Living in a Buddhist country, Thailand, I find it remarkable how little impact the Buddha's teaching about the self appears to have for the people around me. They regularly frequent the many temples with flowers and incense to "tambun" (make merit) for the happiness and success of themselves and others, and to secure a favorable rebirth. Their world is full of good and evil spirits that require small shrines full of icons outside buildings, religious tattoos, prayers and special amulets for protection.
Since the Buddha's discourses were written down for his monastic followers, perhaps the teaching on anatta is primarily for monks. The students to whom I teach English are mostly monks, and other than their robes and shaved heads appear to be little different from other young men their age in Thailand. They joke about girlfriends and passionately follow British football teams. All have digital devices and love the music of Michael Jackson. When I taught the Five Precepts in English, none of them questioned the reality of a self that was able to abstain from killing, stealing, lying, intoxicants and sexual misconduct.
My monks are also aware of anicca (impermanence), the second of the three marks of existence. When I ask them their plans for the future, they tell me no one can know what will happen. But if I ask them "what if," then they shyly confess their dreams of becoming a teacher, a businessman or a tour guide. Since all grew up in small villages where becoming a monk is the only way to get a university education, they know the dukkha (suffering) of poverty, the third mark of existence. I'm sure they've also been taught the Pali terms for the Five Aggregates and can explain that the self and everything else is the result of prior conditions. But how does this knowledge impact the effeminate monk applying makeup at the back of my classroom?
It always made sense to me that the Buddha in his teaching on anatta primarily intended to undermine a permanent or essential sense of self such as the eternal soul of Christians or the atman of the Vedas. Buddhadasa Bhikku in Thailand described it as the "I, me, mine" that gets in the way of social relationships and makes it more difficult to feel compassion for others. A self that is constructed by the brain through experiences of the body in the world makes perfect sense to me. This provisional "self" dies with the brain. And this is why the idea of reincarnation and kamma that connects successive incarnations makes no sense at all.
There is currently much theorizing about the idea of self and no-self by writers such as Julian Baggini, Jennifer Ouellette, Thomas Metzinger, Ray Kurzell, Patricia Churchland and others. The idea of a constructed and impermanent self is no longer a surprising notion. Only the religious faithful cling to an eternal self that can suffer rewards or punishment in an afterlife (or, as some Buddhists think, be reborn as a deva or cockroach in the next).
Why then is the existence of a self such a sticky belief? It must benefit the transference of our genes to the next generation, in Professor Wright's thinking. If we were all meditating on a mountain or in a cave, there might be no next generation. Selves are useful in an evolutionary sort of way. They must be fed, clothed and housed, and for that a singular sense of being is necessary. Selves incur duty and responsibility, imply an ethics, and they link us into a great chain of others. Two selves are necessary to create the next generation.
To aid in this effort, our language locks us into a way of thinking about selves and objects. For example, in my native English it is difficult if not impossible to speak from an abstract position; my view of the world is a perspective dictated by my body in space. Generalities and objective claims are often only pretence. English sentences, I tell my students, must have a subject and a verb (although sometimes the subject is implied); e.g., "Speak!" Gurus and enlightened humans have to struggle mightily to eliminate all subjectivity from their speaking and writing. Even if all language is metaphor, a world of only objects makes little sense, and is of less interest.
I am comfortable with my self. It has just as much solidity as the objects around me in my Bangkok apartment. Years from now we'll all be gone. While my brain and my body are showing increasing signs of age, they continue to provide an existence replete with security and surprise. When it's time to relinquish this self I've labored long and hard with through the twists and turns of an amazing life, I hope to do so with gratitude and grace.
(This was written as a midterm assignment for an online course in Buddhism and Psychology given by Prof. Robert Wright of Princeton via the Coursera web site.)