A Brief Reflection on the Doctrine of Non-Self (Anatta) in Buddhism
Updated: Apr 7, 2019
Around the time of the Buddha, there were two primary classes of religious practitioners in India: the brahmanas and the sramanas. The brahmanas were followers of Vedic religions who officiated at sacrifices. They either believe in a number of gods, or a single godhead. To many of them, the goal of the spiritual aspirant is to seek union with the eternal cosmic truth, whether in this life or subsequent lives. In the theory of the brahmanas, each individual’s soul emanated from a universal soul, and it is the individual’s burden to (hopefully) return to where they first stemmed from.
On the other hand there were the sramanas or “persons who strive”. They entered a way of life of wandering and begging, devoting himself to controlling and limiting his desires, practicing yoga, and performing austerities to experience the Absolute.
Compared with the brahmanas, whose religious movement was very much prevailing in India at the time, the sramanas were more radical and innovative, and rose in critical response to the views of the brahmanas. The Buddha may also be classified under this broad category of sramanas. The term “Samano Gotamo “, for instance, could indeed be found in a number of Pali texts.
Therefore the period around the time of the Buddha (around 5th century B.C.) in central India was a time of ferment in the history of Indian thought.
Vedic religion had lost some of its luster to attract followers, yet neither was a new and all-convincing religious authority established. Men’s complacent dependency on a religious faith based on mundane rites and rituals were challenged, and the quest of the age was reflected in the spirit of early Buddhism.
Buddhist doctrine of Non-Self (Anatta)
In the period where various schools of philosophic thoughts began to take root, some thinkers identified mind and soul, others distinguished them from each other. Some held to the supremacy of God, others to that of man. Many theories independent of the Vedic tradition arose.
All speculative views on the nature of the self or the soul can be brought under two kinds of beliefs: sassatavada, based on the duality between the self and the body (or eternalism); and ucchedavada, based on the identity of the self and the body (or annihilationism). The two views are psychologically deep-rooted in men, and in my opinion are good illustrations of the extent of men’s delusion; that is, how men have been succumbed squarely to the traps of desire and greed. Eternalism is caused by our craving for being, or our clinging to self-protection and self-preservation. Whereas annihilationism is caused by our desire to steer clear from retribution for our (improper) behavior. How often do we hear phrases like “you only live once, it’s now or never, just do it!”
Buddhism, however, rejects or transcends both sassatavada and ucchedavada. Instead Buddhism puts forth its doctrine of Anatta, which is corollary to the doctrine of Dependant Arising. The Buddha’s unwavering view on the doctrine of Anatta is quite clearly embodied in the three very important verses found in the Dhammapada:
Sabbe sankhara anicca (All conditioned things are impermanent)
Sabbe sankhara duhhka (All conditioned things are duhhka)
Sabbe dhamma anatta (All dhammas are without self)
The very fact that in the third verse, where the much wider term “dhamma” replaced “sankhara” as found in the previous verses, were significant in demonstrating that not only the conditioned things are without self, but also the non-conditioned. This is a clear and definitive statement from the Buddha, proclaiming the non-self nature of all things, conditioned or not.
When a certain wanderer named Vacchagotta asked the Buddha whether there was a soul or not, the Buddha remained silent. Afterwards, Ananda asked why the Buddha did not provide an answer, the Buddha replied:
“…if I had answered ‘there is a self’, then, Ananda, that would be siding with those recluses and brahmanas who hold the eternalist theory (sassatavada)…if I had answered ‘there is not a self’, then, that would be siding with those who hold the annihilationist theory (ucchedavada).”
This once again shows that the Buddha clearly steered clear of the two extremes, and instead instructed on the basis of the Middle Way. Buddhism is probably the only philosophy that stands unique by not asserting any kind of self or ego attachment. It is such attachment and grasping of self, permanent or not, that led to all unskillful qualities such as selfish desires, ill will, hatred, ego and so on. The Buddha, having seen the nature of things, did not need to associate himself with any such theories or theorists.