“Suffering exists, but no sufferer can be found.
Actions exist, but no doer of actions is there.
Nirvana exists, but no one who enters it.
The Path exists, but no traveler can be seen.”
The Buddha taught that there is no permanent individual self (anatta), and that if we fully realize this for ourselves we will be enlightened just like him. The important word here is ‘realize,’ for if we merely hold the view of not-self, we will not actually be enlightened, but rather clinging to a concept. The concept, or view (ditthi) of not-self is, from the Buddhist perspective, an improvement on the self-view (atta-ditthi), but it is still a pale imitation of the real thing. Believing something is one thing, but knowing it is another and the Buddha stated that if we really wish to escape the claws of suffering, we must realize what the extract above by Buddhaghosa describes as “Suffering exists, but no sufferer can be found.”
The Buddha’s teaching on not-self is unique among the world’s great religions, with all the other major faiths making the assumption that there is a soul or self of some description or another (atta-ditthi). They take as true what Buddhism classes as the eternalist view (sassata-ditthi), which is one of the two extreme views criticized by the Buddha. Eternalists believe that there is a permanent, individual soul in each of us that lives forever, either being reborn life-to-life, or being sent to heaven or hell upon physical death. Hinduism is an example of a faith that postulates that an eternal self reincarnates through a myriad lifetimes, with Sikhism and Jainism promoting essentially the same idea. The three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – tell us that we have undying souls that either end up in heaven or hell after death, depending on our behavior during just one life upon this earth.
The other main form of self-view is the annihilationist view (uccheda-ditthi), which states that although everyone does indeed have a separate self, it does not precede or survive this life. This is essentially the materialist view that modern scientifically-influenced people hold, such as the Darwinists and other non-religious people. The difference between this view and the Buddha’s is that annihilationism still presumes the existence of a real self (atta), whereas Buddhism declares that there has never been a self (anatta). The Buddhist understanding of no-self will be explored a little later, but first, we have a brief excursion to make into a third group of false views that the Buddha listed which, like him, denied the existence of a permanent, separate self, but unlike him, also denied the law of karma.
The first of these three anti-karma beliefs is called the inefficacy-of-action-view (akiraya-ditthi), which states that because there is no self, no karma and no karma results, our actions are meaningless and without any karmic consequences. The next idea is that of the view of non-causality (ahetuka-ditthi), in which the believer in no-self holds the opinion that things happen purely by chance, without prior conditioning factors, and that in turn our actions have no direct influence on future occurrences, either. The last false understanding of there being no self and no karmic process is called the nihilistic view (nattika-ditthi). Nihilists suppose that the universe is empty not only of any self or karmic process, but that it is also therefore empty of any meaning. It doesn’t matter what we do, because there’s no one to suffer our wrong doings and no one to benefit from our virtuous behavior. As with the annihilationist view, nihilism has gained a certain popularity with some modernists, among them anarchists and materialistic hedonists, who feel that they can do whatever takes their fancy as nothing really matters anyhow.
“This world, Kaccana, for the most part depends upon a duality – upon the idea of existence and the idea of nonexistence. But for one that sees the origin of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no idea of nonexistence in regard to the world. And for one who sees the cessation of the world with correct wisdom, there is no idea of existence in regard to the world.” (Samyutta Nikaya 12:15)
With the teachings on karma and dependent arising (paticca-samuppada), the Buddha also avoided the extreme positions taken up by those holding ideas like the inefficacy-of-action view, the view of non-causality, and the nihilist view. Karma and karmic fruition describe existence in terms and actions and their consequences; that is to say, whatever we do, say, or think has repercussions far beyond this present moment (although they certainly influence current events also.) Recognition of karma and its results negates the idea of non-causality, as well as giving nihilists pause for thought. The Buddha’s radical, and like anatta unique, teaching of dependent arising also leaves those with the inefficacy-of-action view much to ponder, in that it describes a clear and logical set of conditioning factors that give order and meaning to life. Here’s a typical description of dependent arising as given by the Buddha in the Pali Canon:
“On ignorance (avijja) depend the karmic formations (sankhara); on the karmic formations depends consciousness (vinnana); on consciousness depends mind-and-form (nama-rupa); on mind-and-form depend the six sense-bases (salayatana); on the six sense-bases depends contact (phassa): on contact depends feeling (vedana): on feeling depends craving(tanha); on craving depends clinging (upadana); on clinging depends becoming (bhava); on becoming depends birth (jati); and on birth depends decay-and-death (jara-marana)." (Samyutta Nikaya 12.2)
From this description of the process of dependent arising it can be seen that the Buddha espoused a very detailed alternative to the non-causal and meaningless philosophies we have been examining. Whether we accept (or even fully understand) dependent arising, the step-by-step nature of its progression from ignorance (of the way things truly are) to eventual decay and death has a certain appeal that can leave the nihilists and other hedonists seeming rather inattentive and shortsighted. If we are to be attached to views, surely the Buddha’s Right View which includes karma and dependent arising makes more sense to both the mind and heart than the views of the eternalists, annihilationists, and thir ilk. (This article is not the place to explore dependent arising in more depth, but if there is interest on the part of this blog’s readership, it certainly can be the focus of a future post.)
Returning to the Buddha’s conception of karma and rebirth, some readers may be wondering how, if there is no permanent, separate self to be reborn, rebirth takes place, and also who, if there is no such self, it is that performs actions and receives their results. Well, a highly-detailed account of dependent arising was the Buddha’s main response to this question, but in the modest environment of a blog, a somewhat simpler explanation will be attempted! It is aspects of the mind that are reborn rather than a soul or personality, as such. Mental habits, attachments, and thought processes not only traverse time and space by ‘popping up’ in our brains during this life, but can also enter an embryo or foetus, a bit like radio waves or electrical impulses traversing the ether to be received at some future point. According to the Buddha, karmic results can also manifest (in relation to the mind-elements that created them) in future lives, as well as in the present one.
Another way in which the Buddha nullifies self-view is with his teaching of the five aggregates (panca-khandha), which he stated comprised the entiety of a person, leaving nothing to be considered as a permanent, separate self or soul. The five aggregates are as follows:
• The aggregate of corporality (rupa-khandha)
• The aggregate of feeling (vedana-khandha)
• The aggregate of perception (sanna)
• The aggregate of mental formations (sankhara-khandha)
• The aggregate of consciousness (vinnana-khandha)
The first aggregate of corporality means the body, that is, the physical components that make it up; the second aggregate of feeling indicates those emotional responses to mental and physical stimuli, the three basic forms of which are pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral; the third aggregate of perception refers to the recognition of objects, both mental and physical, and includes memory; the aggregate of mental formations applies to any psychological qualities, including volition, concentration, faith, compassion, delusion, hate, and envy; the aggregate of consciousness is that awareness dependent upon one or other of the other four aggregates, such as consciousness of feeling envy. As the following quotation points out, in his teaching of the five aggregates, the Buddha leaves no room for a separate, individual soul or self:
“Now, if anyone should put the question, whether I admit any theory at all, he should be answered thus:
The Tathagata is free from any view, for the Tathagata has understood what corporeality is, and how it arises and passes away. He has understood what feeling is, and how it arises and passes away. He has understood what perception is, and how it arises and passes away. He has understood what mental formations are, and how they arise and pass away. He has understood what consciousness is, and how it arises and passes away. Therefore, I say, the Tathagata has won complete deliverance through the extinction, fading away, disappearance, rejection, and getting rid of all opinions and conjectures, of all inclination to the vainglory of ‘I’ and ‘mine.’”
(Majjhima Nikaya, 72)
It’s interesting to note in the above words that not only does the teaching of the five aggregates cancel out self-view, but it also negates any views of whether the self exists or doesn’t exist, for as written at the top of this article, the Buddha taught that we need to realize that there is no permanent separate self if we wish to awaken to reality. Clinging to the view of not-self (anatta) is not enough: we must see this Truth and then live from it to really benefit from it. Otherwise, we are caught up in the realm of views, which as the Buddha declared, he did not enter into to. Transcending both self and all views, we fulfill the words from Buddhaghosa’s verse that opened this exploration: “Nirvana exists, but no one that enters it.” Bon voyage, no one!
Note: This post was first published on this blog in October 2010.