This teaching is often called no-self, however not-self may be more accurate as it is not an ontological statement but a way of training to see the world in a new way.
‘To avoid the suffering implicit in questions of “self” and “other,” he offered an alternative way of dividing up experience: the four Noble Truths of stress, its cause, its cessation, and the path to its cessation. Rather than viewing these truths as pertaining to self or other, he said, one should recognize them simply for what they are, in and of themselves, as they are directly experienced, and then perform the duty appropriate to each. Stress should be comprehended, its cause abandoned, its cessation realized, and the path to its cessation developed. These duties form the context in which the anatta doctrine is best understood. If you develop the path of virtue, concentration, and discernment to a state of calm well-being and use that calm state to look at experience in terms of the Noble Truths, the questions that occur to the mind are not “Is there a self? What is my self?” but rather “Am I suffering stress because I’m holding onto this particular phenomenon? Is it really me, myself, or mine? If it’s stressful but not really me or mine, why hold on?” These last questions merit straightforward answers, as they then help you to comprehend stress and to chip away at the attachment and clinging — the residual sense of self-identification — that cause it, until ultimately all traces of self-identification are gone and all that’s left is limitless freedom.’ 1
“feeling is not self…
“perception is not self…
“formations are not self…
“consciousness is not self… 2
Buddha saw that humanity viewed reality in a delusional state. We believe there is an underlying essence, or soul within us. He is saying here that no such self exists in any of the skandhas (constituents of mental and physical being).
“Monks, if the body were self, the core of our being, then it would not tend to affliction or distress, and one should be able to say of it, ‘Let my body be thus (in the best of conditions); let my body not be thus (in a bad condition).’ It should be possible to influence the body in this manner.” 2
The bodily processes are conditioned by our physiology, and not ourselves. Because we lack control over the body it can inflict suffering on us against our will in the form of old age sickness and death. Can something we have very little control over be considered me, mine or myself?
“how do you conceive of this bikkhus, is material form permanent or impermanent?”
“but is what is impermanent pleasant or unpleasant?”
“but is it fitting to regard what is impermanent, unpleasant and subject to change as: ‘this is mine, this is what I am, this is myself?”
“therefore, bhikkhus, any material form whatsoever, whether past, future or present, in oneself or external, coarse or fine, inferior or superior, far or near, should be regarded as it is, by right understanding thus: ‘this is not mine, this is not what I am, this is not myself” 2
(These same statements are applied to the other aggregates)
“seeing thus, bhikkhus, a wise noble disciple becomes dispassionate towards material form, becomes dispassionate towards feeling, becomes dispassionate towards perception, becomes dispassionate towards formations, becomes dispassionate towards consciousness. Becoming dispassionate his lust fades away; with the fading of lust his heart is liberated; when liberated, there comes the knowledge: ‘It is liberated.’ He understands: ‘Birth is exhausted, the holy life has been lived out, what was to be done is done, there is no more of this to come’ 2
So what implications does this teaching have?
I’d like to explore a sepcific kind of self clinging here which is:
‘Kāraka attā (“active agent self”) clinging: belief that there is a living entity, a soul, that effects every action, physical, vocal and mental.’ 2
In Buddhism we are taught everything arises in dependence on conditions (Pratītyasamutpāda) This means that the state of the universe as it exists in this moment is the only state that could exist given the current conditions. However, free will works on the basis of a free autonomous agent, or self influencing/conditioning reality. Without self, there is only physical, biological and psychological processes effecting reality. No-one, no-selves are controlling anything.
This leaves little room for the notions of good and evil. How can someone be responsible for an act that was totally conditioned by aggregates they have no autonomy over?
With the release of notions like evil we can look upon even the most apparently evil beings with compassion and patience.
‘In a famous Buddhist tale, told in many versions, a man piloting his boat over a foggy lake is furious when another boat bumps into his. It keeps happening; his rage at the other navigator grows. Then the fog clears: the boat was empty. His anger evaporates. Well, according to the doctrine of emptiness, the boat is always empty – even if there’s someone in it. After all, boatmen are just collections of phenomena, too.’4
What would an integration of the not-self teaching feel like?
“In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bahiya, there is no you in terms of that. When there is no you in terms of that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of dissatisfaction (dukkha).”3
1. “No-self or Not-self?”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 24 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/notself2.html
2. Pali cannon, Vin. Mv. 1:6;cf. S. 22:59
3. Bahiya Sutta