I'd like to share some of my understanding of these insights here - insights into Anatta. This is variously translated as 'no self', 'no soul', or more accurately as 'non-self' or 'not-self'. But even this is difficult to make sense of when we look at the texts.
The Nikayas are largely very coherent and systematic. However, if we look at the key text that describes Anatta, Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic , we find an argument for it, which doesn't appear to make much sense.
- Bhikkhus, form is not-self. Were form self, then this form would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of form: 'Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.' And since form is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of form: 'Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.'
Bhikkhus, feeling is not-self... (and so on for the other skandhas)
Why if form was self could it not lead to affliction? Surely if it was one's nature to lead to affliction then self could lead to affliction.
If form was self we could decide it's nature
Again, why? Many people are not in control of themselves so why would we necessarily be able to control form if it was our self.
Later the Buddha asks:
- "Bhikkhus, how do you conceive it: is form permanent or impermanent?" — "Impermanent, venerable Sir." — "Now is what is impermanent painful or pleasant?" — "Painful, venerable Sir." — "Now is what is impermanent, what is painful since subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: 'This is mine, this is I, this is my self'"? — "No, venerable sir." etc
Form is impermanent
Impermanent therefore unsatisfactory
Impermanent therefore not me, possessed by me or my self
The three characteristics (anicca: impermanence, dukkha: suffering/unsatisfactoriness, anatta: not-self) are usually presented as three independent attributes. But here we see them presented in the form of an argument.
Elsewhere we see this argument:
- "What is impermanent is suffering, what is suffering is not-self"
S. 35:1; 22:46
Impermanent therefore unsatisfactory therfore not-self
The key to understanding all this of course is that 'self' refers not to one's sense of self or one's psyche or oneself in terms of pure reference. It refers specifically to what is known in Vedic thought as as the Atman (Pali: atta). The Buddha was responding to one of the dominant concepts of Vedic thought as found in the early Upanishads, which teach that each individual person has a permanent, unchanging Atman that is reincarnated from one life to another. The separateness of each Atman is also taught to be an illusion and that in reality the Atman has the same identity as the ultimate essense of reality (Brahman). Only by realising this directly (moksha) can we escape from the cycle of birth and death (samsara). The Buddha's enlightenment clearly has parallels with this, although without the concepts of Atman or Brahman. Another parallel is that in Vedic thought, Brahman had three characteristics: Being (permanent, unchanging existence), Consciousness (absolute ground of awareness) and Bliss. It is Bliss because it is absolute Being. Given that Atman and Brahman are identical, the arguments above now make sense.
No phenomena are permanent (not-Being) therefore they are unsatisfactory (not-Bliss) therefore they are not the Atman (not-Atman, Anatta).
Form is not Atman. Were form Atman, then this form would not lead to affliction... And since form is not Atman, so it leads to affliction
This is an argument against the dominant self-theory of the time, abandoning such self theories is a step towards becoming free of the conceit 'I am' and becoming liberated from dukkha.
I'd appreciate your thoughts.