Anatman: The Teaching of No Self

Core Teaching of Buddhism

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The doctrine of anatman (Sanskrit; anatta in Pali) is the core teaching of Buddhism. According to this doctrine, there is no "self" in the sense of a permanent, integral, autonomous being within an individual existence. What we think of as our self, the "me" that inhabits our body, is just an ephemeral experience.

It is the doctrine that makes Buddhism distinctive from other spiritual traditions, such as Hinduism which maintains that Atman, the self, exists. If you don't understand anatman, you will misunderstand most teachings of the Buddha. Unfortunately, anatman is a difficult teaching that is often overlooked or misinterpreted.

Anatman is sometimes misunderstood to mean that nothing exists, but this is not what Buddhism teaches. It's more accurate to say that there is existence, but that we understand it in a one-sided and delusional way. With anatta, although there is no self or soul, there is still afterlife, rebirth, and fruition of karma. Right view and right actions are necessary for liberation.

Three Characteristics of Existence

Anatta, or absence of self, is one of the three characteristics of existence. The other two are anicca, the impermanence of all being, and dukkha, suffering. We all suffer or fail to find satisfaction in the physical world or within our own minds. We are constantly experiencing change and attachment to anything is futile, which in turn leads to suffering. Underlying this, there is no permanent self, it is an assembly of components that is subject to constant change. The right understanding of these three seals of Buddhism is part of the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Delusion of Self

A person's sense of having a distinct self comes from five aggregates or skandhas. These are: form (the body and senses), sensations, perception, volition, and consciousness. We experience the world through the Five Skandhas and as a result, cling to things and experience suffering.

Anatman in Theravada Buddhism

The Theravada tradition, the true understanding of anatta is only possible for practicing monks rather than for lay people as it is psychologically difficult to achieve. It requires applying the doctrine all objects and phenomena, denying the self of any person, and identify examples of self and non-self. The liberated nirvana state is a state of anatta. However, this is disputed by some Theravada traditions, who say that nirvana is the true self.

Anatman in Mahayana Buddhism

Nagarjuna saw that the idea of a unique identity leads to pride, selfishness, and possessiveness. By denying the self, you are freed from these obsessions and accept emptiness. Without eliminating the concept of self, you remain in a state of ignorance and caught in the cycle of rebirth.

Tathagatagarhba Sutras: Buddha as True Self

There are early Buddhist texts that say we have a Tathagata, Buddha-nature, or inner core, which seems contradictory to most Buddhist literature which is staunchly anatta. Some scholars believe these texts were written to win over non-Buddhists and promote abandoning self-love and stopping the pursuit of self-knowledge.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "Anatman: The Teaching of No Self." Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, O'Brien, Barbara. (2023, April 5). Anatman: The Teaching of No Self. Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "Anatman: The Teaching of No Self." Learn Religions. (accessed June 10, 2023).