There is no me. There is no you. There are no them.
During his second sermon, after being enlightened, the Buddha gave his discourse on An-Atta or the Not-Self, and he instantly liberated the monks in attendance at that time. The Buddha does not explicitly say that there is no self in his explanation but that is how the followers broadly interpret it, and of course, there are alternative interpretations.
The concept of not-self is something that I’ve just learned in my recently completed course on Buddhism and Modern Psychology, taught by the world-renowned thinker, author and teacher Robert Wright. It’s an extremely tricky concept to understand. I think there is the same person inside me since I was a little girl.
To start with some background, Prince Siddhartha, after being disillusioned with his world, left his palace to find the absolute truth. He practised hard penance, like surviving on a single grain of rice, which almost killed him but the truth remained elusive. He told his five friends who were practising with him that this is not the way and he started preparing his body for deep meditation. His monk friends were distraught to see this, and so they left him and went to a place now called Sarnath. Siddhartha, determined to find the truth, meditated without getting up from under a Banyan tree. He finally found the truth and became ‘the Enlightened One’ or the Buddha. He tried to impart his knowledge to ordinary people but they could not understand him; they even laughed at him. He had to find his five friends again who had the mental ability to grasp this knowledge. And so he travelled to Sarnath, and that is where he gave his first sermon.
In his first sermon, the Buddha gave the four noble truths, which roughly are-
–Life is Dukkha … sorrow, grief, difficulties
-Dukhas are the results of cravings or clinging to material things and emotions.
-Giving up on cravings and clinging will help us to overcome our dukhas.
-Follow the eightfold path to find Nirvana.
And so we come to the second sermon and the discourse on Not-Self.
The Buddha said that ‘the Self’ must have two qualities to be in charge. It must always be in control, and it must have permanence. He gave five aggregates which together constitute everything that can be there to a human being. He pointed out that since all these aggregates are impermanent and not at all in control, the self cannot reside in any of them. And so we conclude that there is no self.
The five aggregates are-
- Form or the human body
- Feelings – pleasant, unpleasant
- Mental Formations which include emotions, volition, desires etc
For each one of these aggregates, the Buddha said-
This is not mine
This I am not
This is not myself”.
He asked if it is possible for one to say that may his body be like this or that or may his feelings be only happy.
One would say that consciousness is the strongest contender for the claim to be the self but even that is not immune to impermanence. A good orator can change the thought process of a vast number of people with one compelling speech.
It is said that this knowledge cannot be taught and it is impossible to understand, and the only way to comprehend it is to experience it. Those who meditate seriously vouch for this fact. During meditation, they say, the boundaries of their bodies and the space surrounding them are not so clearly marked. There is emptiness, and so there is nothing to merge with, but also they are present in everything. They think that if more and more people meditate, there will be no war because how can you cut your own hand?
There is a lot of support for the concept of Not-Self in the modern psychology. In 2013, Douglas Kendrick introduced a modular model of mind in a book called The Rational Animal. According to this book, there are seven modules of our mind which influence us all the time. All the seven modules are equally influential, and they constantly compete with each other to take control of our mind. Which module gets to control us depends upon the stimuli that we receive from our environment or our own body. For example, if there is a life-threatening situation, the self-protection module takes over. Does that mean that there is no entity in charge of our mind or body?
Willem Kuyken, the professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford, thinks that the Buddha, Siddhartha, was a scientist, psychologist, genius, reformer and a social activist. He studied and understood the human mind 2500 year before anyone even thought about doing so.
The Buddha wanted to end the suffering of his friends and the people at large. If he could convince them that there is no self inside them, the clinging and cravings would become meaningless; which in turn would lead to liberation from dukkha.