Q. What is non-self in Buddhism?
Very simply, Self is Process. That explains 99% of anatta or “non-self”. You have a self, a functioning personality, but it is all process. Most of what is “you” comes together passively; it is constructed by a myriad of material, biological, developmental and cultural forces. There are aspects of “self” that you actively choose, but those choices are constrained by the same myriad of forces. All aspects of the composite ‘self’ are continuously changing.
But the following teaching from Andrew Olendzski takes it a bit further, and I find it helpful. Both ‘non-self’ and ‘emptiness’ are explained as “lack of possession.” You do not possess a self. We think of objects as “possessing” certain qualities. But in Buddhist thinking, which Olendzki says is thoroughly process thinking, it is not possible for an object to possess qualities. Qualities manifest and persist for a while, but they are dependent on many other conditions, impermanent and ever changing.
Samyuta Nikaya 12.37 Connected Discourses
This body is not yours,
nor does it belong to others.
It is old karma,
to be seen as
fashioned by volition,
something to be felt.
Therefore, an instructed noble person
attends carefully and closely
to interdependent origination thus:
When this exists, that comes to be;
with the arising of this, that arises.
When this does not exist, that does not come to be;
with the cessation of this, that ceases.
A. When you stop to think about it, ownership is kind of a strange idea, isn’t it? What does it mean to say that something ‘belongs to’ you? It means, in short, that you are a self. Indeed the self is defined as ‘that to which things belong’, or ‘the owner of things’. These can be tangible things, such cars, houses, and pencils, or relationships such as my spouse, my child, my parents, or they can be intangible things like feelings, sensations, emotions, thoughts, and beliefs. What makes things yours? Deciding that they belong to you is the main way. Ownership, say the Buddhists, is a constructed phenomenon. Nothing inherently belongs to you, until you do something to make is yours. You can get a legal deed to some things, or get others by purchasing them, or in the case of less tangible things, you can make a slight, psychological move in your mind to appropriate things or identify them as yours by habit and convention.
B. In this text the Buddha points to something with which all people are intimately familiar, the body, and tries to unravel some of the ties that bind and support the sense of self. What does it mean to say that this body belongs to you? Were you present at its conception? Did you nurture it though months and years of limited ability and function as it grew and developed? At what time did ‘you’ begin to inhabit it? The point being made here is that the body you call ‘yours’ has developed quite naturally from the influence of all sorts of causes and conditions that had nothing to do with ‘you’. The label ‘me’ or ‘mine’ is something placed upon a body that has arisen interdependently.
Andrew Olendzki: [from a section on dependent origination:}
C. The fact that all phenomena arise and pass away interdependently means that each phenomenon, each instance or aspect of anything and everything that happens, has no ‘self-nature’, or independence. Nothing is outside the matrix of cause and effect, so there can be no ‘self’ or ‘soul’ that is permanent, unremittingly gratifying, or existing in a way that does not depend on other factors. The second part of this text is telling us about the characteristics of phenomena—because they are interdependently arisen, they are all impermanent, formed by volition, and subject to fade away and cease. It is not that a self does not exist, it is just that the self is as impermanent, interdependent, and self-less as everything else.
Ok so why is this helpful to me? It’s about not holding onto to any qualities of self such that it becomes a rigid truism about the self. I take the post-modern view: Self is biologically, personally and socially constructed, and could be configured in many different ways. Non-self helps me to see that much of what I think of as ‘self’ is really just a product of culture.
If I understand [non]self-as-process, then I can more easily let go of two related processes: projection and possession. Projection is largely delusional. If I hold ‘self’ loosely, I am less likely to project my own image, thoughts, values and perceptions onto others and the world, which results in less delusion. Projection is often very painful; it’s because of our delusional projections that we create conflict with others. Projections are self-centred expectations that we place on reality. Thus we are constantly frustrated when things don’t work out the way we think they should.
Non-possession is another kind of freedom: if I don’t need to posses things or qualities to have a ‘self’, then when the time comes, I can let them go without a crippling sense of loss. Of course I still need to use material things in order to live. I still need a cohesive ‘self’ in order to function in this world. I can also actively cultivate qualities that I would like to use to be happier and more effective in my life. Self-as-process means that I can cultivate qualities that I would like to manifest, realizing that it always takes a bit of work to maintain them.
All this should be taken with a grain of salt. These are nothing more than concepts that help you think about ‘self’ and ‘world’ in ways that are counter-intuitive. It’s a misconception to reify any of these ideas into an absolute truth. That’s the mistake that many people make in Buddhism, especially Dzogchen. It’s metaphorical, not metaphysical; everything is relative.