You are on page 1of 12

IGNORE SELF-ENTITY: CULTIVATE THE MIND

A. BARUA, M.A. BASILIO

Buddhist Door, Tung Lin Kok Yuen, Hong Kong

Hong Kong, 2009

Communication Address of Corresponding Author:

Dr. ANKUR BARUA

Block – EE, No.-80, Flat No.-2A,

Salt Lake City, Sector-2,

Kolkata - 700091, West Bengal, INDIA.

Email: ankurbarua26@yahoo.com

Mobile: +91-9434485543 (India), +852-96195078 (Hong Kong)


IGNORE SELF-ENTITY: CULTIVATE THE MIND

Abstract

Buddhism is the only world religion which does not recognize nor non-

recognize the presence of any soul or self-entity. Whether a soul or a self-

entity is present or absent was never answered by the Buddha. These

questions are categorized as unanswered questions in Buddhism which the

Buddha had insisted to be put aside (thapaniya) as they always lead to

suffering and never address the issue of cessation of suffering. The Anatta

teaching in Buddhism is not a doctrine of no-self, but a not-self strategy for

shedding suffering by letting go of its cause that leads to the highest level of

unlimited happiness. Without viewing anything as pertaining to “self” or

“other”, we should recognize each phenomenon simply for what it is, as it is

directly experienced and then perform the duty appropriate for it.

Key words: Self, Entity, Soul, Cultivation, Mind, Four Noble Truths.

2
IGNORE SELF-ENTITY: CULTIVATE THE MIND

Introduction

A unique feature of Buddhist teachings is the emphasis on Anatta, which is

often translated as no-self. Buddhism is the only world religion which does

not recognize nor non-recognize the presence of any soul or self-entity. 1,2 In

fact, Buddhism holds a neutral position in this context. Many modern

scholars misinterpret the teachings of the Buddha and believe that Buddhism

does not believe in soul or self-entity. But the fact is that, whether a soul or a

self-entity is present or absent was never answered by the Buddha. These

questions are categorized as unanswered questions in Buddhism which the

Buddha had insisted to be put aside (thapaniya) as they always lead to

suffering and never address the issue of cessation of suffering. 1,2,3 Thus, the

Buddhist philosophy is similar to modern science where the scientists also

hold a neutral position in this aspect as no one has ever discovered a soul or

a self-entity till date.4

The word “self” is a misnomer in Buddhism

Buddhism trains us not to identify ourselves with the soul or self-entity as

these would lead to ego problems and discrimination in our minds. But it

never regards or disregards the presence or absence of soul or self-entity.

3
This creates confusion in the minds of the religious practitioners belonging to

other religious backgrounds. This concept does not fit well with the Judeo-

Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Jain background which assumes the existence

of an eternal soul or self as a basic presupposition. There is often an

argument on the issue that if there is no-self then what is transmitted from

one life to the other. If there is no soul or self-entity then what is the purpose

of a spiritual life. Also, the idea of there being no-self does not fit well with

other Buddhist teachings such as the doctrine of Karma and Rebirth. If there

is no self then what experiences the results of Karma and takes rebirth is a

debatable issue.1,2,4

While understanding the background why the Buddha had observed silence

to address this issue, we must remember that Buddhism never interfered

with existing local socio-cultural practices and laws of the country. Wherever

Buddhism had spread, it had recognized and incorporated the existing socio-

cultural practices of the community and modified its own rules and

regulations accordingly. This is an important reason why Buddhism has

become a world religion without inflicting any harm or exerting any force on

anyone. As the concepts of soul and self-entity were deep-rooted in Indian

culture and society since ancient times and the fundamental block for

existing Brahmanism, Buddhism did not want to go for an outright clash on

this issue and disturb the peace and harmony of the society. Buddhism had

4
assumed a neutral position and never supported or disregarded the ancient

Indian beliefs of soul and self-entity.4,5

5
The Concept of No-Self (Anatta) in Buddhism

If we explore the Pali Canon, the earliest extant record of the Buddha's

teachings, we find that the Buddha had never addressed the issues related

to soul or self-entity. In fact, when the Buddha was asked whether or not

there was a soul or self, he refused to answer. He urged that to hold either

that there is a self or that there is no self is to fall into extreme forms of

wrong view that make the path of Buddhist practice impossible (Samyutta

Nikaya XLIV.10). Thus, the question should be put aside (thapaniya) as these

types of questions do not lead to the end the suffering and stress.1,2,3

There are some basic ground rules for interpreting the Buddha's teachings.

The Buddha said that there are two types of people who misrepresented him.

The first category of people comprised of those who drew inferences from

statements that should not have inferences drawn from them. The second

category included those who did not draw inferences from those which

needed. But if we look at the way most scholars had addressed the Anatta

doctrine, we find these ground rules being ignored. Some of the scholars

tried to qualify the no-self interpretation by saying that the Buddha denied

the existence of an eternal self or a separate self. If we accept this view then

this means to give an analytical answer to a question that the Buddha

insisted to be put aside.1,2,3

6
Some other scholars however, tried to draw inferences from the few

statements in the discourse that implied that there is no-self. In this case,

they forced those statements to give an answer to a question that should be

put aside. Here, one was drawing inferences where it should not be drawn in

the first place. These were attempts to refer the teachings of the Buddha out

of context. We need to examine under what circumstances the Buddha gave

his discourses. Quoting the Buddha out of context in order to win an

argument is itself an example of our attachment of the minds to cling on to a

dogmatic view.1,2,3

Parable of the Poisoned Arrow3

It is against this background that we need to understand why Buddhism has

set aside (thapaniya) certain questions as undetermined (avyakata). Nothing

illustrates this situation better than the parable of the poisoned arrow

(sallupama). When the monk Malunkyaputta wanted to know from the

Buddha the answers to these ten questions, the Buddha told him that these

questions are “undetermined, set aside, and rejected” by the Blessed One.

The answers to these questions were not relevant to understanding the fact

of suffering and its elimination. It was as irrelevant as the need to know the

name of the person who shot the arrow in order to remove it from the body.

But here we should keep in mind that the parable of the poisoned arrow

implied indirectly that questions regarding who shot the arrow could be

7
answered, though they were irrelevant for the purpose of a cure. So, the

questions of soul and self-entity were not undetermined questions

(avyakata), but they were irrelevant and should be put aside (thapaniya) in

Buddhist perspective.

8
The Four Noble Truths1,2,4,5

Instead of answering “yes” or "no" to the question of whether or not there is

a soul or self-entity that is interconnected or separate, eternal or not, the

Buddha considered these questions as irrelevant and inappropriate. This is

because, no matter how we define "self" and "other," the notion of self

involves an element of self-identification and clinging and thus suffering and

stress. The notion of “self” is thus an attachment that leads to ego and thus

culminates in suffering.

If we identify ourselves with all of nature, then we feel pain by the death of

every creature or plant on earth. If we do not identify with anything at all in

nature, then it holds for an entirely "other" universe. In this case, the sense

of alienation would become so debilitating as to make the quest for

happiness, whether for one's own or that of other, as impossible. Considering

these reasons, the Buddha advised paying no attention to such questions as

"Do I exist?" or "Don't I exist?" for whatever manner we answer them; they

lead to suffering and stress. We must remember that the prime goal of

Buddhism is to end suffering for all sentient beings through the phenomenal

and mental cultivations.

To avoid the suffering implicit in questions of "self" and "other," the Buddha

had offered an alternative way of dividing up experience. This is through his

preaching of the Four Noble Truths that includes Dukkha our sufferings,

9
cause of suffering, its cessation, and the path to cessation of suffering.

Stress should be comprehended. Its cause should be abandoned. Its

cessation should be realized and the path to its cessation should be

developed. The main cause of our suffering is the attachment of our mind

either to material forms or dogmatic views. We need to shed these clinging

or attachments and keep our mind wide open all the time. Without viewing

anything as pertaining to “self” or “other”, we should recognize each

phenomenon simply for what it is, as it is directly experienced and then

perform the duty appropriate for it.

Conclusion

Through the cultivation of mind if we are able to comprehend the inner

meanings of the Four Noble Truths, then the common questions that earlier

occurred in our minds as "Is there a self? What is my self?" would cease to

occur. Instead, our mind would reframe these questions as "Am I suffering

stress because I'm holding onto this particular phenomenon? Is it really me,

myself, or mine? If it is stressful, but not really me or mine, then why should I

hold on?" This would help us in comprehending suffering and help us to

abandon our attachment and clinging with regard to the residual sense of

self-identification. This would finally lead to the limitless freedom until

ultimately all traces of self-identification are gone. In this context, we must

remember that the Anatta teaching in Buddhism is not a doctrine of no-self,

10
but a not-self strategy for shedding suffering by letting go of its cause that

leads to the highest level of unlimited happiness. Once there is an

experience of such total freedom, there would be no concern about who is

experiencing it or whether there is any self or not.1,2

References

1. Bhikkhu, T. 2009. Anatta: The Concept of No-self in Buddhism [serial

online]. [cited 2009 October 26]; [4 screens]. The Wanderling.

Available from: URL:

http://www.angelfire.com/electronic/awakening101/noself.html

2. V, Jayaram. 2009. The Buddhist Concept of Anatta or No-self (Anatma)

[serial online]. [cited 2009 October 31]; [2 screens]. Available from:

URL: http://www.hinduwebsite.com/buddhism/anatta.asp

3. Karunadasa, Y. 2008. The Unanswered Questions: Why were they left

unanswered? A New Interpretation based on a Re-examination of the Textual

Data. Hong Kong: The Centre of Buddhist Studies, the University of Hong

Kong.

4. Barua, A., Testerman, N., Basilio, M.A. 2009. Applied Buddhism the

Foundation of Our True Understanding. Hong Kong: Buddhist Door,

Tung Lin Kok Yuen & Unibook Publications.

11
5. Barua, D.K. 2005. Environment & Human Resources: Buddhist

Approaches. Applied Buddhism: Studies in the Gospel of Buddha from

Modern Perspectives. . Varanasi, India: Centre for Buddhist Studies,

Department of Pali & Buddhist Studies, Benaras Hindu University: 90-6.

12