[Summary: Blog on the teaching of non-self. ‘Anatta’ is often misunderstood, muchly due to the poor translation into ‘non-self’.]
Non-self is an awkward concept in Buddhism. The English translation gets wrapped up with a Freudian outlook of ego, and hints at trying to be without ego. To be fair to Freud, what we consider to be ego – self-aggrandisement, pride, superiority etc. – is not at all what Freud was talking about. He said the ego should be developed as a balance to the id and the super-ego, but that is another story.
Non-self is anatta in the Pali and it has a specific meaning and usage that does not mean trying to be ‘ego-less’ or ‘selfless’, both of which are occasional translations of the term. This is a key point to understand in Buddhism, as many people interpret the teaching as some kind of character assassination that completes itself in a ‘selfless’ ego.
The teaching of anatta is not trying to quench, remove or transcend the self – but that there was no self there to begin with.
Anatta – atman
The word ‘self’ in English is not a correct translation of atta, atman or in the negative form anatta. In Buddhism you do have a self. You have a character, and a responsibility to your behaviour and karma. You have characteristics that should be developed. In fact the word ‘Bhavana’ that is usually translated as ‘meditation’ actually means ‘development’. This ‘self’ is real and changes with time; developing in a good or bad direction. There are endless teachings that call on the monks to develop their characters in a meritorious way.
The non-self teaching refers to the idea of a permanent, abiding atman, which is a central ‘soul’ of sorts that does not alter and moves on from life to life. Such an Atman would not change, but is covered by karma. The sages and sammanas of India had inherited the idea of the Atman from their Ariyan past, and Gotoma, as others of the time, spent their meditative lives in search of it.
The story goes a little further though. The Buddha did not specifically teach that there is no Atman. He taught that there is no atman in the eye, in sight, or in eye consciousness. The atman is not to be found in the ear, in sounds or hearing consciousness etc.. for the other 4 senses. Alternatively he taught there is no atman to be found in consciousness, in perception, in feeling, in mind states or in physical form (Five Khandhas, or Aggregates)
To summarise: the six senses and/or the five khandhas are given the adjective of ‘anatta’. Anatta is just an adjective describing the senses or khandhas. The teaching does not say if there is an atman elsewhere – in fact the question is kind of avoided as being misleading. When Gotama attained to Nibbana, he did not annouce he had discovered the Atman, but declared
“I have found the Deathless [Amata]”
For the purpose of this blog, it should be clear that one does have a character, a self. And it should be developed in a wholesome way. Furthermore, you should reflect on the good that you have done. This is counter to the Christian emphasis of avoiding the Deadly Sin of Pride. Developing your good qualities, morality, and good deeds is a worthy endeavour and is not incongruous to the teaching of non-self. After all, the atman, in the Theravada teaching, was never there in the first place.