Perhaps the most puzzling of all the Buddhist teachings is the teaching on anatta or not-self. It’s often heard said that Buddhism teaches that “there is no self;” but the Buddha himself never said this. When asked if the self existed or not, he simply refused to answer. He shunned all metaphysical speculation in favor of his teachings that supported liberation from suffering. To that end, the Buddha simply said, “Cling to nothing as self.” In our world today most of us identify with our experience of the mind and the body. We experience sensations, thoughts, emotions, desires and we “cling to them as self.” We live as if “I am this body, these thoughts, these emotions and desires. The Buddha said that this identification (clinging) inevitably results in suffering.
One might well ask “Then who am I?” The Buddha might say “Explore this question with direct experience. Explore each moment’s experience by being aware of every thought, sensation, emotion, desire, sound, and image that arises.” If we do this, the question inevitably arises: “Who is it that is aware? But soon we see that we can never experience the source of awareness. That which is aware is never the object of awareness because it is always the subject; it is the very source of awareness itself. Like a great flashlight, it can shine its light upon anything…except itself!
As we explore the objects of awareness (e.g. thoughts, sensations, emotions) we see that they are always changing. Our experiences are stream of consciousness, much like a flowing river that is constantly changing. Attempting to cling to any of it is like trying to capture the river in a bucket; once the water is in the bucket, it is no longer the river. But we can (and do) capture the concept of “a river.” Although the river itself constantly changes our concept of “river” can remain fixed and unchanging. Likewise, although the direct experience of self constantly changes, my concept of self can remain fixed and unchanging. I then perceive “me” to be a fixed entity amidst a swirl of ever-changing experiences.
A concept can be useful when it is consciously used as a way to communicate with others. Rather than going to a river and pointing to it, I can use the term Missouri River to “point to it” in a virtual sense. Likewise, a concept of self can be functional in my thinking and communicating in everyday life. I can use it as a skillful means without clinging to it as a metaphysical reality.
As an analogy, I may refer to the sun as “rising in the east and setting in the west.” I can use this term metaphorically and at the same time know that this is not completely true. I can know that there is a larger reality; a much bigger picture. Knowing this may seem to change little as to how I live my everyday life, but it certainly gives my life a much greater context.
Likewise, the realization of not-self may seem to change little in the circumstances of my everyday life, yet my life is lived in a vastly different context. We could say that “nothing changes, and yet everything changes.” As the Zen proverb tells us, “Before enlightenment: chop wood; carry water; after enlightenment: chop wood; carry water.”