It strikes me that there is a danger in some of these metaphysical musings of losing track of the connections between the anatta teachings, on the one hand, and the teachings on suffering and the path to the end of suffering, on the other hand. There might be certain kinds of suffering that are connected with thinking of oneself as possessing an unchanging essence that persists unaltered from moment to moment. But most kinds of suffering don’t depend on that articular conception of oneself, but will be present as long as one has any of many standard and normal self-conceptions.
My scholarly work is on the philosophy of David Hume. Hume is famous among western philosophers for having denied the view of the self as a simple and perfectly identical substance underling the various mental changes that transpire within us, and having defended the view that the self, properly understood, is “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.” This is not a great deal different from the Buddha’s conception of mental processes as arising and passing away in succession in accordance with paticcasamuppada. Hume’s original views have spawned many successors. It is a commonplace among contemporary secular western philosophers to view the self or a person is some kind of complex process made up of constituent elements causally interacting across time.
Now, lots of my Humean friends have views of this kind. However, it doesn’t seem to me that they are any less prone to suffering than other people! They still worry about their futures, experience regrets their pasts, feel dreadful anxieties about illness and mortality, worry about their careers, worry about their property, worry about their social status, crave fame, hate embarrassment, worry about their children, experience jealousy in regard to their love affairs and spouses, and all the rest.
Most of these forms of suffering depend on our having a self-conception or “sense” of self. When we consider the various phenomena presented to us in our experiences, among what the Buddha would call the khandhas, we do not regard them all equally. For example, we regard the somatic feelings in our chests and necks, or even our hands, as much more constitutive of ourselves than are our preset visual sensations of a tree - or even our visual experiences of our own hands. And even considering just our visual sensations, clearly we do not regard them all equally. Some of the things I see around me I conceptualize and feel to be my wife, my son, my car, my friend, my house, my land. And I tend to think of all of my conscious experiences as my experiences. I tend to regard the fact that my experiences are going to come to an end some day as rather dreadful, and tend to strive on mightily to preserve these experiences as long a possible. This is not a feeling I have about, say, George Clooney’s experiences. Not only do I not directly experience Clooney’s experiences, but even if I could view the inside his mind in some way and see what he is experiencing, so long as I could distinguish those experiences from my own, I would not feel the same way about them.
Now this is a very deep and mysterious psychological process, and yet somehow completely natural to ordinary human life. Call it what you will. The Buddha called it “I-making and my-making”. A modern psychologist might call it “ego construction.” But in either case, we are referring to the fact that somehow, out of the raw materials of our experience, we are continually manufacturing a kind of special ground distinguished from the ground external to it, and toward which we have extra-special concern. It’s the territory we defend, the bundle of material and human acquisitions we have and are always jealously trying to protect and extend, the process whose potential termination fills us with dread, whose loss of social status in the world fills us with shame and whose enhanced status fills us with pride. This is where all our suffering comes from.
It doesn’t seem to me that this process has anything particularly to do with whether we think of ourselves as having an unchanging essence or soul - although these these latter views might intensify our sense of self.
I think that when the Buddha spoke - as he did in so many places - about coming to understand the world we experiences as without atta, he was referring to the fact that, through a very long and arduous course of training, we could dig down to the very bottom of this I-making and my-making process, and achieve a state of complete detachment and dis-identification from all experienced phenomena, regarding nothing we experience as in any way “mine” or “me”. This blissfully unperturbed state, which only very rare saints achieve, is one in which there is nothing human or inhuman whose impending cessation would cause us fear or actual cessation would cause us grief, no object or terrain which is experienced as a possession, and no territorial division of humanity into friends and enemies.
It strikes me as very implausible that this extremely profound transformation of universal and ordinary human psychological experience can be accomplished simply by coming to have the proper philosophical grasp of the metaphysical idea that the world contains no soul, or substantial human essence. And that’s why I think it is a mistake to reduce the Buddha’s anatta teachings, which wind their way throughout many of the suttas in many slightly different forms, and with different kinds of emphasis, to something like the latter metaphysical claim.