The doctrine of anatta runs contrary to basic human instincts and as such, is nearly impossible for most humans to truly grasp, and is widely misunderstood, mis-interpreted, and even purposely distorted because it is such an oblique notion.
Even within popular Buddhism, the issue is clouded by ideas about rebirth, reincarnation, and so on.
And while the Buddha did talk about, and Buddhism does talk about something “like” reincarnation, the earliest extant texts don’t talk about “transmigration of the soul”, in the way that Hinduism and even later variants of Buddhism understand it.
In the quote below, The Buddha mentions that consciousness arises and passes away in every moment, and so to do are we born and do we die in every moment.
Each moment of consciousness conditions and sets the trajectory for the next moment of consciousness, but dies as the next arises – it does not become the next instance of consciousness, nor is it an unbroken stream.
The closest analogy for this that most people could relate to would be playing pool, billiards, or snooker.
- You push the cue stick
- The cue stick strikes the cue ball, pushing it forward
- The cue ball hits the solid red ball
- The solid red ball hits the green striped ball
- The green striped ball hits the orange striped ball, sending it into the corner pocket
Now, it doesn’t work exactly like this, because our moments of consciousness which arise and pass away aren’t waiting on the table.
Consciousness itself occurs when a sense faculty comes into contact with a sense object, and it rises and dies perhaps millions of times per second – or more.
- You don’t become the cue stick
- The cue stick doesn’t become the cue ball
- The cue ball doesn’t become the solid red ball
- The solid red ball doesn’t become the green striped ball
- The green striped ball doesn’t become the orange striped ball, and –
- The orange ball definitely doesn’t become the corner pocket
There’s only this progression of arising and passing away of consciousness – each conditioning and creating the causal trajectory for the next.
This idea of a permanent self, soul, atman, etc. and the clinging to or thirst for existential continuity is the base or ground of all other clinging, desire and thirst, and those desires are the cause of human suffering, which become permanently extinguished in the mind of a self-awakened person.
What’s left is Kriya citta, or functional consciousness – the consciousness of an Arahant or self awakened person.