Paper: Anatomy of a Schism – Anatta and Rebirth


Religious Studies 100, Section 401
Dr. David Swain
November 22, 1996

A religion must, like it or not, be prepared to supply answers to common metaphysical questions. How long would a new religion last if it offered no answer to the ever-popular inquisition, “What’s gonna happen to me when I die?,” while the Christians down the block were busy serving up Heaven and the Kingdom of God faster than Big Macs? One can picture the “Out of Business” sign in one window, and the “1.5 Billion Served” in the other.

There have been religious figures who resisted the metaphysical demands of the masses more effectively than others. Gautama Buddha in particular accomplished amazing feats of agility when it came to sidestepping metaphysics. As talented as he was, it did not exempt him from the need to give his teachings some metaphysical backup. In his second ever sermon he introduced a doctrine, called the anatta (not-self) doctrine, that eventually caused a schism between Buddhist adherents.

Like other religious founders, Buddha had to address the metaphysical views of his audience. He did it as briefly as he could, but wherever metaphysical ideas are presented, different interpretations are likely to spring up. The anatta doctrine especially provokes division, due mainly to the conflicts that arise when it is examined side-by-side with the doctrine of rebirth. Buddha was able, while he was alive, to direct attention away from the metaphysics of his experiences and toward the focus of his teachings. After his death, however, dispute was unavoidable.

Why was the anatta doctrine necessary for the Buddha to get started? Couldn’t he have left it out from the beginning, circumventing the whole problem? One probably reason he could not is that his early disciples were Hindu, and held to the prevailing Hindu doctrines of self and rebirth. If the Buddha believed the emphasis should be placed elsewhere, he would have to start by addressing the listeners’ current beliefs. He would have to show why they were not important, and how he arrived at the teachings he did believe important.

For Hindus, reincarnation was accepted without question as fact, as easily as we accept the cycles of the days and seasons (Head and Cranston 34). The Soul that gets reincarnated is called the atman in Sanskrit (Smith 22). It is permanent and separate from the mortal self. In the Brihad Aranyaka Upanishad the Soul is beautifully described, “It is the Consciousness in the life-powers. It is the Light within the heart” (Head and Cranston 38). Using dreams as a doorway, the Soul travels in both this world and the other world, unchanged by either. When the mortal self dies, the immortal Soul rises up naked and makes itself a new form in the likeness of deeds done in the past life. In the Katha Upanishad, Nachiketas’ conversation with Death illustrates the relationship of the mortal self and the atman (Head and Cranston 40-42). Death explains that through any number of lives the atman assimilates new forms, yet always exists outside of them. A Hindu practitioner (brahmin) spends these lifetimes trying to give up all desire. When at last “the knots of his heart are untied,” the mortal becomes the atman, and the brahmin experiences the eternal infinite (brahman) (Head and Cranston 41). Until that realization, the brahmin continues to be reborn in human form, remaining separate from the atman.

Since the atman was such an important part of Hinduism, the Buddha would probably not have been able to just pronounce that is was unimportant. In his second sermon after enlightenment, he explained the anatta doctrine to his first five followers. The account in the Vinaya-Pitaka begins:

The material-form, mendicant brothers, is not a permanent-self (anatta). If the material-form, mendicant brothers, were a permanent-self, the material-form would not be liable to deterioration, and it could be assumed of the material-form “My material-form must be thus, or not be thus.” But since the material-form is not a permanent-self, therefore the material-form is liable to deterioration, and it cannot be assumed of it, “My material-form must be thus, or not be thus” (Jennings 48).

After making this argument that the material-form or body is not permanent or unchangeable, and therefore is not the atman (atta in Pali), the Buddha makes the same argument with sensation, perception, individual character, and consciousness in the place of ‘material-form’. The mendicants become convinced that since none of these five concepts of self are permanent, none could be the atman. Once he has achieved this, he turns immediately to his own agenda:

‘Again what think you, mendicant brothers? Is the material-form permanent or impermanent?’ ‘Impermanent, revered sir.’ ‘But that which is impermanent, is that suffering or happy?’ ‘Suffering, revered sir’ (Jennings 49).

Buddha continues this dialog, as before, with sensation, perception, individual character, and consciousness in the place of ‘material-form’. He explains that suffering can be ended and liberation attained by becoming indifferent to the five types of self, or skandhas. From this point, the Buddha returns again and again to suffering and the end of suffering as his main concerns.
Although Buddha didn’t reiterate the anatta teaching as he did his staple teachings on suffering, it was too surprising to be forgotten. Did he mean, by denying that the five skandhas were the permanent-self, to deny the existence of an eternal soul entirely? There isn’t a clear answer to this, and in the absence of clear answers dissent springs up eventually. Today there is clear division between Theravadin Buddhist representatives such as Richard Gombrich, who claims the five skandhas were meant to be an exhaustive demonstration of the non-existence of self (63), and Mahayana Buddhists like Dr. D. T. Suzuki who see the skandhas as examples of the trappings that must be shed to reveal the Absolute Self (Head and Cranston 66).

Even if the anatta doctrine were not enough to create division by itself, add to it the doctrine of rebirth, and the inevitable confusion arises immediately. Buddha clearly taught that we are reborn into the world according to our past actions, and that it takes a supreme effort through many lifetimes to attain perfection (Gombrich 65). In the Dhammapada Buddha declares, “Him I call a Brahmana who knows the mystery of death and rebirth . . . who knows his former lives, who knows heaven and hell, who has reached the end of births” (Head and Cranston 76).

When one attempts to accept both rebirth and and anatta, a real quandary arises. The Buddha’s anatta sermon makes it difficult to imagine a permanent self. Transmigration is difficult to imagine without one. It seems likely that there will be contention on the matter of what, if not a self or a soul, gets passed on from life to life.

Buddha’s followers struggled with this question, and did not miss the opportunity to ask the Buddha himself. In the Majjhima-nikaya, the elder Malunkyaputta threatens to give up his training and return to a worldly life if this and other metaphysical questions are not answered:

These theories have been left unexplained by the Lord, set aside, and rejected, whether the world is eternal or not eternal, whether the world is finite or not, whether the soul (life) is the same as the body, or whether the soul is one thing and the body another, whether a Buddha exists after death or does not exist after death, and whether a Buddha both exists and does not exist after death, and whether a Buddha is non-existent and not non-existent after death (Eliade 570).

The replied with his well-known Parable of the Arrow, comparing Malunkyaputta to a man who has been shot by a poisoned arrow. If that man insists that all his questions about the arrow, the bow, the bowman, etc. be answered before he accepts treatment, he’ll surely die before he learns the answers. So if Malunkyaputta must have answers to all his metaphysical questions before he treads the path to enlightenment, his fate will be the same (Eliade 571).

The fact that Malunkyaputta was convinced by this argument shows that the Buddha’s following had developed enough confidence in the importance of his teachings on suffering that he could safely refuse to discuss metaphysical matters any longer. Unfortunately, this amazing achievement was as impermanent as the five skandhas. With Buddha’s death the questions were asked again, and left their own devices different groups came up with different answers.

The Theravadin Buddhists seem to be in the most difficult predicament with their strict interpretation of the anatta doctrine. If they are to address the problem of what gets reincarnated, they cannot explain it as any kind of permanent soul or self. What options are left? If Francis Story’s version of the Theravadin answer, the ever-changing soulless self is capable, through thought, desire, and will, of creating a new being from the outside, without having to transfer any soul or self to the new being to give it life. In his own words, “The thought-force of a sentient being, generated by the will-to-live, the desire to enjoy sensory experiences, produces after death another being who is the causal resultant of the preceeding one” (Head and Cranston 64). This new being, since it was caused by another being, takes on the general personality of that other being. From that beginning the new being is just as subject to change as the rest of the universe.

There are many analogies to help illustrate the difficult idea of selfless reincarnation. Story uses a river to symbolize the changing self. Any part of a river is caused bye the existence of another part of the river above it. Like a reincarnated self, the river flows in the same direction as its predecessor, but can always dry up or be diverted. The water that is the river’s ‘soul’ is always flowing and changing, and would not ever be considered immortal. The human soul is no different (Head and Cranston 64).

Although this view of reincarnation can’t easily be refuted based on the recorded words of the Buddha, some of his teachings seem incompatible with it on the surface. For instance, in the Majjhima-nikaya Buddha relates the tale of the point in his enlightenment when he recalled his past lives. In all he calls to mind thousands of births, extending back even beyond the deaths and rebirths of the world (Eliade 480). In doing this it is implied that somehow memory or a record of previous lives is passed on to subsequent ones. Furthermore, the record seems to be fairly permanent if it includes lives from before the birth of this world. The Theravadin claim that nothing permanent is passes from life to life is thus called into question.

Even if the apparent contradictions with Buddha’s teachings on rebirth are ignored, the Theravadin theory isn’t an answer that will please everybody. Instead of pacifying or redirecting the metaphysical curiosity, the Theravadin answer provokes it. It makes us wonder if all things that we inadvertently cause to come into existence are miniature incarnations of our self. It makes us wonder why we should spend a lifetime working for the perfection of a future being that we might have caused, but is not our self. Where Buddha avoided disagreement by assuring his followers that the issues in question were unimportant, this doctrine invites disagreement by inspiring more questions than it answers.

The result seems to be a minimal acceptance of this Theravadin version of reincarnation. Rejecting the idea of rebirth altogether is a possibility, but the Buddha’s many expositions on rebirth make in an unlikely one. Many Buddhists have instead accepted a more Hindu-compatible version of the anatta doctrine. According to lifetime Theravada Buddhist Mrs. Rhys Davids, Buddha “began his mission by advising men to seek thoroughly for the Atma [atman], and ended by bidding men live as having Atma for their lamp and refuge” (Head and Cranston 63). The necessary reinterpretation of the anatta sermon required by this view explains that the Buddha was only demonstrating that the ‘lesser self,’ represented by the five skandhas, is not the same as the ‘greater self,’ or atman.

The Mahayana school of Buddhists make a similar distinction, calling the two versions of self ‘relative ego’ and ‘absolute ego.’ Dr. D. T. Suzuki explains, “The denial of Atman maintained by the earlier Buddhists refers to the Atman as the relative ego, and not the absolute ego, the ego after enlightened experience” (Head and Cranston 67).

For those of us who, like Malunkyaputta, feel we must have an answer to the metaphysical questions raised by the idea of rebirth, Mrs. Rhys Davids’ and Dr. Suzuki’s interpretation of the anatta doctrine essentially supply us with the comforts of the view that is already familiar (to Eastern Buddhists, at least). In place of the Hindu mortal and immortal self, Davids gives us a lesser and greater self, and Dr. Suzuki a relative and absolute self. The end result is that we have an immortal atman to carry us, our memories, and our deeds from life to life. If this satisfaction of our curiosity leads to renewed efforts in pursuit of the end of suffering, perhaps we can call it a Buddhist success. In terms of the Parable of the Arrow, the man asking questions about the poisoned arrow he has been shot with is given the answers that he already suspected, and thus pacified allows his wound to be treated.

Gautama Buddha probably knew even as he gave his second sermon and pronounced the word anatta that he was brewing trouble. Having decided to preach, he was in the position of needing to maintain the attention of his listeners. It probably didn’t help that his audience, the five mendicants, had recently left him in disgust when he discarded their ascetic practices. He knew, though, that the mendicants were people who would go to any lengths to realize their goal, the atman. All he needed to do was shift this focus from the metaphysical goal of the atman to the more concrete goal of ending suffering. But he had to start with the metaphysics, or the mendicants would have had no reason to listen to their companion who had fallen off the ascetic bandwagon.

After his first success Buddha often discarded metaphysical questions like Malunkyaputta’s as unimportant distractions, and coaxed the askers back onto the path. His simple formula was constant: to end suffering, extinguish desire. Not all desire was extinguished, though, especially no the desire to ask metaphysical questions. With his death the questions returned to divide the Buddhists who attempted to answer them. The anatta sermon was remembered, and inevitably attempts were made to reconcile it with the doctrine of rebirth. The result apparent today is the existence of two groups of Buddhists with very different ideas of the human soul.


Works Cited

Eliade, Mircea. Essential Sacred Writings From Around the World.
San Francisco: Harper, 1967.

Gombrich, Richard F. Theravada Buddhism. London and New York:
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988.

Head, Joseph and S. L. Cranston, eds. Reincarnation: The Pheonix
Fire Mystery
. New York: Crown, 1977.

Jennings, J. G. The Vedantic Buddhism of the Buddha: A Collection
of Historical Texts
. London: Oxford University Press, 1948.

Smith, Huston. The Illustrated World’s Religions: A Guide to Our
Wisdom Traditions
. San Francisco: Harper, 1994.

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