Anatman (Sanskrit) and Anatta (Pali): “no self”
Anatta theory is generally held to be a Theraveda Buddhist theory stipulating the non-existence of the soul or eternal self. But like any philosophical theory about the self, there’s much room for debate as to just what this means.
At one extreme, we have those who say that the Buddha, himself, did not believe in any kind of permanent individual self. At the other extreme, we have interpreters like the Chán Buddhist, Nan Huaijin, who says that modern interpretations are too materialistic and “totally wrong.”¹
“When the Hīnayāna speaks of no self, it is in reference to the manifest forms of presently existing life; the intent is to alert people to transcend this level, and attain Nirvāṇa. But when this flowed into the world of learning, especially when it was disseminated in the West, some people thought that the Buddhist idea of no self was nihilism and that it denied the soul, and they maintained that Buddhism is atheistic. This is really a joke.”²
Part of the problem is trying to figure out what we mean by an eternal or everlasting self. For some, this includes all the changeable aspects of the entire personality. For others, like many Hindus, it refers to an eternal soul (atman) that grows in wisdom to ultimately become one or, depending on the school of Hinduism,³ in some kind of close relation with the ultimate soul (brahman). For others, for example Christians, it refers to a “seed” that is planted at baptism and which potentially grows into something worthy of everlasting heaven.
Aspects of anatman and anatta theory fit with or, to some extent resemble some of the ideas implied by the theory of reincarnation. But there are differences between anatman (Hindu) and anatta (Buddhist) theories.
In Buddhist anatta theory, a temporary seat of consciousness is often said to be exterminated like a candle flame at death, to be re-lit as a new candle at each succeeding birth. Personality characteristics (skandhas) reappear from one lifetime to another as a result of dependent origination. But the reappearance of these characteristics from one life to another is discontinuous. That is, they’re just a bunch of temporary aggregates that cluster around a new life, much like iron filings would cluster around a new electromagnet if the old one were turned off.
This opposes the popular Hindu view of reincarnation in which one soul (atman) repeatedly reincarnates (taking within itself all it has earned and learned) as it enters and departs from many bodies, until it achieves full identity with, or some close relation to, ultimate consciousness (brahman).
- Misunderstanding Anatta (gleeklainefanboy.wordpress.com)
- The Anatta-lakkhana Sutta – Thoughts on, and experiences with, “not-self” (samsaraoh.wordpress.com)
- Heidegger’s ‘mineness’ in comparison with Buddhism (thrownintotheworld.wordpress.com)
- Karma Isn’t a Bank Account (engageddharma.com)
- Relics transform small California Buddhist temple (bigstory.ap.org)
- Is there an Eternal Soul? (chaitanyaiimc.wordpress.com)
- Is Speculative Non-Buddhism a form of spiritual Xanax (thenonbuddhist.com)
- The Dalai Lama and the Self: An Anti-Buddhist Argument (maverickphilosopher.typepad.com)