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What the Buddha Taught

by Walpola Rahula, Grove Press, New York, 1959
Chapter VI The Doctrine of No-Soul: ANATTA

Atman vs. Anatta
Atman, the Sanskrit expression of Soul, Self, or Ego, is a permanent, everlasting and absolute entity, which is the unchanging substance behind the changing phenomenal world.
Other contemporary beliefs include:

  • ... owned by each individual... created by God... after death, [it] lives eternally either in hell or heaven, its destiny depending on the judgment of its creator.
  • ... goes through many lives till it is completely purified and becomes finally united with God or Brahman, Universal Soul or Atman, where it originates.
  • ... in man it is the thinker of thoughts, feeler of sensations, and receiver of rewards and punishments for all its good or bad actions.
Buddhism denies the existence of such a thought. The idea of Atman is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality. It is this belief of Atman where all the "me", "mine", selfish desire, craving, attachment, etc. comes from and where the evil begins.

Atman was created for two reasons:
a) For self-protection, man has created God where man could draw protection, safety or security from God.
b) For self-preservation, man comes up with the idea of this immortal Soul, which lives eternally.

According to Buddhism, this Atman, "I", Soul, or, Self is only a false belief and a mental projection of man.

Anatta or No-Soul is a natural result of the analysis of the Five Aggregates and the theory of Conditioned Genesis.

  • Analytically, man is composed of the Five Aggregates. After careful examination, there is nothing or no substance behind this so-called "I", Atman, or Soul.
  • Synthetically, nothing in the world is absolute. Everything is conditioned, relative, and interdependent - the Buddhist theory of relativity.

Conditioned Genesis
Citing a famous 4-line quote of Conditioned Genesis:

When this is, that is;
This arising, that arises;
When this is not, that is not;
This ceasing, that ceases.
The twelve factors of Conditioned Genesis are:
  1. Ignorance (?!)
  2. Volition actions
  3. Consciousness
  4. Mental and physical phenomena
  5. The six faculties (i.e., five physical sense organs plus mind)
  6. Contact (sensorial and mental)
  7. Sensation
  8. Desire or Thirst
  9. Clinging or Attachment
  10. Process of becoming [possessing?! ownership?!]
  11. Birth [beginning?!]
  12. Decay, death, lamentation, pain, etc. [ending?!]
This is how life arises, exists and continues. It is not a chain of reactions, rather a series of cyclical events.(?!) Each factor is conditioned as well as conditioning. All is relative, interdependent, and interconnected.

There is no such thing as free will. Free will is not free... not free from conditions... but all falls within the law of cause and effect.

Group Discussion:
 

  • Do we witness such cycle in our daily life activities?
Conventional Truth vs. Ultimate Truth

...the "I", "you", "being", etc. in our daily language is a conventional truth that we conform to the convention of this world.

The ultimate truth is that there is no "I", "you", or, "being" in reality.

Buddha's Beliefs:
...a being is composed only of these Five Aggregates (Matter, Sensation, Perception, Mental Formation/Volitional activities/Karma, Consciousness) nothing more... nowhere ... was anything more than these Five Aggregates in a being.

Buddha denied the existence of Atman, Soul, etc. within man or without, or anywhere else in the universe. To illustrate, three quotes from the Dhammapada (# 5,6 & 7 of chapter XX; verses 277, 278, 279)

  • "All conditioned things are impermanent."
  • "All conditioned things are dukkha."
  • "All dhammas are without self."
This term "dhamma" includes not only the conditioned things and states, but also the non-conditioned, the Absolute, Nirvana... there is no Self, no Atman, not only in the Five Aggregates, but nowhere else outside them or apart from them... there is no self either in the individual or in dhammas - parallel belief in Mahayana Buddhist philosophy.

To recap, in the Buddha's view, there is no such soul theory, and any soul theory whatever it may be, however subtle and sublime, is false and imaginary, creating all kinds of problems, suffering, & troubles.

Three Misinterpretations:

  1. Incorrect translation of "Atta hi attano natho" from the Dhammapada (XII, 4, or verse 160) which actually means one should rely on oneself, not on others.
  2. The story about Buddha's advice to Ananda three month before his death... ... seek refuge or depend on yourselves, not anyone else, and on the Dhamma Buddha has taught, and not on anything else. This has nothing to do with the Self. Buddha further explained to Ananda: through the cultivation of mindfulness or awareness of the Body, Sensation, Mind and Mind-objects one learns to depend on oneself and on the Dhamma. Again, no talk about Atman.
  3. The story about 30 young princes in a search when Buddha was sitting under a tree... Buddha asked them: "...Which is better for you? To search after a woman, or to search after yourselves?" - a simple question with no mentioning of Atman.
Buddha's Silence toward Vacchagotta the Wanderer
The Buddha remains silent when Vacchagotta asks him: "... is there an Atman?" "...is there no Atman?"

The Buddha's reasons are:

  • If "yes" to "there is a self," ...siding with the eternalistic theory; ... contradictory to "all dhammas are without self."
  • If "yes" to "there is no self," ...siding with the annihilationist theory; ... more confused...
The Buddha had known Vacchagotta and his background that he had asked Buddha his disciples the same kind of question again and again. The Buddha has chosen to put aside his questions with silence. The story goes that eventually Vacchagotta has become Buddha's disciple, followed his teaching, attained Arahantship, and realized the Truth, Nirvana...

The Discussion of "Self"
It is better to take a man's physical body as self than the mind, thought, or consciousness because the physical body is more solid and changes less than the latter.

The conversation between a bhikkhu Khemaka and other bhikkhus on the Five Aggregates and the Self: ...though Khemaka does not find a Self in the Five Aggregates, ... he has a feeling "I AM", but does not see clearly "This is I AM"...

... this is like the smell of a flower: it is neither the smell of the petals, nor of the color, nor of the pollen, but the smell of the flower.

... even a person who has attained the early stages of realization still have the feeling of "I AM". But, as he progress further, this feeling of "I AM" will eventually disappear...

The Buddha's View

  • Not to hold the annihilationist theory of "I have no self"; nor the eternalist theory of "I have a self"...  cuz both are fetters (chains, confinements)
  • ...Try to see things objectively as they are without any mental projections, to see that what we call "I", or "being", is only a combination of physical and mental aggregates, which are working together interdependently in a flux of momentary change within the law of cause and effect, and that there is nothing permanent, everlasting, and unchanging in the whole of existence.
The Question:
If there is no Atman or Self, who gets the results of karma?

The Conclusion:
The Buddha's view on Anatta, or No-Self is not negative nor annihilistic. It is the Truth, the Reality; and Reality cannot be negative. This No-Self is the Fact.

Fruit for Thoughts:

  • If there is no Self, why do we bother to follow the Path of Nirvana?
  • Why do we have a certain pattern of behaviors/preferences?
  • Why is it hard for us to break a habit? 
  • What does it take for us to go through changes?
  • Do we witness the cycle of "Conditioned Genesis" in our daily life activities?!  
  • How would you explain the revelance of no-soul in every life to a non-Buddhist? (question from Alan)

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