What does anatta mean

Buddhism - a religion without a soul?

Anatta The German Buddhist monk and scholar Nyanatiloka translated this word from the ancient Indian Pali language in his Buddhist Dictionary as Not-self or Not me. (1) The doctrine of Anatta was, Nyanatiloka emphasized there, “the core teaching of all Buddhism, without whose understanding a real knowledge of Buddhism is absolutely impossible”. It is "the only really specific Buddhist teaching with which the whole body of teaching stands or falls". According to Nyanatiloka, this extremely important Buddhist teaching of Anatta states “that there is nothing, either inside or outside the physical phenomena, that can be described in the highest sense as an independent self-being or personality”. If one follows this explanation, then the idea arises that Buddhism is a religion (if one can still call it such a religion) without a soul.

If you do not limit yourself to Nyanatiloka's answer to this question, but continue researching the extremely extensive Buddhist literature on this, you will come across a multitude of other, sometimes very different, even contradicting answers. In order to find your own answer, it seems advisable to proceed less from the later commentary literature of individual Buddhist schools and more from the origin, and these are the statements of the Buddha as they are passed down in the Pali scriptures.

If the Buddha himself, as in the Lexicon of the Eastern Wisdom Teachings it is stated that “never took a clear position on the question of whether a self exists or not, so as not to allow new ideas to arise which are irrelevant and obstructive for a spiritual practice” (2), so the answer should be only indirectly, d. H. by inferences and therefore cannot be deduced with complete certainty. Nevertheless, in the centuries after the Buddha, Buddhist tendencies developed more and more, which decidedly denied the existence of a self and even went as far as a nihilistic interpretation of the Anatta doctrine. As early as the time of the Buddha, there were questions about this that prompted the Buddha to express himself:

The ascetic Vatsagotra asked the Blessed One: “Is there a self?” But the Blessed One was silent. "Or is there no self?" And the Blessed One was silent again. Then Vatsagotra went away. But the disciple Ananda asked the Blessed One why he hadn't answered the ascetic's question. “If I, dear Ananda, had said: 'There is a self', I would have agreed with the proponents of the 'doctrine of eternity'; If I had said: 'There is no self', I would have agreed with the proponents of the 'doctrine of annihilation'. If I had said: 'There is a self', my answer would not have corresponded to the knowledge: 'All things (dharma) are without self'; but if I had said: 'There is no self', the deluded Vatsagotra would have become even more deluded and would have thought: 'I used to have a self, but now I have none'. "(3)

The Blessed One picked up a lump of cow dung and said. “If there were so little selfishness that would be immortal, permanent, eternal, unchanging, and forever remain so, leading a holy walk for the annihilation of suffering would not be possible. But because there is no such thing, it is possible to lead holy walk.(4)

Precisely from the last quoted statement of the Buddha it does not clearly emerge that the Buddha simply denied a self, but rather only denied the existence of an eternal and immutable self. Without its changeability there would be no salvation, no redemption from suffering. This also shows how closely the Anatta doctrine is connected to the Buddhist path of salvation.

On this path of salvation is compassion (karuna) really important. It belongs to the "four divine states" (brahmavihara). Therefore it should hardly be understandable if it is in the Visuddhi Magga, a work written in the 5th century, i.e. about a millennium after Buddha, is called: There is suffering, but there is no suffering. There are deeds, but no perpetrator can be found.(5) The question arises: Does Buddhism recommend compassion where there is no one to suffer? Doesn't compassion always have to be associated with the idea of ​​someone suffering?

But if, as quoted above, there should be deeds, but no perpetrator, how about the Buddhist one Karma teaching compatible? How is it possible that morally good or bad deeds should have an effect on the perpetrator (who, according to the above statement, should not actually exist at all) in this present life or in a (after rebirth) future life? Besides that, without the existence of a personality, there can be no personal responsibility for an act.

The statement in V is just as incomprehensible to meisuddhi-magga: There is salvation, but not the redeemed man.(6) In contrast, in Sutta Nipata, that is far older than that Visuddhi Magga and is considered the sacred scripture of Buddhism, declares it to be nirvana, i.e. salvation:

He who went to rest, no measure measures him,
There are no words to speak of him;
what thinking can grasp is gone
so every path is closed to speech.

This quote, in my opinion, assumes that there is a redeemed and is therefore incompatible with a nihilistic interpretation of the Anatta doctrine. Moreover, it seems to me particularly appropriate with regard to the interpretation of the Anatta doctrine to recall the admonition of the Buddha: Therefore you may accept what I have explained as explained, but accept what I have not explained as not explained. And why didn't I explain it? Because it does not belong to holy walk and does not lead to renunciation of the world, to dispassion, to nirvana.(8)

The Anatta teachings are an example of how the unexplained by the Buddha should remain unexplained. For comments that go beyond the Buddha-word could interpret the Buddha-doctrine as what it is by no means, namely nihilism in the sense of absolute negation or, as the Buddha called it in the above quotation, a "doctrine of annihilation". The very hopeful and encouraging teaching of the Buddha could thus turn into a teaching of desolation. Therefore, it would be wise to remain silent where the Buddha was silent.

                                                                                            Herbert Becker


(1) See on this and the following: Nyanatiloka,
Buddhist Dictionary, 2nd rev. Ed., Konstanz 1976,
keyword Anatta, P. 24 f.

(2) Lexicon of Eastern Wisdom Teachings,
Bern / Munich / Vienna 1986, keyword Anatman, P.15.
To the silence of the Buddha regarding the question of whether “the I is”,
be on the remarks by Hermann Oldenberg in his almost
book "Buddha" (without place and year,
P. 288 f.).

(3) Samyutta-Nikaya 44.10, quoted from Helmuth von Glasenapp,
Path to Enlightenment, Düsseldorf / Cologne 1974, p.76 f.

(4) Samyutta-Nikaya 22,96,16, quoted from Helmuth von Glasenapp,
a. a. O., S, 77.

(5) Nyanatiloka, op. a. Cit., P. 25.
This in Visuddhi Maggawho for later comment
Literature heard, represented opinion, stands in my opinion.
in obvious contrast to the Buddha's discourse
The load and the carrier, for in her the Buddha said:
I want to show you the burden, monks, and that
Carrying the load and picking up the load and removing it
the load ... I call the load the five groups
(of grasping),
Load bearer the personality; Suffering: the burden of charging oneself;
Laying off the burden: bliss.
(The speeches of the Buddha in the translation by Hermann Oldenberg,
newly set and exp. Edition, Wiesbaden 2006, p. 204 f.
Oldenberg, who, according to this issue, “as the founder of modern
“Buddhism Studies” applies, pointed out that this discourse
of the Buddha is of “peculiar importance” because it is hereafter
there would also be a “´bearer`, the person or the subject”.)

(6) Nyanatiloka, op. a. Cit., P. 25.

(7) Sutta-Nipata 1076, quoted from Friedrich Heiler, Die Religionen
der Menschheit, Stuttgart 1980, p. 181.
In the same sense: Samyutta-Nikaya 35, 83 and 44,1,29 f.
(see Helmuth von Glasenapp, Die Weisheit des Buddha,
Wiesbaden undated, p. 151 f.).

(8) Majjhima-Nikaya 63, quoted from Helmuth von Glasenapp,
Path to Enlightenment, a. a. Cit., P. 69.

S. also
> Schopenhauer: Who am I? The mysterious me and the true self.