A new understanding of the metaphysics of Anatta
Posted on September 4th, 2012

R Chandrasoma

The Buddhist concept of “ƒ”¹…”Anatta’ has long been a puzzle to metaphysicians outside the traditional schools. Professor Suganasiri “”…” in an article published in your Journal “”…” argues that the Pali word “ƒ”¹…”anatta’ must be translated as “ƒ”¹…”asoul’ rather than the well-established term “ƒ”¹…”no-soul’. He believes that the early Buddhist savants wished to distance themselves from the Brahaminic notion of a soul as an indwelling essence that truly defines personhood. On this matter one must beg to differ “”…” the greater possibility is that the Buddhists were reacting to the views of the Jainists who had great influence on early Buddhist thinking. Indeed, much of Buddhist eschatology seems to be a nuanced adaptation of Jaina views on what may be described as the “ƒ”¹…”Karmic Odyssey’ of sentient beings. To Jainists,  life – in the larger sense of the word “”…” is a struggle by benighted souls to cleanse themselves of the material dross that impedes their ascent to the Pure World of Spirit. This is close to the root idea of purification by good works (Kusala Dhamma) in Buddhism. The Jaina vision of the soul is that of a spiritual homunculus “”…” a divine entity that becomes part of the Godhead when purged of material impurities.

The founders of Byddhism adapted these ideas “”…” of the struggle of the soul to free itself from “ƒ”¹…”impurities’ in pereginations across worlds “”…” but rejected forthrightly the “ƒ”¹…”homuncular’ concept of the essence of personhood. The word “ƒ”¹…”Anatta’ signifies rejection of “ƒ”¹…”atta’ as a core-being responsible for deeds and acts in a fluxional world. In the West, there were two competing concepts for understanding the true nature of the soul “”…” the Judaeo-Christian and the ancient Aristotelian veiws on the primacy of “ƒ”¹…”form’. The Judaeo-Chritian consept of the soul and personhood can be directly compared with Jaina views on “ƒ”¹…”spritual agents struggling to be free’. The theistic tradition has it that God created souls as the foundation of a perishable corporeality. The notion of metempsychosis “”…” the journeying of souls in diverse bodily forms “”…”was not accepted in yhr standard Monotheisms but found favour among the some ancient Greek sects.

Let us turn to that seminal figure Descartes “”…”described as he “ƒ”¹…”Father of Modern Philosophy’.He refined the early religious views by speaking of the soul as a “ƒ”¹…”thinking substance’ (res cogitans) directing a perishable material body. The material body was a machine directed by a spiritual agent “”…” the soul “”…” that survived death. In many ways, this is a retreat from the far more sophisticated version of Aristotle who spoke of a soul that he describes as the “ƒ”¹…”form’ of the living agent. A living thing has formal organization that defines its true nature “”…” he called this the “ƒ”¹…”soul’. We mention this Aristotelian understanding of personhood because it is very close the the functional theory of personhood advocated by early Buddhist thinkers. When the latter speak of anatta they endorse a funtionalist iunterpretation of individuals and personhood. In modern terminology, a complex system can show an “ƒ”¹…”intentional stance’ in its behavior while not hvaing an “ƒ”¹…”agent’ of any kind inside to direct its purposive activity. It is this “ƒ”¹…”functionalism’ that was highlighted by Buddhist thinkers when they repudiated the notion of ssoul as the essence of being. The Five Aggregate concept of personhood is a functionalist analysis of mind that was far ahead of its time. We must add a caveat “”…” the karmic succession of beings based on a form of trans-generational heredity is a porely religious concept and must be separated fron the advanced concept of personhood found in Buddhism’

A brief reference to “ƒ”¹…”Hindu’ views on the soul may be helpful. The “ƒ”¹…”emanation’ theory of the developed schools of Hindu thought stands quite outside the compass of Buddhist religious speculation. It is a purely “ƒ”¹…”religious’ theory and is out of step with the robust empiricism of early thinkers. In the “ƒ”¹…”emanation’ view, souls are part of the God-Head and personhood reflects this spark of divinity within. It is not this late fancy theory of the “ƒ”¹…”Advaitya’ school of Hinduism that the ancients reacted against””…” it was the more  down to earth belief that something special within the body “”…” the soul “”…” acted as the immaterial baisis of personhood. Thus, translation of opposing view as “ƒ”¹…”No Soul’ is quite acceptable. The word “ƒ”¹…”Asoul’ has a funny ring to it “”…” for instance, a system without sentience is “ƒ”¹…”non-sentient’ not “ƒ”¹…”asentient’. The leading contemporary philosopher Thomas Metzinger speaks of the “ƒ”¹…”No-Self Model of Human Subjectivity’.  He argues that self and subjectivity are dynamical  virtual states in the Brain and Nervous system. The Buddhist did not couch this truth in exactly the same way but the message was exactly the same. To suggest that this seminal though was a “ƒ”¹…”reaction’ to esoteric Hindu beliefs does grave injustice to the originality and acumen of Buddhist thought.

3 Responses to “A new understanding of the metaphysics of Anatta”

  1. Sunil Vijayapala Says:

    I wonder whether this writer is a Buddhist or not. Quoting Jains and wetern philosphers who came up with muddled up concepts and doctrines about self and soul is mind boggling. Mahavira(eel wriggker as Thathagata refered to him) the Nigantaya vomitted blood at his death bed probably as a consequence of his actions directed at Tathahgata. Thathagata, esplains clearly the concept of self in many suttras, especially Mahaanidaana and Anattalakkana suttra. If this is not clear, I wonder whether this man has understood Buddhism or not, (diluting Budhhist concepts) as most Buddhists have a knowledge(including Bhikkuus – the correct word to refer to Deciples of Buddha NOT monk or priest) but little UNDERSTANDING of the precious doctrine.

  2. Dham Says:

    Sunil,
    OK , you came before me to respond to this fool.
    No point arguing with this fool. He has taken over the attack on “Byddhism” from previous fool called Ben Silva.

    How does this bugger born yesterday knows whether Jaints adoped Buddhist explanations or Buddha adopted the aincient fool , Niganta Nata Putta ? Has this bugger read how beautifully the Buddha defeated the Nighanta on the argument that “bodily action or kamma ( Danda as called by the NIghantayas) is superior to mental action” ? This fool has no intelectual capacity to understand that just because other religions existed before Gautama Buddha does not mean the Buddha adopted old ideas. The other religions have eveloved a lot and adopted Buddhist ideas. Not only religions but also the modern science and particularly psychology too adopting the real science of Buddhism.

    This fool will suffer in this birth as well as future births heavily. Feel sorry for him.

  3. Kamal1 Says:

    This’s not a wonder at a time when yellow robed empty men print
    false birth certificates to the Buddha, changing his birth place. First of all they must learn පන්සිල්..!
    Regarding the anatta word that the Buddha’s teachings are in pali as it said by buddha. Sinhala also evolved with pali, thus sinhala is the best language to learn buddhism next to pali. English is from there where’s spreading great Myth of god in the world. So, learning of buddhism in english is limited. We can suggest more words for anatta as follows;
    ex-soul, ex-self, out of soul/self or nil-self/soul, etc, but a real studious one can see the genuine meaning with other words of buddha.
    The buddha said that, the world is empty (sunyo loko/සුඤ්ඤො ලොකො) & that means, the world is EMPTY of self or soul & possesses or owns. So it’s well clear that anatta means EMPTINESS of self/soul. This’s why buddha explained dhamma in 1000s of suttas instead only one.
    So, we must be STUDIOUS & searching dhamma than be hurry to create more confusions in dhamma while lacking in learning.!

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