Anatta means ‘no self’ and the doctrine of anattà is the Buddha’s most unique and radical teaching. We usually assume that beyond our changing body, mind and experience is an unchanging and unique ego or self. Having identified this self as ‘me’ we then identify other things as ‘mine’ – ‘My spouse’ ‘My property’, ‘My religion’, ‘My country’, etc. This, according to the Buddha, is the cause of much of the distress and pain humans inflict upon themselves and others through greed, fear, ignorance, hatred and self-deception. The Buddha says, ‘Body is not self, feelings are not self, perception is not self, mental constructs are not self and consciousness is not self…When one sees this one becomes detached from these things, being detached the passions fade, when the passions have faded one is free, and being free one knows one is free’ (Samyutta Nikaya 3. 66). One sometimes hears it said that the purpose of Buddhism is to destroy the self. This is not correct simply because there is no self to destroy. The Buddha taught that when the idea of a permanent metaphysical self or soul is seen to be an illusion, then one will cease to suffer and also cease to inflict suffering on others.
The chariot and the ship named Theseus
The five aggregates acting in unison give the illusion of a self; a perceived self if you will.
Each of the aggregates when examined individually is empty, no essence, no permanence whatsoever.
Nagasena asks if the pole of the chariot is the chariot. Answer, no. Nagasena asks if the axel is the chariot or if the wheels are the chariot. Answer, no. Nagasena asks if the reins are the chariot. To this and further questions about the parts, the answer is no. Nagasena explains that the chariot is not something other than these parts. Yet the parts are not the chariot. Nagasena states that chariot is just a word, it exists, but only in relation to the parts. The concept "chariot" does not have an intrinsic, inherent value or place as something permanent. It is the same with the self. We certainly exist, just as a chariot exists, but it is more in terms of conventional language as opposed to absolute language.
Nagasena developed this excellent teaching from the wise words of Venerable Vajjira, a bhikkhuni who lived during the time of the Buddha. She once remarked:
"Just as, with an assemblage of parts, the word chariot is used, so when the aggregates exist, there is the convention of being." Samyutta Nikaya 5.554
Later, Greek philosophy had a similar simile; a thought experiment known as the Ship of Theseus. It was created by Plutarch, who was a Greek philosopher who lived in the first century CE.
According to the story, one by one parts of the ship were changed out as they went bad. Planks of wood and other material were replaced with new parts. Eventually, there were no original parts left. Is it still the Ship known as Theseus? This was the thought experiment. All parts have been changed, but yet there was still some continuity, some continuation that it is still known by the same name. It is the same ship and it also not the same ship; there is no permanent entity there, but yet there is some continuity through continuation.
Anatta and Rebirth
When some people learn that Buddhism teaches rebirth and also that there is no self (anattà), they find it difficult to understand how rebirth can take place. ‘If there is no self or soul,’ they ask, ‘what passes from one life to the next?’ This problem is more apparent that real. Firstly, the Buddha did not teach that there is no self per se – he taught that there is no permanent, unchanging metaphysical self. In Buddhism, as in contemporary psychology, the self is understood as a constantly evolving cluster of impressions, memories, traits and dispositions. It is this ‘self’ that passes from one life to the next. Imagine three billiard balls in a line, each touching the other and a fourth billiard ball some distance from the three and aligned to them. Now imagine that a man hits the fourth ball with his cue and it speeds across the table and hits the first ball in the line. The moving ball will come to an immediate halt, the first and second balls will remain stationary while the third ball, the last in the row, will speed across the table and into the pocket. What has happened? The energy in the fourth ball has passed through the first and second balls in the row, into the third ball, animating it so that it moves across the table. In a similar way, the mental energy that makes up our so-called ‘self’ moves from one body to another.
Ven. Dhammika explains this further with the following:
Surely it is correct to say that Rome is 2500 years old despite the fact that the city changes every day. We have no problem at looking at a photo of ourselves taken in childhood and saying "That's me" despite the fact that our size, shape, muscle tone, ideas, opinions, etc have completely changed since the photo was taken. The individual is like a football team founded 75 years ago. During that time hundreds of players have joined the team, played with it for five or ten years, left and been replaced by other players. Even though not one of the original players is still in the team or even alive, it is still valid to say that 'the team' exists. Its identity is recognizable despite the continual change. The players are hard, solid entities but what is the team's identity made up of? Its name, memories of its past achievements, the feelings that the players and the supporters have towards it, its esprit de corps, etc. Individuals are the same. Despite the fact that both body and mind are continually changing, it is still valid to say that the person who is reborn is a continuation of the person who died; not because any unchanging self has passed from one to another but because identity persists in memories, dispositions, traits, mental habits and psychological tendencies.
The scholar-monk Bhikkhu Dr. Analayo has written on the gandhabba and notes that in numerous places the Buddha talks of literal rebirth and states that the correct translation of the Pali term gandhabba is that of a 'being to be reborn' which not only suggests a possible intermediate state between births, but also that there is a continuity, a series that continues with rebirth. We need not call this a soul or permanent self, but perhaps something along the lines of either an impermanent self, a consciousness not directly related to the aggregates or some other interpretation, see below. Bhikkhu Analayo notes that in the suttas, it refers to a consciousness 'descending' into the womb, when rebirth is taking place. (see: Rebirth and the Gandhabba).
Notions of self, conventional and absolute
1. Elimininativism would be the view that the self is a complete and useless fiction that so much gets in the way that we had best eliminate all mention of it altogether. (In another context, an eliminativist might say about the concept of the soul that it is utterly vacuous and so misleading that we had best purge our vocabulary of it.)
2. Reductionism would be the view that it makes sense to speak of a self, but only insofar as "self" is a convenient shorthand for a complex of phenomena that it would be cumbersome to mention in full detail.
- 2.a. There is no self but there is a frequency transfer of kammic energies (some interpretations)
- 2.b. What is reborn? Neuroses (Chogyam Trungpa) Similar and alternate terms for what is reborn: psychological tendencies, karma, cravings
- 2.c. There is no permanent self, but there is a mind stream which is individual and continues (some interpretations)
- 2.d. There is no permanent self, but there is an indeterminate, inexpressible self (pudgalavada)
- 2.e. There is no self but there is a Ālāya-vijñāna (store-house consciousness) accounting for kamma and rebirth (Mahayana-Yogachara)
- 2.f. There is no permanent self but there is citta (mind) which never dies (some Forest traditions and other modern interpretations in Theravada and Mahayana)
- 2.g. An individual entity, but merges with universal consciousness with nirvana (Advaita, Hinduism, and other pantheistic traditions)
3. Realism would be the view that the self is fully real in that there are predicates that apply to it but that cannot be applied to anything else. The self is one of the ultimately real constituents of the world, and it would therefore be an intellectual mistake to eliminate it or to see it as merely a convenient fiction. (In another context, some philosophers hold that consciousness is a sui generis reality that cannot correctly be seen as just a metaphorical or careless way of speaking about events in the brain.) No schools of Buddhism (including the Pudgalavada) have adopted this realism view were realists, but that one can find self-realists in most non-Buddhist schools of Indian philosophy. These are the full-fledged atmavadins.
Number one above would be associated with nihilism and number three with eternalism. Theravada and most schools of Buddhism would be number two above. The Pudgalavada find another middle way position between numbers 2 and 3. Some potential other explanations between numbers 2 and 3 are shown above in 2a through 2f. They argue that something is reborn, something acquires karma and that there is an intermediate state between rebirth (similar to the bardo). And they argue that the metta prayers would be meaningless if there were no pudgala, some person to extend metta or to receive such metta.
- Selfless Persons. Steven Collins, 1982.
- The Complete Book of Buddha's Lists -- Explained. David N. Snyder, Ph.D., 2006.
- Rebirth and the Gandhabba by Bhikkhu Analayo, Ph.D.