Anattā is one of the unique contributions of Sakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism who lived in the fifth century BCE in India. Along with his rejection of the caste system and of the practice of sacrifice, Buddha questioned the existence of the Ātman (Sanskrit) or Atta (Pāli), the self or soul 1 widely accepted in Brāhmaṇism. The Ātman concept is similar to the common-sense idea that each person or thing has an independent self, a view that is shared by several main families of Western Philosophy, from the Greek era to the Enlightenment Century and later. Walpola Rahula recalls that, in the Brāhmaṇical tradition, it was believed that “in man there is a permanent, everlasting and absolute entity, the unchanging substance behind the changing phenomenal world.” 2 For the Buddha, the belief in the self was one of the most deeply-rooted mistaken views of humans, which keeps them as suffering beings, since belief in the ego gives rise to the harmful mental phenomena of craving, attachment, and the false impression of ownership. According to the Buddha, as K.T.S. Sarao points out, “the individual is entirely phenomenal, governed by the laws of life, without any extra phenomenal self within him.” 3 The Buddha felt the need to clarify this illusion, and explained to his first disciples the notion of Anattā, no-self.
Buddhist demonstrations of Anattā
The Buddhist canons contain many explanations of Anattā, and different ways to prove that there cannot be a self. The study of the pañcakkhandha or five aggregates is one of them. The Buddha explained that what we usually call a “human being” is in fact the combination of five groups of energies, the pañcakkhandha or five aggregates, namely:
- Rūpakkhandha: the Aggregate of Matter,
- Viññāṇakhandha: the Aggregate of Consciousness, i.e. the act of undifferentiated awareness,
- Saññākhandha: the Aggregate of Perceptions, i.e. the act of recognition of a particular object,
- Vedanākkhandha: the Aggregate of Sensations, i.e. the signal that something is happening, evaluated as neutral, positive or negative,
- Samkhārakkhandha: the Aggregate of Mental Formations, i.e. the reaction following this evaluation. 4
These five elements are energies: they are passing forces. They may leave us with the impression that there is a continuity and a unity in what we usually see as an individual, in other words that my body, my perceptions, my emotions and my reactions are somehow linked and form together my “I.” However, the Buddha argued that each of these elements are passing phenomena, without sustainability in time: they are impermanent (Anicca or Anitya). Since there is nothing more than these five energies “in” a person, and since they are all transient events, the Ātman, which presupposes permanence, cannot be found behind any of them or in their combination. 5 The Buddha found these conclusions after having an intense experience of introspection, or what we know today as meditation, for instance in the Vipassanā form.
The Buddha used another demonstration to show that belief in the Ātman is false. The equally fundamental concept of Dependant Origination (Paticca-samuppāda) details the Buddhist understanding of the principle of causation, comprising 12 factors, 6 where each is the product of the previous and the cause of the next. The twelfth connects to the first again, thereby forming a cycle that explains the Saṃsāra or continuation of the suffering of living beings, during the present life but also after the demise of the body, in the future lives. Within this cycle, no factor is permanent and everything is conditioned; therefore there is no room for an unconditioned and permanent entity such as the self or soul.
The teaching on the Trilakṣaṇa, or Three Characteristics of the World, is perhaps the most systematic and direct demonstration that there cannot be an Ātman. In a compendium of lessons called the Dhammapada, Sakyamuni Buddha explained:
All Saṃkhārā are impermanent
All Saṃkhārā are suffering
All Dhammā are void of self 7
Impermanence, suffering and selflessness are the three characteristics of the world for the Buddhists.
Two logical implications must be noted regarding these three characteristics. Firstly, impermanence implicates a denial of substance: if all things are transient, there is no unchanging entity such as a self. Therefore, the third Trilakṣaṇa characteristic is an implication of the first. Secondly, if there is no self, then there is no quality, or essence of that self. Indeed, there cannot be an “essence of A” if there is no “A”, as such, by definition. Thus, Anattā is at the same time the claim that there is no substance, or in the case of animate beings, no self, but also that there is no quality or essence either.
Buddha’s emphasis on selflessness can be observed from his careful choice of words. Buddha presented impermanence and suffering as the characteristics of the objects known in Pāli and Sanskrit as Saṃkhārā. Saṃkhārā means the conditioned things, all the phenomenal events that are part of the chain of cause and effect: animate objects, which possess both Nāma (mental constituents) and Rūpa (material form) like human beings or animals, as well as inanimate objects, like chairs, or cars, but also immaterial things such as ideas, concepts, feelings, etc. In other words, all the conditioned things of the world are impermanent and subject to decay, that is, in the case of sentient beings, suffering.
In contrast, Buddha emphasised so intently on the absolute absence of a self that he chose another term than saṃkhārā for this third characteristic: “All Dhammā are void of self.” The term dhammā is much wider than saṃkhārā. “There is no term in Buddhist terminology wider than dhammā.” 8 The polysemous term Dhammā comprises the conditioned, saṃkhārā, but also the unconditioned, the absolute, the fundamental discovery of the Buddha: the cessation of suffering, known as Nirvāṇa. Buddha stressed here on the absolute absence of a substance, in the form of self, soul or ego, and therefore on the absence of an essence, in any context: even in the state of Nirvāṇa there is no Ātman. For the Buddha, the world is not a succession of permanent elements subsisting with a certain independence or a permanent core, but rather a whole consisting of phenomena that are linked, “inter-connected.” He saw reality as a set of relations rather than one of entities.
Buddhist Philosophy and Nihilism
Because of the Buddha’s famous statement on Anattā, Buddhism has been regarded, for instance at times in Western philosophy, as a nihilistic system of philosophy. Buddhism, it is believed, allegedly denies all substance to reality. This view must be utterly rejected, as Buddhism does value life in all its varieties: it is not a negative system. Buddha’s position on Anattā must be understood as the rejection of the idea of a self in each human being, but not as a positive argument in favour of the existence of non-self. 9 To clarify this point, we could say that Buddha criticised the view A, but that this does not mean that he was an advocate of the view non-A. In other words, Buddha was critical when people claimed that there is such thing as a self, but he did not want them to take the view of the absence of a self as an absolute truth either. As an intellectual abstraction of the ever-changing world around us, that would still be a simplification of reality, therefore remaining in the realm of the conventional truth (Samvrti Satya).
The Buddha did not deny existence, but rather, he disagreed with the view that all phenomena could have a substance and a sustainability, and therefore be conceptualised in absolute terms. Graham Priest describes the distinction further, arguing that it is not that “there is nothing left—just nothing determinate”.
To those who came to ask him this sort of metaphysical question, Buddha remained silent and invited them, simply, to observe reality as it is: always changing. Using concepts or words to refer to objects and people around us, is the main way in which we dupe ourselves in considering these objects as being permanent and distinct from one another. The Buddha did not deny existence, but rather, he disagreed with the view that all phenomena could have a substance and a sustainability, and therefore be conceptualised in absolute terms. Graham Priest describes the distinction further, arguing that it is not that “there is nothing left—just nothing determinate” 10: the elements of the world are all so intrinsically intertwined that using different words to refer to them invites one to believe that they hold distinct existences. Buddha’s view on Anattā is not a demand to humans for their absolute withdrawal of reason; rather, it is the humble invitation to let go of one’s habitual desire to label, name and conceptualise the world one sees, and to find peace in the fact that all is continuously changing around us.
Buddha was concerned with the fact that humans often believe in the permanence of things, starting with themselves and people around them, and therefore feeding their own suffering, as they would continue in this way to get attached to each and any thing, which would ultimately all disappear. To this extent, we can say that the Buddha was not very much interested in abstract postulations: Buddha was not exactly a philosopher. He is sometimes referred to as a “therapist” 11: he was primarily focused on the possible ways for humans to diminish and ultimately cease to provoke their own suffering. Therefore, philosophising the Buddha, or even talking of “Buddhist Philosophy”, it is somehow betraying the original mind of the Buddha, who probably considered abstract conceptualisation as a possible source of clarification for a few, but also as a potentially, very strong source of confusion, and therefore of more suffering, for the many.
Through the centuries, intellectually-oriented individuals have used the insights of the Buddha to create Philosophical systems, forming the schools of Buddhist Philosophy. As philosophising consists in the attempt to find strict and consistent answers regarding topics such as existence, human experience, emotions or morality, it contains the risk of taking such simplified hypotheses as absolutes. But there is one way in which we can correctly use the discoveries of the Buddha in a philosophical enterprise: by keeping in mind that all the concepts or answers are true only if kept within the realm of the conventional truth, which may be of use if it leads us to strengthen, ultimately, our awareness of the impermanence and interrelation of all phenomena. Philosophy, and its rational argumentations, may therefore be understood as one of the Upāya-kauślaya or “skilful means” 12: philosophy is one of the ways, developed through the history of humanity, for humans to attain a better life; but philosophy, and “philosophical truth” should not be mistaken as ultimate truth, or as the final goal of human life.
Two levels of truth
If, according to the Buddha, all things are interconnected, ultimately inseparable, and if they should not be named, how are we, humans, able to live? Or, with a pun intended at Girard, one may ask: how to live in a truly undifferentiated world? The Buddha was aware of this question. As a response, the Buddha explained that it is acceptable, and that we actually must simplify the ever-changing world around us, into a set of clearly delimitated objects and people, which implies conceptualising and naming them. This is unavoidable in order for that humans may live in harmonious societies.
However, such can be done, without the worry of more suffering, only on the condition that we stay aware that the appellation of a person, a thing or a concept is only relevant at the level of relative or conventional truth (Samvrti Satya). Such appellations should not be confused with the reality of the transcendental or absolute truth (Parmartha Satya). This means that we can use concepts and words that imply the existence of an individual as relatively stable in time and separate from other things, that is, naming things and people around us, but only if we keep in mind that, in reality, nothing in that person is everlasting or unique; that this person is not as such. 13 “A person should be mentioned as existing only in designation, but not in reality (or substance).” 14
This clarification opens the doors to a way of naming things without creating more suffering for ourselves. By extension, this also allows for certain attempts in philosophical reflections. We can, now, with such precautions, use Anattā as a philosophical concept, and make it encounter other intellectual views, such as, for instance, the Mimetic Theory.
Originally presented at
the COV&R Conference, July 2012, in Tokyo, Japan.
Later published in
Contagion, Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, Volume 20 (2013).
Image courtesy: The Country Buddhist
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- The Pāli term “Atta” comprises both the soul and the self: they are not distinguished, as can be found for instance in European languages. They represent two distinct concepts, but they share the characteristics of being qualifiably permanent and separate from their environment. Thus, Anattā is the critique of the belief in both the soul and/or the self. Because the Pāli term does not make a distinction, we shall use, in this paper, the two terms as being related and criticised in the same movement. However, for a deeper study of our topic, separate queries into both these notions should be attempted, and it could reveal different treatments both in Buddhism and in Girard’s theory.
- Walpola Sri Rahula, What the Buddha Taught (London and Bedford, UK: Gordon Fraser, 1978), 51. The notion of Ātman is also understood, in some Indian Philosophical Traditions like Vedanta, not as an individual, but a sort of “collective” soul. We focus here on the individual self.
- K.T.S. Sarao, “Anattā,” in Encyclopedia of Buddhism, Ed. Robert E. Burswell Jr. (New York, USA: Macmillan, 2004), 18-20.
- These evocative English definitions are borrowed from the Vipassanā teacher S.N. Goenka (William Hart, The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation as Taught by S.N. Goenka (Dhammagiri, India: Vipassana Research Institute, 1988), 27).
- The Anatta-lakkhana Sutta (The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic) of the Saṃyutta-Nikāya details how the Self cannot be found behind any of the five aggregates. N.K.G. Mendis, “The Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic,” Access To Insight. www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn22/sn22.059.mend.html (accessed April 20, 2012).
A Buddhist story recalls the delusion of Khemaka, an advanced monk, who compared the impression of “I am” to the smell of a flower:
“ – It is just like the scent of a blue, red or white lotus. If someone were to say, ‘The scent belongs to the petals, or the color, or the fibers,’ would he be describing it correctly?
– Surely not, friend.
– Then how would he describe it correctly?
– As the scent of the flower, would be the correct explanation.”
Khemaka knew that the self cannot be reduced to its components but, even as a spiritually mature monk, he succumbed to the misguided belief of a self that exists as a combination of its aggregates. This passage is found in the Khemo Sutta of the Saṃyutta-Nikāya. (Maurice O'Connell Walsh, “Khemo Sutta: Khemaka,” Access to Insight. www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn22/sn22.089x.wlsh.html (accessed April 20, 2012)).
- The 12 factors are: (1) ignorance, (2) mental activities, (3) consciousness, (4) body and mind, (5) six senses, (6) contact, (7) feeling, (8) desire, (9) craving, (10) becoming, (11) birth, (12) decay, disease, death. They are mentioned in several texts, for instance the Paticca-samuppada-vibhanga Sutta. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “Paticca-samuppada-vibhanga Sutta: Analysis of Dependent co-Arising,” Access to Insight. www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn12/sn12.002.than.html (accessed April 20, 2012).
- K.T.S. Sarao, The Dhammapada, A Translator’s Guide (Delhi, India: Munshiram Manoharlal, 2009), 339-42.
- Walpola, What the Buddha Taught, 58.
- The Buddha made this clear by rejecting both the eternalist position (“there is a self”) and the annihilationist position (“there is no self”) (Walpola, What the Buddha Taught, 66.).
- Graham Priest, “The Structure of Emptiness,” Philosophy East & West 59 (4) (2009): 472.
- Alain Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus (Paris, France: Accarias L’Originel, 2007), 102.
- Michael Pye, Skilful Means: A Concept in Mahayana Buddhism (London & New York: Routledge, 2003), 1.
- Interestingly enough, we find in Deceit, Desire and the Novel a quote of Proust which clearly follows these lines: “… the atomic and sensationalist point of view, which enables an anonymous perception to be split into objective atoms, is refuted at the very beginning of the novel: [quote from Proust] “Even the simple act which we describe as “seeing some one we know” is, to some extent, an intellectual process. We pack the physical outline of the creature we see with all the ideas we have already formed about him, and in the complete picture of him which we compose in our minds those ideas have certainly the principal place. In the end they come to fill out so completely the curve of his cheeks, to follow so exactly the line of his nose, they blend so harmoniously in the sound of his voice that these seem to be no more than a transparent envelope, so that each time we see the face or hear the voice it is our own ideas of him which we recognize and to which we listen.” ” (René Girard, Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965), 229-30.)
- This interpretation can be found from the Mahāyāna Sūtrālaṅkāra (Walpola, What the Buddha Taught, 55).