The Not Self Advantage in Buddhist Practice

Anitya, impermanence

by Jayaram V

The Buddhist concept of not-self (anatta or anatma) is the belief that there is no permanent Self (or soul), which is independent of all conditions, causes and dependencies and which abides in itself. The not-Self is what you experience in your mind and through your senses as yourself and your reality and consciousness. It may be gross or subtle, but always within the realm of conscious and subconscious experience in both wakeful and dream states. The Buddha taught that there was nothing other than it or beyond it.

According to Buddhism, everything in the phenomenal world, which is a part of the not-self reality, is made up of objectified parts or aggregates. They are in turn made up of other parts and aggregates. When you separate them, the sum result of their aggregation disappears. Thus, Buddhism holds that reality is a formation or aggregation of its constituent parts. The Buddha arrived at this conclusion through his personal experience and insightful awareness, not through speculation.

The parts themselves may be formations or aggregations, with each having a beginning, middle and end. The not-self teaching of the Buddha does not make sense unless we understand another important concept, the impermanence (anitya). It is the basis of anatma. It is also common to all the religious traditions which originated in India.

Existence is impermanent. Nothing lasts forever, not even the minutest particles which make up the reality. There is no permanent, indestructible, eternal cause, force or framework upon which the perceptual reality exists. Everything is a flux, like a bubble, beyond which only pure awareness exists, as indistinguishable as emptiness in which all things come to a restful end. In that impermanence we look for permanence to impart predictability and stability to our lives.

The doctrine rests on the belief that the self or the individuality which you experience as yourself is a sum of your mind and body and all that you experience in your growing, being and becoming in this life as well as in your past births. They are in turn made up of various other parts such as the organs, memories, perceptions, feelings, cells, nuclei, your karmic fruit, and so on. Through countless births, memories, experiences, interactions and additions and subtractions to your karmic accumulations and past life impressions you emerge as the person that you are.

Is there anything beyond them such as a permanent, eternal, indestructible and independent Self, in which you can take refuge to experience stability and freedom from suffering and the problem of aging, sickness and death? The Buddha taught that there was no such thing as an eternal Self. Permanence and independence are illusions. Unless, we acknowledge them and accept them, we are bound to be disappointed.

Everything arises from some form of dependence and subsides in another form of dependence. Freedom from the dependencies and their effects arises only when one abandons all impurities and renounces dependent causes (desires, attachments, etc.) to enters Nirvana. This final state leads to the end of the not-Self or the sum of all “dependent-arising” phenomena and formations.

Implication of the not-self approach

The not-self thinking is helpful on the Eightfold Path to cultivate virtue and discernment. In many ways, it is the starting point to assimilate the teachings of the Buddha, practice the Dhamma and become a living and breathing example of it (arahant) to other members in the community (Sangha). It also has few practical implications.

  1. As you reject the notion of a permanent Self, you will not aspire to build your life, hopes and aspirations around it.
  2. Since the temporary Self or the not-self is still subject to in rebirth, you are obliged to live responsibly and strive for self-purification and liberation.
  3. Since objective reality is the sole reality, you will focus your attention upon it to know yourself and the nature of your existence, removing all traces of desires, egoism and attachments from your consciousness.

Nirvana is the ultimate goal of all Buddhist practices, which is difficult to define, but which is presented in many Buddhist schools as the state of indistinguishable consciousness, which is completely devoid of individuality, names and forms. According to some such a state is as good as pure emptiness, since you cannot make anything out of it, other than entering it and becoming absorbed in it. These descriptions do have some similarities with those of Brahman found in the nondualistic schools of Hinduism and

The not-self strategy does not lead to self-realization in the same sense as it is understood in Hinduism or Jainism. It does lead to the self-realization of a different kind in which one realizes beyond any doubt that the individuality (not-self) around which one builds one’s whole life is a formation and an illusion.

There is nothing like a permanent Self, which outlasts everything and abides in itself without external or internal dependencies or objectivity. The subjective reality is an illusion because it arises from the not-self only and subsides in it. The existential reality is all that there is for anyone to experience and know that it is a constant source of mental turbulence, impermanence, pain and suffering. To ignore and search for happiness elsewhere is ignorance and delusion.

Just as you cannot ignore water when you are swimming in a river or an ocean, you cannot ignore the objective reality or the perceptual reality of our existence. All that which you experience through your mind and senses is but not-Self reality. It is the cause as well as the effect of the not-self in everyone and everything.

The not-self strategy is the foundation of the Buddhist wisdom. It distinguishes it from the theistic schools of other major religions which acknowledge Dharma as the central principle of their teachings and the foundation of liberation. For Buddhist practitioners, it is very helpful to ground their practice in reality and resolve their suffering and mental turbulence through the Eightfold Path. The most obvious advantages are listed below.

  1. It opens their eyes to the reality which is the source of all our existential problems.
  2. It makes them observe, think, analyze and known mindfully rather than look away or close their eyes.
  3. It frees their minds from speculation and deal with known causes and experiential phenomena.
  4. It opens their eyes to the importance of renunciation and detachment to deal with the problem of impermanence and the instability and suffering it causes.
  5. It helps them focus on the essential practice of the Dhamma and set practical goals to cultivate the Buddha mind.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Translate the Page