Anatta Doctrine and Western Philosophy

Tony Rawson, Member, on 6 November 2001

The talk aimed to demonstrate, with the aid of quotations from Hindu and Buddhist texts, that Buddhist philosophy was a Nominalist reaction to Hindu Realism.

The argument between nominalists and realists was taking place around 500 BC in the north of the Indian subcontinent and has continued to the present day.

Prior to the Buddhist challenge, philosophical debate had centred around the Upanishads. In the sixth chapter of the Chandogya Upanishad, Uddalaka teaches his son the identity of Atman and Brahman. In the first section, Uddalaka declares that individual objects are only the matter of which they are made and that only formless matter is real.

The Brhadaranyaka says that Brahman is not only the essence of ritual but the essence of the world and of the Atman.

In the Titiriya Brahmana, Yama says that the Atman is not born, does not die but is eternal and indestructible, and that death should be seen as part of the life cycle, and deliverance should be sought from the cycle of birth and death.

The Svetashvatara Upanishad speaks of the creative power of the universe (Brahman) and likens the world to a wheel in which Atman (pictured as a wild goose) flutters trapped until it realises its true nature as being identical with Brahman.

Examples of Realist philosophy in the western tradition are:

- Pythagoras, whose theological system maintained that the world had been created from a shapeless heap of passive matter, by the hands of a powerful being, who himself was a mover and soul of the world and of whose substance the souls of mankind were a portion.

- Socrates, who said that only composite things (such as the body) disintegrate. Anything in the non-composite class of things (to which the soul must surely belong) is more likely to be constant and unchanging, invisible, essentially divine and masterful, ruling the body, immortal, indestructible and forever true to itself.

- Plato's theory was of invariable and invisible Forms apprehended by thought, and variable and visible particulars apprehended by the bodily senses. Given that there are these two realms, it seems inevitable that souls are more like the invariable and invisible than like the variable and visible.

- Descartes believed that minds are distinct from bodies, in the sense of theoretically being able to exist without them, and in the doctrine that there were two God-created substances: Matter, the essence of which is quantifiable extension, and Mind, the essence of which is introspective thinking.

Examples of Western Nominalism are:

- Wiiliam of Ockham who says: "entities not known to exist, should not be postulated as existing unless absolutely necessary in the explanation of the phenomena" this applying very well to `self'.

- Hume who said: "A person is nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity and are in a perpetual flux and movement."

- Wittgenstein, after his rejection of the Realism of the Tractatus says in the Philosophical Investigations: "In a sense however, this man is surely what corresponds to his name. But he is destructible and his name does not lose its meaning when the bearer is destroyed. An example of something corresponding to the name and without which it would have no meaning, is a paradigm which is used in connection with the name in this language game."

- and Richard Rorty whose masterwork `Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature' gives a detailed exposition of Nominalist philosophy.

In order to establish the Buddhist philosophy in the Nominalist tradition let us look first at the word Anatta. Anatta is a Pali word; Pali is a dialect of Sanskrit. It is in two parts An is a negative prefix meaning `not or `no', and the word atta which means Essence also translated as Self or Soul. So it means `No Essence' or `No Self'. It suggests or insists that the Self has no real existence.

Anatta is one of the three `Characteristics', regarded by many Buddhists as the basis of Buddhist philosophy. The other two characteristics are:

Anicca, non-permanence. That there is nothing in life that is not subject to change. That everything is in a state of flux and constantly changing. That nothing is permanent.

Dukkha, suffering or unsatisfactoriness. The word Dukkha in ordinary usage meant `pain' or `suffering' but in the way it is generally used in Buddhist philosophy it would be better translated as `existential angst'. It results from human desire being in conflict with the three characteristics.

Buddhist philosophy teaches that life can be correctly understood only if these three basic facts are understood. And this understanding must take place, not logically, but in confrontation with one's own experience.

The modern Thai Buddhist writer, P. A. Payutto puts it this way: "while under the influence of delusion, most people believe that they themselves are performing actions, the irony is that they are not their own masters at all Their behaviour is controlled by intentions that are lacking in reflexive awareness."

Essentially, ignorance is Blindness to the Three Characteristics as they are shown in the principle of Dependent origination, especially the third one, not-self (Anatta). Specifically, ignorance is not clearly knowing that the conditions usually taken to be an individual or `self', `me' `you', are simply a stream of physical and mental phenomena, constantly arising and ceasing, related and connected by the cause and effect process. This stream is in a constant state of flux. We could say that a `person' is simply the overall result of the feelings, thoughts, desires, habits, biases, views, knowledge, beliefs and so on, at any particular point in time, that are either inherited from social and environmental factors, such as learning, or formed from personal, internal factors, all essentially changing."

According to Buddhism, the human individual is composed of five groups, Khandhas, bundles, aggregates: Rupa Body, perceptible form; Sanna Perceptions; Vedana Feelings: Good, Bad, Pleasant, Unpleasant; Sankhara Mental formations, Volitions;Vinnana Conciousness.

A good example of the teaching of Anatta is to be found in the Milindapana which purports to be an account of the meeting between a Bactrian king `Menander' who ruled from about 166 to 150 BCE and the monk, Nagasena.

The first meeting is concerned with the chariot simile. The king politely enquires about Nagasena's name and Nagasena replies to Milinda's question by saying: "I am known as Nagasena and it is by that name that my brethren in the faith address me. But although parents give such a name as Nagasena, this is only a designation used, for there is no permanent individuality involved." The king is unable to accept this denial of individuality and retorted with a practical counter-argument.

"Who then is it who gives you monks your robes, your food, your lodging and what you need? To whom is it given, and who devotes himself to a life of righteousness and meditation? Who wins Arahatship and who commits a sin by destroying life? If what you say were true, a man would not commit a murder by taking someone else's life and there would be no teachers in the Sangha and the ordinations would be void."

The king then asks what it is, that the name Nagasena does denote. Is it his body or a part of it, is it his sensations, his ideas, his consciousness? Nagasena denies all that. Milinda then says: "Then, I can detect no Nagasena. Nagasena is a mere sound. Who is it that I see before me?" and he accuses Nagasena of having offered an untruth rather than a word of wisdom.

Instead of giving an answer to the king's
question, Nagasena begins to question the king in return. He innocently asks how the king had come to the meeting place, whether on foot or in a chariot. Almost offended, Milinda answers that of course he had come in a chariot as befits a king. Now Nagasena goes into details: what is a chariot? Is it the wheels, the framework, the ropes, the spokes of the wheel? The king has to say no to all these questions. If, Nagasena concludes, neither all the parts nor anything outside the parts are the chariot, the chariot does not exist, it is a mere word. And he accuses the king of having spoken an untruth by saying that he had come in a chariot that did not exist.

Milinda tries to extricate himself by saying that the composite of all things mentioned by Nagasena is commonly understood as a chariot and that is what he came in. Nagasena approves of the King's grasp of the matter: the same, he says, applies to the term' individuality'. It is a conventional designation for the aggregate of components mentioned in connection with a name.

The Sankharas start when we are children and someone points to an animal and says `cat' or, more usually, `pussy-cat'. So the sound is associated with the image in a Sankhara. The child will later point to objects which it thinks are similar, say the word and seek for confirmation. This Sankhara changes through out life, as the individual has more and different experiences associated with the Sankhara. Each Sankhara will be individual to the person.

In addition to Sankharas of objects, animate and inanimate, there exists in most individuals a Sankhara of the self and a Sankhara of Personal volition or freewill. Some people will have a Sankhara of God and some will have as Sankhara of Soul and some will have a Sankhara of Freewill.

According to Buddhist philosophy, it is pointless to argue over the reality or unreality of Sankharas. One should aim to become aware of one's own Sankharas without imagining that they have any ultimate reality and to encourage others who have similar aims.

The discussion centred around the distinction between Vinnana, consciousness and Sati, awareness; whether the use of Pati or Sanskrit terms was necessary or justified, and the question of Free will.

Questions concerning the moral implications of the philosophy were not dealt with as the speaker considered them to be appropriate for a different discussion.

Tony Rawson