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The Buddhist doctrine of Anatta (Pāli) or Anātman (Sanskrit) specifies the absence of a supposedly permanent and unchanging self or soul (ātman). What is normally thought of as the "self" is in fact an agglomeration of constantly changing physical and mental constituents ("skandhas") which give rise to unhappiness if clung to as though this temporary assemblage formed some kind of immutable and enduring Soul ("atman"). The "anatta" doctrine attempts to encourage the Buddhist practitioner to detach him/herself from this misplaced clinging to what is mistakenly regarded as his or her Self, and from such detachment (aided by moral living and meditation) the way to Nirvana is able successfully to be traversed.
A variant and controversial understanding of the doctrine (as enunciated by the Buddha in the Mahayana "Tathagatagarbha" scriptures) insists that the five "skandhas" (impermanent constituent elements of the mundane body and mind of each being) are indeed "not the Self" ("anatta"/"anatman"), since they are doomed to mutation and dissolution, but that in contrast to this ephemeral "mundane self", the eternal Buddha-Principle ("Buddha-dhatu") deep within each being is the supramundane True Self - although this realisation is only fully gained on reaching Awakening ("bodhi").
Buddhist teaching tells us that all in life is impermanent and in a constant state of flux, and that any entity that exists does so only in dependence on the conditions of its arising, which are non-eternal. Therefore, any sense one might have of an abiding self or a soul is regarded as a misapprehension.
Buddhists hold that the notion of an abiding self is one of the main causes of human conflict, and that by realizing the nonexistence of our perceived self, 'we' may go beyond 'our' mundane desires. (Reference to 'oneself' or 'I' or 'me' for Buddhists is used merely conventionally.)
While the Buddha himself provided no confirmation the existence of a self or Atman as claimed by philosophers of his time, his teachings were not meant to know an Atman, but to know the fact that all clinging to concepts and ideas of a self are faulty and based on ignorance. The Buddha's teaching was apophatic and was aimed at realizing the truth and not any concept of self created by birth, imagination, speculaton, metaphysical study or through self-ideation. The five aggregates of form, feelings, perceptions, mental fabrications and consciousness were especially important in this regard, since they are the ones an individual forms clinging or cleaving for. Once a monk renounces his clinging for all the five aggregates, through meditative insight, he realizes the bliss of non-clinging, and abides in wisdom. The Buddha clearly states that all five aggregates are impermanent, just as the burning flame is inconstant in one sense, and that knowledge or wisdom is all that remains, just as the only thing constant about a flame is its fuel, or purpose.
Controversially, there has been and continues to be a minority of Mahayana Buddhists who understand the Buddhist doctrine of "non-Self" ("anatta"/"anatman") as relating solely to the ephemeral elements (the five "skandhas") of the being and not to the hidden and undying "Buddha-Principle" ("Buddha-nature") taught by the Mahayana Buddha to exist within the deeps of each person's mind (see section on "Anatman and the Tathagatagarbha Sutras" below).
Students of Buddhism often encounter an intellectual quandary with the teaching in that the concept of anatta and the doctrine of rebirth seem to be mutually exclusive. If there is no-self, no abiding essence of the person, it is unclear what it is that is reborn. The Buddha discussed this in a conversation with a Brahmin named Kutadanta.
There have been a number of attempts by various schools of Buddhism to make explicit how it is that rebirth occurs. The more orthodox schools claim that certain of the dispositions or psychological constituents have repercussions that extend beyond an individual life to the next. More innovative solutions include the introduction of a Pudgala , a "person", which functions comparably to the ātman in the rebirth process and in karmic agency, but is regarded by its advocates as not falling prey to the metaphysical substantialism of the ātman.
Others seek a proxy not for the ātman but for Brahman, the Indian monistic ideal that functions as an ātman for the whole of creation, and is in itself thus rejected by anatta. Such a solution is the Consciousness-only teaching of the Yogacara school attempt to explain the seeming paradox: at death the body & mind disintegrates, but if the disintegrating mind contains any remaining traces of karma, it will cause the continuity of the consciousness to bounce back an arising mind to an awaiting being (i.e. a fetus developing the ability to harbor consciousness).
Some Buddhists take the position that the basic problem of explaining how "I" can die and be reborn is, philosophically speaking, no more problematic than how "I" can be the "same" person I was a few moments ago. There is no more or less ultimacy, for Buddhists, between the identity I have with my self of two minutes ago and the identity I have with the self of two lives ago.
A further difficulty with the anatta doctrine is that it contradicts the notion of a path of practise. Anatta followed to its logical extremities rejects the reality of a Buddhist practitioner able to detach him/herself from clinging.
Anatman (anatta) in the Tathagatagarbha Sutras
The understanding of "non-Self" ("anatta"/"anatman") in the Mahayana scriptures known as the "Tathagatagarbha" sutras is distinctive and remarkable: the doctrine presented by the Buddha in these texts claims to clarify that it is only the impermanent elements of the sentient being - the "five skandhas" (constituent elements of mind and body) - which are "not the Self" ("anatman"), whereas the truly real, immanent essence ("svabhava") of the being is no less than the Buddha or the Buddha-Principle ("Buddha-dhatu" - "Buddha-Principle" or "Buddha-nature"), and is inviolate and deathless. In the "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra", this immortal Buddhic element within the being is termed the "True Self". It is unaffected by rebirth and always remains intrinsically immaculate and uniquely radiant, only awaiting discovery from within the depths of the contaminated mundane mind of each being. In the "Tathagatagarbha Sutra" the Buddha tells of how, with his Buddha-eye, he can actually see this hidden Buddhic "jewel" within each and every being: "hidden within the klesas [mental contaminants] of greed, desire, anger, and stupidity there is seated augustly and unmovingly the tathagata's [Buddha's] wisdom, the tathagata's vision, and the tathagata's body. ... all beings, though they find themselves with all sorts of klesas, have a tathagatagarbha [Buddhic essence, embryonic Buddha] that is eternally unsullied, and that is replete with virtues no different from my own" (Lopez, 1995, p.96). Thus the "non-Self" doctrine receives in the Tathagatagarbha sutras a controversial presentation as merely partial truth rather than as an absolute verity.
- Digital Dictionary of Buddhism (log in with userID "guest")
- Atman in Sunyata and the Sunyata of Atman An attempt to reconcile Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta on the issue of the Self.
- No Inner Core: An Introduction to the Doctrine of Anatta by Sayadaw U Silananda (PDF file).
- "Nirvana Sutra": full English translation of the "Nirvana Sutra", plus appreciation of its teachings on the "Buddha-Nature" and True Self of all beings.
- Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Buddhism in Practice. Princeton University Press (1995).
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