a soul theory, in the acceptance of which there would not arise grief, lamentation, suffering, distress and tribulation’

Continuing the discourse the Buddha said in the same sutta:
‘O bhikkhus, when neither self nor anything pertaining to self can truly and really be found, this speculative view: “The universe is that Atman (Soul); I shall be that after death, permanent, abiding, ever-lasting, unchanging, and I shall exist as such for eternity” – is not wholly and completely foolish?’

Here Buddha explicitly states that an Atman or Soul, or Self, is nowhere to be found in reality, and it is foolish to believe that there is such a thing.

The Buddha’s teaching on Anatta, No-Soul, or No-Self, should not be considered as a negative or annihilistic. Like Nibbana, it's Truth, Reality; and Reality can not be negative. It is the false belief in a non-existing imaginary self that is negative. The teaching of Anatta dispels the darkness of false beliefs, and produces the light of wisdom.

Even a person who has attained the early stages of realization still retain this feeling “I AM”. But later on, when he progress further, this feeling of “I AM” altogether disappears, just as chemical smell of a freshly washed cloth disappears after a time when it is kept in a box. The more you realize the reality of anatta (not-self), you will see the world in its true context. You will no longer be a slave of various political/marketing/management mechanisms, but a truly independent person.

References and acknowledgment:
This article is mostly based on excerpts from the chapter VI of “What the Buddha Taught by” Ven. Walpola Rahula.
You may order this book on-line from Buddhist Cultural Cetre Sri Lanka. Both English and Sinhala versions of the book are available.

Related posts:
- Ego - The birth of the ‘False Center’ - Part 1

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