Understanding Anatta through Theoretical Physics

Kenneth Leong
4 min readNov 1, 2023

Buddhist writer, Barbara O’Brien, introduced the Buddhist concept of Anatman (or Anatta in Pali) this way:

The doctrine of anatman (Sanskrit; anatta in Pali) is the core teaching of Buddhism. According to this doctrine, there is no “self” in the sense of a permanent, integral, autonomous being within an individual existence. What we think of as our self, the “me” that inhabits our body, is just an ephemeral experience.

I have read many articles on Anatta. What I find interesting is the tendency of authors to introduce this concept through the time dimension, by emphasizing the impermanence of things. Of course, nothing stays the same over time. Not our bodies. Not our way of thinking. Not our preferences. Not our country. Not our sense of morality. Not even our Constitution.

The Law of Impermanence applies equally to everything we cherish — our loved ones, our religion, our high ideals, and everything we hold sacred. Buddhism, for example, does not stay the same through time and space. As Buddhism travels to different countries and different geographical locations, it also changes. There is a big difference between Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism. There is also a big difference between Chinese Mahayana Buddhism and Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism. They are very different teachings. Yet, they are all considered “Buddhism.”

Theravada Buddhism has the notion of Three Marks of Existence, which is based on the Dhammapada(verses 277–279). The Three Marks are: (1) Impermanence (aniccā), (2) No-self (anattā), and (3) Unsatisfactoriness (dukkhā). If Anatta simply means that all things are impermanent, then why did Buddha have to use a different term? He could have just stuck with the law of impermanence.

It is therefore incorrect to conflate the concept of Anatta with impermanence. The teaching of Anatta has two dimensions–one temporal and another one non-temporal. In the time dimension, we can say that each of us is a process. Our nominal selves are always in flux. However, the non-temporal dimension is the core meaning of Anatta. It means there is no independent existence. Theoretical physicist, Carlo Rovelli, published a book titled “Reality is Not What It Seems.” In an interview with Krista Tippett on the program “On Being,” Carlo Rovelli…

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Kenneth Leong

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