Buddhist Philosophy of No-Abiding Self

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Outline and discuss the Buddhist philosophy of no-abiding-self (anatman). What is rebirth if there is no soul being reborn?

In the first noble truths, Buddha taught that suffering or dukkha exist in our lives. The Buddha’s teachings are simply a path way to enlightenment (?) so that the suffering can end all together. to become enlighten is to wake up to the true reality of things so that one can see who they really are in the deepest levels. It is at that moment when the realization of selfishness takes place and all the suffering falls away. When someone is not enlighten, then their current understanding of the world and who they really are, does not match the reality. Because of this confusion, suffering takes place. Unless one is enlighten, then this person will continue to identify with the wrong version of their self. There is this sense of duality in the world of the notion of me and I. From this notion people tend to create all of their attachments such as my house or my family. This way of thinking and perception springs all human feels; desires and aversions.

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Where does the idea of self, derive from? When Buddha was asked about I he said, in paraphrasing, where is this I? Point it for me. (Reference) Buddha wanted to make his followers this notion of the self. Are we our names, for instance? Often times, individuals can feel compromised by the existence of another person having the same name as themselves. Does that mean that we can only exist in our body? Our body constantly changes. The body a person has when they are 80 years old is not the same as the body they had when they were new born. So how can the body constitute a permanent self? Individuals derive to this sense of self due to rapid interplay of many physical and mental processes. The Buddha explained that everyone has five aggregates that work together to form the sense of self (Boisvert, 1995).In Sanskrit these five aggregates are called skandhas (Boisvert, 1995: 17).The five aggregates consist of form, consciousness, feelings, perceptions and mental formations (Boisvert, 1995: 4). They all work in combination to each other. Because they seem to work so simultaneously it is easy to incorrectly identify with these aggregates as they are constituting our permanent and unchanging self. However, the Buddha pointed out that it is our identification with these aggregates that is creating this illusion of permanence and as long as we continue to cling to these as being who we are we will continue to suffer(Boisvert, 1995: 8).REBIRTH

The first aggregate is form or matter (Boisvert, 1995).This includes the four great elements; earth, water, fire and air (including all the forms; internal and external, which are derived from these elements such as the physical body) (Gethin, 1998: 140). The Buddha wanted to draw our attention to the six sense organs; eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body(Gethin, 1998: 140). When these are working properly they can detect the five sense-objects; visible form, sound, odour, taste, and tangible things(Gethin, 1998: 150-153).The coming together of sense-organ and sense-object, allows the corresponding sense-consciousness to arise (Gethin, 1998: 150-153).For instance, if the eye sense-organ meets with the visible object, then eye-consciousness arises. It is this arising of the consciousness which allows us to become aware of the presence of that sense-object(Gethin, 1998: 150-153). One the eye-consciousness arise, it forms an interaction between the sense-organ and the sense-object and this allows us to become aware of the presence of the object(Gethin, 1998: 150-153).

Once we have the consciousness of an object, then this allows for the other aggregates to arise. The aggregate of feeling refers to feelings that arise from eye-contact, ear-contact, nose-contact, tongue-contact, body-contact, and intellect-contact (Gethin, 1998: 215-218).There are three kinds of feelings we might experience; pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings (Gethin, 1998: 212-214). So it is from the contact of the sense-organs, the sense-objects and the sense-consciousness that these feelings can arise and these sensations van be either enjoyed, disliked, or be neutral.

Then there is the aggregate of perception, which is what identifies what it has been noted by the relevant consciousness (Boisvert, 1995: 46)This allows an individual to recognize it, label it and categorize it. Thus, this aggregate allows one to stop making sense of the world because up until this point, the aggregates could only perceive things but not give it any meaning (Boisvert, 1995: 46-47). For instance; when drinking coffee, through the contact of the tongue, one is able to taste the coffee. Thus, the tongue-consciousness can perceive the taste of flavour. For the aggregate of feeling, in this example, the sensation might be quite pleasant because of the coffee’s warmness and flavour. Then this becomes the aggregate of perception which actually recognizes the liquid as coffee, because it fits into the pre-digested mental categories of what the properties of coffee should be like. With the aggregate of perception an individual is able to identify the stimuli around them (Boisvert, 1995: 46-47).

The last aggregate is mental formations and fabrications(Reference). This aggregate indicates that each individual has different ways they can react to a sense-object and develop different feelings and perceptions of it(Boisvert, 1995: 49). As the name suggests, this aggregate is interests in the ways an individual can initially react on a mental level, even before this person follows through with some behaviours of speech, body and mind(Boisvert, 1995: 48-50). This aggregate is interested in all the wholesome and unwholesome intensions or impulses that arrive in relations of what we see, hear, smell, taste, feel and think(Boisvert, 1995: 48-50, 214) These intentions arise before we react with our body, speech or mind. In Buddhism, they refer to these intentions as the karma seeds(Gethin, 1998: 214)These actions have the power of bring happiness or suffering. We can make our own choices. But there is no concept of sin as there is in the Christian belied. They believe that unskilful choices can lead to bad karma, while skilful choices can lead to good karma(Gethin, 1998: 214)Perhaps, one of the most important point of this aggregate is that this is where human habits of mind are created (Gethin, 1998: 154). This is where individuals develop all their ideas, opinions, and prejudices about things and people, as well as all of their compulsions(Gethin, 1998: 153- 154). So this aggregate really determines whether one develops positive qualities of the mind or not. This is where individuals can shape their mental habits and the person they want to become.

The five aggregates show that the interactions to people or situations in life are not immediate or automatic. There is a process involved where the individual is not at the mercy of their feelings or thoughts. There is a choice in how to respond to everything. This is a very liberating concept because if individuals can develop enough mindfulness to recognize their impulses or intentions as they arise, they can then learn to replace them with more wholesome ones and they can decide whether they actually act out on them or not. They can decide whether they will verbally abuse someone who insulted them or whether they can practice patience in a challenging situation. Essentially, individuals can decide what karma they create and whether they move towards enlightenment or not.

Mindfulness is the quality that initially allows us to depersonalize the aggregates (Reference). So a person will not say the thought as being his/hers thought but simply he/she can say a thought is a thought. It is a phenomenon they can choose to entertain or not. With this perspective, thoughts are nothing more than an identity that arises and passes away (Reference). This brings a lot of lightness to our thoughts. There is no need to allow ourselves to get caught up in them anymore and get stuck on certain thoughts. Instead individuals can become dispassionate and objective observes and they will be able to remain calm and peaceful when thoughts arise whether they are wholesome or unwholesome ones (Gethin, 1998: 214). Getting back to what the teaching on the five aggregates mean in the of no self or anatman; the Buddha explained that these five aggregates are the basic elements of a person and they are in the state of continual change (Reference). For instance, an unpleasant feeling passes away to give rise to a pleasant feeling. One moment of consciousness is replaced by a different consciousness based on a different sense-organ. Of these aggregates, none of them can stand alone or constitute a permanent self because they are in a state of constant change. Every moment the sense-organs come into contact with the sense-object. These four processes of consciousness of sense, feeling, perception, and mental formation, occur with lightning speed, and because it happens so fast it gives the appearance of continuity and that of an unchanging entity (Reference). So it is because of the combination of these aggregates working together that there is the sense and idea of permanence and permanent I and it is conveniently labelled as self.

“Seeing thus, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones grows disenchanted with form, disenchanted with feeling, disenchanted with perception, disenchanted with fabrications, disenchanted with consciousness. Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he is fully released. With full release, there is the knowledge, ‘Fully released.’ He discerns that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.” (Reference)

The Buddha was saying that once one realizes that he/she is not their thoughts, feelings or perceptions, then the individual will no longer continue to cling to them and will finally be liberated from their self-limiting views. It is all of the self-grasping that creates our suffering. All the misconceptions and the mental stories that individuals built on them, they bring out a lot of suffering. It then becomes possible to live in the world with greater lightness of being and ease. It is within that space of peace and tranquillity that best decisions can be made.

When he Buddha became enlighten, he did not just vanish into thin air; he still had his body, his speech ad his mind (Reference). He just did not identify with his aggregates as possessive things ad as permanent entities. When speaking to a monk named Bahuna, the Buddha explained:

“Freed, dissociated, & released from ten things, Bahuna, the Tahagata dwells with unrestricted awareness. Which ten? Freed, dissociated, and released from form the Tahagata dwells with unrestricted awareness. Freed, dissociated, and released from feeling from perception.. from fabrications from consciousness from birth from aging from death from suffering and stress Freed, dissociated, and released from defilement, the Tathagata dwells wit unrestricted awareness.” “Just as a red, blue, or white lotus born in the water and growing in the water, rises up above the water and stands with no water adhering to tit, in the same way the Tathagata – freed, dissociated and released from these ten things – dwells with unrestricted awareness.” (Reference)

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Once an individual is freed from the contains he/she identifies with, the five aggregates, the Buddha is saying that there is still an unrestricted awareness that remains (Reference). There is some kind of consciousness and cognition that experiences. This consciousness that is without feature and without end does not rely to any of the six-organs and continues to be experienced when the six-sense stop function (Reference). However, even this unrestricted awareness is not something one can pin down at any moment and say that this is my permanent self, because it is constantly in a state of change.

If we are not our bodies, our names, our thoughts and our feeling, then what are we? Buddha explained that when there is no clinging of these five aggregates the what remains is an unrestricted awareness that is luminous all around. The concept of anatman and selflessness are linked with these five aggregates of form, consciousness feelings, perceptions, and mental formations in which individuals wrongly identify with as being who they are. When an individual has the realization of selflessness then there is freedom that comes with is because he/she are no longer confined to their limited views of who they are and nor are they grasping anything as being an extension of themselves, so they can let go of their need to cling to possessions or even people in their lives. In fact, individuals will appreciate everything more and in a much more freed way.


Boisvert, M. (1995). The five aggregates. 1st ed. Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Published for the Canadian Corporation for Studies in Religion by Wilfrid Laurier University Press.


Gethin, R. (1998). Foundations of Buddhism. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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