Selflessness, non-self, is the deepest
and the most difficult of the universal characteristics of
phenomena. In the teaching of anatta, the Buddha proclaims
that there is nothing that can be identified as self, that
all the things that we take to be ourself, to be I and mine,
are really not self.
Self and selfhood
First we have to discriminate between what the teaching does
and does not deny by distinguishing the different meanings
of the word self. Anatta means literally 'not self'.
So what is the 'self' that is denied in the teaching of 'anatta'?
The word "self" can be used in three senses.
Reflexively, as when we speak of "myself", "yourself", "oneself".
The Buddha applies this use of the word "self" in
his teachings; he says that you should train yourself, you
should purify yourself, you have to make the effort yourself,
and so on.
Referring to one's own person, to the compound
of body and mind. Here self is a shorthand device,
accepted in Buddhism, used to refer easily and economically
to what is really a complex process. We use 'self' in this
sense to distinguish different people.
A substantial ego entity, a lasting subject existing at
the core of the psycho-physical personality.
is the assumption of selfhood that draws us into suffering.
It is with the idea of selfhood in this last sense that the
Buddha's teaching is concerned, for it is this assumption that
draws us into suffering.
The Buddha’s teaching does not deny the existence
of the person taken as a psycho-physical complex. It
does, however, deny that the person exists as a "self," as
a lasting, simple ego-entity.
The person exists, but the person is anatta. The individual
is a complex of the five aggregates, and to say that a person
exists is to say that this unified compound of the five aggregates
exists. To say that a person is anatta is to say that
no inner nucleus of selfhood can be found within or behind
the personality made up of the five aggregates.
An example – the snake is a rope
We can make the teaching of Anatta clearer by investigating
more carefully two questions: What exactly is the nature of
selfhood? Why is the person not-self? (What are the
reasons for negating selfhood in the five aggregates?)
What does the idea of self involve?
There are four dominant criteria of selfhood:
Idea of lastingness We think the self has to be an entity which
persists through time. It might be a temporary duration,
for example, that we come into being at birth, continue as
the same self throughout life, and are annihilated
at death. Or else a permanent duration, the idea of an eternal
Simplicity We think the self is not compounded, that it
possesses a basic simplicity or indivisibility.
Unconditioned We assume that the self must possess its own
power of being, it must be self-sufficient, unconditioned,
not dependent upon causes and conditions.
Control We assume that if something really belongs to
us we should be able to exercise mastery over it, to control
it so that it is subject to our determination.
Selfness nature of the five aggregates
To illustrate the selfless nature of the five aggregates,
the Buddha gives certain similes. He says:
The body is like a lump of foam — it seems solid
but when crushed turns out to be a hollow.
Feeling is like a bubble — bubbles on water just
arise and break up and show themselves to be empty.
Perception is like a mirage — a mirage appears but
when we examine it we don't find anything substantial.
Formations are like the trunk of a banana tree. Just rolls
of tissue within rolls and rolls without hard wood.
Consciousness is like a magical illusion. It appears but
has no substance.
teaching of anatta or not-self is not so much a
as a prescription for self-transcendence. It maintains
that our ongoing attempt to establish a sense of
identity by taking our personalities to be "I" and "mine" is
in actuality a project born out of clinging, a
project that at the same time lies at the root
of our suffering.