The Buddha, born 550 years before Christ, rejected his Hindu roots and proclaimed his No Soul, or Anatta doctrine. This doctrine became the crown jewel of his teachings, and diverged not only from Hinduism, but from all other religions as well.
Anatta is part of the Buddha’s original teachings and quite opposed to present Buddhist beliefs most popularly and conveniently pursued. Anatta is the real deal, practiced by serious Theravada meditation monks in Thailand and Sri Lanka, and because of its genius, authenticity, and truth, has persevered for more than 2500 hundred years. But few understand this confusing No Soul — Anatta concept, especially here in the West, home of the super egos! Nor do we want to understand it. The interesting thing, however, is that it’s the only ticket to authentic freedom, freedom from dependency on an outside source.
Hinduism suggests that we should do as God commands, and that we should fulfill our duties even if it means killing our literal brothers if need be, and that killing is okay, because our brother’s eternal souls will continue to exist eternally. Neither the soul kills nor can be killed — so no one has really killed anything! (The Bhagavad Gita).
The Buddha rejected the idea of God, as well as the idea that we should mindlessly conform to a structured caste system of duties that was so prejudicial at the time, and also that some kind of soul continues on. He rejected it all flat out. To the Buddha, these were no more than fairy tales.
Now, before you throw your hands up and fearfully object, “No God! No soul? What is to become of me?” let’s look a little deeper why this idea of Anatta has persisted for almost three millennia.
The Buddha was not nihilistic. He rejected any mention of metaphysical oblivion; actually, he avoided all talk of metaphysics with a noble silence. Questions such as ”Is the universe eternal, am I eternal, will I continue, am I just an accident of nature to disappear eternally when I die, ” weren’t addressed. What he did address was the here and now. And it wasn’t that he was a bumbling simplistic idiot, he was beyond genius. The Abhidhamma, comprised of enough books to fit on two or three feet of a bookshelf, represent his philosophical and metaphysical teachings, and are so complicated that only dedicated scholars can decipher the texts.
Einstein said, “The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both natural and spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual and a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism. ”
The Buddha rejected metaphysical questions because they served no purpose. He concentrated on only the things that would set people completely free. One day he showed his monks a few leaves in his hand, and asked, “What are greater monks, the few leaves I hold in my hand, or the leaves in the forest?" The monks, of course, answered the leaves in the forest. The Buddha then said that what he teaches is likened to the few leaves in his hand, because those few leaves are the ones that lead to freedom, whereas all the other leaves in the forest don't lead to freedom. So maybe it's not how many facts we can cram into our heads and remember, but how we can get in touch with our hearts, and that doesn't come from learning, it comes from living life with awareness.
There are many ideas and beliefs about the afterworld, such as: We merge with God, we sit at God’s right hand, we merge with universal consciousness, we do this, we do that, but the Buddha instead remained steadfast in shunning beliefs. He insisted that his monks instead see exactly what was going on in each moment. He made them look at the exact “self” that supposedly transmigrates after death. And guess what? They couldn’t find one! All they could find was a construction of the mind that represented an ego identity, but it was a fiction. And only the monk’s deep meditation revealed this. (The Buddha did teach his monks how to meditate; meditation was one of the leaves he held in his hand. )
So now we are faced with a dilemma; if we don’t exist, why should we worry about what happens to us? Maybe we don’t have to! Great! Maybe we can live freely in the present and not worry about the after life. But wouldn’t that encourage an irresponsible existence? After all, if no God was judging us, and we didn’t have to worry about hell, why not pillage and plunder? Simply because, pillaging and plundering brings eventual destruction to the marauder herself . . . or himself! So we have to look a little deeper at happiness, and how happiness is attained and maintained.
How long can you remain happy? Not long. Something always comes up to bring you down. Back to work on Monday after the super bowl or something. Everything changes and therefore we can’t sustain anything, happiness included. Changeability (Anicca), another doctrine of the Buddha.
But if it were true that our “self” was a mere construction, and that we didn’t have to worry about it, kind of like it never existed for the billions and trillions of years before we were born, (and that wasn’t a problem). And when it ceased to exist, that wouldn’t be a problem either, kind of like; when the lights go out, time will no longer exist and therefore a billion million years would be a nanosecond. Then we could relax a bit. And guess what, when we stop worrying about what will happen to ourselves, we begin to see the needs of others! Isn’t that amazing! We actually begin to love our neighbors. Wow!
After the shock that we don’t exist eternally in the form of a wispy soul wears off, we come down to earth, where we belong. We become responsible and sensitive to what we do and how it affects others. We . . . actually become happy! We become happy in helping others and not worrying about ourselves. Happy. A strange word, yes? But it’s true. Strange but true.
And it all can begin by sitting every evening for 15 minutes in meditation. You see, meditation instills courage after a time, and courage is necessary to understand what and who we truly are.
Copyright © E. Raymond Rock 2007. All rights reserved.
E. Raymond Rock of Fort Myers, Florida is cofounder and principal teacher at the Southwest Florida Insight Center. His twenty-eight years of meditation experience has taken him across four continents, including two stopovers in Thailand where he practiced in the remote northeast forests as an ordained Theravada Buddhist monk. His book, A Year to Enlightenment (Career Press/New Page Books) is now available at major bookstores and online retailers.