Illusions about the “self”

Kenneth Leong
4 min readJan 24, 2021

Most people are still very resistant to Buddha’s teaching of no-self. I think it may be helpful to elucidate on the meaning of Anatta by going through several very common illusions/misconceptions:

1. The illusion of ownership — It is common for us to say “my hand”, “my heart,” “my brain,” “my hormones,” “my consciousness,” etc. This is assuming that there is a separate entity called “me” who is the owner of these things. But such an owner is nowhere to be found. It is definitely not a scientific fact.

2. The illusion of control — Another very common illusion. It is common for people to say “I am not myself.” Perhaps the person is under the influence of alcohol or other substances. It is also common to explain teenage behavior by attributing the risky behaviors of teens to the surge of hormones. If someone is afflicted with cancer where the cancerous cells are multiplying out of control, the person may also say that such cancerous cells are not himself or herself, because such cells are out of his/her conscious control. But why are the cancerous cells not of oneself? They certainly originate from one’s own body. The boundary between self and not-self seems very artificial and arbitrary here.

3. The illusion of free will and originality — It is commonly recognized that the great men are products of their times. Newton is a product of his time. Newton did recognize that he could accomplish what he accomplished because he stood on the shoulders of giants. Einstein is a product of his time. Darwin is a product of his time. The same can also be said about Jesus and Buddha. They are all products of their immediate social environment and culture. In addition, all the main religions of the world borrow ideas from the neighboring cultures and religions. They are all syncretic in nature. No religion comes into existence like a monkey bursts out of an isolated stone. This is just a historical fact. When we say that we are forced to do things against our will, we are basically assuming that there is a self that has its own will, independent of its social environment and social conditioning. If we properly understand Buddha’s teaching of Anatta, we will recognize that free will and originality is a myth, because there is no entity that is independent of the rest. This is a point that many Buddhists, including many prominent Buddhist…

Kenneth Leong

Author, Zen teacher, scientific mystic, professor, photographer, philosopher, social commentator, socially engaged human