Anatta - No -Self Doctrine in Buddhism
Anatta, Sanskrit word literally means "No-Self, No Soul, egolessness, soulessness,"
is one of the most important terms and central doctrines in Theravada Buddhism.
It is one of the three inherent and basic qualities of time-space existence
in the Theravada view, the other two being Anicca (impermanence) and Dukkha
To understand the Anatta doctrine, one must understand that the eternal
soul theory - "I have a soul" - and the material theory - "I have no soul"
- are both obstacles to self-realisation or salvation. They arise
from the misconception "I Am." Hence, to understand the Anatta doctrine,
one must not cling to any opinion or views on soul-theory; rather, one
must try to see things objectively as they are and without any mental projections.
One must learn to see the so-called "I" or Soul or Self for what it really
is: merely a combination of changing forces. This requires some analytical
The Anatta doctrine applies most specifically to the human individual.
One mode of demonstrating a human being to be "souless" is the cross-sectional
analysis of an individual employed in the famous chariot analogy of The
Questions of King Milinda. At the end of a long discussion, the monk Nagasena
and King Milinda come to the conclusion that just as the term "chariot"
is only a way of naming a collection of particular terms, so too is the
term for "human being." Human being signifies only a loosely joined
set of physical body-parts; or more inclusively, five temporarily connected
"heaps" (Skandhas) which are a form, sensation, perception, the predispositions,
and consciousness. "Form" refers to bodily form primarily,
and "predispositions" to the karma inherited from past lives.
The Milinda passage, as well as many others in the Pali Canon, categorically
denies that there is any enduring atta-like ego to be found in the empirical
analysis of a person, either as a core of the supposed "self" or as one
of its constituent elements, or as the totality of body-mind. There
are thoughts, feelings, and bodily activities, but no thinker, no feeler,
or actor. The "thinker" is the thought, the "feeler' is the feeling,
the "actor" is the action - nothing more.
The same lack of an integral self is revealed in a longitudinal-temporal
analysis. Thoughts, feelings, and the body itself are in constant
flux. Their nature, content, and qualities vary from moment to moment.
They arise in response to stimuli, persit for a fraction of a second, and
vanish. What is taken for enduring personal identity is only the
repeated perception of the similarity of successive feelings and thoughts.
They are working together in a flux of momentary change, they are never
the same for two consecutive moments. They are the component forces
of the psycho-physical life. When the Buddha analyzed the psycho-physical
life, he found only these Skandhas or forces. He did not find any
eternal soul. However, many people still have the misconception that
the soul is the consciousness. The Buddha declared in unequivalent
terms that consciousness depends on form, sensation, perception, and mental
formations and that it cannot exist independently of them.
The Anatta theory is exemplified in the metaphysical doctrine that everything
is dependently originated as in the Law of Origiantion. And whatever
is dependently originated is also described as conditioned. If all
things are dependently originated, then it follows that nothing has independent
self-hood. The way human beings occur is therefore not as independent
The Buddha said," The body, O Monks, is not the Self. Sensation is
not the Self. Perception is not the Self. The mental constructions
are not the Self. And neither is consciousness the Self. Perceiving
this, O Monks, the disciple sets no value on the body, or on consciousness.
Setting no value on them, he becomes free of passions and he is liberated.
The knowledge of liberation arises there within him. And then he
knows that he has done what has to be done, that he has lived the holy
life, that he is no longer becoming this or that, that his rebirth is destroyed."
The Anatta doctrine of the Buddha is over 2500 years old. Today the
thought current of the modern scientific world is flowing towards the Buddha's
Teaching of Anatta or No soul. In the eyes of teh modern scientists,
man is merely a bundle of ever-changing sensations. Modern physicists
say that the apparent solid universe is not, in reality, composed of solid
substances at all, but actually a flux of energy. The modern physicist
sees the whole universe as a process of transformation of various forces
of which man is a mere part. The Buddha was the first to realize
According to Sue Hamilton, the author of "Early Buddhism: A New Approach,"
understanding the doctrine of Anatta by means of dependent origination
that the Buddha taught, does several things. First, it removes the
profound incoherence of the idea of aiming to know that one is not.
Second, it allows one more readily to focus on the fact that the dependent
appicable generically, to all things, and not just to human selves.
And third, it allows one to see more clearly how intimately connected are
the metaphysics and soteriology of the early Buddhist teachings: it is
because everything is dependently originated that one can, in understanding
how the process of individual continuity works, then reverse it. (p. 25-26)
All conditioned things are impermanent,
All conditioned things are Dukkha -Suffering,
All conditioned or unconditioned things (dhamma)
are souless or selfless.
(Dhammapada 277, 278, 279)
That is the same Annatta doctrine of the Buddha that was introduced in
the Mahayana Buddhism as Sunyata or voidness. Because of the extremes
to which Anatta logic was carried, Mahayana Buddhism to some extent reestablished
selfhood in its doctrine of the Alaya Vijnana (storehouse consciousness)
as a kind of enduring subconscious, and of the Buddha nature as a kind
of True selfhood found in every man.
TN Minh Tam