Buddhism has many complex and mind-bending concepts, and they often have one word to describe them. Anatta roughly translates as ‘not-self’, although understanding this concept requires a little more than understanding what it translates as.
So, what is Anatta and how can a Western mind understand it? Let’s dive in.
Not Self — The Heart of Buddhist Philosophy
In almost every major religion, including Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and others, there’s a concept like ‘the soul’ or an eternal self. This is not so in Buddhism.
The historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, grew up as a Hindu prince in what is now Nepal. He would have been raised to believe in the ‘atman’ or eternal self that transmigrates from one life to another, working out its karma before it eventually reaches liberation.
However, the Buddha renounced such beliefs. He encouraged his disciples to look for and try to pinpoint the atman rather than simply believing it exists. He introduced the doctrine of anatta as an alternative; that no matter how hard you look, you will never find a permanent self because it is ultimately an illusion.
To the Buddha, no such self exists, it is merely an idea to label a collection of things such as the body, brain, and system of memories. This illusory self is always changing. The American poet T.S Elliot summarized this point beautifully when he said that the man who steps onto the train is not the same one who sits down to read the newspaper moments later. The ‘self’ is always changing; every cell in your body replaces itself every seven years, and your mind, beliefs, etc change from one day, week, month, and year to the next. Are you the same person you were 20 years ago? I know I’m not; so in what sense can this permanent self be said to exist? This is what Anatta means.
The Buddha was probably the first teacher to introduce the concept of Anatta to the region he lived and taught in. It has all sorts of implications: no transmigration of the soul, no afterlife, and eventually, no belief in self-determination or free will, because who would it be that determines anything or makes moves to impose its will?
The ego does not like this concept and will fight against it. However, go back to the contemplation and try to pinpoint this supposed self. You won’t be able to do so. Most people will simply resort to dogmatic assertion of the existence of the self or point to religious authorities to prove the existence of the soul. None of this is acceptable to the Buddhist mind. You have to prove it or it won’t be accepted.
Anatta Taken Further
Taken further, the concept of Anatta applies to everything. All the things around you which you believe in so strongly are in fact just composed of many other things, are temporary in nature, and ultimately have no separate essence. In other words, anything can be everything, and everything is connected and arises in dependence upon everything else. Once the circumstances which allowed the arising of a given thing cease to be, so the thing itself will cease to be.
This is a radical doctrine that is somewhat terrifying to contemplate at first, because it means there’s very little within your control. It takes away all of the comforts many people rely on to get through life; the belief in an eternal soul, an afterlife, and even the very concept of a self that remains the same throughout life. It means that very important things like your health, wealth, and important relationships like friendships and marriage could dissolve when the circumstances which allowed them to flourish change. It’s frightening, but if we examine life objectively, it’s true.
Yet, despite the mental discomfort the concept of Anatta causes, it remains objectively true. There is nothing you can cling to and say “aha! This is it! I’ve found its essence.” Ultimately, you will find that nothing exists separate from its constituent parts, and that those will always change minute by minute, and eventually will dissolve and fall apart.
Let’s look at you for example. What are you? Your brain? Your legs? Your lungs? Your thoughts? How about your fingernails? You’re a combination of all of these things put together. Yet, you can not be said to exist without them, and they all depend on each other to exist. The lungs can not function without the brain, and the brain can not function without the lungs, and you can not exist in any way without both of them. These things can’t exist without sunlight, water, food, etc, and even all of these things need 1,000 other things to support their existence.
When these things cease, so will you. This is the essence of Buddhist teaching; everything is interdependent, arises together, and ceases when the time comes. You are merely a wave riding on the ocean, and you will dissolve back into it some day.
What’s the Point of Anatta?
What’s the point of the doctrine of Anatta? Why did the Buddha come up with it? What purpose does it serve?
In Buddhism, the point of the disciple is to reach a state called Nirvana; the end of suffering. Like everything else, the Buddha taught that suffering arises because of circumstances (suffering is also Anatta and has no independent existence), and that one of the things which leads to suffering is the illusion of the self or an incorrect understanding of reality.
In Buddhism, there is no permanent self to suffer. Suffering happens (e.g. you stub your toe or get cancer), but in the end, who is it that is suffering? Try once again to pinpoint the self. When you say “I have cancer” who are you talking about? Who is this self who has cancer? Where does it reside? If you’ve already realized Anatta, can you just say “there is cancer” without taking it personally. The monks who have reached enlightenment would say there is no self to die, and therefore death is an illusion. Very few ever reach this state. I doubt I will ever be able to accept serious suffering with this level of grace or understanding.
This also has other radical consequences; it means that everything is one, and that is what you truly are; a collection of atoms that exists forever and reorganizes time and time again into innumerable forms. However, you will only be a human being once, or very rarely, and so you should make the best of it. It also makes it easier to forgive people for their wrongs; there is nobody who wronged you if you truly understand Anatta.
This is a tough concept to accept and wrap your head around. You can get a glimpse of it in meditation, but it’s almost impossible to keep in mind during day to day living. We have to believe in the self to function, and society demands we be held accountable for our actions as if we exist independently (even if we don’t). This is why many Buddhist monks retreat from the world and aren’t able to function in day to day living pursuing worldly things based on what they ultimately view to be an illusion.
This is what Anatta means. I am not saying anything about it such as that it’s true or false. I just wanted to explain what it means as it’s one of the concepts that took me years to fully understand.