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No-Self or Anatman Concept in Buddhism Essay

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Updated: Jan 15th, 2022

The so-called no-self or anatman is among the key concepts in Buddhism. Along with other ideas about reality and illusion, the non-existence of the unchangeable self-distinguishes the Buddhist religion from numerous religious movements that recognize the human soul as something immortal and integral. When teaching no-self, the Buddha negated the presence of the permanent self, recognizing this idea as illusory, causing pain, and thus, complicating liberation from attachments.

In his teachings, the Buddha used the idea of no-self to disprove the logical consistency of seeing people as creatures that are independent in terms of perception and knowledge. According to Gethin, the notion of the self is criticized in Buddhism not in general, but about its particular features such as permanence (p. 135). The meaning of anatman can sometimes be understood in a simplified way just as the non-existence of the self. This definition does not reflect the notion’s complicated structure and the Buddha’s supposed goals.

Accepting the notion of atman that is central to more idealist perceptions of reality, one recognizes the existence of the self that possesses a few characteristics such as the inability to change and independence. In his conversations with monks devoted to the problem of the self and no-self, the Buddha did not mean that the former could not exist at all. Instead, only some features of atman such as its permanent nature were criticized regarding these ideas’ ability to produce unnecessary suffering. According to Majjhima Nikaya, the Buddha asked his students whether “body…feeling…recognition…volitions” were permanent, and they agreed that all of those things were impermanent and, therefore, capable of producing pain (qtd in Gethin, p. 137). With that in mind, by introducing the concept of no-self, the teacher wanted to criticize the idea of permanence in self-perception.

As a separate idea, no-self is aimed at helping people to remove a significant barrier to achieving the key spiritual goal. In Majjhima Nikaya, the teacher makes the following conclusion based on impermanence and suffering: all things that people associate themselves with, be it the physical body or irrational feelings, have to be seen as “this is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self” (qtd in Gethin, p. 137). The understanding of things that are not permanent as the sources of suffering descends from the second truth of the Buddhist religion related to the destructive nature of attachment (Gethin, p. 138). The risks that any part of what we call “I” can change or disappear are extremely high, which can make people suffer when trying to achieve accuracy in their self-image. Trying to prevent his students from suffering and becoming dependent on numerous things they could mistake for themselves, the teacher introduced the concept being discussed.

In Buddhist thought, by promoting the belief in personal identity that tends to be based on false conclusions and the misinterpretation of personal experience, any individual contributes to suffering and makes other people suffer as well. According to Gethin, “the belief in self serves as the function of both ignorance and greed” (p. 147). Both idealistic and materialistic perceptions of reality and the self can prevent people from becoming free. It is possible that the concept of no-self was the Buddha’s attempt to warn people against rushing into the extremes and mistaking their experiences for objective reality.

To sum it up, the Buddha’s no-self can be understood as the idea that criticizes people’s attempts to appropriate any things in the world and see anything as unchanging. In Buddhism, the idea of anatman implies that the sense of the self is illusory and creates barriers to one’s development. Therefore, the teacher taught no-self to prevent his students from supporting concepts that increase suffering, thus making the ultimate goal of spiritual growth unattainable.

Work Cited

Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford University Press, 1998.

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