The Buddhist concept of – Non self (Anatman, 空 kū)

‘To study the self is to forget the self.’

One of the more well-known ideas from Buddhism is the notion of No-self or Non-Self and is one of the Three Marks of Existence (Pali: tilakkhaṇa; Sanskrit: त्रिलक्षण, trilakṣaṇa, Japanese: 三法印 sanbōin).

The Buddhist idea of ‘No-self ‘(Sanskrit: Anatman, Japanese: 空 ) is an idea in early Buddhism that deals with how we see our existence.

To explain what Non-Self means, it’s best to start with what is being negated: the Self. The Vedas and Hindus taught there is a personal soul or Self, an Atman.

At its most basic, the Self is the notion we’re a separate entity; there’s an enduring part of us that makes us who we are. It’s the feeling, attitude, sensation, and even a belief there’s this fixed, unchanging essence that resides at the core of our being – a soul, spirit. A thinker who thinks, an actor who acts, a feeler who feels, a sensor that senses, the owner that possesses. 

Rene Descartes was sure he existed because he had thoughts – he exclaimed, ‘I think therefore I am.’ Its’ the attitude there is a bedrock to existence, or essence to our existence or being.

Creation of The Self

To understand further, it’s a good idea to look at how the Self is created and manifests, this is what the Second Noble Truth is more about. The Self is made through our grasping and clinging. It arises in three ways.

Cultural Myth of the Self

A cultural meme, metanarrative or myth, the idea of the self is passed down through society. We share it and teach it to others, and it encourages us to find a strong sense of identity, a self.

We have bank accounts in our name, insurance, and a driving licence that each carries our identity.

Ideas from philosophy and religion speak of essence, like Plato’s forms or the eternal Soul. Like Rene Descartes and him ‘self’, an idea he inherited.

Idea of the Self

Another is the intellectual, cognitive side of the Self as an idea which comes from language and concepts. 

‘I own this car’ or ‘I am a doctor’ implies a separate self and an object like a car or a feature like a profession. It suggests there is an owner who has these properties. The Buddha called this the ‘I’ making and the ‘My’ making.

Note it is a language of separationThe idea of the ‘I’ or ‘me’ is expressed but never examined; it slips unnoticed, and we accept it.

Western languages, in particular, focus on many nouns, such as names separating objects and pronouns referring to people.

Perception of the Self

The perceptual level is the most subtle level of the self, and it is the feeling a person has when looking out on the world. It can be likened to cognitive bias, a perceptual idiosyncrasy like an optical illusion.

The self here appears like a Mirage or a Lens Flare. We see see the water in the distance, but once we arrive there no water to be found. The water doesn’t exist, but the illusion of water does. A lens flare is the side effect of looking through a lens. Think of the Self as a side effect of consciousness.

Another example are rail tracks, the illusion shows the meet at the horizon, but we know they don’t.

It makes the self like a Lodestone, our bias towards self obsession, which risks Egotism, and self absorbed narcissism.

‘I’ Making

One of the things we grasp for is ourselves; we want to know who we are so we can make the right decisions for ourselves and lead a happier, more productive and more fulfilled life.

However, you have diligently been fashioning this self-object throughout your life, and the world has encouraged and participated in its construction. It’s a learned habit, an indoctrination. Names or pronouns lead us to believe that a discreet, separate Self or person exists.

Our linguistic conventions regarding self are just that: conventions. What they imply is non-existence.

Moreover, the Self is very insecure and possessive; it gasps for and holds onto objects like our house, body, phone, and other things, from ideas, beliefs and emotions to moods, perceptions, values and a will. 

Alternatively, we dispossess ourselves of the same things. We reject ideas, things, objects, and emotions, denying them our ownership. It’s where our likes and dislikes, wants and don’t wants are expressed—artists, sports teams, music, cars, TV shows, etc. Our list of preferences can be very long.

We see here that life is a lot about Ornamentation- objects, relationships, and ideas we use to give shape and meaning to our existence: possessions, opinions, beliefs, attitudes, wants, and values. Such possessiveness is how the fiction of the self is written. The narrative always has the self at the centre, a self-centeredness.

It is this possessiveness and self-centeredness that leads to suffering. We get attached to our possessions and are upset when they are lost. Such possessiveness comes from a place of insecurity, the being we feel separate, alone in the world. Such clinging neediness creates worry, stress, unsatisfactoriness, or dukkha, i.e., suffering.

Suffering comes from believing that the world must live up to our expectations. We get upset when events don’t go our way, as if the world owes us something.

The Buddha teaches that it will never happen no matter how much we try to find that security and comfort in our grasping possessiveness. Change is inevitable; it’s part of existence. The solution is to recognise the self for what it is: an illusion, but that’s for another post because that’s a vast subject to explain.

Closing thoughts

Knowing the self is like peeling an onion, asking each layer, ‘Where is the onion? Or seeking those red socks only to find you’re wearing them.

Non-self is one of the important features of the Buddhist way of looking at our existence and dealing with our suffering. It’s hard to wrap our heads around the idea of Non-self Self because it undermines and reveals how we typically see the world. We like to think of the Self, or Happiness, Meaning, etc, as like a gem on the seabed of an ocean. We must swim down through the shifting reality to collect it and bring it to the surface. Once we have it, we can live in prosperity, happiness, meaning, etc.

We don’t ‘have thoughts’; we are our thoughts, feelings, sensations and all the rest. We don’t have a consciousness; we are the consciousness; we don’t own a car, and there is no subject that owns that object. ‘You are a verb that mistakenly thinks itself a noun’, a process that thinks of itself as a fixed object moving through space.

Think of the word Zeitgeist, meaning ‘the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.’ Well, think of the Self as a private Zeitgeist of the present moment; that is you. The key point is at any given moment, you are what you are. There is a form, a texture, a shape, and a pathos to existence. Stop for a moment, and it can be felt.

Anatman or Non-Self is not questioning what exists but how it exists. The Buddha never said there is no Self. Instead, he was teaching us our understanding is flawed. Our possessions, feelings, ideas, and perceptions will come and go., but none of these things is the object or our ‘Self’.

To address our suffering, we need to become less attached and less possessive of the idea that there is an ‘I’ or ‘me’. I learned that to search for the Self is to liberate oneself. Once the illusion is seen, it liberates us from clinging too much to our possessions.

Without a self to cling to, we become less self-absorbed and less caught up in the wild melodrama of the mind, and instead, we take steps to find health and happiness in our lives.

Hui-k’o said to Bodhidharma, “My mind is anxious. Please pacify it.” Bodhidharma replied, “Bring me your mind, and I will pacify it.”Hui-k’o said, “Although I’ve sought it, I cannot find it.” “There,” Bodhidharma replied, “I have pacified your mind.”