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The Buddha’s Teachings on Not-Self – Anatta – An Introduction

Much of what we experience in life revolves around the notion of a self to which experiences happen, a someone who does the experiencing, an “experiencer” of experiences. We commonly assume that there is some agent that acts, some doer that does, some-thing that some-how is. While this holds true at the conventional level, at the ultimate level as understood in Buddhism a fixed self does not exist – self is an illusion.

The Buddha’s teachings on anattā (non-self) are intended to illustrate the transitivity of identity. They are not an absolutist negation of selfhood. Instead, they shake the foundations of person-ality we have been conditioned to believe in and mistakenly use to set up boundaries between self and other. Specifically, anattā is the Buddha’s refutation of the Brahmanic (ancient Indian) notion of a permanent, enduring, transcendental, eternal, persistent Self, termed Atman in Hindu texts such as the Vedas and Upaniṣads. According to the Buddha, there is no self that is ultimate and immortal, separate and individual.

Rather than uphold a mistaken Soul-theory (self view or sakkāya-diṭṭhi) as many of his contemporaries did, the Buddha described the experience of self as impermanent, non-enduring, conventional, mortal, and not greater than the sum of its parts.

In order to demonstrate the logic of selflessness, the Buddha utilized one simple formula:

aniccā = dukkhā = anattā

impermanence = suffering = not-self

Using this formula, the Buddha often begins by describing the aggregates (form, feeling, perception, mental fabrications, consciousness), which are the aspects of our experiences with which we tend to identify most, as impermanent. He then describes that which is impermanent as subject to suffering. Finally, the Buddha simply states that whatever is subject to suffering is unfit to be called one’s self.

In summary, that which is impermanent is unsatisfactory and that which is unsatisfactory is not-self.

“Bhikkhus, how do you conceive it: is form permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, venerable Sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent painful or pleasant?” — “Painful, venerable Sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent, what is painful since subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this is I, this is my self'”? — “No, venerable sir.”

“Is feeling permanent or impermanent?…

“Is perception permanent or impermanent?…

“Are determinations permanent or impermanent?…

“Is consciousness permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, venerable sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent pleasant or painful?” — “Painful, venerable sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent, what is painful since subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this is I, this is my self'”? — “No, venerable sir.”

Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic (SN 22.59)

One of the most prevalent teachings given by the Buddha is that none of the aggregates (form, feeling, perception, mental fabrications, consciousness) should be regarded as defining a person. Any other definition of self outside the aggregates would also not suffice, nor would a definition of self as the sum-total of the aggregates. Ultimately, all views of self must be set aside, since they obstruct clear vision of non-identity and the interdependence of all beings.

For the purpose of seeing things clearly, the Buddha denied the immortal, unborn and Supreme Self (paramātmā — परमात्मा). Holding views of a self (in any form) is a hindrance on the path to awakening.

“Monks, where a Self or what belongs to Self are not pinned down as a truth or reality, then the view-position — ‘This cosmos is the self. After death this I will be constant, permanent, eternal, not subject to change. I will stay just like that for an eternity’ — Isn’t it utterly & completely a fool’s teaching?”

“What else could it be, lord? It’s utterly & completely a fool’s teaching.”

Alagaddupama Sutta (MN 22)

Although the word “fool” may seem harsh, it merely illustrates the Buddha’s understanding that it is foolish to believe that the self will stay the same forever, unchanging and immortal – foolish because such thinking only leads to immense disappointment, dissatisfaction, dismay, distress, and dis-ease. Self-view is the cause for much of our suffering, whether it manifests as self-criticism, selfishness, self-consciousness, or in other forms. To grasp at the notion of a fixed self creates the conditions for extreme stress (the need to defend one’s self, prove one’s self, and so on) and builds an illusion of separateness from others, whether we realize it or not. Rather, the Buddha showed the way to be liberated from self, liberated from impermanence, and thus liberated from suffering.

“So, bhikkhus any kind of form whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near, must with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.’

“Any kind of feeling whatever…

“Any kind of perception whatever…

“Any kind of determination whatever…

“Any kind of consciousness whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near must, with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not my self.’

Anatta-lakkhana Sutta (SN 22.59)

One cannot find a self that is not subject to change. Hence, no permanent self. In other words, there is no ultimate self, only the sense-of-self that arises and ceases at every moment. This realization dissolves the distinction between “self and “other” so that no separation remains.

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  1. […] The Buddha’s Teachings on Not-Self – Anatta – An Introduction […]

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