The Doctrine of Not-self (anattā) is one of the most fundamental teachings in Early Buddhism. The author of Buddha and Thoughts in Early Buddhism carefully explores Not-self in Chapter 3, Section 6,(GUO Liangyun,fotuo he yuanshi fojiao sixiang 佛陀和原始佛教思想 (Beijing:China social sciences press,2011).) and also combines a number of Buddhist sutra and classic academic research to logically elaborate this conception in detail. There is no doubt that I have a better understanding of Not-self after reading this book, but some explanations in this book make me confused.
GUO Liangyun begins with the translation of "Not-self", which anattā of Pali term and anātman of Sanskrit term refers to in early Buddhist philosophy. And the term “Self” is extremely important in early Buddhism due to its multiple meanings. The first connotation is the reflexive pronoun, the second is the existence of the entity (including the body and the spirit), and the third is the metaphysical existence beyond material and spiritual phenomena. Afterwards, GUO quotes sutra and academic papers to strongly state that early Buddhist denied “Self”. Furthermore, GUO mentions that the teachings of the early Buddhist are based on the noble truth of suffering (dukka), so they mainly focus on how to help all beings to get rid of the sufferings and troubles of life. Therefore, the discussion of "Self" and "Not-self" is of secondary status. In other words, “Self” and “Not-self” in early Buddhism are aim to assist all people who are suffering. Finally, GUO concludes that through discussions of the above three different meanings of “Self”, no self is the foundation of early Buddhism thoughts.
After finishing reading this book, I have doubts about the "Not-self" in early Buddhism. Since according to GUO Liangyun's analysis, Buddha denied the existence of "Self". Can all beings track their memories back without insuperable difficulties? Is this contradictory to the reincarnation in Buddhism? Who will practice dhamma? There is no soul in early Buddhism definitely. But who will be the bearer of the reincarnation except “Self”, if the doctrine “Not-self” is advocated in early Buddhism? With these questions, I read some related academic papers.
First of all, I have to figure out what “Self” in early Buddhism really means? “Early Buddhism analyses that self is the combination of five aggregates (skandhas), and each of them is not the self.” (Nguyen Quy Hoang, “The Doctrine of Not-self(anattā) in Early Buddhism,”International Review of Social Research9(1)(2019),18-27.) Five aggregates are the aggregate of matter (rupakkhandha in Pali), the aggregate of sensations (vedanakkhandha in Pali), the aggregate of perception (sannakkhandha in Pali), the aggregate of mental formation (samkharakkhandha in Pali) and the aggregate of consciousness (vinnanakkhandha in Pali). It seems to deny the existence of “Self” and even to make contrary to the conclusions drawn from human experience and psychological research in early Buddhism teachings. However, "Not-self " is to study the existence and function of "Self" from a new perspective in fact, which means that it denies the subject and the object. In other words, we can say that “Self” is allowed to exist in the karma of all things. The five aggregates are formed by karma and harmony, and thus there is no fixed system. That is to say that impermanent are all compounded things. And each of five aggregates such as the aggregate of matter (rupakkhandha in Pali) cannot be on behalf of “Self” separately. Owing to this explanation, I can infer that GUO may wrongly understand the definition of "Not-self" in early Buddhism. At the same time, I also find that “Not-self” plays an important role in building a bridge of understanding all beings existence.
Secondly, Buddhism never negates the existence of the subject and the self of personality. (TAN Xiyong, xishuo rulaizang 細說如來藏 (Hangzhou:Zhejiang University press,2010)) Early Buddhism does not deny the existence of "Self", but advocates the establishment of the concept of "Not-self." I do not mean that the early Buddhism accept “Self” as real. On the contrary, there is no real “Self” in the early Buddhism absolutely. Of course, there is no soul in the early Buddhism neither. All beings are desperately pursuing all internal and external enjoyment to satisfy their individual desires and satisfy their needs of five aggregates thanks to the fact that human are suffering. So they hope that beautiful cloth and hearty food will satisfy their desire forever and even hope that all pleasing things are around them to satisfy their emotions. Persevering in real self and separating “Self” from all beings and the universe make contributions to helping people to create a binary opposition between "Self" and "Not-self". Standing in the self-centered position to look at the world, it will give birth to persistence and irritation, causing the intensification of the contradiction among men and between man and nature. Therefore, Buddhism advocates self-cultivation, confronts one's own internality, and regulates one's own mind through various methods, which will stop and extinguish these contradictions and achieve a clean and complete state. The reason why “Not-self” is generally accepted in early Buddhism is that it is the root of attachment to the five aggregates when exploring the world from “Self” aspect. In short, attachment to the five aggregates is suffering. When one perceives this with true insight, the one becomes detached from suffering.
In conclusion, the “Not-self” in early Buddhism does not mean that it is “No-self”. The English word “no” means never existence, which is not appropriate in this doctrine obviously. On the basis of the analysis of above, all beings will understand the mystery of the universe, if they can observe things in an “Not-self” angle to truthfully learn the process of their feelings of birth, development and death. But my understanding of “Not-self” may be totally wrong as a result of the key way which I should have read a large number of sutra carefully in early Buddhism.