Impermanence, Suffering and No-Soul
The doctrine of anatta is very important to Buddhists. No realisation of Truth can occur without the knowledge of the anatta (no-soul) nature of things. To realise Truth, one must practice meditation, and during meditation, the knowledge of anatta must arise. One needs the knowledge of anicca, dukkha, and anatta, that is, the knowledge of impermanence, of suffering, and of the no-soul nature of things. Until one experiences these characteristics in meditation, not just intellectually, but directly, one cannot make progress. Vipassana (Insight) meditation deals directly with these characteristics.

These characteristics run through all stages of vipassana. I will discuss Vipassana later, but first we must explain what conceals the three characteristics from perception during meditation.

Impermanence is concealed by continuity If one looks at a candle flame, one may think that it is the same flame from moment to moment. Actually, the flame is constantly disappearing and arising again every second. We have the illusion of one flame because of the idea and appearance of continuity.

The nature of suffering is concealed by changing into different postures. When we are sitting and feel some pain, we change posture and the pain goes away. Actually we are changing postures constantly at every moment of our lives, but this is not apparent to us. The moment a tiny unpleasant sensation is felt, we change postures. The characteristic of no-soul is concealed by the perception that things are compact and solid. We look at things and at ourselves as solid, compact things. Until we can break through the false perception that we are compact, we will not see the no-soul nature of things.

That is why there are meditational practices in which the four elements, earth, water, fire, and air are contemplated. Actually the primary Qualities of those elements are contemplated: earth is characterised by hardness or softness, water by fluidity or cohesion, fire by heat, and air by extending or supporting. If we can have the insight into phenomena as being composed of elements and their characteristics, then the idea of compactness will be weakened.

We think that we are substantial, but if we have insight into our real nature, the nature of being composed of nama and rupa, or more precisely of elements and forces mutually dependent and interacting with each other then the idea of a coherent, abiding, substantial self is weakened, and nothing we can call a self is found.

The anatta doctrine is of primary importance to a Buddhist. In fact, anatta can only be understood when there is a Buddha or a Buddha’s teaching in the world. No one but a Buddha can penetrate into the anatta nature of things because only through Vipassana meditation, discovered by Buddha, can insight into anatta be realised. Even though great and profound thinkers are around, they still cannot penetrate into anatta, and other kinds of meditation, such as Samatha (Tranquillity), may give you psychic powers or higher states of consciousness, but they cannot lead you to the insight into anatta.

As I mentioned earlier, the belief in a soul was described by the Buddha as a major cause of suffering. The belief in atta of any kind, whether belief in a personal ego or in a spiritual self, is the cause of all dukkhas in this rounds of rebirth; the belief in atta is the root of greed, hatred, and delusion. Atheists may not believe in a spiritual soul, but they serve the desires of their personal ego and thus may commit deeds of greed, hatred, and delusion. The idea of atta is very hard to conquer but still we must try because realisation of anatta is the way to deliverance, while the persistence of the idea of atta is a major cause of misery.

One cannot over-emphasise the importance of anatta, as Nyanatiloka explains:

“Whosoever has not penetrated this impersonality of all existence, and does not comprehend that in reality there exists only this continually self consuming process of arising and passing bodily and mental phenomena, and that there is no separate ego-entity within or without this process, he will not be able to understand Buddhism, i.e., the teaching of the Four Noble Truths... in the right light.

He will think that it is his ego, his personality, that experiences suffering, his personality that performs good and evil actions and will be reborn according to these actions, his personality that will enter Nibbana, his personality that walks on the Eightfold Path.”

The words of Nyanatiloka bring up a very important point often asked about Nibbana: In the absence of a soul, who or what is it that enters Nibbana? This is a diffcult subject. From what has been said so far in this lecture, we can certainly say that there is no atta or self which realises Nibbana What realizes Nibbana is insight-wisdom, Vipassana-panna. It is not the property of a personal or universal self, but is rather a power developed ‘ through meditative penetration of phenomena.

Yet another even more difficult Question is: What happens to a Tathăgata (here in the sense of one who has realised Nibbăna) after death. Once again, Buddha gave his answer without recourse to any kind of spiritual entity such as atta. Buddha essentially replied that no words could possibly describe what happens to a Tathagata after death: “A Tathăgata released from what is called body etc., is profound, immeasurable, hard to fathom, like the great ocean."

It does not fit the case to say that he is reborn or not reborn, or reborn and not reborn, or neither reborn nor not reborn.” Then He goes on to say, after being Questioned further: “Profound is this doctrine, hard to see, hard to comprehend, calm, excellent, beyond the sphere of reasoning, subtle, intelligible only to the wise.

Thus Nibbana, the Absolute Noble Truth, the extinction of all continuity and becoming, the “Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed”. Reality is affirmed without reference to atta. Likewise, the Arahant who realises Nibbana does so by means of a flash of insight which destroys forever all illusions of the existence of atta. I will conclude with some well-written words from Nyanatiloka:

One cannot too often and too emphatically stress the fact that not only for the actual realisation of the goal of Nibbana, but also for a theoretical understanding of it, it is an indispensable preliminary condition to grasp fully the truth of anatta, the egolessness and insubstantiality of all forms of existence. Without such an understanding, one will necessarily misconceive Nibbana - according to one’s either materialistic or metaphysical leanings - either as annihilation of an ego, or an eternal state of existence into which an ego or self enters or with which it merges. Hence it is said:

"Mere suffering exists, no sufferer is found;
The deed is, but no doer of the deed is there;
Nibbana is, but not the man who enters it;
The path is, but no traveller on it is seen.”