Of the great religions of history, I prefer Buddhism, especially in its orthodox form, because it has had the smallest element of persecution". The intellectuals of the West have agreed that for the first time in the history of the world, Buddha proclaimed a salvation, which each man could gain for himself, and by himself in this world, during his life, without the least help from God or Gods."
What in general is suggested by Soul, Self, Ego, or to use Sanskrit expression Atman, is that in man there is a permanent, everlasting and absolute entity, which is the unchanging substance behind the changing phenomenal world. According to some religions, each individual has such a separate soul which is created by God, and which, finally after death, lives eternally either in heaven or hell, its destiny depending on the judgment of its creator. According to others, it goes through many lives till it is fully purified, become finally united with God or Brahman, Universal Soul or Atman, from which it originally emanated. This soul or self in man is thinker of thoughts, feeler of sensations, and receiver of rewards and punishments for all its actions good and bad. Such a concept is called the idea of Self.
Buddhism stands unique in the history of human thought in denying the existence of such a Soul, Self, or Atman. According to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of the self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmfull thoughts of ‘me’ and ‘mine’, selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism, and other defilements, impurities and problems. It is source of all the troubles in the world from personal conflicts to wars between nations. In short, to this false view can be traced all the evil in the world.
Two ideas are psychologically deep-rooted in man: self-protection and self-preservation. For self-protection, man has created God, on whom he depends for his own protection, safety and security, just as child depends on his parent. Foe self-preservation man has conceived the idea of an immortal Soul or Atman, which will live eternally. In this ignorance, weakness, fear and desire, man needs these two things to console himself. Hence he clings to them deeply and frantically.
The Buddha’s teaching does not support this ignorance, weakness, fear and desire, but aims at making man enlightened by removing and destroying them, striking their very root. According to Buddhism, our ideas of Soul and God are false and empty. Though highly developed as theories, they are all the same extremely subtle mental projections, grabbed in an intricate metaphysical and phraseology. These ideas are so deep rooted in man, and so dear and near to him, that he does not wish to hear, nor he want to understand, any teaching against them.
The Buddha knew this quite well. Infact he said that his teaching was ‘against the current’ (patisotagamini), against man’s selfish desires. Just four weeks after his Enlightenment, seated under banyan tree, he thought to himself: “I have realized this Truth which is against the current, which is lofty, deep, subtle and hard to comprehend.”
With this thoughts in his mind, the Buddha hesitated for a moment, whether it would not be in vain if tried to explain to the world the Truth he had just realized. Then he compared the world to a lotus pond: In a lotus pond, there are some lotuses still under water; there are others which have risen only up to the water level; there are still others which stand above water and untouched by it. In the same way, in this world, there are men at different levels of development. Some would understand the Truth. So the Buddha decided to teach it.
The doctrine of Anatta or No-Soul is the natural result of, or the corollary to, the analysis of the Five Aggregates and the teaching of Conditional Genesis (Paticca-samuppada)
In the discussion of the First Noble Truth (Dukkha), that what we call a being or an individual is composed of the Five Aggregates, and that when these are analysed and examined, there is nothing behind them which can be taken as ‘I’, ‘Self’, or ‘Atman’ or any unchanging abiding substance. That is the analytical method. The same result is at through the doctrine of Conditional Genesis which is the synthetically method, and according to this nothing in the world is absolute. Everything is conditioned, relative, and interdependent. This is the Buddhist theory of relativity.
Before we go into the question of Anatta proper, it is useful to have a brief idea of the Conditional Genesis. The principle of this doctrine is given in a short formula of four lines:
When this is, that is (Imasmim sati, idam hoti);
On this principle of conditionality, relativity and interdependence, the whole existence and continuity of life and its cessation are explained in a detailed formula which is called, Paticca-samuppada ‘Conditional Genesis’, consisting of twelve factors:
1. Through ignorance are conditioned volitional actions or karma-formations (Avijjapaccaya sankhara)
This is how life arises, exists and continues. If we take this formula in its reverse order, we come to the cessation of the process:
Through the complete cessation of ignorance, volitional activities or karma formations cease; through the cessation of volitional activities, consciousness ceases;… through the cessation of birth, decay, death, sorrow, etc., cease.
It should be clearly remembered that each of these factors is conditioned (Paticca-samuppanna) as well as conditioning (Paticca-samuppada). Therefore they are all relative, interdependent and anterconnected, and nothing is absolute or independent; hence no first cause is accepted by Buddhism as we seen earlier. Conditional Genesis should be considered as a circle, and not as a chain.
According to the doctrine of Conditioned Genesis, as well as according to the analysis of being into Five Aggregates, the idea of an abiding, immortal substance in man or outside, whether it is called Atman, ‘I’, Soul, Self or Ego, is considered only a false belief, a mental projection. This is the Buddhist doctrine of Anatta, No-Soul or No-Self.
In order to avoid a confusion it should be mentioned here that there are two kinds of truths: conventional truth (sammuti-sacca, Skt. samvrti-satya) and ultimate truth (paramattha-sacca, Skt. Paramartha-satya). When we use such expressions in our daily life as ‘I’, ‘You’, ‘being’, ‘individual’, etc., we do not lie because there is no self or being of such, but we speak a truth conforming to the convention of the world. But ultimate truth is that there is no ‘I’ or ‘being’ in reality.
In the Alagaddupama-sutta, of Majjima-Nikaya , addressing his discipals, the Buddha said: ‘O bhikkhus, accept the soul theory (Attavada) in the acceptance of which there would not arise grief, lamentation, suffering, distress and tribulation’. But do you see, O bhikkhus, such a soul theory in the acceptance of which there would not arise grief, lamentation, suffering, distress and tribulation?’
‘Certainly not Sir’
‘Good, O bhikkhus. I too do not see a soul theory, in the acceptance of which there would not arise grief, lamentation, suffering, distress and tribulation’
Continuing the discourse the Buddha said in the same sutta:
Here Buddha explicitly states that an Atman or Soul, or Self, is nowhere to be found in reality, and it is foolish to believe that there is such a thing.
The Buddha’s teaching on Anatta, No-Soul, or No-Self, should not be considered as a negative or annihilistic. Like Nibbana, it's Truth, Reality; and Reality can not be negative. It is the false belief in a non-existing imaginary self that is negative. The teaching of Anatta dispels the darkness of false beliefs, and produces the light of wisdom.