Is it true that Buddhists believe that there’s no such thing as “self”?

The idea that Buddhists don’t believe in the existence of a self stems from various interpretations of the term anatta, Pali for “not self” (Sanskrit, anatman), a topic featured in a number of Buddhist scriptures. It is often translated as “no self,” which has led to the idea that Buddhists believe there is no self, period.

The Buddha himself refused to answer the question whether or not there is a self, saying that getting caught up in such existential quagmires leads us into endless confusion (“a thicket of views,” as he put it) and distracts us from the path that leads to release from suffering.

Many Buddhists interpret the doctrine of not-self to mean that we have no fixed, inherent, unchanging self. (In Mahayana scriptures, the concept is extended to include all phenomena in the universe.) We construct our conception of self from physical and mental sensations, impressions, and reactions that are actually processes, ever forming and changing. Our attachment to the idea of a fixed self causes great suffering and dissatisfaction. For example, we may fear and resist the fact of aging because it feels like a violation of our sense of self, of who and what we ought to be—young or healthy or immortal—rather than a natural, inevitable outcome of human birth.

For the Buddha, apprehending not-self was a critical strategy in investigating how we cause ourselves suffering and, by extension, how to find release from it. When we find ourselves clinging to certain things—say, the beauty of youth—we remind ourselves that it too is “not-self,” and learn to let go.


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