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The Ethical Significance of the Buddhist Doctrine of Non-self (anattā)


Anatta or non-self is one of the three characteristics of the phenomenal existence. It is the unique and central teaching of Buddhism. According to this doctrine there is no permanent or everlasting self or soul either inside or outside the five aggregates which constitute a being. This doctrine is usually discussed as a philosophical problem leaving aside its ethical significance which is the subject matter of this short essay.

By ethics is generally meant good and evil or right and wrong behaviors of individuals. According to Buddhism individual’s behavior has a psychological basis. In other word, as Prof. Karunadasa says, Buddhist ethics is the ‘ethics of intension’. Because Buddhism uses two sets of psychological terms namely 1) kusala and 2) akusala to evaluate all moral actions. Actions influenced by the former are considered skillful and actions influenced by the latter are unskillful. Skillful actions result in happiness whereas the unskillful ones bring about harmful consequences to both oneself and others [K?l?m?sutta in AN I, p. 188]. The rationale provided is that the skillful actions are based on the right view (samm?-di??hi) whereas the unskillful ones are rooted in the wrong view (micch?-di??hi). Moreover, unskillful actions are those that have their psychological basis greed, hatred and delusion of mind. On the contrary, skillful ones have their basis loving kindness, compassion and wisdom.

Buddhism gives prime importance to views. In one place in the Pali Canon the Buddha very precisely states how views can influence our lives either for the well being or for the ill being. The Buddha says; “he sees no single factor so responsible for the suffering of living beings as wrong viewand no factor so potent in promoting the good of living beings as right view.” The most detriment of all views, however, is mentioned to be the view of self or self-view (sakk?yadi??hi) removal of which is possible only by realizing the truth regarding anatta. Thus it is at this point that the Buddhist doctrine of anatta becomes significant in the Buddhist ethics.

The main purpose of Buddhism, as we all know, is the ‘attainment of perfect bliss’ by ending of all forms of suffering. Anatta in this respect plays a very important role. In the opinion of Prof. Wijesekera, “The idea of Anatta or Selflessness, according to the Teachings, is the ultimate concept to be developed by the disciple intent on the highest spiritual perfection” – [Buddhist Essays, p. 141]. It is probably due to that the Buddha in many of his discourses wonderfully presented in very many ways the analysis of five aggregates to show their soullessness nature. In the Anattalakkhanasutta the Buddha says, the five aggregates are impermanent, they produce suffering therefore it is not advisable to regard them as “this is mine, this I am and this is my self” [SN III, p. 66.]. Again in the Sa?yuttanik?ya he says, “bhikkhus, the eye (ear, nose, tongue, body and mind) is impermanent. What is impermanent is suffering. What is suffering is nonself. What is nonself should be seen as it really is with correct wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, that is not my self’ [SN IV, p. 01.].” Why they should not be regarded as self because the sense organs, sense objects and corresponding consciousnesses constantly arise and pass away. If they were self it would not happen and we would be able to control it.

Very often the contemplation on soullessness was encouraged by the Buddha because it enables individuals to be rid of the unwholesome mental qualities such as pride, craving, anger etc. and brings about peace in their mind. In the Buddha’s own words:

If a monk lives constantly with mind intent on the thought of selflessness with regard to what is unsatisfactory, his mind will become free from egoism or self-interestedness (aha?k?ra), from the craving to possess and regard as ‘mine’ (mama?k?ra), and from inclinations to pride (m?na) with regard to this body with its consciousness as well as all other objects, he will get rid of arrogance and prejudice, attain Peace and be emancipated” [Buddhist Essays, p. 120].

Thus when one is completely free from the ego-centric idea then there is no retributive kammic bondage for him. It should logically be understood as follows. When there is a self idea in me, whatever action is performed by me, I am their subject. Therefore any consequence that results from them will ultimately come to me. But if I do not uphold the idea of self, there is then only action but no actor/doer. Therefore there will also be only results without experiencer. This idea is clearly expressed by Venerable Buddhaghosa in his Visuddhimagga. He says: “Mere suffering exists, no sufferer is found; The deeds are, but no doer of the deeds is there.” Thus with the understanding of no-self one overcomes the kammic bondage. But he is not an amoral rather an ethically perfect person. Such a person indeed is considered to have attained the supreme bliss of nibb?na. He is thus regarded as sampanna-kusala (endowed with skillfulness) and parama-kusala (skillful to the best). For in him is then extinguished the three akusala-m?la: greed, hate, and delusion [AN V, p. 9.].”

In conclusion it should be said that nibb?na is the highest moral perfection, attained with complete eradication of the false belief in the self-notion. The self-notion is the root of all evils. With the removal of self-notion all evils are removed. This is where the ethical significance of anatta lies.

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