It is no understatement to say that anatman—the Buddha’s teaching of no-self or no-soul—is a tricky one to grasp. It is often the case that only people with deep and well established meditation practices get a glimpse of this teaching from an experiential standpoint. And until that happens, the philosophical and psychological dimensions seem like a quagmire of contradictions, and certainly run counter to “common” sense. But, common sense itself is based in the ignorance that causes suffering, so it too should be subject to scrutiny. (That, however, is another post)


So let me start off by saying that the Buddha did not teach that there was no-self, or no-soul in an absolute sense. The Sanskrit word, an-atman had a very precise meaning in the ancient Hindu religion. Atman means soul, and the Hindus taught that the soul was eternal, ever existing, never born, never dying, etc. And it passed from life to life to life in an endless cycle (samsara). In fact, as a side note, it was the point of many Hindu religious traditions (Hinduism is a word that covers hundreds of different religions) to find a way for atman to escape the endless cycle of birth and death. So the an– prefix means no. so anatman means no-soul, or no-self. BUT, since atman was eternal, what the Buddha was arguing was that there was no ETERNAL self or soul.


Everything in Buddhism is based in experience. So the first way to understand what the Buddha meant was that we have no experience of an eternal self or soul.  We do, in fact, have an experience of a self—I have a self, you have a self, everyone does. But that self and the experience itself is always in flux, always changing. This is due to two other Buddhist teachings that are in fact fundamental laws of the universe.


First, everything is impermanent. Everything changes. Everything has a birth, ages and dies. This is easy to see in nature, the change of seasons, the fact that living beings are born, age and die. Astrophysicists show us the same thing in stars and galaxies. So change is everywhere. Some change happens relatively quickly (day to night), some much more slowly (a star being born aging and dying over billions of years) But it is deeper. According to Buddhist teaching each moment of experience, the present moment, is composed of something like 54,000 distinct points that are constantly changing (I don’t know about you, but my meditation practice is no where near deep enough to detect this). So each moment is roiling with change. Thus, by rights, our soul or self is also in a constant state of change.


So, here is an experiment: are you, the person who is reading this obtuse response, the same person as when you were 5? I’ll be the answer was no. You are a different person now, with different experiences, desires, responsibilities, etc. So, your self/soul has changed. But, and here’s the rub in a nutshell, you can say, “Well, Daniel, when I was 5 I loved to play soccer.” So just after admitting that you had changed, you have connected your experience from the past to today in your mind. There is an “I” who then loved soccer and who now is remembering it and saying, in effect, that “I” was the one then and “I” am the one now.


Zen teachers and philosophers like Alan Watts would put it very simply. The “I” who is now and the “I” that was then is just a fiction. The philosopher Immanuel Kant said that the “I” was just a function of the mind used to organize experience so that we could connect one moment of experience to the next. But this is the thing. IT DOES NOT EXIST. The “I” is just a trick of the mind. Watts said it like this, the “I” is a fiction of the mind, but it is a useful fiction until we take it as real, then it is the source of suffering.


The second Buddhist truth is that everything is conditioned, everything is made of parts. And with the soul or self there are five: form (body), feeling tone (the immediate experience of positive, negative, and neutral in any experience—I have a post called “Muddy Water” that talks about feeling tones), perception (interpretation or judgment of experience), mental formations (emotions, thoughts, memory) and consciousness. These five conditions come together in any experience to form what we call a self or soul. But, like everything else, each of these streams is constantly changing as well, so therefore does our self/soul.


Let’s take body or form. Obviously as we get older our bodies change and so our sense of self changes. I may not be able to do things I used to. As a man I have no obvious experience, but women feel the change on a regular basis through menstruation, pregnancy, etc. The same is true of the rest. It is an interesting implication of the whole thing to consider the mental formations dimension.


So, say by now you are loving this post and thinking I am a really helpful person for posting this blog entry, so your mind is filled with positive emotions, etc. But then you get a text from someone you don’t care for and your experience goes from positive to negative. Your self/soul has just changed (keep in mind that you may not notice the change because of the I, the ego, that believes it is the constant, but again that is the idea of yourself, and not the experience of yourself.) It is hard to fathom intellectually, but easy to grasp experientially: I am a different self when I am angry as when I am happy simply because my experience is different. It is only the I/ego that connects the two that I take to be real and unchanging. But then, in that case, as we all seem to do, I am taking a mental function to be an ontological reality. It is like taking a remote to be the source of the tv. Just as a remote turns on the tv, so does the ego or “I” organize and unify my ongoing experiences. But I am not the ego function anymore than the remote is the source of the tv.

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