...Anatman, A Teaching on No Self...

by Ven. Dr. Karuna Dharma

Twenty-five centuries ago when the Buddha turned the wheel of the Dharma and began to teach, he presented a philosophy which differed significantly from the current belief systems of India, by presenting a profound spiritual path, which had at its very core a denial of God and soul. The Buddha proclaimed the three characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and insubstantiality (anitya, duhkha and anatman)

These three charcteristics are seen as applying to all phenomena. The one great law of the universe, then, is change. Phenomena come into being, mature and disappear. They are the result of conditions; when the conditiions change, they also change or disappear. Even those things which appear as permanent are impermanent. Entire universes come into being, mature and disintegrate. Buddhism does not recognize a primal cause, nor does it recognize the existence of a permanent, unchangeable substance in anything. Rather, it sees all things as constantly changing, as conditionally created. The constant creation and modification that occurs is seen as being the natural result of the influence of all beings that live within that sphere. We, then, along with all other beings, create our own world. This is sometimes called collective karma or collective action. There is no beginning and no end to this process which continues endlessly, because desire and aversion, which is followed by craving and clinging, produces the constant re-enactment of bringing into existence all manner of things, physical, mental and emotional.

Things do not exist because they have an innate quality to them. Rather, they come into existence because they have no innate quality. They are created out of our own desires. Because there is no fixed quality to anything, anything can be created. Each creation carries within it its own seeds of destruction, because the conditions which brought it into existence cannot continue ad infinitum. So there is the endless round of process of production and extinction, fueled by desire, which arises from a profound ignorance of the conditionality of things, of what causes our own suffering. This ignorance comes from a basic misunderstanding of the nature of all things. The mistaken and fabricated notion of an ego creates within us a need to make permanent those things which we desire. Since we desire more than anything immortality, we will create the notion of an immortal self or soul. This belief in an immortal soul is viewed as the cause of the endless round of our unsatisfactory existence.

Buddhism, then, sees all beings as a result of conditions. The human is viewed as being a collection of five conditions, called skandhas. These are body-form (rupa), sensations and perceptions (vedana), conceptions (samjña), karmic predilections or tendencies, or habit energies (samskara), and basal consciousness (vijñana). All five of these conditions are necessary for a sentient being to exist, These are cleary all conditional. When the person dies, these five skandhas break apart and disappear. There is no substrate or bit of divine substance, no personality or soul which remains.

The Buddha explained that we should not become too attached to our bodies and their sensual experiences and thoughts that arise from them, because the attachment to our bodies and to life causes us great duhkha, suffering and misery. Sense contact brings us sense experiences which we then term as desirable or undesirable. From this judgment arises the desire to re-experience similar sensual experiences, which lead directly to attachment. This attachment then leads to a great thirst or craving for the experience. Soon we are entrapped in the need to continue such experiences, for we feel we need or want them. But all experience is very momentary. Hardly have we grasped onto one, when it disappears and a new attraction grabs our minds. Soon we are enmeshed in a great, complex web of desire, all of which is very transitory, and thus unsatisfactory.

The Buddha stated that for us to become free from the constant round of rebirth and suffering, we would need to realize the changing nature of things in its true perspective, so that we could free ourselves from the need for certain experiences, attachment to self and to the illusion of permanence.

One of the major causes of duhkha is our puny attempts to make impermanent things permanent. We want to amass and hold on to things which please our ego concepts. We strive to hold on to youth, to wealth, to fame, to romance. All of these experiences are fleeting. They arise, mature and disintegrate. It is not change itself which causes the greatest pain, it is our resistance to this change that causes the real duhkha. The Buddha again and again explained: "Impermanent indeed are all conditioned things; they are of the nature of arising and passing away. Having come into being, they cease to exist. Hence their pacification is tranquility."

He urged his disciples to truly understand the ultimate nature of all things, that is their impermanence. He had his disciples meditate upon the disintegration of things, including their own bodies, in order to try to break their inordinate clinging to objects of all kinds: physical, vocal or mental.

Once the individual truly sees that things cannot be grasped for more than a few moments, then these unhealthy attachments and aversions can be given up and the practitioner can be freed from the enslavement he has produced for himself.