An Analysis of the Doctrine of Anatman in the Subtext of Mahayana Buddhism

The focus of this essay is to examine the doctrine of ‘no soul’ (anatman in Sanskrit, anatta in Pali) within the context of Mahayana Buddhism. “The Buddha’s doctrine of anatman literally means no atman: there is no immortal, unchanging self or soul.” In order to conduct a precise analysis of this doctrine we will examine it in relation to the Buddhist doctrines of the five aggregates and conditioned genesis, in addition to the common Buddhist ideas of impermanence, emptiness, and Universal Buddha Nature. The five aggregates and conditioned genesis rest at the core of Mahayana Buddhism, and are of the utmost importance in understanding the philosophy of anatman. “The doctrine of anatta or no-soul is the natural result of, or corollary to, the analysis of the Five Aggregates and the teaching of conditioned genesis.”

            During this essay we will not discuss the rise and popularization of Buddhism in China; rather we will focus entirely on the philosophical principles of the doctrine of anatman within the context of Mahayana Buddhism. While the doctrine of “no soul” is a central tenet to the philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism, it should be duly noted that the idea is common to Hinayana Buddhism as well: “The negation of an imperishable Atman (soul) is the common characteristic of all dogmatic systems of the Lesser (Hinayana) as well as the Great Vehicle (Mahayana), and, there is, therefore, no reason to assume that Buddhist tradition which is in complete agreement on this point has deviated from the Buddha’s original teaching.”

A fundamental premise of Buddhism is that the nature of existence is changing; that which exists at one moment, does not exist at the next moment. This fundamental premise of impermanence is the underlying principle behind the four noble truths of Buddhism. The four noble truths are “(1) all life is inevitably sorrowful (2) sorrow is due to craving (3) sorrow can only be stopped by the stopping of craving, and (4) this can be done by a course of carefully disciplined conduct.”

It can be seen, then, how the notion of impermanence has formulated Buddhist thought since its birth, and how the removal of attachment to objects of impermanence can alleviate suffering. At the root of all suffering lies the notion of self and it is, thus, that the loss of this “self” leads one to enlightenment. The question naturally arises, if there is no self and if everything is impermanent then what really exists? According to the Buddha’s teachings the only things that exist are momentary states called dharmas (dhamma in Pali), “a person is a temporary collection of constantly changing dharmas.”

In Buddhism there are five of these that constitute a person, these are also known as the five aggregates. According to this principle everything is made up of the five aggregates. These aggregates are form, sensation, perception, will or karmic predisposition, and consciousness. “The individual is made up of a combination of the five components, which are never the same from one moment to the next, and therefore the individual’s whole being is in a state of constant flux.” The self is usually perceived as the permanent center linking these aggregates. The Buddha said that every human experience can be explained in terms of the five aggregates, and, therefore, there is no self behind the experience. “Thus there is neither evidence nor need for an underlying ‘self’ to account fully for human experience.”

According to the doctrine of conditioned genesis, nothing in the world is absolute; everything is relative and interdependent. Life and its cessation can be explained in the following detailed formula of conditioned genesis: “1. Through ignorance are conditioned volitional actions or karma-formulations 2. Through volitional actions is conditioned consciousness 3. Through consciousness are conditioned mental and physical phenomena 4. Through mental and physical phenomena are conditioned the six faculties (i.e. five physical sense-organs and mind) 5. Through the six faculties is conditioned (sensorial and mental) contact 6. Through (sensorial and mental) contact is conditioned sensation 7. Through sensation is conditioned desire (‘thirst’) 8. Through desire (‘thirst’) is conditioned clinging 9. Through clinging is conditioned the process of becoming 10. Through the process of becoming is conditioned birth 11. Through birth are conditioned 12. Decay, death, lamentation, pain, etc.”

It must be remembered, too, that the process of conditioned genesis is cyclical, and that the wheel of samsara leads from death back to birth again. According to Buddhist doctrine – both Mahayana and Hinayana –  this process not only explains how life arises, exists, and continues, but also how it ceases, thereby providing the path to nirvana. One of the basic principles of Mahayana Buddhism is that all things are interdependent, and this can be seen in the early Buddhist doctrine of ‘dependent origination’. The Indian philosopher Nagarjuna (2nd .), one of the foremost and greatest Mahayana thinkers, made the following statement, “emptiness is dependent origination.”

In other words this notion of all things being interdependent is the root of emptiness. If everything is interdependent and always changing, then how can there be any permanent self? Thus emptiness really means “emptiness of self nature.” This concept of emptiness (kong in Sanskrit) is actually an expression of the concept of anatman applied to all things and is one of the most fundamentally important Mahayana principles.

We are now in a position to examine the philosophical principle, made new by Mahayana, of “Universal Buddha Nature”. It is this central Mahayana principle that makes the possibility of enlightenment available to all people. The premise that enlightenment is possible for all sentient beings, not just monks and nuns living in monasteries, is one of the major philosophical reasons why Mahayana Buddhism had become widely accepted in China. In other words, all sentient beings (and according to later Mahayana thinkers also inanimate objects) are manifestations of Buddhahood. Since emptiness means the lack of independence, to state it positively we can say that emptiness means interdependence.

It follows therefore that if all things are fundamentally interdependent, then all things share the same nature as bodhisattvas. This concept of Universal Buddha Nature can, indeed, be used to show that the self is empty and that all things are, in fact, interdependent and impermanent, lacking autonomous nature and identity of any sort. Following this line of reasoning, it can be shown that samsara and nirvana are, too, interdependent and share the same nature. In fact, both are fundamentally empty and cannot be distinct from one another. According to Nagarjuna there is no difference between samsara and nirvana; this statement appears paradoxical because the original meaning of nirvana was liberation from the bondage of samsara.

According to this line of reasoning, we may say that nirvana is the true nature of samsara, and samsara that of nirvana, such that, in fact, there is no duality. Both of these would then be fundamentally empty in nature, as would the notion of atman. Thus, this “self” and all that exists share the same fundamentally empty nature. While the Buddha, himself, would not acknowledge the existence of a self, he would neither explicitly deny it either, for fear of being misunderstood as an annihilationist. This can be seen through the story of the wanderer named Vacchagotta who came to see The Buddha in order to inquire about the nature of the self. “Vacchagotta comes to The Buddha and asks: ‘Venerable Gotama, is there an Atman?’ The Buddha is silent. ‘Then Venerable Gotama, is there no Atman?’ Again The Buddha is silent. Vacchagotta gets up and goes away.’”

After the wanderer had left, Ananda, The Buddha’s chief disciple, asked him why he did not answer Vacchagotta’s question. The Buddha then told Ananda that if he had answered that there is indeed a permanent and unchanging self he would have been supporting those ascetics of the time who followed the eternalist theory. Furthermore, this answer would not have been in accordance with his knowledge and understanding of impermanence, the five aggregates, and conditioned genesis. Had he answered that there is no self or no Atman then he would have been supporting those ascetics who followed the annihilationist theory, and the poor wanderer would have become confused, thinking that previously he had a self that was now no longer. Therefore out of great compassion for the wanderer, and from the depths of his own understanding, The Buddha chose silence as the best answer.

We have now examined in depth, the nature and foundation of the doctrine of anatman in Mahayana Buddhism. It is clear that this philosophy does not exist independent of other Buddhist philosophies and doctrines; rather, they are all intertwined as logical extensions of one another. According to conditioned genesis, the only things that really exist are the five aggregates (form, sensation, perception, will or karmic disposition, and consciousness) and these aggregates are momentary states that are devoid of self. The nature of existence can, then, be explained from the cyclical process of conditioned genesis, and it is through this that the doctrine of anatman is best illustrated within the context of Mahayana Buddhism.

Bary de, WM. Theodore, and Irene Bloom, ed. Sources of Chinese Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. Print.

Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught. New York: Grove Press, 1974. Print.