Many Buddhists are not familiar with Buddha’s teaching of Anatta. To them, it is an abstruse concept that is not important to Buddhist practice. This is a gross misunderstanding. Anatta is the key to decode the deep meaning of what the Buddha taught. It is also the key to enlightenment.
There is a Zen anecdote, which is also a Zen koan, that is worth pondering. It is from the Blue Cliff records:
Emperor Wu of Liang asked Great Master Bodhidharma, “What is the ultimate meaning of the holy truth?”
Bodhidharma said, “Vast and void, no holiness.”
The emperor asked again, ”Who is the one facing the emperor?”
Bodhidharma said, “Don’t know.”
The emperor did not understand. Finally, Bodhidharma crossed the Yangtze River.
What this story tries to expound is the Mahayanist philosophy of “Emptiness.” In this context, Emptiness is not the same as nothingness in the common sense of the word. It means everything is lacking immutable essence. In philosophy, “essence” is defined as “the property or set of properties that make an entity or substance what it fundamentally is, and which it has by necessity, and without which it loses its identity.”
“Emptiness” is Mahayana Buddhism’s equivalent of Theravada Buddhism’s concept of Anatta (no-self). It means that everything lacks self-nature or selfhood. We can illustrate this concept of emptiness with a few examples. Take an ordinary object like a chair. What is the essence, call it “chairness,” that makes a chair a chair? If we change the color of a chair, would it remain to be a chair? What if we add padding to the seat, or remove the padding from the seat? Will it change its chairness? What if we replace one of its legs with a new leg? What if we cut off one of the legs? Will it still be a chair? What do we have to do to the chair so that it will no longer be considered a chair? Perhaps even if we burn the chair into ashes, some people will still consider it a chair. It is only that the chair is transformed into various forms.
Let’s consider another object, say, a bus. A bus may become too old to be functional. Perhaps it is discarded and some poor family uses it as their residence. Now, shall we still call it a “bus”? Or shall we call it a house or home? We can also do a thought experiment on a cup. Perhaps I have decided that I don’t want to use an old cup as a drinking utensil anymore. I put soil in it and make it into a planting pot. I grow flowers with it. Is it now a cup or a planting pot? What happened to its “cupness”?
The same analysis can be applied to any object. The key is to understand that the notion of a self, a chair, a chariot, a university, a corporation, a country, etc. are just imagined things. They are useful fictions, borrowing the term coined by historian Yuval Harari in his book, Sapiens. These things exist in name only.
Let’s examine the useful fiction aspect and the nominal aspect of things. Take Harvard University. Harvard could move from the East coast to the West coast, it can have its faculty and student body completely changed over. It can even have its institutional mission changed. Still, it will be called “Harvard.” Thus, Harvard exists primarily in our imagination, through our social consensus that it exists. It is a social construct. Thus, Harvard exists due to the idea of Harvard, not its substance. It exists in our shared imagination.
Can we say the same about individuals? Who is Ken? He could age from 3 to 30 to 60. So many things have changed. Many of the cells in his body have completely changed over. His ideas, knowledge, values, and preferences can be completely changed in a day, a month, a year, or a decade. Yet, our idea about Ken does not change. And the courts would still recognize “Ken” as a legal person who owns certain properties or owes a certain debt. Thus, “Ken” exists in the public’s shared imagination. What remains unchanged? Perhaps just the public’s idea of “Ken”? Perhaps Ken’s own intuition that he remains the same person from childhood to middle age to his senior years. But the feeling that something is unchanged is just an illusion. In reality, many things have changed. All objects and phenomena are constantly changing.
The Tao Te Ching says, “The Tao that can be stated is not the eternal Tao; the name that can be named is not the forever Name.” We can say the same about anything. The phenomenal world is always in flux. So, whatever names that we use to name things are, by nature, fake names. They are social conventions, created to serve certain practical purposes. There is no identity in substance.
Buddha said that a being or self is just an aggregate of factors. A human being, for example, is composed of the Five Aggregates according to Buddhist psychology. There is no permanence since the factors are always changing. What remains unchanged is just our idea of things, which is an abstraction and an imagination.
This is how we can understand ourselves. Many people are interested in the afterlife. Many Buddhists and Hindus believe in the reincarnation of the soul. But our selves are, in a true sense, ghosts and shadows, even while we are still living. So why worry about what happens after death? The self remains a fiction, in life and in death. We worry about what will happen to ourselves after we die because we have this illusion that there is really an unchanging entity called “self” or “soul.” But Buddhist philosophy shows us that the “self” cannot be established upon scrutiny. Essentially, we worry for nothing.
“Who am I?” is a classic Zen koan. It is a question that cannot be answered because personal identity is a fiction. Bodhidharma’s answer is “Don’t know.” It is a good answer. It is also an honest one. In a sense, our “self” exists in the same way that unicorns exist. They are products of our imagination.