The concept of anatta seems to be the most difficult aspect of the Buddha’s teaching for most people to comprehend, let alone to realize, yet it lies at the heart of the dharma. As the Buddha says, “True happiness can only be found by eliminating the false idea of ‘I’ or ‘self.’”
We begin our investigation with passages about anatta from the Pali Canon, prepared by Ajahn Amaro, coabbot of Abhayagiri Monastery in Redwood Valley, California.
Then the wanderer Vacchagotta approached the Blessed One . . . and said to him: “How is it now, Master Gotama, is there a self?”
When this was said, the Blessed One was silent.
“Then, Master Gotama, is there no self?”
A second time the Blessed One was silent.
Then the wanderer Vacchagotta rose from his seat and departed.
Then, not long after the wanderer Vacchagotta had left, the Venerable Ananda said to the Blessed One: “Why is it, venerable sir, that when the Blessed One was questioned by the wanderer Vacchagotta, he did not answer?”
“If, Ananda, when I was asked by the wanderer Vacchagotta, ‘Is there a self?’ I had answered, ‘There is a self,’ this would have been siding with those samanas and brahmins who are eternalists. And if, when I was asked by him, ‘Is there no self?’ I had answered, ‘There is no self,’ this would have been siding with those samanas and brahmins who are annihilationists.
“If, Ananda, when I was asked by the wanderer Vacchagotta, ‘Is there a self?’ I had answered, ‘There is a self,’ would this have been consistent on my part with the arising of the knowledge that ‘all phenomena are not-self?’”
“No, venerable sir.”
“And if, when I was asked by him, ‘Is there no self?’ I had answered, ‘There is no self,’ the wanderer Vacchagotta, already confused, would have fallen into even greater confusion, thinking, ‘It seems that the self I formerly had does not exist now.’”
—Samyutta Nikaya 44:10
Bhikkhu, “I am” is a conceiving; “I am this” is a conceiving; “I shall be” is a conceiving; “I shall not be” is a conceiving; “I shall be possessed of form” is a conceiving; “I shall be percipient” is a conceiving; “I shall be non-percipient” is a conceiving. Conceiving is a disease, conceiving is a tumor, conceiving is a barb. By overcoming all conceivings, bhikkhu, one is called a sage at peace. And the sages at peace are not born, do not age, do not die; they are not shaken and are not agitated. For there is nothing present in them by which they might be born. Not being born, how could they age? Not aging, how could they die? Not dying, how could they be shaken? Not being shaken, why should they be agitated?
—Majjhima Nikaya 140:31
What do you think, bhikkhus, is material form permanent or impermanent?”
“Impermanent, venerable sir.”
“Is that which is impermanent satisfying or unsatisfying?”
“Unsatisfying, venerable sir.”
“Is that which is impermanent, unsatisfying and subject to change ﬁt to be regarded thus:
‘This is mine, this is what I am, this is my self’?”
“No, venerable sir.”
—Samyutta Nikaya 22:59
Contemplation of the unattractiveness of the body should be cultivated for the overcoming of sexual desire; loving-kindness should be cultivated for the overcoming of ill will; mindfulness of breathing should be cultivated for the cutting off of discursive thinking; contemplation of impermanence should be cultivated for the dispelling of the conceit “I am.” For when one perceives impermanence, Meghiya, the perception of not-self is established. With the perception of not-self, the conceit “I am” is eliminated, and that is nibbana here and now.
Seclusion is happiness for one content,
Who knows the Dhamma, who has seen;
Friendliness towards the world is happiness
For those whose hearts bend kindly to all beings;
Serenity amidst the world is happiness
For those who have let go of sense desires;
But the end of the conceit “I am”—
That’s the greatest happiness of all.