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The Buddhist Doctrine of No-Self

From Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia
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The Buddhist doctrine of anatman ("no-self") presents conceptual difficulties. Despite being a central Buddhist teaching, it has been problematic for interpretation.

Initially, this teaching of anatman was a rejection of the Vedic belief that everyone has an undying, unchanging essence called the atman (“Self”).

It was one more way to distinguish the teachings of the Buddha from the teachings of the Vedas. Instead of locating identity in something akin to a soul, the Buddha taught that there is only a sense of self. There is no permanent foundation, such as a soul, to consciousness and experience.

The Five Aggregates (skandhas)

This sense of selfhood arises from the combination of all the elements that make up a person and his or her identity. The Buddha outlined five broad categories that made up this sense of self. These five categories (skandhas, lit. “heaps, collections, aggregates”) are:

  1. Form (rupa), which refers to the physical body;
  2. Feeling (vedana), by which one reacts to perceptions as pleasant, unpleasant, or neither;
  3. Perception (samjna), the recognition of objects;
  4. Mental faculties (samskara), which refer to the collection of features of the mind such as will, memory, ideas, thought, etc., and;
  5. Consciousness (vijnana), which is the awareness of the objects of perception.

The conjunction of these five skandhas results in one’s sense of identity and selfhood. From the body one acts and experiences in the world. Consciousness is the awareness of the world, while perception refers to the process of knowing the objects of awareness. That is, one can be aware of a tree, or a car, or the sky; perception is the act of knowing the sky is the sky, or a tree a tree, etc. The process of feeling is where one develops a liking or aversion to a sensation. Then the mental faculties decide how to act on these perceptions.

Moreover, since these features are constantly in change, one’s sense of being is an appearance, a concept one holds in the mind. There is no permanent self in Buddhism, only the enduring concept in the mind that a person at fifty is the “same” person who once was twenty-five, or just five. More in keeping with Buddhist doctrine, the fifty-year-old is the result of the experiences from twenty-five to fifty, and the twenty-five-year old is the sum of the experiences from five to twenty-five, etc.

The Problem of Rebirth

From the beginning, the doctrine of anatman posed philosophical problems for Buddhist thinkers. One problem was involves the shared Buddhist and Hindu belief in karma and rebirth. In Hinduism, the atman is what reincarnates. However, if there is no permanent self in Buddhism, then what is it that travels from one life to the next?

Many theories developed to solve this one problem. Several schools of thought tried explaining rebirth as a kind of causal chain. One moment or experience creates the next, and the next, and the next. Instead of permanent objects, there is a succession of causes and effects which collectively give rise to the continuity of identity.

Along these lines, the Milindapanha the monk Nagasena explained that rebirth is like lighting the flame of one candle by the flame of another. In other words, rebirth is like a causal connection. There is no unchanging self to be reborn, but instead one’s karma shapes a succession of experiences.

Does this mean there is no self at all? Not quite. The Buddha did teach that it is useful to speak conventionally of the self. One thinks of oneself as a person, as a coherent being. The same with others. It is useful to speak of a person as the agent of actions, even if it is not strictly true that there is a self at all in Buddhism.

Anatman and the Buddhist Path

Another way to look at the theory is how it is used in Buddhism. The Second Noble Truth teaches that the cause of unhappiness is attachment. A Buddhist criticism of the Hindu idea of the atman was that it served as another concept to be attached to. The idea of anatman meant that there is nothing to be attached to – not even oneself.

The practical side of Buddhism is that it is a method for transforming oneself. It is a method for transcending suffering by uprooting one’s attachments. The principle behind the five skandhas is the idea that everything changes – including oneself. If things change, one can analyze how they come to be and, more importantly, how to change them. Thus the value of the doctrine of anatman lies in its ability to change one’s own life for the better.