Anatta - The Idea That Shows "You" Don't Exist

by Dylan Hofer, January 21, 2022

Long ago, there was a monk known as Nagasena. The monk was on a journey to visit a king, who was named Milinda. Eventually, Nagasena found the king, and as he approached him, King Milinda then asked “What is your name?”

The monk replied, “I am called Nagasena, but that is just my name, not my real person.”

King Milinda, now confused and wondering if this man was deranged, questioned this response, asking Nagasena to elaborate.

And so he replied to the question with another question, asking the king how he arrived at the palace. The king responded by saying he came here on his chariot. “Where is the chariot?” Nagasena inquired.

The king pointed to his right side, where his chariot was docked. Nagasena looked over to the chariot, then back to King Milinda, when he then lectured the royal highness: “But the chariot is no more than a collection of parts, is it not? It is made with wheels, seats, reins for the horses; it is only when all the parts are together is it fully the chariot. Likewise, ‘Nagasena’ is the same. Nagasena is no more than the owner of a collection of parts, made of a heart, lungs, mind; though it is only when they altogether do they make up the so-called ‘person you refer to as Nagasena.”

King Milinda, stricken back by Nagasena’s speech, had one thought in his head. “Wow. This guy is on something.”

What is anatta?

A woman meditating on the coast

Source: VeryWellMind:strip_icc():format(webp)/GettyImages-938890492-becc3fc4757849bea672f148454943f9.jpg)

The story of Nagasena and the Chariot is a classical Buddhist tale that describes the concept of “anatta” or “non-self” when translated directly to English. However, “non-self” by itself doesn’t encompass what the term means. In context, anatta more refers to the idea that there is no such thing as a “self”, or “individual” like many western philosophies and religions believe. The Gautama Buddha, the person most people refer to as the founder of Buddhism, didn’t think it was possible for there to be a permanent, unchanging self, due to his realization that everything changes in the world, and that nothing lasts forever.

Rather, instead of an indivisible soul, the Buddha described the idea that a person was made up of 5 skandhas, or 5 “aggregates” in English. These characteristics were ever-changing, like everything else in the universe. The first was form, which is what comprises a person’s material body, this being the heart, lungs, mind, all the things we would say make up our body. The next was sensations; this can be described as our feelings, or all the pain and pleasure we feel throughout our lives. Then perception, which is best to think as our 5 senses, and the things they perceive. Our eyes see light, our hands feel objects, our ears hear noises, you get the point. The 4th skandha was described as mental formations, which means our thoughts and ideas. In Buddhism, this encompasses all thoughts, from the smallest, most insignificant thoughts, such as asking yourself what time it is, as well as the most thought-provoking concepts, such as theorizing what the meaning of life is. The 5th and final skandha, consciousness, is the awareness of the previous 4. This is similar to Renee Descartes’s famous quote “I think therefore I am.”

For the Buddha’s time, this idea was revolutionary. Even today, if you live in the West, this idea that there is no permanent, unchanging self is uncommon. Christianity, the dominant religion in the Western World, relies on the idea that we have a “soul” which is our true person, which will one day leave the body on the journey to the afterlife. The Buddha recognized though that if everything is subject to change, then why should a person be any different? This is really what the idea of “anatta” is, not necessarily that you do not exist, but that you are not a being in complete stasis. The character you call “yourself” is just a collection of parts, like Nagasena described himself to be, but these parts are always in constant flux, never being in one state of existence for a long time.

Our current scientific understanding of who “we” are

A fictional graphic portraying the brain receiving information

Source: Regional Neurological Associates

Perhaps one of the most interesting contradictions about there being a true, indivisible self, is new groundbreaking scientific studies that have come out in the last century. In the book “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow”, author Yuval Noah Harari discusses some interesting experiments that show the complex relationship our mind has with itself or its… selves?

In Homo Deus, Harari shows the audience a series of experiments conducted by Professor Roger Wolcott Sperry and his student Professor Michael S. Gazzaniga. The experiments were conducted on “split-brain” patients, otherwise known as patients who have the neural connections between the right and left hemispheres of their severed. Doctors severed these connections due to the patients being severe epileptics. When the patients would have an overload of brain activity in one hemisphere of the brain, it would carry over to the other hemisphere, overstimulating the brain and thus causing seizures. For many of these patients, the seizures were hindering their ability to live a normal life, so the doctors’ best option was to stop the “spill-over” if you will, by cutting the connection. What made these patients keen to study for Sperry and Gazzaniga was that your left and right hemispheres have different functions, and only when they work together, do they fully create what you would describe as “yourself”. Needless to say, there was an endless, untouched wealth of research with these patients.

To understand the experiments, you need a basic comprehension of what the separate hemispheres do. The right hemisphere controls the left side of your body; it sees through your left eye, controls your left arm and leg, etc. The right hemisphere is also dominant in spatial recognition and perceiving things around you. Your left brain, on the other hand, is in control of the right side of your body. It is also more involved with speech and reasoning than your right hemisphere.

So, one of the patients Sperry and Gazzaniga tested on was a teenage boy. They asked the kid, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The boy responded “a draughtsman.” Of course, this was answered by the left hemisphere, since this is the part of the brain that is primarily responsible for speech and reasoning. Then, after the boy answered the question vocally, the researchers put a bunch of Scrabble tiles in front of the boy and showed the same question written out in the vision of his left eye (remember the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body). The boy’s left hand began hastily grabbing the pieces and spelled out “a racecar driver”. If your heart just dropped out of astonishment, you are not alone.

That wasn’t the only experiment, however. For example, there was one experiment with patient PS, where Gazzaniga and a team showed a picture of a chicken claw to the left hemisphere of the brain, and a snowy landscape to the right. The researchers asked patient PS what he saw, and he responded with ‘a chicken claw.’ Remember, the left hemisphere is responsible for us speaking. Then, when PS was asked to point to a picture that most closely resembled what he saw, his right hand pointed to a chicken, whereas the left hand simultaneously pointed to a snow shovel. The research team then questioned him, asking why he chose both of them. PS’s responded with “Oh, the chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.”

What this means, is that our left brain looks to logically reason any situation that doesn’t make full sense without information. Without being aware of the snowy landscape that the right hemisphere was seeing, the left hemisphere practically made something up out of thin air to justify its experience. Weird. But although there are more experiments that Harari talks about, this video is made for describing anatta, so, how does this relate to that?

Well, this shows that even on a scientific level there isn’t an indivisible part we can refer to as ourselves. Truthfully, just as Nagasena described himself, we are all just a collection of parts that are only really “us” when they’re all together. In short, the sum is greater than the parts.

This idea of being a collection of parts and not an indivisible singular entity can be expanded even outside of our own persons, however. Think of a friendship for example. In order for there to be a friendship, there need to be at least 2 people involved. There is not an indivisible, separate part of the friendship that exists somewhere, rather the friendship is maintained by the 2 friends equally. The friendship cannot exist with just one individual, therefore both are equally important and dependent on maintaining that relationship. In short, the friendship is only a collection of the individuals involved, and it only exists as long as both members are maintaining it.

But this concept can be expanded even further than just friendships, it can be applied to almost anything that we do. For example, to write this essay, I need my ideas to be applied to a document, but I also need the tools to jot my ideas down onto the aforementioned document. Therefore, my keyboard and I are in a symbiotic relationship needed to create the essay. The essay cannot exist without my ideas, nor can it exist without the tools needed to write it all down, both of which are equally important and dependent on one another to create something. There is no part of the essay that is completely independent of any other component because all the parts rely on one another to create the finished product.

So, if no finished product can exist independently by itself, and it’s dependent on all the components that make it up equally, could we apply this to the entire universe, or the “experience”? Well, to experience anything we need objects and things to experience. But, if those objects have no one to experience them, do they even exist? To help clarify this, think of this: What was life like before you were born? The answer is emptiness. Life wasn’t anything because, well, you weren’t alive yet. But things DID happen, the universe existed 13 billion years with events occurring constantly before you were born.

Now, let me ask you this: What would life be like if no one, no being that could experience anything, was ever born? The answer is… emptiness. Who could say anything was out there if there was no “who” to say anything? Perhaps this means the entire Experience is a relationship between the organism and the environment; both being mutually dependent on one another to create the finished experience, which is, well, life.

Alan Watts, a well-known Western philosopher who popularized things like Buddhism and Zen philosophy in the West recognized this relationship, and he called it the organism-environment relationship. He discussed this mutual dependency of the Existence itself, and how it really cannot exist without either the experiencer or things to be experienced.

But if Existence is simply the relationship between the organism and the environment, then we must recognize that we are just as equally important as all the things that exist around us, because in a way we breathe life into the universe. How would all the stars in the sky shine if there was no one to see them? Where would love be if there were no other people, ideas, things, creatures, to give all your heart and soul to? Would there be a beautiful sunrise if no one could watch?

At the end of it all, the universe, life, the Existence, everything is just a “collection of parts”. But perhaps there’s beauty in that because even though you may not exist as an individual, or as a being whose separate from everything, with no part to define as you independently of everything else, the entire universe is as reliant on you experiencing everything there is, just as you are reliant on the universe to provide things for you. And with that, maybe, just maybe can we all be a little more at peace with the whole ordeal. We often look at life feeling minuscule, unimportant, like our existence doesn’t matter. “What do I amount to?” is a common question that everyone probably has in their life at one point, asking what the point of it all is. Truth is, we might never know, and maybe there’s not even a clear-cut meaning we can point to. But what we can take refuge in, is that we are not just minuscule, unimportant creatures walking on the world, because this grand awe-inspiring place, we call the universe is just as dependent on us as experiencers to see, feel, and touch all the things it provides for everyone.

We personalize death, change, suffering because we see the world in the perspective of ourselves looking out onto the world, but with understanding anatta, we can understand that all of us don’t really exist. We are all just a collection of parts, fully dependent on one another. From the organs that make up our bodies and minds to the entirety of reality itself. And with this, we can realize that even though nothing may exist independently, we are truly all one. When death finally comes for you, maybe you can make peace knowing that you will never really die, because YOU never really existed. We are all one, all mutually dependent on one another to fully experience everything this world has to offer. That is the truth of the “non-self”, or anatta.