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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

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.

In the Milindapanha, the arahant Nagasena describes it well with the talk on the chariot and the parts of the chariot.

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

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.