Apr 29, 2020 in Exploratory

The Essence of Buddhism and the Denial of Self


Buddhism demonstrates a relative attitude to the inner ‘Self’ which is recognized in many religions, but not mentioned in their doctrines. Buddhism differs from other religions in regard to these specific criteria and does not imply the connection between the creation of the world and a person’s role in it. Instead, it is more of a path of self-improvement, the ultimate purpose of which is to achieve deliverance from sorrows, problems, dissatisfaction, depression, pain, and sadness. This path does not lead to oblivion or attempts to hide from problems, but, on the contrary, it is targeted to provide absolute insight into the true reality of the world. In addition, it interprets the concept of life without illusions and embellishments. The present paper aims to identify the underlying reasons of rejection of the atman, or Self, in the Buddhism, and its authentic conception offered by Buddha instead.


Buddhism emerged nearly 2.5 thousand years ago when the Indian prince Siddhartha Gautama practiced meditation on his own and achieved insight into the true reality of the world. Afterwards, he became known as ‘Buddha’ meaning ‘awakened.’ Fully familiar with the world, he saw a way in which a person can gradually reduce and then completely and irrevocably destroy suffering. Buddhism is not a religion in the strictest sense of the word, and the Buddha himself is not a prophet of some deity. Unlike other religions, Buddha did not pay attention to the theory of creation or the idea of God as the Creator. He also did not approve of the assumption that there is an eternal and immutable soul that must be united with God. Therefore, Buddhism is called a religion without God and without a soul. Hereby, Buddha may be regarded as a philosopher who, on the one hand, addressed eternal questions relying on Hindu philosophy, and, on the other hand, became an author of an authentic vision of life and mission of the mankind on the Earth. 


The major similarity of Buddhism with religion is that it has both its ‘holy scripture,’ a collection of the words of Buddha (Tipitaka), and empirical practices. Nonetheless, these practices are not dogmas, but rather guidelines, recommendations for the course of introspection, purification and achievement of the state of nirvana meaning absence of pain and absolute happiness. Only personal experience allows gaining true wisdom. The Buddha, unlike the prophets of other religions, began his presentation of morality not as a story about the creation of the world, the gods, heroes, or any other hypothetical phenomena: “There was neither non-existence nor existence then; there was neither the realm of space, nor the sky which is beyond”. Such an approach is employed by Buddha for explaining of denial of self in the context of offered introspective practices. Finally, Buddha did not require having faith in his words as other religions do. On the contrary, he advised students to verify his teachings just as they would check the authenticity of a gold coin. Buddhism is a self-teaching and is currently one of the world's oldest philosophies.

Buddha’s sermons were intended for people from different strata as far as he also denied stratification of the community and caste system. Among the audience were the people of lower castes and the most influential people of his time: merchants, kings, and teachers-Brahmins. He found the right lesson for everyone. Hence, Buddhism is considered to be a universal philosophy that may be practiced by everyone, and yet everyone will find an individual answer and solution to the issues and problems in the course of achieving peaceful life. 

Buddhism seeks to purify the contaminated malicious state of mind with the elements of distorted reality, such as ignorance, selfishness, anger and irritation, greed and lust, jealousy, impudence, and laziness. Instead, Buddhism attempts to nurture and develop the positive and beneficial qualities of consciousness – the wisdom, kindness, compassion, concern for others, generosity, humility, and other virtues through Four Noble Truths without the belief in Ātman known as eternal Self in Hindu philosophy. In this manner, Buddhism differs from the majority of Indian religions such as Hinduism and Jainism that have a tendency to recognize the existence of ‘Self’ and soul. 

Buddhism posits that a sense of ‘Self’ (Ātman) attached to the recognition of ego is the source of all other afflictions, passions, and instincts. All of its forms bring into being the flares of darkened affectivity, spanning a living creature into the quagmire of samsaric existence. Buddhism does not say anything about the Self, described in the Upanisads as the absolute subject or certain higher transpersonal ego common to all beings and ultimately the identity. This Ātman is neither recognized nor denied by Buddha literally since he rejected the belief in the essence of personality in general and offered the concept of an-ātman which denotes for “No-Self” and aligns with the sermons of Buddha. 

Admittedly, Buddha underlines that there are many teachings identifying Self or providing other terms such as soul, ego, personality, etc. Nevertheless, Buddha denies existence of such Self that allegedly constituted for a real, independent entity. Instead, Buddha offered two perspectives targeted not only to depict, but also to explain the constituent elements and nature of the conventional being referred to in Buddhism as a concept of an-ātman that is a contrary to religious belief in the eternal soul. 

The first perspective is philosophical, or metaphysical, and offers the law of dependent origination that relies on the vision of life as a course of becoming. To be more precise, the empirical self is not a permanent entity and has the following composition: “samjnd (perception), vedand (feeling), samskdras (volitional dispositions), vijnana (intelligence), and rupa (form)”. According to Anatta doctrine developed by Buddha, there is a combination of changing forces, and the notion of eternal soul is one of the biggest illusions the mankind has even faced. Anatta doctrine denies soul and posits that there is something temporal and unreal, and perception of the five aforementioned aggregates as a soul is a fundamental mistake. Such a misleading belief is harmful for human beings. It means that belief in eternal Self promotes wrongful conceptions of the notions of “me” and “mine” which, consequently, leads to development of hatred, desire, attachment, and suffering. Hereby, ātman is regarded as a root of the evil in Buddhism, and is a major reason why Buddha rejected ātman. Anatta doctrine rejects soul as an entity that encompasses feelings and emotions based on belonging, possession, power and imposing of one’s will. An- ātman is a solution to all of the secular problems and conflicts. 

Another perspective is a psychological one, and it is based on the Four Noble Truths, namely, the one of suffering, the truth that covers the reasons of suffering, the one that concerns a possibility to cease suffering, and the noble truth of a particular way chosen to cease suffering. Ātman or ‘Self’ ignored by Buddha can be better understood through the exploration of the above-mentioned truths. It is possible to refrain from suffering without interpreting the existence of ‘self’ and ego through the following steps. Hamilton briefly describes their essence. The First Noble Truth tells that wherever people are living and in whatever guise they stay, anywhere – in the rough or refined form – there is dissatisfaction and suffering. Old age and death exist everywhere, just as contact with unpleasant sensations and situations. In turn, the Second Noble Truth refers to the causes that give rise to suffering. Buddha postulated that the unquenchable desire and passion of living beings is the cause of all suffering. Wherever there is a thirst for the pleasures and amenities, it is always accompanied with disappointment and dissatisfaction by not receiving the desired or by losing the desired satiety. The Third Noble Truth points to the state free from any kind of suffering, while the Fourth Noble Truth reveals the method that leads to happiness and well-being, reduces the problems of life, and ultimately leads to the attainment of Nirvana – the complete emancipation from suffering. Since this method contains eight components, it is called the Noble Eightfold Path, which includes right understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. According to the aforementioned perspective, Buddha rejects ātman since it is a premise to suffering in its conventional meaning. Following ātman does not guarantee happiness and ultimate target, nirvana, whereas an-ātman is a direct path to it. 

These two basic doctrines position Buddhism as the philosophy in the form of passive nihilism as far as even nirvana offers a tranquil condition and does not recognize an intrinsic value of life apart of peaceful mindset aimed to become devoid of all the feelings and desires in order to prevent suffering and pain. 


Thus, Buddhist doctrine is not a religion, but a philosophy with a particular rational method, using which means applying the right efforts and getting good results afterwards. The purification of the mind, according to Buddhism, is a time-consuming, challenging, and painstaking work, which requires zeal, confidence, and patience. Negating the existence of Self as an eternal Soul, as well as ignoring the need to theorize the world’s creation, Buddha proposed Four Noble Truths that composed an ultimate approach to peaceful life. Moreover, identification of the core five aggregates vividly illustrates the misconception of the ātman and explains Anatta doctrine as the denial of self since ego is a root to the evil and the major barrier to peace and nirvana acquisition which is a main reason of Buddha’s rejection of the conventional Self. Other reasons of denial of Self include potential to solve all the conflicts and their consequent elimination in the future; a priori cessation of pain and suffering due to right mindset; and liquidation of the feelings and emotions related to possession and power for the sake of nirvana achievement which is impossible in terms of ātman conception.


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