The teaching of anatta, or selflessness, is an essential expression of the Buddha’s understanding and realization. It is related to the notion of shunyata, “emptiness,” which points to the fact that all things lack independent existence. Applied to each individual, shunyata becomes anatta, meaning that there is no self or being that exists independent of conditions.
The concept of anatta is difficult to understand intellectually. Whereas suffering and impermanence are quite obvious, the meaning of selflessness does not immediately jump out at us. There is a paradoxical or koan-like quality to the concept. Furthermore, we have great resistance to the idea of selflessness, because our whole life has been built around a sense of self, a belief in I, me, mine. So anatta challenges both our common sense and our deepest attachment. It shakes us to the foundations of our being.
People often become confused about selflessness because they sense a continuity in their experience. But selflessness does not imply a lack of continuity. When we think of a seed becoming a sapling and then becoming a tree which bears fruit, we find a continuity in that process even though there is no single element which is carried through from the seed to the fruit. The seed does not move up through the trunk of the tree into the fruit. It’s a lawful process of becoming, but there is no single element or self carried through.
I think the key to understanding anatta is to view our lives from the perspective of both relative and absolute realities. On the level of relative truth we operate as distinct individuals, and our whole world of personal interactions happens from that perspective. The problem is that without understanding the absolute level of emptiness, we become identified with and attached to the concepts of relative truth, the notions of man, woman, person. As a result we suffer as conditions change; for instance, as we get sick, or age or begin to die. But if we can live in the relative world with the wisdom of the absolute, then our life is much more fluid and open. With the full understanding of anatta, there is no attachment in the mind, nothing is taken to be “self.” There is no longer any identification with what’s happening, and when there is no identification there is no suffering.
There are many skillful means for realizing anatta. Some practices use the world of relative truth—the concept of self and other—as a support for the understanding of emptiness. For example, all the practices of the brahma-viharas are relative practices because they deal with the notion of separate individuals. We send love and compassion to someone, or to all beings; we are in the relative world of individuals. But by cultivating those states of mind—of love, compassion, joy and equanimity—we create a mental environment which actually allows for an understanding of emptiness. These practices lead to a sense of spaciousness, acceptance, and non-separation.
The dharma unfolds in different ways for different people. Depending on our own particular predilections and developmental tendencies, each of us goes through the gateway of awakening either through the understanding of impermanence, of suffering, or of selflessness. Each of these basic truths—the Buddha’s three characteristics of existence—is connected to a particular faculty of mind. For example, having great faith is connected to the door of impermanence. If you go through the door of suffering, it’s the concentration factor that is strong in your mind. And if you go through the door of anatta, the wisdom factor is predominant. These are not prescriptions or hard and fast rules, and in the course of practicing we inevitably develop insight into all three characteristics; but, in general, we will have a greater depth of experience with one of them.
When we work with the characteristic of anatta, it is important for us to realize that the self is not something bad that we need to get rid of. As the Buddha pointed out, it was never there in the first place. What is essential is to see how the belief in self is continuously being created in different moments. The process becomes very clear in mindfulness meditation.
In meditation practice we notice that phenomena arise at all the sense doors, mind included. If we are mindful then there is no problem, because all things are understood as impermanent, arising out of conditions. When we are not mindful, however, we become identified with the different phenomena that arise. Sometimes we become identified with the objects that arise and sometimes with the knower or the knowing of them. It is that very moment of identification that creates the sense of “self.”
We can see the process most clearly by examining our thoughts, because the difference between being lost in a thought and being aware of a thought is quite dramatic. When we get lost in a thought, it is as if we have created a mind–world which we then inhabit for the duration of that thought–train. Throughout the day we create these mind–worlds and then proceed to believe in them completely, living according to their dictates. Yet from the perspective of awareness, these thoughts are only empty and insubstantial phenomena that appear and disappear in the mind. When we are mindful of them, they have no power at all. From this perspective, thoughts can be seen as an interesting and useful object of practice rather than as a hindrance or a problem. Practicing to be aware of thoughts without identifying with them is very liberating. It’s like freeing oneself from the grip of imaginary realities.
It is also common for people to get caught by identifying awareness as being “self.” One way to help correct this view is to put our descriptions of the experience of awareness into the passive voice. For instance, a thought is known, a sensation is felt. There is no one doing the knowing; no one doing the feeling.
The experience of anatta can have different flavors, one of which comes from the deconstruction of self. This process leads to the understanding that what we call “self” or “I” is simply the appearance of the five aggregates. As an analogy, if we see a rainbow we can realize that it’s just an appearance due to certain conditions of light and moisture. It does not exist independent of those conditions. We can look at all the constituent elements of what we call self in the same way.
Another flavor of anatta comes through the experience of impermanence, either on a microscopic or on a macroscopic level. When we think back to something that happened ten years ago, one year ago, or even ten minutes ago—where is it now? There is nothing to be found. We see the insubstantiality of phenomena and realize that nothing lasts long enough to be called a self. This experience of anatta has a different flavor than the one we get from deconstructing the mind-body processes.
Yet another flavor of anatta comes from the experience of things being ungovernable, or things happening by themselves, or due to causes. Phenomena are not subject to our will. We can’t say, “Body, don’t die.” We can’t say, “Everything stop.” Phenomena follow their own laws according to their own nature, and we can either be in accord with them or not. In either case, there is no self in charge of the world.
Often we have some deep understanding of selflessness that feels very liberating, but we should be careful not to miss the more subtle levels of self being created in our lives. It’s possible to coast on a certain depth of understanding and not see that ignorance is still operating in the mind. That’s why we need both ongoing practice and a continuous sense of investigation.
Last year when I was with Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, he talked a lot about pride and told his students to look carefully at that quality in the mind. I never thought that pride was one of my big defilements but, since he gave so much attention to it, I began to look closer. Now I see that many thoughts originate from pride—not necessarily pride in the sense of being better than somebody else, but pride in the sense of building up and holding onto a separate existence. So many of our thoughts are in some way self-referential: little blips of self appearing through the day. I was extremely grateful for the instruction which pointed that out to me. It also demonstrates that even when we have some understanding of selflessness or emptiness, the conditioned patterns of self go very deep. And it’s important to look closely, because belief in self is what keeps us in bondage to samsara.