The Pali word of the day is atta, which I’ve seen translated as “self,” “soul,” or “ego.”
I did it again. I started working on this entry with a grand scheme in mind: I would lay out a concise explanation of all the sutta’s important concepts, with everything broken down and organized in a way that elegantly supported my personal interpretation. After about three full drafts, not to mention numerous false starts, I realized I was on a wild goose chase…so instead of a clever commentary on one of the most important texts in Buddhism, you’re getting another pageful of feelings. You’re welcome.
Tradition states that the second discourse the Buddha gave was the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta (The Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic) The subject was atta, which scholars often translate as “self,” “soul,” or “ego” — and in his opinion, we don’t have one. Instead, he says everything is characterized by anatta — “not-self,” “no-soul,” or “egolessness.”
…wait, what? No-soul?
I know, that was my reaction too. I thought, “If there’s no soul, how does rebirth work? After an enlightened person dies, what happens to them? Is the goal of Buddhism to just disappear?” It turns out that I wasn’t alone; people have been arguing about what this sutta means for over 2,500 years. Here’s what it says in a nutshell:
The Anatta-lakkhana Sutta breaks down the material world and human experience into five parts, called aggregates:
1. Form, which includes your body and any object you come in contact with.
2. Feeling, which is the sensation you get through contact with that object — either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
3. Perception, which is the act of recognizing or labeling the object.
4. “Fabrications”, which refers to how you react to the object — whether you like it, dislike it, or couldn’t care less about it.
5. Consciousness, which isn’t actually a separate thing. It can only exist if the other four aggregates are there.
None of these things, the Buddha says, are “self,” “soul,” or “ego.” Furthermore, what we call a person is just a composite of the five aggregates, which are constantly in flux…so that means that people don’t have “selves,” “souls,” or “egos” either. This totally threw me for a loop. Only after a week-long existential crisis and a ton of reading did I figure out that, at least for me, it boils down to a translation issue.
In the course of his explanation, the Buddha gives us his definition of atta, one which was probably widely-held in his time: atta simply refers to anything that 1.) never changes, 2.) is under our complete control, and 3.) doesn’t lead to suffering. He’s not even talking about what we would call a “soul.” Once I understood this, I was able to read more deeply without fear. What I found was really inspiring.
As a person with a physical disability, what the Buddha had to say about form resonates with me:
“…form is not-self. Were form self, then this form would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’ And since form is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’
“…how do you conceive it: is form permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, venerable Sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent painful or pleasant?” — “Painful, venerable Sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent, what is painful since subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this is I, this is my self'”? — “No, venerable sir.”
A lot of people are desperate to stay young, strong, and in control of there bodies forever. They do whatever they can to ward off the effects of aging or illness, but aging and illness always come…and when they do, the person in question feels that they’re losing a part of who they are. They look in the mirror, and they see “someone else.”
I can relate to that, but only partially. For better or for worse, even in my teens I never had the sense that I was invincible; I knew that I was weaker than other people, and I never had the kind of control over my own body that other people took for granted anyway. There was a time that I was too young to know better, but after a while I started looking around at my friends and family, how they moved and the things they could do, and I felt there was something wrong with “me.”
But according to the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta, my body is not my self. That means that what it is or isn’t, what it does or doesn’t do, inevitably effects me…but it doesn’t define who I am. After thinking about this, I started to wonder, “If bodily form is not the self, then what does that say about bodily pain?” I decided to do an experiment.
On Wednesday afternoon I was scheduled to receive Botox injections in my calves, my upper leg, and my hip. I had already done it twice before: the first time I was really young, and the pain was unbearable. The experience was so traumatizing that, when they proposed doing it again years later, I only agreed on the condition that I be anesthetized. I never wanted to feel that that way again. This time, however, I would go through it without anesthesia or sedatives. I wanted to be as aware and present as possible.
The thought that I held onto while I waited for the injections was “The body will feel pain, but you’ll be fine. Just observe.” Sure enough, once I let go of the idea that this uncomfortable thing was “happening to me,” I could cope. In five minutes the procedure was over — and the agony I remembered from childhood didn’t have any power over me anymore. I sat up and marveled at the fact that, although the form hadn’t changed — same equipment, same process — the feeling had. I won’t lie, I laughed a little. When I reflected on my other Botox experiences, I realized that I had spent all those years running, not from the pain itself, but from an idea ABOUT the pain — a fabrication that came from my perception of the procedure as a child. In the intervening decade and a half, all of these things had changed. That afternoon at the hospital made me realize something important:
Anatta doesn’t mean that we’re nothing. It means that we can be anything.
If I had defined myself by that past experience, the sensation of pain that came with it, the way I understood what had happened to me, the way I felt about it afterwards — if I had been too attached to who “I” was back then, this new experience would have constituted an identity crisis. Instead, I recognized that my identity isn’t bound up with any of these five things, and that I’m not a slave to who I’ve been or what’s happened to me in the past.
From moment to moment, I have a choice. I have the power to decide who I want to be.