In this post, I intend to share my current understanding of anatta, such that people can add fruitful insights and corrections. I previously apologize for any mistake and emphasize that my intention is to foster a wholesome discussion for everyone.
It’s better to start with what anatta is not. I believe the following very popular interpretation is not accurate according to the suttas: “anatta is the rejection only of a permanent self, but it still defends that there is an impermanent self, which is our stream of consciousness.” My objection will be divided in two parts: why the Buddha wasn’t rejecting only a permanent self and why the Buddha wasn’t defending that our stream of consciousness is our self.
The reasons why the Buddha wasn’t rejecting only a permanent self:
In the DN15, the Buddha speaks of views of the self that aren’t constant, which implies that anatta rejects much more than an unchanging self;
If anatta were just rejecting eternalism, then annihilationists would already understand anatta.
These are the reasons why the Buddha wasn’t defending that our self is our stream of consciousness:
A stream of consciousness wouldn’t be under our control, so, according to the anattalakkhana sutta, it can’t be our self;
A stream of consciousness would be inconstant, and, therefore, stressful. This implies that it can’t be our self, according to the anicca sutta;
If we were our stream of consciousness, then, at the moment of parinibbana, the Buddha would be annihilated; however, this is said to be an evil view according to the SN 22:85;
If it were the continuity of our stream of consciousness that assured our individuality, then the person who entered the state of the cessation of perception and feeling would differ from the person who left that state, since this meditative attainment is devoid of consciousness. In other words, this state would consist of a hole in the stream, which would make both streams different.
Even though most of my posts in the forum concern Venerable Thanissaro’s views, it’s worth emphasizing that I don’t aggree with him for three reasons.
Firstly, the refusal of the Buddha to answer Vacchagotta’s question in the SN 44:10 doesn’t mean that the Buddha didn’t believe that there was no self. As Bhikkhu Bodhi explains in the book “Investigating the Dhamma”
The proposition “there is no self” repudiated by the Buddha in these suttas is not offered as a possible formulation of the anattá-teaching, one that the Buddha is rejecting. As the discussion with Vacchagotta makes clear, the proposition “there is no self” was the position maintained by the annihilationists (ucchedavádin), the materialist philosophers who held that death marks the complete end of personal existence. The annihilationists assume that the existence of a self—a permanent átman—is a necessary condition for an afterlife and the operation of kamma; thus by denying the existence of such a self, they intend to reject any type of afterlife along with its corollary, the moral efficacy of kammic action.
When the Buddha refuses to accept the annihilationist thesis that “there is no self,” he refuses because he cannot consent to the consequences the annihilationists wish to draw from such a denial, namely, that there is no conscious survival beyond the present life.”
Secondly, the Buddha’s advice about not speculating about the self in the MN 2 makes more sense when analyzed under the context of DN 1, which explains how speculations about the present, present and future are related to views of the self. As Bhikkhu Analayo says in “Rebirth in Early Buddhism and Current Research”:
“The advice given to those who are disciples of the Buddha is that they should not waste their time by speculating about precisely what they were in the past and what they will be in the future. Such advice can be found in the Sabbāsava-sutta and its parallels, where it forms part of an encouragement given by the Buddha that his disciples should rather give attention to cultivating meditative insight and progress to stream entry.
What the Sabbāsava-sutta and its parallels consider as problematic is not the idea of having been someone else in the past as such but rather engaging in theoretical speculations. In contrast to the critical attitude evinced in the Sabbāsava-sutta and its parallels, the early discourses regularly commend recollection of one’s own past lives as one of the three higher knowledges, abhiññā. These three higher knowledges correspond to the realizations attained by the Buddha on the night of his awakening, mentioned above, covering recollection of one’s own past lives, the direct witnessing of the rebirth of others in various realms of existence, and the gaining of awakening through the eradication of the influxes, āsava. The Saṅgārava-sutta and its Sanskrit-fragment parallel report the Buddha identifying the epistemological foundation of his own realization of awakening to be precisely such higher knowledge, abhiññā.”
Thirdly, to say that the Buddha held no view about the ontological status of the self, but still defended that nothing should be taken as our self is contradictory since “there is nothing worth claiming as us or ours” is already an ontological claim. For if there were a self, how could such a perception be correct? Anatta can’t, therefore, be taken as a mere perception devoid of ontological implications. If anatta is right, there can’t be a self.
Until now I only discussed what anatta is not, so now I’ll explain my views. Anatta indeed means that there isn’t anything that we are identical to. However, anatta is not the ontological assertion, “there is no self.” It’s also the explanation for the following value judgement: there isn’t anything worth taking as you or yours. As it’s explained in the anicca sutta, what is anicca can’t be our self because what is anicca is dukkha, i.e. inconstant things are stressful, so they will lead to sorrow and grief if taken as our self or ours. Therefore, we should give them up and see them as they really are: not us, not ours, not our self.
Besides that, it simply makes no sense to hold ourselves to be identical to any of the aggregates, for how can you be identical to or be the possessor of something outside your control? As the anattalakkhana sutta explains, this is is not tenable.
Furthermore, if one takes something which arising or falling away is discernible, then how could they see that as their own self? (MN 148) If one is identical to something, they couldn’t exist before the rise of that same something, so its arising can’t be discernible.
Because of these and other reasons, identity-view is unreasonable. However, this doesn’t mean that we are nothing. For a long time, I’ve seen people stressing that “the Buddha said that there is no self,” but only after encountering Venerable Thanissaro’s works that I saw that the Buddha explained how there are beings.
In the SN 23:2, it’s said: “Any desire, passion, delight, or craving for form, feeling, perception, fabrication, or consciousness, Rādha: when one is caught up there, tied up there, one is said to be ‘a being.’” This might sound as if we existed insofar as there were desire and passion for the aggregates, but this would mean that the Buddha was annihilated in his awakening, which isn’t the case.
Instead of determining whether or not one exists, desire and passion determines how one describes themselves. When there is desire and passion for the aggregates, one holds them to be theirs, and so they move on to describe themselves as superior, equal, or inferior, according to how their aggregates are in relation to other’s. Since the Buddha had no desire and passion, he had no I-making nor mine-making, so he wouldn’t have any way of describing and defining himself. Being totally free from delineation, he couldn’t even be said to be a human being or a god:
"Brahman, the fermentations by which — if they were not abandoned — I would be a deva: Those are abandoned by me, their root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future arising. The fermentations by which — if they were not abandoned — I would be a gandhabba… a yakkha… a human being: Those are abandoned by me, their root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future arising.”
AN 4.36; Dona Sutta
Being totally indefinite even in his lifetime, the state of the Buddha after death can’t be determined:
‘And so, my friend Yamaka—when you can’t pin down the Tathāgata as a truth or reality even in the present life—is it proper for you to declare, “As I understand the Teaching explained by the Blessed One, a monk with no more effluents, on the break-up of the body, is annihilated, perishes, and does not exist after death”?’
SN 22:85; Yamaka Sutta
While the Buddha was alive, though, people could describe him in terms of his aggregates, “the Buddha went to such and such a place to meditate” or “the Buddha is in the fourth jhana,” but none of them were identical to him, and “living being” would have only a conventional sense since there was no desire or passion.
What? Do you assume a ‘living being,’ Mara?
Do you take a position?
This is purely a pile of fabrications.
Here no living being
can be pinned down.
Just as when, with an assemblage of parts,
there’s the word,
even so when aggregates are present,
there’s the convention of
For only stress is what comes to be;
stress, what remains & falls away.
Nothing but stress comes to be.
Nothing ceases but stress.
SN 5:10; Vajira Sutta
In the same way, an arahat can speak of himself, but that would be only in a conventional sense:
“An arahant monk,
one who is done,
effluent-free, bearing his last body:
He would say, ‘I speak’;
would say, ‘They speak to me.’
knowing harmonious gnosis
with regard to the world,
he uses expressions
just as expressions.”
SN 1:25; Arahanta Sutta
Anatta implies that we aren’t identical to any of the aggregates, which makes us surpass identity-view. Although one is free from that, they are still bound to crave and cling to the aggregates, and this makes one describe and define themselves in relation to the aggregates. While there is this craving, there is conceit, and one is said to be a being. This being is not nothing, and the path doesn’t consist of just denying any form of self, for the own Buddha said in the MN 135, “Beings are owners of their actions, heirs of their actions; they originate from their actions, are bound to their actions, have their actions as their refuge. It is action that distinguishes beings as inferior and superior.” We do have responsibility for our actions, and any interpretation that clashes with the teaching of kamma is untenable. Moreover, the Buddhist path is essentially a search for happiness, and summarizing anatta as “there is no self” makes any decision making unreasonable: if there is no self, then my happiness is actually no one’s happiness, and what is the purpose of pursuing it if I’m disconnected from it? Therefore, “there is no self” does not summarize anatta well. Furthermore, after one gets rid of craving, this being is not annihilated, but rather becomes undefined. One is simply beyond description. After the cessation of the aggregates, the person doesn’t cease, but only their aggregates, which weren’t identical to the person, cease. Being beyond description, such a person can’t be said to exist, not to exist, both, or neither.
I hope this is useful.