Buddhism and the ethics of anatta (no-self), part 1

Image for post
Image for post

“Thus, monks, any body whatsoever that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every body is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am” (Samyutta Nikaya XXII.59).

SN 1.20:
“One who conceives ‘I am equal, better, or worse,’
Might on that account engage in disputes.
But one not shaken in the three discriminations
Does not think, ‘I am equal or better.’”

One of the doctrines of Buddhism that I find most fascinating is its repudiation of the concept of the self, through the term “anatta,” meaning “no-self.” Belief in such a self, Buddhists argue, necessarily produces suffering because it generates the illusion of an agent that has certain attachments that are unnecessary and harmful. It therefore follows that practices and tendencies which contribute to this tendency, ought to be eradicated through the proper spiritual disciplines.

One particular influential account of the history of the doctrine in Buddhist thought is the monk Nagasena’s explanation to King Milinda that there is no particular component to which he can point with respect to his chariot which he can define as the essence of the chariot. Using this logic of himself, he insists that his name is “but a way of counting, a term, an appellation, a convenient designation, a mere name, this Nagasena; for there is no self here to be found.”

Indeed, from a more Heraclitean perspective, one could point out that the chariot is in a state of constant flux, so even when it comes to its individual components, we cannot say that the wheel or any of its other parts constitute an enduring entity. The same is true of the concept of “self” in relation to the human body and mind. Although we can point to experience, we can never definitively prove that these experiences belong to an experiencer which subtends them.

Nevertheless, some Buddhists have insisted, such as Thanissaro, that the Buddha’s anti-personalist rhetoric is best understood as a pragmatic strategy whose purpose is to keep us from becoming attached to the idea of a self, since this would produce attachment, and therefore, suffering. Although it is clear that the Buddha intends to repudiate the notion of a self that can be implicated in the phenomenal realm, some Buddhists deny that the Buddhist intended to totally repudiate the possibility of a self.

“instead of answering “no” to the question of whether or not there is a self — interconnected or separate, eternal or not — the Buddha felt that the question was misguided to begin with. Why? No matter how you define the line between “self” and “other,” the notion of self involves an element of self-identification and clinging, and thus suffering and stress.”

In the Buddhist scriptures, Vacchagotta asks the Buddha if there is such a thing as the self, and the Buddha declines to provide any answer. Puzzled, his student Ananda asks the Buddha why he did this. The Buddha responded:

“Ananda, if I, being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self, were to answer that there is a self, that would be conforming with those priests and contemplatives who are exponents of eternalism. If I, being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self, were to answer that there is no self, that would be conforming with those priests and contemplatives who are exponents of annihilationism. And if I, being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self, were to answer that there is no self, the bewildered Vacchagotta would become even more bewildered: ‘Does the self I used to have now not exist?’”

From the Buddhist Book of Analysis:

“Therein what is ‘pride of birth? Depending on birth (there is) pride, being proud, state of being proud, conceit, being conceited, state of being conceited, loftiness, haughtiness, flaunting a flag, assumption, desire of consciousness for a banner. This is called pride of birth.”

Under the category “pride of clan” we see:

Pride depending upon:

  • health
  • youth
  • life
  • gain
  • being honored
  • on being respected
  • on prominence
  • on having adherents
  • wealth
  • intelligence
  • being a knowledgeable authority
  • on being an alms-collector
  • on erudition
  • on posture
  • on popularity
  • on jhana
  • on not being despised
  • on accomplishment
  • on being moral
  • dexterity
  • being tall
  • bodily proportion
  • form

The Niddesa of the Khuddaka Nikāya arranges the mental factor of conceit (māna) into ten classificatory schemes, in ascending order from the onefold conceit to the tenfold conceit:

“The onefold conceit is the mind’s state of being puffed up.

The twofold conceit is conceit consisting in praise of oneself and disparagement of others.

The threefold conceit is the conceit “I am superior,” the conceit “I am equal,” and the conceit “I am inferior.”

The fourfold conceit is conceit generated by gains, generated by fame, generated by praise, and generated by pleasure.

The fivefold conceit is: the conceit generated [by the thought] “I am one who obtains pleasing visual forms,” … “I am one who obtains pleasing sounds,” … “I am one who obtains pleasing odours,” … “I am one who obtains pleasing tastes,” … “I am one who obtains pleasing tactables.”

The sixfold conceit is the conceit generated by the effective functioning of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind.

The sevenfold conceit is: conceit (māna), excessive conceit (atimāna), inordinate conceit (mānātimāna), self-disrespect conceit (omāna), over-estimating conceit (adhimāna), the ‘I am’ conceit (asmimāna), and false conceit (micchāmāna).

The eightfold conceit is conceit generated by gains, self-disrespect conceit generated by losses, conceit generated by fame, self-disrespect conceit generated by ill repute, conceit generated by praise, self-disrespect conceit generated by blame, conceit generated by pleasure, and self-disrespect conceit generated by pain.

The ninefold conceit is: (1) the conceit of a superior person who thinks “I am superior,” (2) the conceit of a superior person who thinks “I am equal,” (3) the conceit of a superior person who thinks “I am inferior,” (4) the conceit of an equal person who thinks “I am superior,” (5) the conceit of an equal person who thinks “I am equal,” (6) the conceit of an equal person who thinks “I am inferior,” (7) the conceit of an inferior person who thinks “I am superior,” (8) the conceit of an inferior person who thinks “I am equal,” (9) the conceit of an inferior person who thinks “I am inferior.”

The tenfold conceit is conceit generated in a person on account of his birth, or clan, or family, or physical beauty, or wealth, or education, or occupation, or artistry, or knowledge, or learning, or eloquence, or whatever else may be a basis for conceit.

That which is of this type: conceit, being conceited, the state of being conceited, being puffed up, haughtiness, (flying a) flag, assumption, the mind’s longing [to wave] a banner. This is called “conceit”.”

— Mahāniddesa (Nidd. i. 80)

Written by

Experienced psychology writer and practitioner of psi abilities. Looking forward to contributing to a worldwide awakening to the reality of psi phenomena.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store