In Western societies, we tend to view "the self" a distinct entity that lies at the core of our being. Each person embodies an individual self that is completely separate from everyone and everything else in the universe. The self is experienced as integrated and continuous; even as a person grows and changes, there is still a core "self" that remains the same.
The Buddha asserted that this perception of an integrated, continuous self is just an illusion. Rather than being a separate, distinct entity, what we experience as the "self" actually consists of five overlapping processes. These processes are known as the Five Skandhas (or the Five Aggregates). They are:
1. Physical form: our physical bodies
2. Sensation: the five senses plus our emotions
3. Perception: thinking, conceptualizing, reasoning, etc.
4. Mental formations: thinking habits, biases, willfulness, intention, desire, etc.
5. Consciousness: awareness
These are the things that make up the illusory self. This illusion of self is maintained because we attend only to the surface of our experiences. We identify with our wants and desires, our feelings and memories, our likes and dislikes, and our ideas and beliefs. We see our thoughts and feelings as part of ourselves instead of as passing phenomena. If, however, we can take a step back from these processes and observe them individually as they come and go, we will begin to realize that there is no core, enduring "self" that exists outside of these experiences. Instead, we will start to notice the space between these phenomena. Over time, we become aware that our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, like all other things, materialize and then fall away.
Buddhism identifies "the self" (or the illusion of self) as the source of all suffering. When we are immersed in our physical, mental, and emotional experiences, we inevitably identify with some of these phenomena; they become integral to our sense of who we are (our self concept or sense of self). We become attached to those things we identify with; the threat of losing any one of them is perceived as a threat to our very existence. With attachment comes the fear of loss. However, since all things are inmpermanent, loss is inevitable. We instinctively know this, yet we cling to our attachments in an effort to prolong the inevitable. We are aware of the futility of our efforts, yet we refuse to accept it. This is suffering.
The illusion of self also gives rise to aversion and desire. We divide everything into two categories: "Things I like and want more of" and "Things I don't like and want to avoid." Thus, every thought, every feeling, every experience is seen in terms of how it relates to one's "self:" it is either something I like or something I don't. We embrace what we like and reject what we don't. This accepting and rejecting prevents us from simply experiencing whatever is present, in the moment, as it occurs.
The doctrine of anatta or "no self" is a controversial one. Over the centuries, it has given rise to a number of different interpretations (and consequently, misinterpretations). It is frequently referred to as the most poorly understood of all the Buddha's teachings. Part of the disagreement about how the annata doctrine should be interpreted stems from the fact that it seems inconsistent with other Buddhist teachings, such as the cycle of rebirth. It also seems at odds with other major religious and spiritual traditions, all of which presuppose the existence of some kind of immortal self or soul. Finally, the Buddha himself was very vague in his teachings about the doctrine; this led to confusion about how it should be interpreted.
So what exactly did the Buddha say about anatta? For this, we turn to the Pali Canon. The Pali Canon is a collection of the earliest Buddhist texts. (Buddhist teachings were originally transmitted orally. After several centuries, they were aggregated and transcribed into a collection called the Pali Canon). Nowhere in the Pali Canon does it explain how the anatta doctrine should be interpreted (hence the confusion). The Pali Canon does, however, provide an account of what happened when the Buddha was asked directly whether or not there is a self: he refused to answer the question. He explained that the question itself is misguided and should therefore be set aside. Elsewhere, he teaches that reflection on the self (to include whether or not it exists) causes one to become "enmeshed in views" and thereby leads to suffering.
The concepts of "self" and "no self" imply ownership and identification. They create a mindset in which we categorize things as "me" or "mine" and "not me" or "not mine." The controversy itself creates a false dichotomy that inevitably causes clinging to one extreme or the other. The path to enlightenment, the Buddha taught, is not found in extremes; true liberation is achieved by following the Middle Way.
The Middle Way is neutral and unconditioned. When we observe without judgment the rising and the falling away of all phenomena we see that everything arises from nothing and then goes back to nothing. Even what we identify as "mine" - our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations - are not exempt. As we examine our experience in this way, we begin to see that our thoughts, feelings, and sensations are "not self" and we release our attachment to them. Many people believe that this is the true meaning of "no self" in Buddhism; a practical, "not self" strategy for liberation from suffering by letting go of one's attachments.