The Buddha claims humans are stuck in an endless cycle of suffering known as sa? sara because of our unawareness of; impermanence, suffering and non-self. Sa? sara is the endless cycle of birth, existence, suffering and death. It is considered to be dukkha which is unsatisfactory and troublesome because an individual will remain in this cycle if influenced by desire and avidya (ignorance). Teachings from the Buddha have emphasised individuals cannot achieve true happiness because it is only temporary and eventually will make us suffer more due to its loss.
A core principle which the Buddha applies to explain this progress of ending the cycle of rebirth and reaching enlightenment is called the anatta (no-self doctrine). The no-self doctrine, elements of kamma and rebirth are the core central teachings which the Buddha upholds to be the most crucial. To an extent, the doctrine of rebirth and non-self are compatible. At first, there seem to be some conflicts in the truths of both doctrines however, the Buddha does address and explain its complex relationship (Gowans, 2004, pp. 61).
Anatta is the doctrine which states there is no self and individual humans are non-existent. Individual humans in the context of humans who can act on their own free will and make decisions without correlation to a superior power. The Buddha clarifies his doctrine by describing what a person is made out of, five elements in total. These five elements can also be known as skandhas, which essentially are categories of “grasping”. The Buddha highlights individuals mistaken “groups of grasping” for the identity as “I” or “Me” when we are all the same except for our differences in experiences.
Skandhas are made up of five elements; feeling, perception, volition and consciousness. Feeling is simply the sensations of pleasure, pain and indifference. Buddhists underline feeling does not include any other emotion humans can feel for e. g. jealousy. Perception is the mental understanding of the current event that is occurring e. g. sound of thunder. Volition is the mental rationality which enables an individual to experience mental and physical activity for e. g. hunger. Lastly, consciousness can be separated into two sets of awareness; mental and physical state of existence.
The Buddha accentuates these core aspects which create a human are non-self because they are impermanent and out of our control. Our current life forms including; gender, personality traits and physical characteristics are all determined from the result of our actions in our previous lives. Anatta demonstrates we cannot develop our “self” or control our experiences because they are pre-determined by a superior power. Therefore, no one is able to be above or possess their own experiences since it is pre-determined (Siderits, 2007, pp. 2-35).
Despite conflicting claims from both doctrines of no-self and rebirth, they are compatible when analysed thoroughly. The doctrine of rebirth establishes the moment after death, an individual will continue in the cycle of life and return as the same or different life form depending on their actions in their previous lives. The Buddha, while observing the suffering humans face, decided he had to seek an alternative to life where he can live in peace without any attachment to temporary sources of happiness.
In Early Buddhism, it is believed an individual’s consciousness would immediately transfer into a new life form after death. This can slightly conflict with the principles of no-self due to anatta declaring that all life forms are equal and there isn’t anything unique that is transferred over. An analogy which explains this concept is a candle lighting another candle. The fire remains in the first candle but it has also lit the second candle. The two flames can be linked to the continuation of skandhas and karma from past lives.
However, it’s important to note the current life someone is experiencing is the second candle and they are no longer aware or directly interacting with their previous lives. The Buddha has not made any reference to souls or spirits in the course despite its popular belief. He states our existence is purely based on experiences and skandhas (Reichenbach, 1990, pp. 129-132). Karma is correlated with the notion of rebirth and it is the influential factor to pre-determine an individual’s current and future lives.
Karma has two definitions within Buddhism which can be; good and bad actions or the act and the result of it. Buddhists believe according to karma, that one is capable of committing immoral and moral acts which will affect the individual in the current or next life. Consequently, an individual may have more pleasant experiences in their next life if they commit a lot of virtuous deeds in their current life. On the other hand, an individual which has committed immoral acts in their current life will face more tortuous and non-fulfilling experiences in their next life.
Initially, karma or also known as kamma appears to contradict with the doctrine of no-self. Karma asserts one’s actions can have consequences whereas no-self claims that an individual’s entire life is pre-determined. Due to this, Buddhists have varying perspectives on what is the accurate explanation of these two teachings. The individual which encounters their karma is usually not aware of its retribution or the actions which are directly connected to it. Chance is likewise excluded because of the doctrine of no-self claiming individual experiences are pre-determined.
This can cause a lot of confusion in whether an individual should put effort into seeking the path to Nirvana or not. Some may argue that because life is pre-determined, our efforts will only be limited to how karma has affected our current life. Many question how an individual can detach themselves from samsara if karma and skandhas are a reflection on the actions which we cannot control. The Buddha, however, asserts human will and effort exists so we can cease our own suffering and separate ourselves from elements which continue rebirth. In this aspect, karma and no-self are both flexible and extensively complex.
Despite each life and action being pre-determined, individuals are still able to apply effort in their faith and spirituality. The Buddha argues one can still commit virtuous acts to alter their karma in their present life despite the inevitability of suffering they have to experience. The Buddha validates no-self does not mean an individual cannot have a distinct personality or characteristics. Instead, these are considered not-self because they are ever-changing in every life depending on factors which we have no power over. Many people view the doctrine of no-self and the doctrine of rebirth as contradictory.
They question how rebirth can occur if no-self claims that we do not have a soul or individual self. This is as a result of not fully understanding the teachings of Buddhism and the notion of no-self. People usually identify themselves as a free existence who can decide their personal activities and experiences. However, this is due to their incapability to grasp the cycle of rebirth as natural cause and effect. No-self asserts the belief of being a free individual with random experiences is an illusion which will only deter us away from enlightenment.
The doctrine of no-self and rebirth is compatible because an individual can be reborn since the accumulation of karma will continue to function through every stage of our lives (Laumakis, 2008, p. 84,89-93). Another significant notion to consider is the Buddha’s observation on how evil deeds arise. Through his teachings, questions emerged of how an individual can commit immoral acts if their lives are pre-determined. Various people questioned the Buddha on this notion and its relation to the doctrine of no-self.
They were unsure how immoral acts could be committed and whether it was related to their karma or not. The Buddha addressed evil actions are due of a person’s skandhas being based on malicious thoughts which cause them to commit immoral acts. He also highlights despite the pre-determination of their actions, they will still be accountable for their actions. Therefore, an individual commit acts according to their intentions and actions in their previous lives. Their karma and skandhas only pre-determines and reflects the type of person they are (Fenner, 1990, pp. 32-137).
In consideration of all perceptions, anatta and rebirth are congruent. Anatta establishes the reality of human identity and the doctrine of rebirth supports its claim of no-self and insubstantiality of individual qualities and experiences through karma’s prearrangement of life. Despite areas which raise questions, the Buddha reveals their correlation through encouraging people to live according to his teachings and understand the importance of self-awareness of factors which can prevent us from reaching the ultimate objective (Perez-Remon, 1980, pp. 15-17).