No self. When we enter into the jhanas, we discover that our innermost core is empty. No doer, no knower, nothing is there. The lotus has fully opened to reveal its innermost jewel – emptiness!
We can even discover this fact in the method discussed in Beginning Zen, as taught by H. Benoit. Order the Self to speak, and wait for it to do so.
A meditator who experiences anatta no longer fears death. There is nothing to die. When we command the self to: Speak! I am listening! all we ever get is silence. That is the unborn speaking.
Anatta is one of the Three Foundations of Existence, sometimes referred to as the Three Characteristics of Existence. Wisdom arises when a meditator realizes all three of the Three Foundations of Existence. The other two are dukkha and annica.
However, one can see the Three Foundations without seeing dependent origination. Wisdom is thus short of Buddhahood.
Most people think about anatta for a couple of seconds and then ask: But if there is no self, who experiences karma, who is re-born, life after life?
Here is the Buddha’s answer: We are made of five things: 1) A body; 2) Feelings; 3) Thought; 4) Choice; and 5) Consciousness. All of them are in a state of continual flux, changing from moment to moment, so there is nothing we can point at and say: There it is.
Our “self” comes and goes every moment. The self that started this comment has gone forever, but the self that finishes it has a connection to the self that is gone. A wave that seems to be coming ashore is an optical illusion, i.e., a pulse of energy causes a set of water molecules to rise and fall without moving toward the shore and those molecules transfer that energy to the next set of molecules and so on, just like the wave created by sports fans in the stands at a ball game.
At fifty years of age we are a different person than we were at five years of age but there is a cause and effect relationship. We didn’t arrive at our present condition out of sheer luck, good or bad – our thoughts brought us to where we are now. And so it goes between lifetimes. The same person doesn’t reassemble (and there is no “same person” from moment to moment in any lifetime) but when the form, feelings, thoughts, choices and conscious aggregates reassemble, they do so with a momentum, a cause and effect relationship from a prior lifetime.
Stephen Batchelor is a prominent Buddhist author who suggests removing the idea of re-birth from Buddhism in his work Buddhism without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening.
I like Batchelor’s idea because I don’t like the idea of people practicing Buddhism so that they can get a good next life. That is not much better than the Christian idea of being good now so that a reward will come in the hereafter. I much prefer practicing Buddhism to develop wholesomeness, which includes developing a light, happy attitude, along with development of good will, generosity, non-aggression, compassion, and wisdom because that path does not lead to anger, ill will and regret.
Paul said: If Christ is not risen, we are the most miserable of men. What? If his being a good little boy was not going to get him an eternal heavenly experience, then he was miserable? Wasting all that goodness and getting nothing in return?
We Buddhists can say: If there is no re-birth, so? We will still practice Buddhism to develop wholesomeness, good will, and so on because the alternative ways of living are not attractive.
Those who live their entire lives, defining “the good life” as a life with lots of good food to eat, beautiful homes to live in, nice cars to drive, beautiful children to raise, concerts to attend (or to perform), sporting events to attend (or to play in), prestigious jobs or positions to hold, lots of friends, travel and so on and on, are like fish in an evaporating pond. Such a life is nothing but an animal life.
By practicing present moment awareness, metta, silent present moment awareness, the sixteen steps of Tranquil Wisdom meditation, koans, and so on, we become aware of who we are. We experience the vastness of awareness. We wake up. The issue of re-birth becomes irrelevant. It’s those who are living the good life, never practicing, who should be wondering about whether or not re-birth is a fact.
When these five aggregates come together, we say a being has been born. When they dissipate, we say that being has died.