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Analyse the Buddhist doctrine of ‘no self’ [anātman], and the ethical consequences that flow from it.

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Buddhism is one of the world’s major religions and consequently an important aspect of cultural heritage as known to humanity (Deakin University, 2015). The university publication further observes that Buddhist teachings revolve around four pillars that are considered as the noble truths – Prajna wisdom, Dependent origination, bodhisattva ideals as well as their practical applications. According to Siderits (2007), the teachings of this religion have influenced both philosophy and the art throughout the human history in addition to being a vital source of inspiration in the current world of research. The author also explains that, the ‘not-self’ doctrine forms part of the central and influential teachings in most of the Pāli texts. However, Bodhi (2012) explains that the discussion of this policy in the present day world has mostly assumed hypothetical points of view. Indeed, the continued focus of the research work on theoretical perspectives has been found to be misleading by many scholars since it serves to deviate scholars from the real reasons behind the teaching of this important doctrine (Saran, 2015). Further, this approach, from a psychological point of view tends to limit the discussion to world’s experiences by human beings, the source of such experiences and the human knowledge. According to Collins (2013), the words attā in Buddhism are used literally in reference to the soul of an individual which is viewed more as an eternal entity making up human beings.

Not–Self Doctrine

Norain (2010) argues that the Buddhist soteriology has been in existence across the continent of Asia though in different forms. Prior to the modern times, the lay-persons were not supposed to apply directly, to themselves, the much touted doctrine of ‘not-self’. In fact, the author observes that for one to be ordained as a monk in the traditional Buddhist society, it was almost a basic requirement to change the individual social identity from that which is enabled and constrained by patron-client matrix, kinship group or other local relationships which were affordable by universal monastic role. Moreover, Farrington (2013) notes that, in practice, things were even more complicated and consequently the admission threshold could probably have been higher. For instance, continuing obligations and relations between monks and their parents have always been accepted. According to Collins (2013) the ‘not-self’ doctrine only appears in texts purely as a theory either to deny or fail to deny something. Moreover, the author observes that the concept plays a very pivotal role in the thoughts and practice of Buddhism as a religion. Nonetheless, Buswell (2016) opines that a significant portion of Buddhists have not experienced any change in their individual religious lives simply on basis of the teachings provided by the ‘not-self’ creed. Curiously, the extent to which an inversion of this relation may hold true remains quite unclear.

The doctrine of ‘not-self’ explains that human beings have no unchanging essence and that what appears to us as a unitary and stable person is actually a collection of impermanent and impersonal events that do arise or disappear in a conditioned non-starting process (Reynolds, 2011). The author further explains that such an occurrence may include spiritual or physical causation of karma. Further studies also reveal that there exists connectivity across a chain of individual lives due to the continuity of consciousness (Ferraiolo, 2009). In this case, an ever-changing series of short-lived events and memory coherence of persona can be traced but not an enduring self.

In a conflate of some of the recent Buddhist scholarships, it has been argued that an insight of the idea envisaged in ‘non-self’ concept could go a long way in assisting an individual gain complete liberation (Farrington, 2013). However, on Buddhist account, liberation isn’t simply viewed as a ‘non-self’ insight, rather, real enlightenment is realized through the cessation of perceived mental obscurations within the confines of a person. Consequently, ideological illuminations entail deliberate but concerted measures to empty one’s distasteful karmic conditioning that often results in complete awakening of phenomenal emptiness. It is at this point, that real liberation is attained (Boethius, 2011).

Many religious scholars have argued that Buddhism does not necessarily compel one to accept all the claims by Buddha at face value (Gokhale, 2013). Instead, the author opines that true liberation can be obtained through rational investigation by an individual with regard to the complex nature of the world. Its, therefore, within the discretion of each Buddhist practitioner to critically and objectively examine the different teachings by Buddha and determine the validity of the claims contained thereof. Though Buddhism strives to integrate the natural reality and the place we play in it, the human reasoning can still apprehend without any reliance on perceived or existing super human revelation (Ratn, 2007). In fact, it is argued that Buddha himself was simply an ordinary man suffering from mental problems who sought possible solutions to his problems through what he referred to as ‘The Middle Way’. Subsequently, based on his own experiences, the guy attempted to pass the information to other people in the hope they shared similar problems.

Ethical Consequences of the Buddhist Doctrine

As part of the sociological terminology, a monastic order normally exists as a formalized organization in that it can exist alongside or within any natural society (Ratn, 2007). Further, the author observes that the Buddhist first principles provide no account of self-producing or ideal human community where members can be defined in terms of a social agency. However, in the absence of theory touching on social persons in Buddhism, there still exists several Buddhist discourses where persons have to appear.

Further, Nicholson (2012) and Ferraiolo (2009) argue that its remarkable that Buddhism cannot allow the possibility of separating selves since one of its central pillars, karmic causality, is naturally individualistic. Conspicuously, the Buddhist views, on this particular front, remain overly reductionist as one is left to wonder how a selfless Buddhism individual should interact. Additionally, the authors observe that the idea fails to bring out the relationship between the denial of self by a Buddhist and the Buddhist monks who tend to realize the hidden truth of not-self. In Asia’s South East Mainland, Nicholson (2012) points out that it is customary for young men or boys to enter monkhood temporarily while retaining the former kinship groups in the long term. Similarly, in the republic of Sri Lanka, village monastery is occasionally inhabited by a single monk along with his sister’s son to serve not only as a pupil but as a successor too. From this perspective, the monks remain subject to the provisions of civil law in their respective societies but, at the same time, assume new duties and rights as outlines in the monastic rule, alias Vinaya.

To add onto that, the Buddhist society prescribes strict etiquette vocabulary and that a special language form be used specifically with reference to the monks (Siderits, 2007). Hence, it is interesting that the modern-day ‘nuns’ in Burma are apparently addressed or described in a style suitable to monastics thereby rendering their social status ambiguous. Generally, Buddhist monks serve as social agents seen more as enduring unitary persons (Farrington, 2013). However, in principle, an objective analysis of such agencies reveals that they’ve no regard to individualistic but reductionist discourses as fail to address the legal, social and behavioral purposes of non-reductionist dialogue.

The spiritual status of an individual, teacher-pupil matching, selection of meditation subject based on the target person characterize most of the practical and important life in monkhood (Boethius, 2011). Conversely, in a number of contexts, the ‘not-self’ discourse remains overly impractical whether its meant for Buddhist purposes or any other form of social description. This explains why monastic order serves as the personne-theory in a number of the Buddhist manuscripts (Deakin University, 2015). Importantly, this approach provides an ordered and significant collectivity where statuses and roles are clearly defined for elders, preceptor teachers, novices and pupils as well. Further, as Siderits (2007) cautions, It’s important to note that although the order provides the much need avenues for individuals to realize the ‘not-self’ concepts, the agencies are determined by the monastic codes as attributable to the persons defined by these ciphers. For example, nocturnal emissions and sexual thoughts in dreams, as far as the ordinary agencies are concerned, do not necessarily translate to a breach in the monastic law. Therefore, under hypothetical-psychological levels, such events will be seen as acts of residual desire producing karmic results.

According to Norain (2010) the opponents of the Buddhist doctrine point out that the so called ‘liberation’ is a reference to reductionists attitudes. He explains that liberation is a means of weakening self-concern or rather a deliberate attempt to weaken the very attachment that human beings have with existence. The author remains congenial with the Buddhists advocates when they argue that morality is more of an impersonal issue. Moreover, Collins (2013) contends that when persons become reductionist about certain views it means that the people are of the view that such things, strictly in sense, do not exist and that their mere existence would simply mean the presence of other things whose kind is already dissimilar. That is why the Buddhist view of ‘non-self’, for instance, argues that an individual’s existence entails the occurrence of complex causative series of ephemeral and impersonal skandhas. Comparable views are also shared by Parfit Derek who offers a relatively sophisticated defense of reductionism. Buswell (2016) explains that It’s a common view among Buddhists that when one becomes enlightened, by knowing the basic truths as envisaged by reductionism, their respective existential suffering is greatly relieved. In the same vein, Buddhist practitioners maintain that the idea of reductionism makes people to be more concerned with the welfare of fellow men.

Buddhist views also define our socializing with small children (Ferraiolo, 2009). Since it’s a common tendency for adults to automatically think of themselves as persons, the child-rearing experiences appear to set a different script altogether. This is because child rearing entails making the child to think of itself as an individual person. Consequently, the child is obligated to identify with not only the future but the past stages in the causative successions of psychophysical elements as well. A classic example would be eating healthy foods as a child which does not present immediate pleasure but does bring about the much important long-term positive health effects. Though the child may not necessarily believe or deny the consequences of healthy eating there is obviously a glaring divergence as the small child won’t easily identify with the idea of a health future adult as described.


In this study paper, Buddhism has been used in reference to Theravada or traditions dominant in South East Asia. The arguments have also been drawn from textual as well as historical data with regard to the present day ethnographic reports. From the discussion, it emerges that universalism is one of the palpable characteristics when describing the ‘Buddhism great traditions’ otherwise referred to as the ‘world traditions’. Specific regard has been made to India where Buddhist collective ethics refute the agnostic particularism of the infamous Brahmanical religion and society. This is in addition to the current socio cultural position adopted by Buddhism as practiced in South East Asia where it has been a source of great teachings in establishments of trans local importance.

In sum, according to the Buddhist teachings, we need not put much efforts on worrying or planning for the future because by so doing we begin to appreciate the power of now for whatever it is. As argued by the Buddhist practitioners, our lives would be much richer and fuller if we concentrate on living on the present. In this case, ethics will have particular regard to the questions that relate to how people ought to behave or act towards others and by extension how lives should be. Subsequently, it would be misleading to argue that embracing reductionist views by persons makes them less concerned with the rest of their lives. This is because the more a person becomes enlightened the more they are likely to care about what tomorrow brings along.


Bodhi, B. (2012). Extracts from The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Wisdom Publications, Boston

Boethius, S. (2011). Personal Identity and Eastern Thought. University of Lisbon Press

Buswell, E. (2016). Introduction to Buddhist teachings.
Centre of Buddhist Studies, New York

Collins, S., (2013). What are Buddhists Doing When They Deny the Self. Wisdom pub. Boston

Deakin University, (2015). ASP102 — World Religions. Deakin University Press

Farrington, R. (2013). A Review Essay of Personal Identity and Buddhist Philosophy: Empty Persons.
University of London Press

Ferraiolo, W. (2009). Roman Buddha. History of Religions, Vol. 23, No. 2. (Nov., 1983), pp. 186-189.

Gokhale, S. (2013). Empty Selves: A Comparative Analysis of Mahayana Buddhism, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism, and Depth Psychology.
Wesleyan University Press

Nicholson, H. (2012). The Spirit of Contradiction in the Buddhist Doctrine of Not-Self. Loyola University, Chicago Press

Norain, A. (2010). The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies.
University of Michigan Press, USA

Ratn, B. (2007). Concept of Not-Self in Pāli Nikāyas. Wisdom pub. Boston

Reynolds, F. (2011). Myth and Philosophy. SUNY Press, 2012

Saran, K. (2015). Human Nature: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Ashoka University Press

Siderits, M. (2007). Buddhism as Philosophy. Ashgate Publishing Limited, Great Britain