Is there a SELF?

By Prof. G.P. Malalasekara, Phd, D.
Courtesy Vesak Lipi

There is one doctrine in Buddhism which separates if from all other religions, creeds and systems of philosophy, and which makes it unique in the world’s history. All its other teachings, such as The doctrine of impermanence, the denial of a supreme, personal God, the law of Kamma, its system of ethics and its practice of meditation, all these are found, more or less in similar forms, in one or other of the schools of thought or religions which have attempted to guide men through life and explain to them the unsatisfactoriness of the world. But in its denial of any real permanent Soul or self, Buddhism stands alone.
This teaching presents the utmost difficulty to many people and often provokes even violent antagonism towards.the whole religion. Yet, this doctrine of No-Soul or Anatta, as it is called, is the bedrock of Buddhism and all the other teachings of the Buddha are intimately connected with it. The Buddha is quite definite in its exposition and would have no compromise. In a famous passage he declares, “Whether Buddhas arise in this world or not, it always remains a fact that the constituent parts of a being are lacking in a Soul,” The Pali word used for “Soul” being Atta.

Now, what is this Soul the existence of which the Buddha denied? Without it there can be no reward in heaven or punishment in hell no recompense for one’s deeds. Such, generally speaking, is the teaching of other religions, with a few minor differences in detail. Buddhism, on the contrary, denies all this and asserts that this belief in a permanent and a divine soul is the most dangerous and pernicious of all errors, the most deceitful of illusions, that it will inevitably mislead its victims into the deepest pit of sorrow and suffering. It is in fact, says the Buddha, the root cause of all suffering, because the belief in a separate self breeds egotism and selfishness. Selfishness produces craving for life and life’s pleasures-tanha-which plunges beings into the ocean of samsara-continues existence.

This doctrine of the denial of the Soul the Buddha arrives at by analysis; ; Buddhism is, for this reason chiefly, called the Vibhajja vada, the Religion of Analytical Knowledge. Man, says the Buddha -for it is with man that we are mainly concerned- is composed of two chief parts, the physical body-rupa-and the mind-nama.

Let us analyse these two components and see if we can find anything permanent or divine in them. Let us begin with the body. At first sight, the body would seem to be our own and continuous from our first memory of childhood. But it is, really, not our own, because we cannot control it. It grows old and is subject to disease and finally it dies. Every instant parts of it are perishing ; the hair, nails and skin for instance quite noticeably, but the millions of cells within us not so palpably. The body is always decaying, some parts of us are dead already; our survival is merely as sort of balance between living and dead cells. Though we feel we are the same persons, that our body continues to be the same, it really is not so. The child becomes the youth, the youth changes into the old man. Anyone who has lived to be 70 years old has possessed several bodies completely different, no single atom of which was common to any two of them.
What of the mind? The mind is even less permanent, for while the body last for a bit, at least in appearance, the mind of what is called the mind-for it is a compound of all sorts of things thoughts, feelings, consciousness-the mind keeps perishing day and night, always changing. A man’s mind, his character, aspirations, must change and they do, or there would be no possibility of his higher development, progress and improvement. We know that character, mind and emotions require the most constant care, diligence and energy to direct and develop them, to hold them to the path of righteousness and purity. It Is only by such constant care and vigilance that any progress at all is realized. The same can be said of all mental faculties.

We cling to ourselves, hoping to find something immortal in them, like children who would wish to clasp a rainbow. To the child a rainbow is something vivid and real but the grownup knows that it is merely an illusion caused by certain rays of light and drops of water. The light is only a series of waves of undulations having no more reality than the rainbow itself, while “water” is merely a name for a certain combination of particles of hydrogen and oxygen, a combination which has no permanency whatsoever. Like the rainbow are all things : there is a process, a conditioning, but nowhere the least trace of anything permanent.
Life is thus merely a phenomenon, or, rather ,a series, a succession of phenomena, produced by the law of cause and effect. An individual existence is to be looked upon not as something permanent but as a succession of changes, as something that is always passing away. Each of us is merely a combination of material and mental qualities. In each individual without exception, the relation of the component, constituent parts is ever changing so that the compound is never the same for-two consecutive moments. And this compound, this individual, remains separate as long as it persists in Samsara or existence as we know it. It is this separateness which is the cause of life and, therefore, of sorrow.
Our present life is only a link in the infinite chain of existence ; what subsists is only the unbroken continuity of the processes that constitute life. Assemble together the parts of a battery and there is electricity.

As long as the cause of life persists, the sense of separateness the craving for existence, so long will life continue ; remove the cause and life does not come about. Remove the clinging to life and life is not continued. The continuity of life is like the flame of a lamp. The light appears to come from the lamp throughout the night; yet every instant oil and wick and lamp-holder and the air that feeds the flame are constantly changing. It is the same, yet not the same ; the infant that comes to birth is different from the old man who dies, yet both are called the same person. The fire will bum as long as there is fuel to feed it; so will life continue as long as there is craving.

The beginning and end of the river are called source and mouth, though they are still composed of the same water as the rest of the river; even so is the source and mouth of the river of life called birth and death though still composed of the water of life. At death, the flow of the stream from life to life seems to be interrupted but there is no real interruption, only a more obvious, a more violent breach in the continuity than in normal life. To the Buddhist death is not anything very important but merely an incident between one life and its successor. Birth and death have great significance only to those who believe in a single life. The true Buddhist regards death with something like indifference because he knows that he has experienced it countless times already. Nor does he desire death, by suicide for instance, for death cannot end his troubles. Suicide would be useless to himself and rather painful to his friends.

A lamp may go out with the exhaustion of oil or wick or both, or by a sudden gust of wind.
If at death the craving for life has not been completely destroyed then this craving gathers fresh life, body and mind. The result is a new individual, new in a sense. There is nothing that passed from one life to another. It is the kamma produced by us in our previous lives and in this life that brings about the new life. The new body and mind is merely the result of the previous body and mind. Just as this life is the result of the kamma of past lives. Our next life is the product of that kamma plus the kamma of the present life. If we use the word character as a convenient term the sum-total or out activities, the fruit of all our lives, then we may say that our “character” is reproduced in the new life.

Professor G. P. Malalasekera PhD. (Lond), D. Litt, was a Pali Scholar, who knew many languages, and a great son of Sri Lanka. He served for many years as President, All Ceylon Buddhist Congress. Was Ceylon’s Ambassador in London, in Moscow, UN and in Canada. He passed away in April 1973.