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.
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.
- Selfless Persons. Steven Collins, 1982.
- Buddhism A to Z. Ven. Dhammika, 2007.