What did Buddha mean when he said there is no self?

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One of the deepest teachings of the Buddha and one of the most misunderstood is the doctrine of no self (anatta). It has to be carefully interpreted. When interpreted incorrectly, it may lead to nihilism — the rejection of all moral principles and individual responsibilities. After all, if the self does not exist, then why should we care about anything? Yet, the proper understanding of anatta is an essential step towards enlightenment.

Two days ago, I had a video conference call with three senior Buddhists. The meeting was called to address the current Coronavirus crisis. We discussed how a Buddhist would respond to this once-in-a-lifetime event? Is there anything in Buddhist teaching that can shed light on this crisis? During the meeting, I made a presentation titled “Coronavirus and Dharma.” I thought it was a perfect time to deepen our understanding of Dependent Origination and introduce Ecodharma. In that presentation, the issue of individual karma versus collective karma came up. I quoted Jim Robbins, who wrote in the New York Times an article titled The Ecology of Disease back in 2002. He said:

Based on this understanding of the origin of the new diseases, the Coronavirus is likely also a result of what humans have done to nature. Robbins’ article also quoted Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist who said: “Any emerging disease in the last 30 or 40 years has come about as a result of encroachment into wild lands and changes in demography.” If this is true, then the Coronavirus is most likely a result of humanity’s collective action and the cumulative effect of our collective karma.

In original Buddhism and in Theravada, there is no mention of collective karma. Here, it helps to go back to Buddha’s definition of karma. Since Buddha taught a philosophy of no self, the notion of an “I” being the doer of actions is considered as an illusion. Walpola Rahula explained in his classic book, What the Buddha Taught:

The “I” is just a combination of the Five Aggregates. This is a very important concept in Buddhism. The Buddha did not talk about the person or the individual. In reference to dukkha(suffering, unsatisfaction), he referred only to the Five Aggregates. Walpola Rahula said that when it comes to understanding karma, we have to pay attention to the fourth aggregate, which is responsible for volition:

In Chinese Buddhist circles, the dharma teachers recognize two types of karma — individual karma and collective karma. Master Shengyen, for example, used this term when addressing the topic of “spiritual environmentalism.” I think it is helpful to distinguish between the two. Some things we do individually, other things we do collectively. Even though Buddha taught that there is no self, we may regard the existence of the “individual” as a kind of conventional and “convenient” truth, just as we recognize the conventional truth of the traffic lights — red means “stop,” green means “go.” Society needs conventions to maintain order. In the final analysis, however, the self is an illusion and a social construct. We have no independent existence from the rest of the world. Each of us is a product of our time and our environment. Where do we get our ideas, our tastes, our preferences, our lifestyles and our values from, if not from our cultural environment? As an author, I wonder how many of my ideas are truly original. If the self is a myth, then the notion of originality has to be also a myth.

Since Buddha originally defined karma in terms of the Five Aggregates, it would be fair to say that karma cannot really be called individual or collective. Karma is beyond individuality or collectivity. There is still a problem, however — how does individual responsibility come in? Doesn’t society’s well-being depend on individuals assuming responsibility for their actions? If there is no self, then does it mean that it is meaningless to talk about individual responsibility?

This is where we need to pay attention to semantics. What does Buddha mean when he said that there is no self? To put it simply, it means only that we don’t have independent existence. When we talk about a “self,” there is a hidden assumption that there is an entity that can exist and do things all by itself, independent of other people and objects. This is how the false sense of ego comes in. There is this feeling that “I” accomplished this and “I” own that. Buddha said that such an independent entity does not exist. This is just an extension his teaching of Dependent Origination — anything that arises depends on the existence of other things. Imagine the different organs and parts in our body. They exist in a interdependent relationship. Can you imagine that the brain entering into an argument with the heart, saying that it is the greatest organ in the body? But can the brain exist without the heart, or vice versa? The brain cannot survive without the heart. We can certainly analyze the body and divide it into different parts. But the truth is that the brain has no self. Its survival depends on the proper functioning of the heart and other bodily organs. It is only a part of the whole. It is the same as the case of nature’s ecosystem. Can humans survive without the existence of the other animals and plants? Albert Einstein worried about the extinction of the bees. Should the bees be gone, he said that the demise of humans would follow shortly. Humans, in this sense, have no self (i.e. no independent existence). The whole planet is an ecosystem.

Another way to understand Dependent Origination is to use Thich Naht Hanh’s notion of interbeing. In a talk titled Clouds in Each Paper, he said:

To say that there is no self is to say that we are all interbeings. We have to learn to see deeply. If we examine a leaf, we can get a feel of the state of the forest and even the state of the planet because everything is linked. Archaeologists can tell much about the state of a civilization thousands of years ago just by looking at the teeth and bones from the remains of earlier humans, again because everything is linked. I am a teacher who has taught for 15 years. When I look at a student closely, I can often see the influences of his parents, his local community, his ethnic group, his childhood, his upbringing, his previous teachers and his socioeconomic class. He is the way he is today due to these factors. He is the combined product of these influences. This too is Dependent Origination. It is very scientific.

Thus, to say that we have no selves is equivalent to saying that we live in an interconnected system and we are interbeings. Dependent Origination thinking is the same as systems thinking. Because we live in a system where we are all connected and dependent on other members of that system, we have to be very careful about what we do to the other members of the system. If we hurt others, we will probably end up hurting ourselves because we are linked. On the other hand, if we help others, we may reap certain benefits due to the interdependence. This is one basis for ethical behavior. Whatever we do within the system, there are ramifications and consequences.

Another aspect for the doctrine of no self has to do with the law of impermanence. The Buddhist notion of “emptiness” is partially based on the fact that everything is in flux. I find it useful to present this in terms of Process Philosophy. In our common sense understanding of the world, it seems that every thing is static and solid. But is this true? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes this philosophy as follows:

When we use the term “self,” there is an implicit assumption that this self has certain substance which does not change over time. Take, for example, an entity like Harvard University or a corporation. In a way, they are imaginary entities that exist in name only. Harvard University may move from the East Coast to the West Coast. Its faculty members may be totally turned over. Its physical facilities may be completely replaced with new ones. Still, it will be called “Harvard.” Harvard is, in this sense, just a name. Using Buddhist terminology, Harvard University is “empty”(of selfhood). But should Harvard University do something illegal, the university would be punished by the legal system. This is an example of an “empty” entity which nevertheless will reap karmic effects. In fact, it will be the same for a country, a corporation or any association. A country or a corporation is also “empty.” A country that invades another country will reap the karmic effects. There are real consequences.

In his book, Homo Deus, Yuval Harari, tells us about the importance of what he called “useful fictions.” According to him, the invention of useful fictions is crucial for our Cognitive Revolution. Fictitious entities seem unreal and unimportant. Yet, Harari told us that it is precisely these fictitious entities that give our species, the homo sapiens, an advantage of other animals:

To Harari, many entities we cherish are actually fictitious entities invented by humans. These include notions of God, money, countries, states and companies. Now, we can apply the same arguments to a person. The notion of “personhood” or “individual” belongs also to the category of useful fictions. We are identified by our names. Without names for people, society cannot function. We cannot enter agreements or make contracts. Yet, the contents of our bodies, such as our blood cells and the cells in our organs are continuously aging and replaced by new ones. Medical experts say that it will take four to eight weeks for our body to completely replace the red blood cells we donated should we donate blood. Our ideas, our understandings, our worldviews, our tastes and our values also change over time. A religious person may become an atheist or vice versa. A communist may become a capitalist or vice versa. Thus, everything about you or I changes over time. There is no real substance in this sense. Yet, we are still called by the same names. Thus, our persons too are empty shells, with ever-changing contents. The “I” today is different from the “I” tomorrow. It is also very different from the “I” thirty years ago. We are flux. Yet, each of us reaps the karmic effects of our actions.

Thus, the selves are “empty,” but the karmic effects are real. There is no contradiction between karma and emptiness.

In summary, anatta or no-self does not mean that we can act irresponsibly, without caring for consequences. If we pollute the environment or do harm to nature, we surely would reap the karmic effects. On the other hand, my actions don’t exist all by themselves — because I am an interbeing. “I” am influenced by my cultural and physical environment. Depending on what society I am living in, my behavior and lifestyle will differ accordingly.

This is why it is important to look at the collective aspect of karma. We are interbeings. Thus, to fight climate change and protect the planet requires collective action. It also requires a dramatic change in our collective consciousness. This is the bulk of what human society is — a collective consciousness, and a system full of social constructs and “useful fictions.” Time continues to change and our circumstances keep changing. Some of the useful fictions which used to serve our purpose may be outdated. They may become detrimental to our well-being. For example, the anthropocentric view — that man is the center of the universe and the boss of all living things — is probably responsible for much of the environmental destruction. Another of such “useful fiction” is the notion that man is at war with nature and the ideal is to dominate and conquer nature. East philosophy and Native American spirituality hold a very different view. In Taoism, for example, man is an integral part of nature and the goal is to learn from nature and live harmoniously with it. Such an alternative view is more environmentally-friendly and more conducive to sustainability. It is time that we change our stories and useful fictions. Instead of seeing nature as the enemy to conquer, we can see nature as the Mother. This takes a fundamental shift in our collective consciousness.

The proper handling of our current crisis requires a full recognition that we have no self, that we are interdependent, that we are interbeings. Right Livelihood(i.e. ethical economic life) is a key part of the Eightfold Path. But our practice of Right Livelihood must take into account the modern realities and our current state of knowledge, including scientific understanding. What is the essence of Right Livelihood? It is to live our economic lives in such a way that we minimize the harm we do to other beings and to the ecosystem. Livelihood should include not just how we make a living, but also how we eat, what we eat, how we commute and how we consume. There is a deep connection between the economy and ecology.

Clearly, due to urbanization and industrialization, those of us who in today’s capitalist and consumerist society will behave very differently compared to someone living in Buddha’s or Lao Tzu’s time. The ancients would have found it easier to live a simple and environmentally-friendly lifestyle. Individual economic behavior is heavily influenced by the larger social and cultural environment. Environmental problems are too big to be solved individually. The American highway system, for example, was built to maximize gasoline usage. If you live in the suburb, can you do away with driving? There has to be collective action because we are interbeings.

There has to be a social consciousness and such consciousness has to be integrated into our education system. In addition, we have to expand our practice of mindfulness. Are you aware of what kind of impact the way you eat, drink, commute and consume have on the environment? We must solve them together, as interbeings and a society. Yet, each of us has to do our individual parts — as teachers, parents, students, individual citizens and consumers. Let us remember that we are interbeings. Yuval Harari talked about the Cognitive Revoultion, which gave our ancestors an advantage. What we need now is a Consciousness Revolution, which has to be implemented both individually and collectively. Humanity’s survival depends on it.

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Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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